Gabrielle Union started acting by a fluke. While prelaw at UCLA, she interned at a talent agency, where someone suggested she go on a few auditions. At which point the unheard of happened: She booked the first three roles she tried out for. Within four years, Union, who grew up “in a really rough cul-de-sac,” she says, in Pleasanton, California, was tumbling across the screen as Kirsten Dunst’s rival in the now classic cheerleading satire Bring It On. She’s worked steadily since, from gunslinging in a sleek white suit in Bad Boys II to chasing commitment in the megahit Think Like a Man. Still, when she was passed up for the lead in Shonda Rhimes’ Scandal, it hurt. “How many times was there going to be a show about a black woman run by a black woman?” she says. “I thought it was lightning in a bottle.”
“If we can have drones, we can have brown people on TV, and the world won’t end!”
Two years later, lightning struck again—in the perfect spot: Union landed the lead in BET’s drama Being Mary Jane, about a TV journalist juggling family responsibilities, friendships, and a very active love life. “Gabrielle is a badass,” says show runner Mara Brock Akil. “But she brings a vulnerability, too.”
In season one, the show grabbed around 3 million viewers an episode and was regularly the most-watched cable drama on Tuesday nights, and this month kicks off the second season, meaning that Union, a shockingly youthful 42, will continue to split her time between her Los Angeles home base; Atlanta, where the show is shot; and Miami, where her husband, Dwyane Wade, plays for the Heat. “The ratings show all kinds of people relate, not just black women,” Union says. “If we can have drones, we can have brown people on TV, and the world won’t end! We need to catch up. We are painfully behind.”
There are on-screen moms—and then there are Prime-Time Matriarchs. Thanks to Tracee Ellis Ross, Rainbow “Bow” Johnson of ABC’s Black-ish may just be the next Clair Huxtable or Marge Simpson. She first played the den-mother type in a group of four friends living in Los Angeles on UPN/The CW’s Girlfriends. On Black-ish, Ross, 42, is now lending that warmth (and many a sideways glance) to a traditional family setup and an audience of nearly 8 million viewers per week.