Issa Rae is a force of nature, and someone to look out for. Writer, director, producer, and actor, there isn’t much she has left undone. Many know her for her hit HBO series Insecure, but Rae originally started off as a YouTube star. From those humble beginnings, she’s just kept hustling, and her star continues to rise. Presenting 48 facts about this inspirational creator.
1. Name Game
Issa Rae’s birth name is actually Jo-Issa Rae Diop. Her first name comes from her two grandmothers (Joyce and Issa) and her second name is also the name of her artist aunt. Her family still calls her Jo-Issa, because “everybody’s gonna know your government name that we named you.”
2. How I Met (And Left) Your Mother
Rae’s parents met in France when they were both in school. Her father, Abdoulaye Diop, is from Senegal and her mother, Delyna Diop (nee Hayward) is an African American from Lousiana. Unfortunately, this love story had an expiry date. They got divorced when Rae was in high school, with her mother citing “cultural differences” as the reason for the split at the time, but later admitting that his affair was the real reason behind the break.
3. Culture Confusion?
It’s hilarious the kind of preconceived notions people may have about other countries and communities. Rae’s Senegalese cousins were big fans of Baywatch and Pamela Anderson. Their idea was that Rae led a glamorous life in L.A, hobnobbing with movie stars. On the other hand, her American friends, on hearing of her African roots, would ask her if she owned a lion!
4. Smart Cookie
The daughter of a doctor and teacher, it was a given that Rae grew up in an environment that valued books and learning. She did well at school and went to Stanford, where she graduated with a major in African and African American Studies and a minor in Political Science.
5. Dorm Drama
While she was at Stanford, Rae came up with the idea of Dorm Diaries: A show on what it was like to be “black at Stanford.” She had been enjoying writing and directing plays at college, and the idea of taking it further and doing a mockumentary came to her when she was stuck doing a paper she didn’t want to. She borrowed a camera from the library, enlisted her friends to act in it, and trusted they would share it in their circles, which they did.
6. The Diop Bunch
Rae was used to being her dad’s “favorite girl” until her younger sister was born. He had a solution to that problem though and told her she would always be his “favorite girl number one” and her sister would be “favorite girl number two.” Apart from the sister, Rae has three brothers, two older and one younger.
7. Web Breakthrough
When Rae decided to make a web-series titled The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, she didn’t even think of pitching it to television. She had already pitched two ideas to networks before that and they had been shot down. Network execs had said, “There’s no audience for…black kids who are in college right now.” Well, she sure showed them, huh?
8. The Awkward Muse
The inspiration for Awkward Black Girl came from a couple of sources: Rae’s own experiences while working in a theater in NYC, Tina Fay’s Liz Lemon character in 30 Rock, and an article by Leslie Pitterson, pointing out the absence of a “black female nerd” on screen. Rae’s hope is that her shows help the audience reject stereotyping and be more open to diverse characterization.
9. Fan Favorite
When the first few episodes of Awkward Black Girl went viral through social media and word of mouth, Rae and producer-friend Tracy Oliver decided they’d try raising funds to film the rest of the season through Kickstarter. Almost 2,000 people donated around $56,269, which helped them finish filming the whole first season.
10. The One With The Famous Fan
Guess who else is a fan of Awkward Black Girl? Pharrell Williams! Rae recalls freaking out when the creative director of his company iamOTHER contacted her and arranged a phone call between them. He told her he loved her work and asked her to be a part of his channel. He also funded the entire second season.
The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl went on to win a Shorty Award for Best Web Series. It also landed Rae a spot on Forbes’ “30 under 30” list.
12. Okay Google!
You might just hear Rae’s voice the next time you talk to your Google Assistant! In October 2019, the company announced that Rae would be “the second celebrity to lend her voice to the technology.” This entailed recording over 40 hours of random phrases!
13. A Different Destiny
Rae might have gone to law school or business school! She was seriously considering giving up the entertainment dream after she had graduated from Stanford in 2007 and no real acting jobs seemed to be coming her way. She did some odd jobs for a while but stopped doubting herself once Awkward Black Girl started airing and became a hit.
Rae’s definition of an ideal Sunday is to spend at least six hours in bed. She also loves spending time at home with her friends, drinking champagne and binge-watching “trash television.”
15. HBO Star
To continue dismantling the black stereotype on television, Rae collaborated with Larry Wilmore to create Insecure. They began working on it in 2013, as a comedy series that “unpacked the story of the black female experience.” HBO picked it up for production in 2015, and the first season aired the following year in October.
The story is about two college friends trying to navigate the world after graduation in L.A. “We’re just trying to convey that people of color are relatable. This is not a hood story.”
16. Staying True
Rae’s focus on creating relatable black characters, highlighting different black experiences, and keeping it all real and fresh, is due in part to the amazing people she works with. She considers it a huge advantage that she is surrounded by people of color. “I could never do this show and have a predominantly white staff.” Showrunner Prentice Penny appreciates HBO for supporting them in their choice of crew.
17. Fans In High Places
Insecure has a huge fan following. One of its most distinguished fans is Michelle Obama, who told a disbelieving Rae that she watched the show after her daughters had recommended it to her.
18. The Books Were Better
If you’d rather read than watch YouTube, you’re in luck. You can get to know the “awkward black girl” up close and personal through her 2015 memoir, also titled The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. Rae writes in her typical self-deprecating but very approachable style, so readers will feel like they are listening to a friend. The book was also a New York Times Bestseller.
19. The Writing Process
Rae found inspiration to write about herself from Mindy Kaling and Tina Fey. She was initially apprehensive about sharing her book with the world. She thought it might be too personal and she might compromise the privacy of her family. Rae eventually shared the manuscript with her father who told her he believed that she would make the right decision. He said all that mattered was that she was honest and respectful.
20. Following Her Own Footsteps
There was a time when Rae was unsure if the YouTube videos would lead to anything meaningful. She admits it was hard watching her friends become doctors and lawyers, and have people ask her why she’d gone to college if she only wanted to make videos. “There was no blueprint to do this,” and no role model to follow. “You kind of just do it.”
21. Because I’m Happy
A content person overall, Rae’s method of staying happy is simple: She is mindful that she is doing what she loves and always wanted to do, and she ignores the noise on social media. She feels sometimes “people are looking for something to be upset with.” So, she goes on “social media fasts” from time to time and doesn’t focus on the negativity.
22. Maternal Disapproval
Even though it was earning accolades from the general public, there was a time when Rae’s Insecure lost the viewership of the most important person in her life: Her mother. Delyna had watched the first season of the show, but when she saw her daughter take part in some risqué action in an episode of the second season, it left her less than amused.
Rae understood her dismay because she’d had parental controls growing up. She could see why her mother was mad to see her put herself out there like that despite her upbringing. She admitted feeling hurt when her mom stopped watching the show, but her siblings assured her she would come around, and she did.
23. Honor Roll
Rae has earned two Golden Globe nominations and one Primetime Emmy nomination for Insecure. She has won a Peabody Award and three Black Reel Awards for television, for Outstanding Actress in a Comedy Series. She also won a Gracie Allen Award as well as a Satellite Award for the same category.
Rae found writing her memoir therapeutic because it was the first time she really owned her feelings about her parents’ divorce and talked about it and her father’s infidelity. However, she did admit that she was regretful about calling out another ex-colleague who had said some not-so-nice things about her.
Rae’s characters often express their feelings in rhyme: They usually rap in front of the bathroom mirror. She says she writes the rhymes as a joke, and the rap kills two birds with one stone—it’s a great comic device, but it also gives the audience a window into a character’s mind.
Rae’s first major inspiration to be a filmmaker was Love & Basketball. She loved Sanaa Lathan’s heroine, who she viewed as a rare “relatable black woman” on screen. When Rae discovered that a black woman had actually directed the film as well (Gina Prince-Bythewood), it encouraged her to follow her dream and get into filmmaking herself.
27. You Said It
Rae looks up to Shonda Rhimes, and not just for creating a show like Scandal, with a powerful black female lead. Rhimes, along with director Ava Duvernay, also gave Rae the best advice she’s received: “Don’t be afraid to be a b****.” Rae admits that she would always worry about upsetting people, and this piece of advice felt liberating.
She may have won awards and the love of fans, but it still surprises Rae when people recognize her. She first realized she was famous when people came up to meet her while she was walking around in Atlanta. “Wow, people really watch this show and people really know me even if I’m wearing a baseball cap.”
29. Entrepreneurial Bent
As if it wasn’t enough for Rae to be an actor, director, musician, writer, and producer, she decided to go ahead and add business owner to her titles. She became a partner in Hilltop Coffee and Kitchen in 2019, and became a co-owner of their new café in South L.A, where she grew up and where she set Insecure.
30. The Pilot That Didn’t Work
Rae partnered with Shonda Rimes to write the pilot for a series called I Hate LA Dudes. She pitched it to ABC, but apparently it didn’t impress them, and they passed. Rae admits that in trying so hard to please the studio, she lost her own voice and vision in developing the story, and it showed in the pilot. Thankfully, she bounced back with Insecure, so all’s well that ends well.
31. Oscar Whitewash
Critics have long pointed out that the Oscars tend to ignore people of color. While this fact bums Rae out, she’d rather just continue focusing on doing her best work instead of participating in this “tired conversation.”
32. Little Star
Rae’s favorite part of her work: Spending time with intelligent and inspirational women on set. She is all praise for her youngest co-star, Marsai Martin, who at 14 is also the youngest executive producer in Hollywood history. “I look at her and I’m inspired.” The two acted together in Little, and Rae feels that if anyone ever made a biopic about her life, she would want Martin to play her.
33. Stress Buster
Generally a positive person whose mantra is “it could always be worse,” Rae does like escaping to Malibu when she starts feeling the stress. She also likes falling asleep to the sound of the ocean and has an “ocean sounds” playlist on Spotify for that.
34. Party Animal
Rae does not think the term “life of the party” applies to her. She feels she’s the complete opposite and can be quite “boring.”
Apart from being vocal about inclusivity and diversity in the entertainment industry, Rae uses her voice to highlight police brutality against people of color as well. After the shooting of Alton Sterling, she raised $700,000 for the Sterling kids to go to college.
36. Cover Girl
Rae appeared on the cover of Essence in early 2019 and chose to mark the occasion with a touching Instagram post remembering the last cover she had done with them. The magazine had featured her on the cover four years before, along with four other movers and shakers: Shonda Rhimes, Ava Duvernay, Mara Brock Akil, and Debbie Allen.
It had been a huge boost to her confidence and made her feel that someone believed in her enough to group her with those “game-changers.”
37. Mentorship Program
To further her dream of wanting to see more colored people in the entertainment industry, Rae founded ColorCreative, along with Deniese Davis, in 2014. The objective was to help minority and women writers and give them more opportunities to present and sell their work. In 2018, she was able to sign a deal with Columbia Pictures to start a mentorship program through which they will select writers to work with her and the studio.
38. What Do You Know?
Rae enjoyed looking through fashion magazines while in school but never imagined seeing her face in one, let alone in a makeup campaign. In a classic case of “never say never,” she became the face of CoverGirl when she collaborated with them for their Exhibitionist Lipstick Collection. The brand wanted to redefine what it meant to be a CoverGirl, and Rae was the best fit for their vision because of her talent and versatility.
39. Friends At Work
The best part of the CoverGirl makeup campaign was that Rae got to shoot a commercial with her best friends. She felt like she wasn’t at work at all because it felt so natural and she had so much fun.
40. Rules Of Engagement
Although she hasn’t confirmed it herself, her brother Lamine Diop and friends from Insecure have verified that Rae is engaged to her long-time boyfriend, Louis Diame, a businessman of Senegalese origin.
Rae may do what her heart tells her to, but she feels she still looks for approval from her mother and closest friends at times. She calls them the most “influential people” in her life.
Rae has been a part of several podcasts and is the creator of one herself. Fruit is the story of an ex-football player. It explores the themes of “hypermasculinity and sexuality” and is an idea Rae had been wanting to explore for some time. The character is fictitious, but the story is inspired by various true events.
She has immediately become a fan of the audio world and feels it is much easier (and more cost-effective) than visual storytelling.
43. Spice Girl
These days, you know you’ve made it big when you appear on Hot Ones. The celebrities get a plate of increasingly hot chicken wings while host Sean Evans asks them deep, probing questions. Rae more than rose up to the challenge. She not only ate her wings and answered all the questions calmly, she also went back to finish up any leftover wings!
44. All Hail The Queen
Rae is a huge Beyoncé fan. She watched her on the Dangerously in Love tour and became a die-hard fan for life. She tweeted about the time she met her a few years ago. Queen B called her beautiful and Rae basically felt her life was complete.
45. French Story
A lesser-known fact about Rae is that she is fluent in French. Once, while she was out and about in New York, she heard a couple of French guys talking about her. She couldn’t resist turning around and telling them (in French) that most people knew a lot of languages in the city, so they should be careful of what they say. Now that’s what one would call a mic drop moment!
46. Work It
Rae may not like working out, but she’s managed to keep a routine that helps her keep her weight in check. She said she gained “new money weight” when her web series took off and realized she needed to do something about it when she saw herself on TV. After struggling initially, she now wakes up early to walk and jog for an hour every day. She prefers the Paleo diet to other eating fads.
47. A Time To Write
Season four of Insecure debuted in 2020, but it was a long process because it took ages for Rae to start writing anything. Because the show was inspired so much by real-life experiences, she felt she and her fellow writers needed some time to live their lives before they could start working on the script.
48. Car Today, Gone Tomorrow
Rae decided to indulge when she started making good money, so she bought herself a blue Tesla. That was the most expensive thing she’d bought for herself at that point. Unfortunately, an old lady slammed her own car into it, and Rae ended up being car-less for almost a whole year. Oh well, I’m sure it was nice while it lasted.