stars of the game: women of the year talk about hollywood..

 

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Nagi Sakai for ELLE

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.”

Nagi Sakai for ELLE
Nagi Sakai for ELLE

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.

Bow is an anesthesiologist who, with her ad-man husband, Dre (Anthony Anderson), is raising four precocious kids in upper-class suburban L.A.—and has to constantly deal with Dre’s concern that their family isn’t adequately in touch with all that it means to be black. In exploring that issue through one family, Black-ish makes race not a thing by making it a thing. “In 1950, the black experience was specific,” says Ross, a former model who is the daughter of Diana Ross and Robert Ellis Silberstein. “But in this day and age, it isn’t. Race, culture, family, socioeconomics, tradition—we’re pulling from all those places to pull the whole conversation forward.”
The beautiful newcomers..
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Aja Naomi King, 30, (left) is buttoned-up and all business on ABC’s hit How to Get Away With Murder as overachieving, no-nonsense law student Michaela Pratt. Yet, underneath that striver exterior is enough survival-of-the-fittest moxie to get her through the on-campus murder cover-up in which she and three peers have found themselves. Karen David, 35, sings, dances, swings a sword, and delivers one heck of a punch line as Isabella, princess of the exotic kingdom of Valencia, who’s been sent to rally a new hero for her struggling people in the current ABC musical comedy Galavant.
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