Although it’s been nearly eight years since she dropped “Diva” from her stage name, Amanda Seales still has the tramp stamp marking her as one. She got it at 18, the summer after high school. I learn this as we sit together on a couch in a photo studio, chatting about body art. She’s nibbling on a Cosi salad, counting tattoos at my request. She has five.
“I mean, it seemed like the coolest thing ever at the time,” she says, of her tramp stamp. “My boyfriend was getting a tattoo. I wanted a tattoo. Now, I’m just like, how can we fix this?”
She doesn’t really wanna fix it, though. It’s a relic, she says. A marker of transformation.
We’re killing time while the photo crew moves the shoot setup inside because Amanda isn’t comfortable shooting on the deck — it’s too cold. She’s not being difficult; she’s only in the city for a few short days and has a completely packed press schedule — a taxing experience before you factor in the freezing temps. I admire the way she is able to advocate for herself. This is precisely why I don’t consider her request to be diva-like behavior. I can’t say whether this is a benchmark of transformation, though, because I don’t know if she was ever a diva in the first place.
“I came upon the name Amanda Diva when I started doing spoken word while I was in college at SUNY Purchase,” she tells me. It became the stage name she used throughout her twenties, following her as she became a recording artist, a radio host, a DJ. For a while, Amanda was fully immersed in the world of hip-hop, and Diva was the surname that stuck.
But then her relationship to hip-hop changed. Once she “became an adult,” as she puts it, she no longer felt that her whole identity resided comfortably in that space; she was ready to reconfigure herself. Which is why she went back to using her government name in 2011 — “I was trying to get closer to myself.”
I’m trying to get closer to her, too, which is why I ask her to describe what it is that she does. Turns out she hates that question. “It’s so vague, and I don’t think it necessarily gives people insight,” she tells me. “I think it forces me as a person to quantify what I do, in a very small space, and I do a lot.”
The 37-year-old finally shares that “a lot” is mostly comprised of making people learn while laughing — or attempting to. She’s been doing comedy for years; it’s her art. “I think laughter is an essential part of life, and a very helpful tool for digesting truths that may not go down easy,” she explains. (Truths the like ones she schooled Caitlyn Jenner on last year.) Her podcast, Small Doses, follows the same Mary Poppins-like philosophy and can be consumed as easily as a favorite group text. The same goes for Smart Funny & Black, the live comedy game show she created and hosts.
Meanwhile, on Instagram, she’s racked up almost a million followers dishing out her particular brand of radical and hilarious honesty via in-feed lectures and Stories (which entail such highlights as “👎🏾Fuckboys,” “On Revolution,” “Black is…” and “Impress Urself”). Unlike some celebrities, who use their social channels merely to promote their work, Amanda’s social media presence is a form of work unto itself. Her personality and her online brand are intimately linked, each holding up the other in their respective rises to fame.
Acting, Amanda says, is a lot easier than comedy, and more specific — something she’s learned from playing Tiffany on Issa Rae’s Insecure. Her character rounds out the HBO hit’s core friend group from the kind of pretentious hill you’d expect a Jack and Jill member to sit on, thinking her shit don’t stink because she has a nice house, a snazzily-dressed husband and a baby on the way.
In real life, Amanda is much less prissy, but the connection between her on- and off-screen presences is in the precision with which they move. Tiffany might be a stuffy PR person, but she’s a calculated truth-teller. Amanda is, too.
When we first meet, Amanda’s wearing Gucci sweats, a black mock turtleneck, and a pair of Max Mara combat boots so comfortable she flies in them despite the guaranteed TSA flag (“they have a metal shank in them,” she tells me casually). Her golden hair is cornrowed into a regal ponytail of cascading braids sitting high atop her head. I’m unsure if this has anything to do with the Ampro Clear Ice styling gel I notice she has with her (classic, I smile to myself), but this particular hairstyle is, in my opinion, fleekier than the eyebrows that inspired the adjective, and transformer-like in the way it’s both secured to her head and completely malleable.
If you understand a “transformer” to be a self-configuring modular lifeform like the cartoon suggests, then maybe you’ll understand why I say that’s the kind of calculated Amanda is. She was born in LA to a mother who works as a nurse and an irrelevant father. Despite being labeled gifted in kindergarten, getting into a “good” school was difficult where she lived, so her mom relocated for the sake of Amanda’s education. They moved to Orlando when she was in third grade.
As you might expect, her mom’s support didn’t end there. Painting, tap dancing, gymnastics, whatever — if Amanda wanted to do it, her mom was down. “It wasn’t that I was the kinda kid who was all over the place,” she assures me. “I just had a lot of interests and when I would get into something, I would really dive in. [My mom] picked up on that early and went the distance with allowing me to inhabit a number of different spaces.”
Perhaps this is why she can’t pinpoint when she decided to take up performing. “I don’t really know a time when I wasn’t performing. I mean, I was always in my mind, coming up with ideas, characters, things to perform.” As a kid, she leaned fully into the only-child tendency to entertain oneself, developing full narratives and complex imaginary worlds whether or not anyone was around. She eventually attended a performing arts high school in Orlando, got the tramp stamp upon graduation, and then moved to New York where her Amanda Diva days ensued.
Amanda lives in LA now. The next time we talk, she’s back home having just finished an audition. She tells me that she has to pick up packages before going to hang out with her homegirl Toni Trucks. She’s in a car for the majority of our call, but whenever she pauses to talk to someone, she’s so polite that I finally say something about her manners. She’s almost surprised that I notice.
“If I weren’t naturally a polite person, I’d be assed out, yo, because people are so much more conscious of what I’m doing than I am. I didn’t even realize. I’m not even conscious of, ‘Oh, I’m saying thank you,’ and whatnot. That’s just how I move. Which by the way, has been a key component of dating.”
“Of dating?” I ask, a little taken aback.
“Well yeah, discerning if someone is moving in a particular way for you, or if it’s just how they move.”
“How can you tell?”
“That’s been a big lesson. Time. Kinda doing what you’re doing, observing things. Observing is real. ‘Cause there’s a lot of people who do nice things, but they aren’t nice people.”
Observing is real, and I’m observing that not only is Amanda a nice person, but that she’s transformed into a much more human version of herself. She’s more open while we’re on the phone than she was in the studio, which makes sense considering that her birthday is July 1st. A cancer! All the press she did in New York was probably so exhausting that all she wanted to do was retreat into her crabshell. (“I am exactly the human that my numbers and stars expect me to be,” she confirms. She’s had an astrologer for four years.)
Since she’s the epitome of her astrological chart, I only mention her hour-long HBO comedy special, I Be Knowin’ — released just last month — exactly once:
“How are you feeling about it?” I wonder.
“How is life?” she retorts.
“I am in the middle of a maelstrom of emotions,” she continues, honestly. “I’m feeling every single feeling that you could feel — I’m feeling it all at once. I don’t do drugs, and I don’t drink, so it is very exhausting.” A card-carrying member of the human race, she’s tired of being asked about it. No one wants their newborn baby poked and prodded and put under a microscope.
I wonder if spending years inside of academia (she has an MA from Columbia in African American Studies with a concentration in hip-hop), a notoriously anti-Black space, has informed her current stance of not giving a fuck: Amanda Seales doesn’t care what you think of her. “Once you start caring about that, that’s when you start playing yourself,” she says easily. Having to constantly consider how people perceive her would be as exhausting as fielding questions about her special all day long.
“Black women in general are being faced with stereotypes about our points of view before we even enter a conversation,” she goes on. Or a room, I think. “I mean, my face is my face. I gave up on trying to control that for other people a long time ago. At this point I just decide to, at best, speak in a way that will get my point across with as little misunderstanding as possible.”
A life lesson — not the first she’s give me during this call — that I’ll try to implement here: Sure, there some D words that describe Amanda Seales: Dedicated. Direct. Disco-loving. But diva? That’s all wrong.
To call Amanda Seales a diva would actually be a gross reduction of her intellect, her artistry, her influence, her force. It would trivialize all her deliberateness; all her depth. She moves through the world in the same way she speaks — with precision. And as a (smart, funny and) Black woman in entertainment, what else is she supposed to do?