Stars Making a Social Impact: Why & How Kellye Howard Is Helping To Change Our World

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Take responsibility for their actions, their promises, and their shortcomings. We are all human and it’s in this introspective space that we have grace for other humans being human.

As a part of our series about stars who are making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kellye Howard.

Kellye Howard is a Chicago-based Actress, Comedian, and writer that has spent the last decade making a name for herself in roles on Chicago Fire, Chicago Justice, Empire, national commercials, and movies like Cherry starring Tom Holland. Kellye’s work on stage informs and compliments her work off stage; she’s the host of a five-year-old podcast, Be less Petty — a comedy self-help podcast cohosted by a licensed Illinois therapist. Her upcoming show at Steppenwolf, Crazy or Nah?!, is a comedic questioning of the lasting effects of emotional and psychological trauma.

Thank you so much for joining us on this interview series. Can you share with us the backstory that led you to this career path?

My acting career or desires to be an actress started at 8 years old when my granny took me to a Palmolive open call auditions for kids. I didn’t get the job and honestly had no idea what I was doing. I was so nervous and ill-informed on what it took to be an actual working actress. I wouldn’t revisit the idea until 14.5 years later after the military, when I enrolled at Columbia Chicago in the acting program. Stand-up comedy tripped in my life. I never study comedy, nor did I know any comedians other than Lucille Ball and Richard Pryor. I didn’t even know Eddie Murphy was a comedian, I thought he was an actor. My comedy career began when someone said to me that I was funny and I should try doing stand up and they were producing a local show and could get me stage time if I wanted it. I took it. And the rest is history. I’ve been doing stand-up comedy for 16 years now, all because I took a risk doing something someone else said I was good at. My first love is acting and dramatic acting at that; I use comedy as a platform to entertain with dramatic performances. So, while it may make you laugh, you’ll also learn and be empowered through MOST of my shows. I use my own life as material and never shy away from the hard topics. I’ve used comedy to deal with my own pain for years, most of my performances has a through line of introspection to some capacity. The desire to get in tuned with my most hated and petty parts of myself is what led to the podcast; Be less Petty! I do consider the podcast, comedy, writing, and acting all a part of the same movement…ADD VALUE to the lives of others, never detract!

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career? What was the lesson or takeaway you took out of that story?

One time I met Bernie Mac at a nail salon. I was so excited and had just started my journey as a comedian. As soon as he walked in, I gasped and ran to my car, leaving my 6-year-old daughter in the salon by herself. I grabbed all my marketing materials. I was really good at self-promoting back then. I had a flyer with my face on it, a headshot, a DVD, and a writing pen that said, “laughter takes the pain away, do yourself a favor and book me today!” with my phone number on it. I was PREPARED. I ran back into the salon and proceeded to hand him all my promo merch. He then begins to rip me a new asshole. I mean seriously CURSE ME OUT! That’s right. He tells me how us young ass comedians don’t know the first thing about real comedy and how we always wanna claim someone stole our jokes; he didn’t want any of my material especially not my DVD, and we new cats need to learn more respect to really make it in this game. I sat down next to him and soaked up every bit of every word with glee, I was grateful to be getting cursed out by Bernie Mac himself. I knew most of what he was saying didn’t directly apply to me, and he was just venting. After a min or two, he calms down and begins to share some truly valuable gems about the industry. We talked for an hour and a half. His nails were done long ago, and he stayed and talked to me. For no other reason than he was that kind of guy. He gave me his phone number and said he was doing more movies and shows here in the city and wanted to help as many young comics as he could, he also said I should meet his daughter and told me to call him the next week. I was insecure as a new comedian and didn’t really know what I’d say if I called, so I didn’t. He died less than 6 months later. His daughter however reached out to me shortly after to do a benefit show for him that same year, he’d mentioned me to her. Her and I have been friends ever since. Though I never got an opportunity to work directly with him, it was an honor to be curse out by Bernie Mac! He said to me, that I would “make it,” because I was open and flexible and willing to learn. He could see it in my eyes. That talk he and I had has carried me through some low moments in my career. I was a regular at this salon, so I went back two weeks later for a fill-in, and he’d left an autographed picture of himself to my daughter and a Bernie Mac Show alarm clock. We truly lost a great one!

What would you advise a young person who wants to emulate your success?

My advice to a young person wanting to emulate my success is… DON’T! Be your own version of success. Whatever that means for you. Yes, study and admire other people who are doing something similar and how they’ve trekked their way to the top; but also, really get in tuned with what it is you want. Though we as humans are very similar, we are also very different. Because each person’s upbringing is different. Even twins living in the same house experience life differently sometimes, so it’s best to know, appreciate, and honor our individuality when it comes to building the career/life we desire. Especially since you’re the one that’s going to live it. This brings me to my second point. Find what’s feel most authentic to you. I like stand-up comedy, but I don’t like writing set up and punchline style jokes. I like my material to come off as conversational and a bit dramatic. I also love to tell stories versus political human. The goal for my material is typically centered around entertaining the audience, educating the audience, and empowering the audience. If I get two out of three of those goals met in a joke…it’s a win. The most admired people are those who have just done what they wanted to do because that’s what fueled them. They didn’t try to match anyone else’s way of doing it. This is powerful. And no, we will never be completely original, I mean geez the human species have been around for hundreds of thousands of years but no one can do what you do the way you do it!

Is there a person that made a profound impact on your life? Can you share a story?

My life has been impacted by several people; Lucille Ball, Oprah Winfrey (original…I know), Bernie Mac, Richard Pryor, my mother and my father to name a few.

Lucille Ball had the courage to be ugly on TV in a time when women were expected to be beautiful and though she was beautiful in real life, she’d get down and dirty to sell the joke on the show. The faces she’d make and physical comedy she’d perform was perfection in every way and really gave me permission to infuse this into my performances when I tripped into comedy. My mom would watch her all the time when I was kid. Oprah has been a pillar of possibility for the black woman in the United States for so long, she overcame a harsh upbringing to become one of the most influential women in the world with no blueprint. Bernie Mac is Bernie Mac. That loudmouth, say what he wants, curse you out then give you a hug type uncle figure that I can personally identify with from my own childhood. I’ve always loved his unapologetic presence especially as a black man in the USA during a time of extreme censorship of the black voice. Richard Pryor took trauma and made it funny. He used his own very dark and unimaginable childhood and made characters and jokes that took us on an emotional roller coaster. If I had to emulate anyone’s style…I’d want it to be his. But I’m me…so yeah, I’ll just be me. I often say I am the love child of Lucille Ball, Bernie Mac, Oprah Winfrey and Richard Pryor. If you can imagine that foursome. My art has been heavily influenced by them all.

My mother is a strong woman and infused that strength into me in ways I will never be able to repay her for; it is this, that has made me into the compassionate, introspective yet also fearless — (sometimes fearless) performer that I am. My dad teaches me so much indirectly. His life conditions and health remind me why I do what I do and why it’s so important to eat well, stay active, and honor my mental health. In my youth he was a very talented, active, rambunctious motorcycle riding musician that in recent years have let life have him, which pushes me to be a better version of myself every new day so when I look at my life, I can say I lived it, it didn’t live me.

How are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting causes you’re working on right now?

I bring goodness to the world by being my most authentic self in everything I do.

I don’t know if I would consider myself wildly successful in the traditional sense, but I have used my time, and energy to create a more intentional and positive space for my art. I am passionate about mental health awareness, specifically misdiagnoses and unprocessed grief. I make it goal to be honest and authentic and vulnerable in all areas of my work so that I am a pillar of possibility for others to do the same. My podcast, though not popular amongst the world, really feels like a safe space for people to look inward without judgement; face their petty ways and thoughts and truly reflect on whether it’s serving them This is encouraged by me sharing personal successes and failures in my own life publicly. Sometimes just being authentically ourselves, is enough to make lasting change. Lastly, just staying consistent in my craft is helping those who are wanting to be a full-time authentic artist but struggles because it’s too hard, or not working out the way they expect, when we see others doing it, it can spark belief within.

Can you share with us a story behind why you chose to take up this particular cause?

I chose to infuse my art with mental health awareness and comedy reflecting true human experiences because I have faced diagnoses and loss in my life. And at times I felt alone and misunderstood, which I was, because I didn’t understand me. Often times we are encouraged to seek answers outside of ourselves and my entire brand is about introspection and inter-connectivity. How are we showing up for ourselves and others in every given moment? Does it reflect who you truly are and if not, why? I was diagnosed with Bi-polar mania in 2013 and 6 months later diagnosed with multiple sclerosis; I was an emotional wreck. This was the tipping point for me to look at my life and what I’ve done to create more joyous, healing experiences for myself. What I discovered is I was just letting life happen and moving forward without processing anything. I’d never processed the death of my grandmother who was essentially my, I didn’t process the death of my two children or my older brother’s suicide. I was not processing the innocence that was ripped away from me at the tender age of 8 years old. I was just moving forward, and that led to suppression, depression, anger, sadness, and a huge disconnect to the world around me.

Can you share with us a story about a person who was impacted by your cause?

My family has been the most impacted by my journey towards healing and inner joy, which is the work I do publicly, through my podcast, stand-up comedy, and one woman shows. I no longer invalid their feelings and emotions because I don’t understand them, nor do I expect them to personally relate to what it is I am feeling. I give them space and permission to be exactly who they are in any given moment. I offer myself grace, and no longer look at my parents and those who I feel have wronged me as an attack against me; I know that the human experience is complicated and has many layers that most people will never journey through and that’s fine. I show up for myself daily and by doing so, I am giving those who are watching the permission to do the same. If they so choose, if not; I still do what is best for me. I still show up no matter what…because once we know how others are impacted by our behavior, we must be the change we want to see in the world. Not everyone will awaken to see how they impact others. The world would be a utopia if it were that simple. I have a 21- and 22-year-old daughter that is going to interact with the world far after I am gone, them seeing my efforts will encourage them to always take full responsibility for themselves.

Are there three things or are there things that individuals, society, or the government can do to support you in this effort?

Three things individuals, society AND government can do to support this cause is:

1) Take responsibility for their actions, their promises, and their shortcomings. We are all human and it’s in this introspective space that we have grace for other humans being human.

2) Be open to other perspectives. We only know what we know and by being open to what we don’t know…which is a lot BTW, we leave room for growth.

3) Tune in to the blog/podcast/live shows and be a part of the conversation. We are all impacted by some form of mental illness, whether it’s us directly, a family member, coworker, or the weird guy at the grocery store. Being informed helps us connect with each other. Also, follow and share!

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started”

1). You are enough!

2). Speak your truth, do not conform to the trends.

3). A mental illness diagnosis is not a life sentence, there are tools and resources to help navigate the rocky terrain.

4). Always get a second…and third, and possibly even a fourth opinion/ALWAYS check your references, not everyone has the best intentions.

5). Keep going. Consistency is the Key!

You’re a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

If I could start my own movement, it would be centered in some way around introspection and really SEEING ourselves. Maybe “I see YOU in ME Sunday’s” or something. A day where individuals (preferably strangers) meet and share embarrassing, petty, or not so beautiful stories about themselves, and when they are done, the listening person says…I see YOU in ME! There’s so much we avoid. And this denial of parts of us creates internal conflict. I could be a murderer…hear me out, when I read news articles about heinous acts, I try not to judge the murderer, or rapist, or whatever the situation is; because I don’t know what led them to that place; nor do I know what they will have to go through to pay for those actions. Karma is real…and she’s a BITCH! But as a human, I know I am not exempt from anything, if someone viciously killed my child, who knows what a mother’s love will manifest. So instead, I try hard to have compassion for them. If I feel uneasy, I might reflect on what could possibly lead me to have done something like that, and per usual, when I wake up every day, I tend to my mental health so that the likelihood of something like that happening is grossly low, but I don’t omit the possibility.

Can you please give us your favorite life lesson quote? And can you explain how that was relevant in your life?

I have several favorite life lesson quotes, but the main two are “Be the change you want to see in the world” … this quote checks me right back in line anytime I fuel negativity energy with negativity energy.

And “Everything is always working out me!” this is by far my favorite quote/affirmation; because it removes the idea that in this not so pleasant moment I have somehow failed.

No! Never. Because everything is always working out for me. So, if I’m in this situation…there must be something to learn. By reciting that several times a day, I find myself looking for areas to expand and grow, especially when I am uncomfortable.

We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Michaela Coel or Oprah Winfrey (typical…I know!) ¯_(ツ)_/¯

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Stars Making a Social Impact: Why & How Kellye Howard Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.