EMPIRE: Serayah McNeill in the “Be True” episode of EMPIRE  (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2015 Fox Broadcasting Co. Cr: Chuck Hodes/FOX.
EMPIRE: Serayah McNeill in the “Be True” episode of EMPIRE (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2015 Fox Broadcasting Co. Cr: Chuck Hodes/FOX.

Who is Serayah McNeil? Most people know the 20-year-old for her role as Tiana Brown, an emerging popstar on FOX’s hit series, Empire. Watching her character, we imagine she’s gotten some notes from label executives’ who worked with Rihanna back in the day. She definitely favors RihRih with her pop and Caribbean tracks and a mean dutty whine. In season one of Empire, Tiana plays Hakeem Lyon’s love interest. As we’ve come to expect many rappers for having their side chick and their main squeeze, Tiana soon learns that her beau is being pounced on by the ultimate cougar, Naomi Campbell! But don’t cry for Tiana, it turns out her character is bisexual and she has her own side chick named India Spring! #DisTewMuch! How’s that for drama and messiness?

Fortunately, art doesn’t always imitate life and Serayah is nothing like her on screen character. The LA native is still coming into her own and adjusting to fame. Less than two years ago, she was in community college and working as a sales associate at H&M. Though it seems as if she’s an overnight success, Serrayah has been preparing for this moment for years auditioning, singing, dancing and modeling.

Now, she’s seemingly everywhere and we wanted to get to know her like you would when your best friend brings a new girl around. As we scrolled infinite weeks back through Instagram, it’s easy to see that Serayah could be one of our home girls. Just like us, she made a vision board that outlined her goals and guess what? Everything she wrote down nearly two years ago has been manifesting in her life.

While the world wind of fame may have changed some people Serayah’s parents are by her side giving her great advice on how to discern the ‘new friends’. In a candid interview with the L.A. Sentinel, we learn how Lee Daniels helped her to accept her natural hair and you’ll never guess what “Lyon” gave her the best advice.

You’ve previously shared a story of running into a fan of the show that was upset over you straightening your hair. In your personal life or for auditions have you felt pressured look a certain way?

My hair has always been curly, I had started to straighten it because I didn’t like how big it was. On the show, Lee wanted my hair big and curly every episode, it helped me accept myself and who I am in my natural state. It was really cool to be able to have my character on the show have natural hair. As far as auditioning, I don’t want to fall into the pressures of looking a certain way or being a certain size. For example I’ve always wanted to be taller. But to be in this industry I’ve had to accept, ‘okay, I’m short it is what it is and I’ll get the roles that are meant for me.’

What has your father helped taught you about love and relationships especially going into the industry?

My dad isn’t very outspoken so when we talk about anything of that nature it gets a little weird but he’d definitely led by example. He taught me to be respected. In talking to him about certain boyfriends I had in high school he would say, ‘you don’t need that…you’re this type of woman.’ I needed that clarity growing up so I would understand my worth. I think that type of advice is best if possible to come from your father.

How have you handled the people that want to be in your life because of your newfound celebrity?

To finally be in the position that I’m in and to see people that have changed around me is an unveiling process. I have started to realize that certain people I’ve known [before Empire] as well as family have began to act weird or have said weird things. It’s all apart of figuring out who I am at this stage because I have had to question peoples motives; why do they want to be around me? Are they sincere? Why do they want to be my friend? Unfortunately, that does cross my mind. But I try to keep an open mind and give everyone a clean slate until something goes wrong but it can be tough.

Serayah McNeill
Serayah McNeill

What has your mom as well as your character of Tiana taught you about relationships?

My mom is my best friend, we talk about everything, she’s my reality check. She definitely talks to me from a different perspective; from the outside looking in. She tells me how things really are and at the end of the day, she’s usually right!

Tiana, oh God, she’s definitely nothing like me when it comes to relationships. She values money and her career a lot more than her dignity. I don’t think Empire has given much background on Tiana and why she makes certain decisions as of yet. She’s definitely taught me to say focused and just do me.

Who were you two years ago before the show? What kept you believing in your vision that this was going to happen for you?

I was going to community college majoring in theatre, working at H&M and modeling on the side as well as singing and dancing. I was booking some commercials but I really wanted to be on a TV show. I wrote that down on my vision board, and I really started to hone in and focus in on what I really wanted to do.  I’m very spiritual and I think my belief and God as well as always putting good energy into the world has made a difference. Not giving up is a main factor for anything you want. You can’t be so hard on yourself. I also have a great support system of people that love me and keep me reassured and motivated. Even when I didn’t see anything happening it could be so frustrating but you have to remember the blessing is in the works and this is all a process. That’s also applicable to right now and what I want for my future, everything is still a process, there are a lot of things I’m working towards that I won’t give up on.

Without assuming that Empire is the highlight of your career thus far, what else are you proud to have accomplished by 20 years old?

In addition to Empire, meeting people that I admire that are fans of mine has been amazing. Patti Labelle and Jennifer Hudson have given me compliments and that has meant so much to me. No matter how many insecurities I have or how hard I am on myself, there are people that see and appreciate my work; I’ll always remember those moments. As well as having Terrance Howard and Malik Yoba help me with my lines and encourage me to standout and do my best.

I’m also blessed for the opportunities I’ve had to perform in front of 50,000 people. I never would have imagined doing something like that. The energy from that is an out of body experience. I can understand how artists can be on the road for months at a time doing the same exact show but feeling like it’s something new every time. Those moments are all so inspiring and have been the highlights of my year.

How are you using the platform of Empire to let people know who you are outside of your role of Tiana?

I’m excited for the song and music video that I’m working on that I plan to release next month. I’m still auditioning for a couple movie roles that are now on my vision board.

I pray that if its God will that I book a certain role, than its already mine. I try to put everything I have into the roles I’m auditioning for. I do get attached to the characters I’m studying prior to the audition so it still hurts not to book a role but it could be for variety of reasons including a scheduling conflict with Empire. Whatever’s next for me, it’s going to be amazing and that’s what I keep at the forefront of my mind.

Is there anyone in particular that you’ve learned the most from on set of Empire?

Terrance Howard. He has a very giving spirit, when I first met him, during our lunch break I happened to sit next to him. He, my mom and I had a great conversation. He’s very intellectual. We were speaking recently and he’s the complete opposite of his character, Lucious Lyon. In actuality he’s not only very encouraging but sincere.