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Ajani Russell

Zoom Date: Betty Star Ajani Russell on Skating, Activism, and New Moon Rituals

Welcome to Zoom Date, our feature series where we get up close and personal via Zoom screen with our favorite celebs. They'll be giving us an honest peek into what their "new normal" looks likefrom new rituals they've adopted since quarantine, to work projects in the age of isolation, to the beauty and health products they've been using to self-soothe.

Ajani Russell is multi-faceted. To paint a picture of the diversity of her talents: currently, Russell is a visual artist studying at Cal Arts, a model signed to IMG Models appearing in campaigns for GAP and Fendi, an avid skateboarder, and one of the founding members of the New York-based female skate collective, Skate Kitchen. And that's not even all—her passion for skating also led to her first foray into an acting career in 2018, when she, along with Rachelle Vinberg, Nina Moran, Dede Lovelace, and Kabrina “Moonbear” Adams, starred in Skate Kitchen, a film by Crystal Moselle based on their skate collective.

After the success of the film, Russell and her crew reprised their roles for the buzzy new HBO series Betty. The scripted series follows Russell and her tight-knit group of friends as they navigate their day-to-day lives and the male-dominated world of skateboarding. On the show, Russell plays Indigo, a street-savvy New Yorker, newbie skater, and rich girl reluctant to claim her affluence. While she's a natural in front of the camera, the 22-year-old never thought acting was in the cards for her. “I get really nervous on camera, but I knew that having five Black women write stories about their own lives and get to share it on a platform like HBO was an incredible opportunity," she shares during our interview.

Anyone who has watched the series or even scrolled through Russell's Instagram will agree: Ajani Russell is undeniably captivating. But while we chatted, it soon became clear that there's so much more to Russell than her arresting bleached brows and jumbo braids. She's passionate about educating herself and speaking out about racial and social injustices, she counts on self-care to keep herself grounded, and at the end of the day, she's just a girl who really, really loves skating. Keep scrolling to get to know Ajani Russell. 

Ajani Russell

Tell me how you first got started skating.

Well, I've always been interested in skateboarding. I would watch the X Games when I was really small and I really loved this TV show called Rocket Power. I thought, "Oh my gosh, these kids skate. That's so cool." And then l would see people skateboarding in New York, but never any women skating. And then when I went to high school, I met Nina, who plays Kurt on the show, and she skateboarded to school every day. And generally, there was this one security guard at our school who's always like harping on her for having a skateboard, but she really didn't give a fuck. And I was like, "You're so cool. I wish I could skate like that." And she said, "Oh, you want to skate? Say less." And so she built me a board and brought me my first set up and was like, now you can't say you can't skate. And so I've been skating ever since and that was like five years ago. 

What I love about the show is that the cast has such chemistry. As you said, you knew Nina, who plays Kurt, since high school. What was it like working with your friends day in and day out on set? 

Working with your friends is always a dream come true and we've been working together for a while now. And so, you know, working in a group can always be a headache and you have clashing opinions and stuff, but we've really learned a lot about communicating with each other and articulating ourselves. And just our growth from the first project we did four years ago...I just see our potential and I know that we're going to keep doing great things and keep helping empower women and breaking down barriers. It's really amazing seeing them all work. And I really believe in them and their enthusiasm and their aspirations and their goals. So, I want to keep seeing it happen.

Your character Indigo is this edgy girl. She comes from this well off family, but she's also someone who would do anything for a friend, even as far as like bailing them out. How much of Indigo's character is similar to who you are in your life? 

Well, Indigo is based on me, but we have very different upbringings. So, I think that is reflected in her disregard for consequences, which is very different for me, because I'm always freaking out about what's going to happen. I have really bad anxiety sometimes about making decisions. Indigo, she's freer in her autonomy and her agency. And I feel like I, as a Black woman, sometimes forget about my agency and how much I'm actually able to do just because there are so many barriers in the way all the time and obstacles. But, I think that the way that she loves her friends almost to a fault... I mean, me and Crystal talked a lot about that when writing Indigo and how she saw that in me and wanted to express that unconditional love for her friends through the show. She's also a little goofy—I guess I'm a little goofy. And Indigo stands up for herself and she has a strong sense of confidence as well. And I think that reflects me. I hope that reflects me. 

Ajani Russell

I'd also be curious to know how you felt about this show debuting in the middle of a chaotic time in this world. We're in the middle of pandemic and racial tensions are high across the world. What was it like celebrating such a major moment in your career in the midst of this? 

Despite what has been going on recently, I've always felt these racial tensions as intense as they are now. I never planned on becoming an actor. I'm a visual artist. I'm a painter. I would be behind the scenes. I get really nervous on camera, but I knew that having five Black women write stories about their own lives, and get to share it on a platform like HBO was an incredible opportunity. And the work we do with Skate Kitchen is very gratifying for me to be able to see young women inspired by us just being us. Being a Black woman, following your dreams, and utilizing your agency is radical action in this country. Having joy and protecting your life is radical action and surviving and thriving and being successful—that's radical action for Black women. So, I want other younger Black women and older Black women even to see us and be like, oh, I can do that too, and not be ruled by the fear of what could happen if they allow these fears to hold them back. 

Being a Black woman, following your dreams, and utilizing your agency is radical action in this country. Having joy and protecting your life is radical action and surviving and thriving and being successful—that's radical action for Black women.

On your Instagram, I can see that you're extremely passionate about talking about important topics like police brutality and immigration. As more eyes are on you, how important is it to you to use your platform purposefully? And how do you educate yourself on these important issues? 

I'm actually still in school. I'm a student and we have a big library that I like to spend lots of time in and I use online resources now. But actually, a big inspiration for me and an influence for me is one of my teachers. Her name is Kandis Williams and I met her outside of school. She's also a working artist. I was like, "Oh my God. Who is this beautiful Black woman with red hair?" And my teacher introduced me. She was like, "Yeah, this is Kandis. She's a teacher at Cal Arts." I've had some Black teachers at Cal Arts, but not a female Black teacher.

And she was like, "Come sit in my class tomorrow." So, I would go sit in her class. She's like a beacon of hope for me. She has so much knowledge. Every time I talk to her, I feel the cosmos opening up inside the neurons in my brain. Anyways, she has a company called Cassandra Press and they make a bunch of readers on race and lots of important political topics that are relevant right now. And I also took a class with her called the Chitlin Circuit and it was about the beginning of Black culture and entertainment.

I'm also part of a collective started by some friends from high school called "Black and Here." Our goal is to educate Black youth and Black women about our history and culture that they don't teach us in school. And we have a book club. We are reading Assata right now—the autobiography of Assata Shakur. We just had a meeting to pick our next book. And we're just trying to figure out ways to give back to the community.

Ajani Russell

Have you picked up any new beauty habits during quarantine?

I usually don't wear makeup on a regular basis. I'm a real big advocate for skincare. I love that. I love face masks, serums and jellies and things to slather on my face after I shower. But when I do makeup, it's usually when I have an inspiration and I'm like, "Oh, this look would go well." It's usually bright colors and it's mainly just eye makeup. 

You mentioned skincare is really big for you. Are there any go-to brands that are always a part of your skincare routine? 

I've actually been having a lot of trouble finding a good cleanser and I've bought like five different cleansers in the past three months because my skin will break out. I'm allergic to sunflower and there's sunflower in some products that are for sensitive skin. I also have eczema, so I need to use more mild products. But actually I was using the Starface Space Wash. I just started using that one and I actually really like it. It's very neutral and nice on my skin. It doesn't irritate my skin. I like the La Roche Posay Vitamin C Serum and the Hyaluronic Acid Serum. Innisfree's Green Tea Moisturizer and the Innisfree Cherry Blossom Gel Moisturizer: I love that stuff. Sunscreen is always important. I live in L.A. and my nose is always peeling because of dry skin. 

On your Instagram, I saw you have been rocking your natural curls lately. What hair care products or brands are you using right now?
I'm using Camille Rose right now. I also use the Blueberry Bliss Leave-In Conditioner by Curls. I've been using Mielle Organics too.

Ajani Russell

Have you picked up any skincare tips or beauty tips from professionals on set that you keep in mind when you're doing your routine? 
When we were going through the motions of the show, we were like, "We gotta have a makeup artist and a hairstylist that is Black or knows what's good." The makeup artist Natalie Young was really good with skincare. Like every day, she would take off my makeup with a cold cloth and she gave me a Jade face roller, so I would do that at night and [put] castor oil on my eyelashes and edges for growth and dry skin. 

I know you're also still doing press and work during this time and that can get time-consuming. What are you doing for self-care when you have time to yourself?  
I've been doing a lot of photography. I have been dressing my roommate up and asking her to like, do a bunch of shoots for me, and creating characters. I've been writing poetry. And I'm just trying to spend time in nature. Last night, I went out to my friend's house and he lives on a ranch with horses. We were, like, looking at the stars because it was a New Moon. We had a ritual, set intentions, cleansed energies, and did a meditation. It was really lovely. 

Any other projects you're excited about? 
I just did a T-shirt collaboration with a Japanese company called BEAMS and they had a pop-up last week. So, it just released in Japan and it's going to be coming out limited-release in the U.S. I'm really excited about that because I did an art installation in L.A. in March, and I photographed my friends for that and then I ended up making a book for it. Then, somebody came to me with this artist T-shirt collaboration. And I was like, "Oh my gosh, I can use these photographs that I took."

I'm also contributing to a lot of 'zines that my friends are making to support the Black Lives Matter movement. I've just been drawing a lot, which is really nice. I forgot how much I loved just doodling. 

Photos by Ajani Russell

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