Maestro of Many

Netflix

Fresh off a historic Emmy win for her deeply personal and hilarious Master of None episode, 33-year-old writer and actor Lena Waithe wants you to know that this is only the beginning.

GROWING UP ON TV

Raised on Chicago’s South Side by her working mother and grandmother, Waithe was often left home alone with fictional friends from shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and The Golden Girls. “I loved the rhythm of television, the way people talked, the jokes, the studio laughter—it just felt like music to me,” she recalls. “I didn’t know what I had to do, but I wanted to be a part of that world.”

FAMOUS FAIRY GODMOTHERS

The path to fulfilling that dream meant walking Tracee Ellis Ross’ dog as a PA on Girlfriends, serving as a writer on Bones, and working for notable African-American female auteurs Ava DuVernay, Mara Brock Akil, and Gina Prince-Bythewood. “I always say some of the most powerful black women in the industry have played Hacky Sack with me,” she says with a laugh. “The greatest gift is they’re still in my life, helping guide me on my journey, like my three fairy godmothers.”

GIVING THANKS

After stealing scenes in Master of None‘s first season as Dev’s (Aziz Ansari) childhood friend Denise, Waithe took a more personal role in season 2’s standout episode “Thanksgiving.” At the urging of Ansari and None co-creator Alan Yang, she agreed to share her coming-out story. “I think all of my life I have been preparing to write that episode; it just poured out of me,” she says of the process, which involved her and Ansari holing up in a London hotel while she was filming Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One. “For people to love it so much, it’s like that Sally Field moment: ‘They like me, they really like me!'”

THE EMMY RESURGENCE

At September’s Emmys, Waithe and Ansari took home the award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series, making her the first African-American woman to win the category. The significance wasn’t lost on Waithe, who used the moment to give a rousing speech aimed at her LGBTQIA community and those who came before her. “I knew it was bigger than me,” she reflects, mentioning forebears like Debbie Allen. “I share that with them because they have been beating at that door for many years, making it loose enough, so when I walked up, I was able to walk through.” That night, Donald Glover, Sterling K. Brown, and Riz Ahmed joined Waithe and Ansari in the winners’ circle, marking an important step for diversity in television. “I like to call us the resurgence,” she says. “It’s more than a moment. We’re here, we’re going to stay here, and we’re always going to be here.”

BUILDING AN EMPIRE

Before her Emmy glory, Waithe had already lined up her next gig: Showtime’s The Chi, a drama she created about her hometown. “I never thought I’d write about the city, but I just got to a place in my life where it was so misunderstood,” she says. “It’s raw. It’s real. It’s not ‘Let’s show black people in Chicago in a positive light.’ It’s ‘I want to show people in a human light.'” While acting in a potential third season of None is a possibility, Waithe’s focus is on writing. “The acting opportunities have to be extremely special, because writing is my first love,” she says. “I was born a television writer, I will die a television writer.”

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