“I just got turned on to crumpets and my whole life has changed. Crumpets shit on english muffins—I never want to eat an english muffin again.” Joy Bryant and I discover we have a mutual love for this British breakfast food ten minutes into our conversation, confirming I’ve found my spirit animal. Joy has an easy enthusiasm, speaks her mind and isn’t precious. Upon wrapping up a six-year role on NBC’s Parenthood in 2014, Joy has dedicated herself to a new endeavor: a clothing line called Basic Terrain, co-created with her husband Dave Pope. This is Joy’s story on refusing to make excuses, not needing permission, and why a relationship with yourself is where it all starts.
“I grew up in the South Bronx of New York City. My mother was really young when she had me, and my grandmother quit her job to raise me. She made it clear that just because I was growing up on welfare didn’t mean that I couldn’t achieve what I wanted in life if I worked for it. I got good grades and was accepted into an educational program called A Better Chance. From there, I got a scholarship to a private school in Connecticut, and then went on to Yale. When my grandmother passed away during my freshman year, I began questioning why I was there and what I wanted to do with my life. I met an agent from Next Models and realized modeling was an option. After my final sophomore exams, I dropped out.
When I look back on that decision it seems insane. I didn’t understand enough about the modeling industry to know that my plan was fucking crazy. I can see how it looked to the people in my life—I was a poor black kid who didn’t have the luxury of making decisions like that. People said my grandmother would be disappointed, but I thought—she’d be pissed, but she’d be in my corner.
It was my life and I had to take a chance, and if things didn’t work out, that was my ass.
Taking that leap was one of the craziest and bravest things I’ve ever done, and it’s what set me on the path that I’m on now. After modeling for a few years I took an acting class and eventually made a career out of it. I never imagined that I’d be in entertainment or lead a creative life. I thought that I’d end up working on Wall Street, make lots of money and take my grandmother out of the ghetto. But life had a different plan.
I’ve been defying stereotypes from the moment I was conceived. I was black, poor and had a teenage mother. But I was encouraged from a young age to never use that as an excuse. Early on I learned the importance of having a vision for yourself, because there will be times when no-one else will believe in you. You might be a little crazy, but that’s OK—you have to be bit crazy to go against the grain.
You have to give yourself permission to be and do who you are.
I struggled with this when I was acting but wanted to write and produce, thinking, ‘Why do I think I have a right to do this?’ Fuck that! You can do whatever you want. If you wait around for the world to validate you, you’ll be waiting a long time. With Basic Terrain, I would have given myself permission from the get-go. When you’re doing something you’ve never done before, you approach people who know more. There were mistakes we made in the beginning because we were so green, but now I listen to myself. One of most rewarding things about Basic Terrain is envisioning something, then having it manifest into a physical thing that’s sometimes even better than what you imagined. That still trips me out. I also appreciate the amount of energy the business requires. I was on Parenthood for six years, and when it ended I didn’t have an acting job to jump into. With acting, as soon as you’re done with a job you’re unemployed. It’s very easy in this business to be reminded of what you don’t have, of what you didn’t get, of who got it instead. None of us are immune to that and it can really mess with you. On top of that, I’m a woman, a black woman nonetheless, and I’m not 20-something anymore—I just turned 41! So that uncertainty is magnified. If I didn’t have Basic Terrain orders to get out the door, I could have easily fixated on that uncertainty. Being busy can help you move through difficult times.
40 doesn’t feel as old as I thought it was going to feel. Now that I’m here it’s not so bad. My body might wear out a little easier than it used to, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. I’ve gone through the ups and downs of my 30s, come out the other end and am like, cool. I’m getting closer and closer to being more comfortable with myself. I love it when I see a younger woman who has her shit together, is doing her thing and has a better sense of self than I did at 21 or even 31. But no way in hell would I want to go back to my 20s! One of the real things about being in your 40s is that you think about death in a different way. Mortality becomes more of an issue and there’s something scary about it. It’s a sobering realization but can also be quite liberating. What motivates me is to try and be a good friend, to continue to do the things that are meaningful to me and to move through any fear of things I want to do and haven’t done yet. And to get it done! I used to waste so much time.
Getting older, you start to realize that there’s no time to waste in going after the life you want to live. It’s time to really get the hustle on.
There are so many people who don’t have the luxury to pursue the life that they want. When you have the privilege of options, you have to be thankful for that. For me, it’s taken some time to understand the things I need to be happy. As someone who grew up without money and then being thrust into the wealth and privilege of prestigious schools, I thought that money was the most important thing in life. Because growing up without money was stressful as fuck. When you’re on a fixed income, keeping a roof over your family’s head and food in their stomachs (along with bills and basic necessities) is very hard. I saw these kids at school who didn’t have that struggle, and I was under the impression that money solves all problems. What I gradually understood was that regardless of money, you still have to deal with your inner life. You can have all the money in the world and still feel like a piece of shit. I’m very fortunate to make a great living doing what I do, but I also feel lucky to be able to discover what really makes me happy. Which means the ability to be creative, travel, explore, and have people in my life that I love and who love me. I mean, I’m no yoga monk, and I still love my car. But that’s what I’m finding.
For me, self-acceptance came through being knocked down and getting back up again.
My grandmother used to say: “No-one is better than you and you are no better than anyone else.” But you have to do the work. It’s not just going to happen to you—you’re not going to wake up one day and think, I’m the shit. You can look tight on the surface, but if your inner world is in turmoil, that façade is not going to last. As women, we spend plenty of time worrying about everyone else. How much do we give and not receive? How much do we focus on men and let ourselves settle? We settle for the bullshit because we’re nurturers, whether we have kids or not. We find ourselves being mothers to everyone except ourselves. But that dude in your life already has a mother. No matter what you’ve done or where you come from, the road to self-acceptance and forgiveness starts with a relationship with yourself.”
Photograph courtesy Joy Bryant, pictured wearing Basic Terrain
As told to Amy Woodside, October 2015