Empire actress is not the character she portrays

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Grace Byers, Anika Calhoun from FOX series “Empire,” speaks to students at St. Philip’s Feb. 16 about her life and how she became an actress. She was a special speaker during Black History Month. Photo by Brianna Rodrigue

Students got an inspirational lecture from Anika Calhoun.

By Sasha D. Robinson


“I am not her. She is not me. She is my job,” actress Grace Byers said as she described her character in the Fox TV show “Empire” to an auditorium of students, faculty, and former students at the Semi-Annual Presidents Lecture in the Watson Fine Arts center at St. Philip’s College Feb 16.

The lecture was full of laughs and inspiration as Byers talked about her life growing up with her mother and sister, being bullied, struggling with being bi-racial and her struggles to becoming an actress on the hit TV show, “Empire.”

Byers opened up the lecture with an Instastory, a photo- and video-sharing app, and asked the auditorium to scream as loud as possible as she recorded them.

At the lecture, Byers talked about her parents who are deaf. She was 4 years old when she learned how to use sign language.

“I don’t remember it being difficult. I always remember me learning how to sign but my sister was signing at 19 months,” Byers said.

Byers talked about being invited to a pool party when she was 8 years old by one of the popular girls in school.

“I made it,” Byers said as she described the moment of feeling accepted.

Byers did a happy dance, but then overheard the girl who invited her to the party.

“So awesome that she is coming because now we can drown her,” Byers heard from the group of girls.

“As an 8 year old, my mind was blown that someone would invite me to harm me,” She said. “In the moment I thought, Grace what is wrong with you.”

She did go to the party, and did not go into the pool.

Byers is a part of “Saving our Daughters,” a program that creates the tools to get teen girls discussing key issues on date abuse, domestic violence and bullying.

Everyone who bullied Byers are her biggest fans.

“Everyone that bullied me when I was a child praises me now,” Byers said. “They act like ‘Grace, you make us all proud, and you’re so great.’ ‘I’m like, you know, girl, you act like you forgot. I still ain’t going near no pools, girl.”

For information about Saving our Daughters visit www.savingourdaughters.org, mail info@savingourdaughters.org or call 866-437-5770.

The President’s Lecture series provides opportunities for the college and community to hear perspectives on a broad range of local, regional, national and international topics.

In attendance for the lecture was 102 year-old Gertha Murphy, who graduated from St Philip’s in education in 1935.

Murphy taught pre-kinder for the Harlandale Independent School District in the 1990s.

“I am so excited and I do not know what to do with myself,” Murphy said about meeting Byers. “I was so exited when I got in there, and the speaker was so outstanding.”

Being bi-racial, Byers found it hard to fit in, but because of the light-skinned, dark-skinned epidemic in America, Byers was put in a position to choose.

“Wherever I go, I got asked three words,” Byers said. “What are you?”

Byers identified with being Afro-Caribbean because that is the side that she grew up with.

“I was not black enough for the black people, or white enough for the white people. I looked more Hispanic than anything else. I couldn’t speak Spanish, and I couldn’t kick it with the Latinas.”

Byers moved to New York where she learned to accept herself.

One night when Byers was leaving her job, she was walking across the street and “all I remember was picking my head slowly off of the pavement,” she said.

She had been hit by a GMC Yukon, a large SUV, while crossing the street.

“It was the fact that I was hit by the car, and I could have died and not known that I died,” Byers said.

Byers was unemployed and broke after the incident.

She thought about what she wanted and who she is.

Spirituality got her through dark moments and her purpose was giving.

She realized that giving in to the victim mentality did not empower her.

Byers said that one month she was facing eviction and was not able to make the next month’s rent.

Byers made a decision to take a chance by moving to Chicago and three months later landed the role of Anika Calhoun.

Byers stressed that he life is not the same as her counterpart on “Empire.”

According to IMDB.com, Byers received a Bachelor of Arts in theater arts from the University of South Florida her M.F.A. in acting at University of California Irvine’s graduate program.

“I felt the one thing that I could be was myself because I grew up so different. When I was in the theater environment, when I was acting, it was more of that unique stuff,” Byers said.

“I felt like I can be all elements of who I was. Not only was it accepted, but it was celebrated.”


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