Alyson Stoner isn’t done working it just yet.
The dancer and actress — who first gained notoriety in 2002 thanks to her sassy, fierce, and iconic moves in Missy Elliott‘s “Work It” music video — set the internet on fire last month when she showed up on stage during the rapper’s amazing 2019 VMAs Video Vanguard Award medley performance, bringing Stoner’s career full circle. It was the reprisal no one saw coming — not even Stoner herself.
Speaking exclusively with EW for her first formal interview with a news outlet since that whirlwind performance, Stoner reflects on that now-legendary cameo at the VMAs, what it was like reuniting with Missy after all these years, how she’s using this pop culture moment to do good in the world, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve been having quite a crazy few weeks!
ALYSON STONER: Oh, yes. As wild as life gets, it’s how much I have to counter it with stillness, that is my new approach to things and it is so helpful for balancing.
You tweeted some brief facts about how your VMAs cameo came about but tell me the whole story – how were you first contacted about your appearance and what was your reaction to that invitation?
When I first got the text from Missy’s creative director HiHat, I had no expectations and a receptive mind. That’s a really important elixir for mental health when you’re involved with a very reliably unreliable entertainment industry. Once I knew I’d be performing, mind you it was a day before the final rehearsal, I asked myself, “How can I greet the past and also walk fully in the present articulation of my evolution as an artist and human since 2002?” And then I felt something within me say, your last 20 years of experience are the perfect preparation. All you have to do is just stay in your peace, honor Missy, and enjoy every second. And so I did. I think Missy’s artistry and legacy are really characterized by joy and unifying cultures, genres, innovation, mass media, authenticity, spirit, so she really is an example to me and it was the perfect setup, to be honest.
Did you ever have any doubts or fears about going on the VMAs stage to bring your career full circle?
As I’ve gotten older, it’s more important to intentionally design my creative process. I’ve switched my preparation. The day of the performance, I practice this very specific meditation and it’s focused on seeing all people and things as interconnected. As I’m backstage, I say, “I am that,” as I pass everyone and everything. I am the stagehand sweating profusely trying to set up the set. I am the crowd screaming for their idols. I am the person asking for spare change outside the venue. I am the little white girl from the Missy Elliott video. Because of that, I felt my breathing steady and this overwhelming compassion increase and it was as though the stress evaporated. Normally, you’d expect to be in that fight or flight response. I was anticipating the intractable internet memes that would inevitably follow. And yet, I felt completely laser-focused and tranquil. It was perfect. It felt like I was tasting perfection. And I stayed present because I wanted to remember it in my body because I know in past performances, I’ve been so nervous that I’ve missed the joy. This was a complete 180.
That definitely showed on your face, you looked so happy and free on that stage.
Oh, wow, that’s amazing! I’m glad.
What was it like reuniting with Missy? Did she give you any advice or words of encouragement before the performance?
I was there to celebrate her so it was definitely not a time to be centering my own needs. [Laughs] But I’ve always admired how she maintains her team members and treats her dancers. You wouldn’t even know she’s the artist, the humility she walks in and the togetherness that she fosters. And she has the same wardrobe team who dressed me in “Work It,” the same creative direction and choreography team who taught me my first moves in her video, and that is such a testament to her character. We were able to catch up. It was a lot of very sincere but quick small talk because we had to immediately prep the section but I am a huge fan of her embrace – her hugs are so special. They feel heart-to-heart, soul-to-soul, and this time I wasn’t a foot-and-a-half shorter than her! I was eye-to-eye, and that was really surreal and special.
The response to your cameo has been off the charts. How has this changed things for you in your career or personal life?
It’s easy to be intoxicated by the 60 million impressions on my Instagram feed in three days and global trending status and paparazzi showing up at the airport and celebs sliding into your DMs. I receive it all with the utmost appreciation and optimism. Thankfully, I quickly returned to my mission, which is to use my platform and privilege to help fans and artists transform their lives, transcend their circumstance, know their worth, contribute their best. There are many days, if I’m being transparent, that I feel people don’t honor the woman and the adult I’ve become. My power and qualifications are greater than my past, so I’ll forever be grateful and open to celebrating them but I continue showing up and thrilled about my most recent endeavors, and I feel that the VMAs were a divine opportunity to invite people into the projects that I’m creating and producing and writing and performing in. They’re the most substantial and meaningful material I’ve ever made. Now I have a million and growing audience on Instagram to directly connect with.
Because of the response to your VMAs performance, you got to return to The Ellen Show (airs Monday) — what was it like reuniting with Ellen all these years later?
[Laughs] Of course it was exciting! It felt so divinely timed. To be able to sit there as the adult that I’ve become was – it’s hard to describe. It was so much fun. We laughed a lot. I’m not even sure what I said at this point! I’m interested to see how the clip actually turns out.
Going back to your platform, you’re actively using your fame and reach to work as a mental health advocate for a new generation of child entertainers. What does that entail?
It is the greatest undertaking I’ve ever committed to pursuing. I’m advocating for mental health practitioners on every set and tour for artists and especially minors so we don’t keep repeating this dangerous pattern of having to hurt ourselves to do our jobs. It’s a multi-directional approach. It won’t succeed with just one facet of sharing our personal anecdotes. It won’t be enough to just approach the unions and hope they listen. It won’t be enough to create the PTA for parents within the union to meet and greet. But altogether I think there can be legitimate systemic infrastructural changes and they can protect the artist. And also there’s an economic incentive. You’re looking at increasing the longevity of careers and artists being reliable, being able to show up and deliver, and so I have to think the way the machine thinks. I’m fully confident that what will happen will protect the next generation better than I was protected. We’re already seeing changes being made. Disney is organizing seminars monthly or so for young cast members to have the chance to bond and communicate anything that’s difficult about navigating social media. There are small steps. It’s definitely not enough.
What else can be done?
I’m also writing a book about the psychological impact of child stardom, and how the company family dynamic and culture play into this unusual storm. But I know that through this conversation, if you can move something within entertainment, that can permeate into every area where children are in high performance, high-stress environments: school, sports. That can permeate into mental health practitioners in every industry. I’m definitely David versus Goliath, but this feels like the greatest employment of my past pain because I’m turning it into something proactive and I haven’t seen anyone else do that yet for the next generation. If not me, then who?
What inspired you to take on that kind of work?
As I’ve continued my own healing, I’m immediately inspired to extend the opportunity to everyone else. So it begins within. I’m very much a person who wants to live inside-out and teach with my life and not hit people over the head with dogma but instead show by example what’s possible because that means I have to keep myself accountable as well. Integrity is a very important value of mine, so as I’ve matured and witnessing the distance that I’ve traveled inside and out with my career, the rooms I’ve been in, the stages I’ve performed on, the executive elite rooms I’ve been privileged to step into, I’m not there for my own fame. I’m there to gather all the intel and then make it accessible and available so everyone has an equal opportunity to empower themselves with that information.
That goes into what my podcast is about – Simplexity, which is launching this fall. I’m bringing in experts from every field to help simplify the complexities of life. As I’ve grown aware of my privilege in every shape and form and I’m continuing to unpack that, I feel a larger and larger duty to make the resources available that might not be accessible to everyone equally. So far, the response, honestly, is overwhelming. It shows me that there is not only a need for it, but that when you give someone helpful information, they will take it and flourish. I was at VidCon this year and the very first woman who walked up to me didn’t just say, “I love your dancing.” She said, “You posted something about health a year ago, I took it to heart, I’ve lost 90 pounds. I’m down to a healthy weight and it transformed my life.” That’s never going to get old to hear, because it’s bigger than me.