When she was younger, Isis McKenzie, local host of Time Warner Cable’s On Demand, original 30-minute talk series, “Born to Shine,” told her grandmother about her passion for communications and acting.
The matriarch, not a bit surprised, in turn, revealed some historical familial information that not only amazed McKenzie, but left her with a sense of pride, while simultaneously answering many questions she had asked herself over the years about why she had such a passion for entertainment.
The answer was tucked away in her grandmother’s memorabilia. Turns out McKenzie came by her interest in entertainment honestly. Her great grandfather, Oscar Smith, was a famous actor in the 1920-40s, who also became the first African American actor to be signed to Paramount Pictures in the 1930s. She was told he was also the one time Mayor of Val Verde, CA. Also in her grandmother’s personal effects was a trunk full of pictures of her grandmother with Bing Crosby and Cab Calloway, who were huge stars during that era. But what really piqued her interest was the rumor going around about how the film industry’s most coveted trophy, the Oscar®, came to be named after her great grandfather.
McKenzie can’t actually verify that fact with certainty, but there are enough stories going around Hollywood that leaves her with a smile on her face and pride in her heart.
McKenzie says her grandmother had kept the family’s entertainment involvement hidden because she wanted members of the family to take different professional paths.
“She really only wanted the best for us,” said McKenzie, who, at age 14, after watching Oprah, decided to follow in the talk show host’s footsteps. “But, she also didn’t want to deny me my passion. She wanted me to understand why I had such an interest in communicating with people.”
The moment she found out about her great grandfather, McKenzie understood the natural gravitational pull she had felt for years regarding showbiz, communications and the arts.
While the connection with her great grandfather satisfied one part of her passion, her father, too, played a huge role in her development. As a young father and student at UCLA, McKenzie says her dad, Elliott McKenzie Jr., worked hard to get his family out of Watts because the atmosphere, at the time, was not conducive to nurturing positivity or success. The family lived in a small, one bedroom apartment. McKenzie said her father would find clever ways to get home in order to avoid the gangs, the drug dealers and the stray dogs.
“Even though it was a strong community with black-owned businesses and black-owned homes, my father didn’t want his children to be exposed to the negative aspects of the community,” said McKenzie, who has a younger brother and sister. “The concept of this show is exactly what I’m about. It’s about highlighting the achievements of African Americans in our community. I’m all about the community. I was drawn to this show.”
While McKenzie said her father was eager to move his children away from a challenging environment and eventually did by moving to North Hollywood, he was committed to having his children give back.
“My dad had a strong desire to get us out of the community, but he also wanted us to come back and service the community,” said McKenzie, who is single. “My dad was a strong advocate that no matter where we moved, we would come back. It’s always been a strong desire of mine to go back to my community and show what I’ve done. This show does that. It takes the achievement of African Americans in their various occupations and allows others to see this can be done. It shows there are options and possibilities. I recognize the blessings I have. Some of my extended family still live in Watts and South Central, so I have a personal investment in wanting to get back and give back to the community.”
McKenzie, a natural beauty with an incredibly infectious smile, is a busy lady. Not only does she have a B.A. in Speech Communication from California State University, she is currently working on her masters in business and leadership at Woodbury University. The former Miss Black California USA (2005), also has a production company called Mighty Isis Productions. The Watts native’s varied interests also include not only hosting and appearing in a number of films and television shows, but also education, having worked nearly six years for the Los Angeles Unified School District. She began her career in broadcast journalism as a sports correspondent for ESPN 2 Valley Sports 2.
Her experience as a correspondent helps her to ‘shine’ on the TWC talk show.
The aim of “Born to Shine,” available exclusively on Time Warner Cable Digital TV through its On Demand platform, is to spotlight the impact of African Americans making a difference in the world of entertainment, sports, technology and the community. The first season consists of eight, 30-minute episodes.
Time Warner Cable worked with Showtime, GMC TV and TV One, among others, in the creation and development of the “Born to Shine” series.
The show was created partly in response to criticisms of the company’s lack of positive portrayals in their programming.
“Born to Shine,” which has four co-hosts Ashlei Stevens in New York, Carmela King in Dallas and Kornelius Bascombe in North Carolina, debuted Oct. 18 after an extensive nationwide talent search that attracted hundreds of hopefuls.
Writer/director/actor Robert Townsend, actress Kim Fields, model/actor Tyson Beckford, actress Tatyana Ali, Carol’s Daughter creator Lisa Price, singer Estelle, ESPN Analyst Stephen A. Smith, celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson, music mogul Steve Stoute and songwriter and singer Ne’Yo, are just some of the personalities featured on the show.
McKenzie, who is in her 30s, recently interviewed Beckford. She found the super model engaging, interesting and surprisingly down to earth.
“What’s interesting about Tyson and about all of our guests is how they talk about their beginnings,” says McKenzie, who admitted to having a bit of a crush. “They don’t relish in the fact that they’ve always been a celebrity. They go back to the grassroots. I find that so important because the people who are watching us are trying to figure out the best starting point. Most people don’t grab that a person started with similar circumstances. Tyson was surprisingly great. He was humble, charming and had a great sense of humor. He showed a part of himself that has not been exposed before. He grew up in the inner city. He had challenging times growing up. He said he still has relationships from his old neighborhood. To this day, he has never thought he was better than anyone.”
“Born to Shine” will also highlight up and coming talent through its “Rising Beats” segment. This segment will provide a national stage to artists such as Emmy-winning violinist duo Nuttin’ But Stringz, self-taught guitarist and singer Maya Azucena, and internationally-acclaimed poet Ainsley Burrows, among others.
Things are looking up for Isis McKenzie. She feels she’s on the right path for achieving her goals. And, after learning about her great grandfather, she is infused with a new sense of determination and enthusiasm.
“I’m very happy right now,” says McKenzie. “I’m feeling good about the future. I just want to thank the judges, who are also some of the guests. People like Robert Townsend, Ruben Studdard (American Idol), singer Lalah Hathaway, Phil Morris and Tatyana Ali (Love That Girl/Fresh Prince of Bel Air). The competition wasn’t about who was the best. It was about who works best with whom. I just want to give credit and gratitude to everyone involved with the show. I don’t think I stumbled upon this opportunity by accident. I believe in providence.”