Kerry Washington’s Guide to Life


Photo: Horst Diekgerdes/Trunk Archive

Kerry Washington grew up in the Bronx, where Jennifer Lopez taught her how to dance, and went to high school with Gwyneth Paltrow. Thanks to her starring role on Scandal, Washington’s now as famous as her childhood peers. Unlike them, however, Washington’s maintained an unusually private life, surprising the world with an unannounced marriage (to former NFL player Nnamdi Asomugha) and a nonchalant pregnancy (during which she gleefully wore a crop top on the red carpet). The few things Washington will talk about?  The importance of being yourself, filling your life with people who lift you up, and giving back. Below, Washington sounds off on unrealistic expectations, “red carpet Kerry,” and the grape juice-induced sugar high she gets from chugging Olivia Pope’s red wine.

BB: I was going to start this interview by telling you how much I love you, but then I realized I can’t say that because I have never met you! But you are so cool.

KW: I feel the same way about you! You are such a trail blazer and a pioneer. Particularly as a woman of color—you have always honored all skin tones—it is really so lovely to talk to you. 

BB: Thank you. I have been doing that job for 25 years and this is my first year at my new job.

KW: How exciting!

BB: It is really exciting. I am also the mom of three boys—I know you just had a baby. Congratulations.

KW: Oh my goodness. Thank you, thank you!

BB: How old is the baby?

KW: She is five months—five and a half months.

BB: It’s the silliest question, but how is motherhood?

KW: [Laughs.] You know, it is amazing and life changing and extraordinary.

BB: But what was your biggest surprise? I am tired of people saying how absolutely perfect every second is because I have had three of them myself, so I know better.

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KW: Oh gosh, I normally don’t talk about this stuff…I think I am just in awe of her.

BB: I know you are really private, and I think that is commendable.

KW: Aw, thanks.

BB: So are you in New York or California?

KW: I am in California; we are shooting the show.

BB: Do you drink red wine in real life?

KW: I don’t! Maybe once or twice a year, especially if I am traveling somewhere, but I am not a big wine drinker. On the show it’s just grape juice because I would never be able to memorize all my lines—and I would never remember them if I was really drinking wine.

BB: I always wonder how this little tiny actress drinks an entire bottle of red wine and keeps it together.

KW: No, it is grape juice and I am on this crazy sugar high afterward.

BB: I don’t know if it is true or not, but I have read that you and I are of a similar—petite—height. Who is your favorite designer?

KW: I really gravitate toward having all different styles in my closet because I feel like I always want to dress to fit my mood or where I am going. I do love Jason Wu, he is also a really good friend of mine and I love what he is doing for Hugo Boss these days. I think Calvin is so beautiful, Oscar De La Renta is so classic, I really like the Rodarte girl; they are super inventive and they think outside the box, I am all over the place! [Laughs.]

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BB: Do you tailor everything?

KW: I think every girl should have a tailor in her phone. It’s part of why we beat ourselves up, or why shopping is so frustrating and hard, we have this assumption that when you take something off the rack, it will fit you. I don’t care if you are like a supermodel size zero or a plus size girl, clothes are not meant for every single person—it is just not possible. There is no magic garment, so I think it is important (even if it’s the tailor in the back of your local cleaners) to be able to give clothes the little nips and tucks that make them feel perfect for you.

BB: Do you wear as much white as Olivia Pope?

KW: No, I take a lot more fashion risks than Olivia. She dresses like a professional, while I wear a lot more patterns, a lot more color, I can have a little bit more fun. I mean she has a lot of fun in fashion, but it’s all t; I tend to have a little bit more quirky fun.

BB: Are you a heels girl or a sneaker girl?

KW: It depends. If I am going out to a lunch or a date night or an event I am definitely a heels girl. But I am from the Bronx, so I am also a bit of a sneaker addict. I love really fun sneakers.

BB: You always seem really comfortable and confident. Do you feel that way? And have you always been like that?

KW: No! [Laughs.] No, that is not true at all! I think the people who are closest to me would laugh actually. When you have things that are very important to you in life, when there are things you want to do, and be—that takes work. It takes work to show up for your own story and show up for the dream and vision you have for yourself. Or even to have the courage to have those visions and dreams. I have always been sure to credit my therapist through the years…

BB: I might need the name!

KW: [Laughs.] Good friends and family—and even the people I work with, the hair and makeup people—the people that I like to be around are people who are willing to do the work and be self-reflective and be courageous and be honest and be generous and those qualities are really important to me in my personal life and in my and my work life. I like to be around people like that because it inspires me and…

BB: Supports you…

KW: Right, and when somebody I am close to is going, “Oh wow, there is something I am really struggling with my life and here is what I am doing around it, here’s how I am doing the work,” I feel inspired to dig deeper. You know?

BB: There must be days when you are overworked, or new-mom-tired, when you have to be in the public eye on the red carpet or at an event even if you aren’t feeling your best, how do you handle that?

KW: I tend to think about those moments on the red carpet as being a character called the “red carpet Kerry.” I try to step into that. I don’t mean deny the fear—I don’t deny my feelings on a bad day—but I kind of try to invite myself to shift into something else to pull it together. You don’t have to handle things alone, you can reach out and get help from close friends and family. Sometimes I try to imagine, “Well what would I do if Mother Theresa showed up at my door right now?” I would pull it together! What if Michelle Obama called me right now? I would pull it together. And not to deny who I am, but to sort of go, “OK, how can I dig deep and get in my stronger self in this moment.”

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BB: The media’s obsession with actresses being perfect must be so difficult. I don’t understand this post-baby body that everyone celebrates.

KW: I know.

BB: First of all, who cares? And it sets an unrealistic expectation for the rest of us—I am still trying to lose five pounds of baby weight and my son is 25.

KW: It is really interesting for me being an actress, because I feel like I have a responsibility to myself and to my family to have gone through this miraculous journey of pregnancy and birth and all of that and be healthy and sane and present and loving to myself and to my family. And then at the same time I have this responsibility to Olivia Pope, to be that character and maintain that essence of that character even if my belly is ever expanding. How do I maintain my identity and the posture and the elegance and the spirit of the character while we are shooting her from the neck up?

BB: It was crazy when your pregnancy came out—who knew?

KW: [Laughs.] That was thanks to really good makeup artists who had contouring down to a science.

BB: I know you’re from the Bronx—is it true that you went to the same Boys and Girls Club as Jennifer Lopez?

KW: Yeah it is!

BB: Did you know her then?

KW: Yes. We had this amazing dance teacher, Larry, and Jennifer actually used to substitute teach when Larry wasn’t around. You wouldn’t know it from my build, but Jennifer taught me how to dance. And I remember when she left the Boys club because she was leaving New York to go to LA to try and make it big and we were all like, “Oh my gosh.”

BB: That is so cool! I also heard you launched a fashion collection?

KW: Yes, inspired by the show! It’s the show’s costume designer, Lyn Paolo, and myself. We teamed up with Elliot Staples (the head designer at The Limited). I had women emailing me and calling me saying, “I got the last white Olivia Pope Prada bag in the Boston store.” But there’s a whole segment of people inspired by the fashion of the show who didn’t have access to dressing that way, so we wanted to create a line for people at a different economic level so that they too could have access to a power suit like Olivia.

BB: And tell me about the purple purse.

KW: I designed this purple bag for Purple Purse, AllState’s Foundation. It’s a really wonderful initiative to raise awareness around financial abuse. One in four women is going to be the victim of domestic violence in her lifetime, and finance is almost always a weapon of choice. That means a woman’s credit is ruined, or her job is jeopardized because her abuser is showing up and yelling at her, or making her late for work, or debt is run up, or money is hidden—all of those things are sort of a tool to keep a woman trapped in an abusive relationship.

It is so hard to talk about abuse, but it is really easy to talk about fashion, so I designed the bag to represent the issue. It’s a clutch, something that you hold on to the way you should your financial stability, and it can fit all the things that fit your financial well-being like your keys to the stuff you own: your wallet, your phone, your tablet, etc. Purple is the signature color for domestic violence awareness and I wanted it to be a purse that appeals to a lot of different kinds of women.

BB: I will have to check it out. Finally, since this is a beauty site, I can’t get off the phone without asking about your gorgeous skin and your favorite products.

KW: It’s actually so fun to talk with you because one of the things I am working on with Neutrogena is expanding and re-envisioning the makeup for the company—it’s really so wonderful and so fun. But I live with the moisture stick; there is a rich raisin color that’s my favorite. Like everything from Neutrogena (and this is why I love working with them), it’s not just beautiful but also really good for you. There’s shea butter and mango in there; it’s really moisturizing and the color lasts for a long time and it’s just good for your lips. The thing I always have in my purse is the makeup remover wipes; I am kind of religious about taking makeup off. I never go to sleep with makeup on. It makes me really uncomfortable, I feel like your skin needs to breathe. I wear makeup at work every day and then cook underneath lights, so I always have those remover wipes in my bag because they get everything—even waterproof mascara. On my days off, I am really a no makeup (or very little makeup) girl. I think a little concealer is great and I love mascara. A little lip, a little eye—I feel like you are good to go!

BB: My last question is: what advice do you have for the women who admire you as a person and actress?

KW: I have been really blessed in my life with people who have really helped me be myself and not try to be anybody else. So whenever somebody says to me on Twitter or at the grocery store, “Oh my gosh, I just want to be Kerry Washington.” I always say, “No, you have to be you.” There is no other you in the world and the world needs what is unique about you. If you have the courage to do that, it will be much better for you than being Kerry Washington. That is the biggest thing. It’s great to be inspired by other people, but you have to have the courage to know what is unique about you and then run with it.

BB: Right, so be yourself. Well thank you, it was so great speaking with you. You are such a modern woman and I just hope you continue to deliver such great messages to young girls.

KW: Thank you!

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