When it comes to strong Black women who paved a way for others like them, Debbie Allen is ICONIC. She’s a quadruple threat with credentials as a dancer, choreographer, actress and director/producer—but you already knew that. Besides a gig as Katherine Avery on Grey’s Anatomy, she most recently threw on her director's hat to work with Dove Real Beauty Productions on a new short film, “An Hour With Her”, alongside #TGIT queen Shonda Rhimes (chief storyteller) and Grey’s alum and Dove Self-Esteem Project graduate Chelsea Harris.
The film explores the power of mentorship and encourages women to spend an hour with a girl in their life – leading experts agree that just one hour spent talking to a girl about beauty, confidence and self-esteem can help change the way she sees herself for a lifetime. Why?
Because research shows eight in 10 girls with low body confidence will opt out of important activities, such as raising their hands to voice their opinion. That’s A LOT of girls. Debbie chopped it up with BET Style about how the Dove Self-Esteem Project has already helped more than 20 million young people with self-esteem education, how she’s achieved sky-high levels of self-confidence and how she really feels about the #MeToo movement.
On lending her creative voice to the first film of Real Beauty Productions Season 2…
"I found out about it through Shonda Rhimes. And I’m always aware of what she’s doing and I didn’t even know the Dove self-esteem project existed until this spring when they were looking for a director for the launch of season 2. And I was really impressed with what Dove was doing and has been doing for 17 years.
"It felt really good lending my creativity to this project. We need more mentors out here. We need a lot of that, especially with social media being as big as it is and people hiding behind it. This is a time when we need to pull people up into a positive space."
On working with her Grey’s family on a completely different project…
"I knew if that [Shonda] was involved in this, then this is something important. It’s nice to connect with people you already know and respect, like Shonda, and then also with a corporation like Dove that is actually doing something for the community. That’s VERY important."
On achieving self-confidence in the cut-throat world of dance…
"It wasn’t so much 'cut-throat' as it was racist for me because as a young girl I was denied entrance into the ballet schools because they weren’t accepting Black people. I didn’t get to 'throat-cutting.' I couldn’t even get in the door! But finally I got there and by the time I got there, at 14 years old, I was ready. We had gone through so much with the civil rights movement… so much to just fight for basic human rights, that it was a big deal that now I could go to dance school.
"So the dance world is born on criticism, so when you can take those kind of criticisms and you’re not thin-skinned, and you don’t fall apart and shrivel up and go cry in a corner, you can really make it in the outside world. I recommend dance for everybody, because it’s certainly formed me into the person that I am and the pressures that I had to go under and those glass ceilings that I had to break. The dance world got me ready for that, big time."
On whether she’s ever experienced any form of sexual harassment…
"Of course. I think because of the nature of who I am and how I grew up, I always dealt with it right then and there. I didn’t have to wait to tell someone or to complain. I dealt with it directly. Cause when you grow up with racism as majority of your life, you're certainly not going to tolerate someone belittling you in that kind of way.
"I’ve always been the kind of person who would stand up for myself and, you know, one time a cab driver said something bad to me and I punched him right in the face. Oh yes, I did! And I was such a little thing and it made me so upset. I started crying and then I found the police. And the police were just laughing at me and they were like, ‘We’re gonna have to arrest you. And I was like, ‘But he said something nasty to me.’ That’s a true story."
On where she stands with the #MeToo movement…
"I think it’s a natural progression. This is a long time coming. You know, when you think about the women’s movement, period, it was born here in America on the abolition of slavery. Women had a huge voice in that. And the civil rights movement did as much for women as it did for Black people. It was saying that there should be fair pay, that we should be allowed to study, allowed to do this, and so I remember when I was kid there was an advertisement, I think for Virginia Slims, and the campaign was, 'You’ve come a long way, baby.'
"So when I look at this right now, I know we’ve come a long way and that the #MeToo movement is yet another step forward because we’ve had women that have cried out, but there’s been no movement to support them. And there’s a big movement that’s actually addressing things now. We just have to be mindful of it and that we do things honestly and that people are using our movement to make a name for themselves, but for the right reasons."