Interview: 15 Years After “Work It,” Alyson Stoner Talks Missy Elliott’s Character And Influence On Her Career
In the 15 years that Missy Elliott’s magnetic fourth studio LP Under Construction joined the legendary MC’s catalogue, it has become her highest-selling album to date, reaching a total of over 2 million albums sold. In 2004, the album was Grammy-nominated for Best Rap Album as well as Album Of The Year, and spawned hits such as “Work It,” “Gossip Folks” and “Pussycat.”
Other than knowing we’ll be getting true lyricism when it comes to Misdemeanor, fans have also come to expect eye-popping visuals with stand-out choreography. Through the years, her videos have highlighted her individuality and creativity as an all-around entertainer. While several dancers have performed in her videos throughout the years, one dancer in particular rose to fame in her own right during and after the Under Construction era.
Alyson Stoner has over 40 film credits to her name since donning a pink track suit and pigtails. She’s starred in films such as Step Up, Cheaper By The Dozen and its sequel, and has done extensive work on the Disney Channel in Camp Rock, The Suite Life of Zack and Cody and Phineas & Ferb. She’s currently working on new music and is hoping to release her forthcoming album soon.
The now 24-year-old, who also appeared in Eminem’s “Just Lose It” video and danced backup for Will Smith and Outkast, continues to keep it movin’ today. She performs in several viral dance videos of her own, takes classes and teaches as often as she can. She hopes to continue to spread the power of dance by embarking on her own dance tour one day.
For the 15th anniversary of the album’s release, VIBE caught up with the well-spoken young woman over the phone, where she discussed her start in Missy’s colorful videos and how her career has popped off since. She also explains how working with industry superstars during her career’s beginnings has had lasting effects on her work ethic.
VIBE: How did you get your start in the commercial dance world?
Alyson Stoner: I started dancing at the age of three in my hometown of Toledo, Ohio, and it really was my sister’s dream to pursue dance professionally. I had a basketball tournament or scrimmage that got cancelled [one day], and this audition came in for a music video. They were looking for young kids. For fun, we had time and we went, and it ended up being the Missy Elliott audition.
There were about 400, 500 kids, it felt like a zoo. We learned some choreography, and at that time…I’m almost positive that I was one of the only people from that day of the audition process to make it through. By the time we got on set for “Work It,” I almost feel like they hired other young girls just from the community, from the neighborhood to come get down. Of course, I stuck out like a sore thumb, because they put me in the pink jumpsuit and pigtails and I was the only white girl.
To this day, I’m really grateful for Missy and whoever’s idea it was [to put kids in the video]. They had to have been thinking about making a statement that’s still applicable today that kind of bridges the gap between different lifestyles and different people through music.
What do you think draws people to watching talented kids? There’s a lot of kids working today in the dance industry, in the commercial world, who are so young and talented, it’s insane.
I think generationally, as human progress does its thing, we are constantly impressed by the upcoming generation. Not just a matter of motor skills and memorization, but these kids seem to be grasping storytelling at a younger age, and they’re making creative choices, stylistically, that express feelings that we know as adults they’ve never even experienced before.
I think there’s just a wonderment about it. As a young person training in an athletic program, it can quickly turn into a little bit of a workhorse, train-hard, competition sort of thing. From the outside looking in, we’re wowed by these young people, but I have to admit, when I am around the young people in the industry, I try to activate their youth while they’re in class with me. I don’t want it to become, “who can do the most flips in the least amount of time?”
It’s not about the achievement; retain that sense of young exploration, hobby, outlet, expression. I think this climate of social media and viral videos can get compromised really quickly. I understand the Olympic mentality, but it’s pretty intense on a young psyche.
What was that initial meeting with Missy like?
Missy has been wonderful from day one. She kept the kids in a separate location, and used a different version of the song [“Work It”] that was edited, so we wouldn’t have to be exposed to some of the other content. She was really kind, just kind-spirited.
I think having someone who was like a friendly, courteous aunt, and then watching the video later and realizing the magnitude of her celebrity and influence just goes to show her character, how really genuine and present she is with people, and how thoughtful she is with her crew and her cast.
I would have never expected to work with her for that long. There were times we considered going on tour with her, and Missy and her camp just simply said, ‘A tour is not a good environment for kids, and we don’t want them around it.’ People would probably would have loved to see us go off! Now, a generation later, it’s a little more common, but at that time, it would have been us on stage with Eminem, and 50 [Cent] and these other people. Missy said, “Nah, not for the little ones.” She was thinking about our well-being the whole time, and that’s really great.
Did she give you any advice on the set when it came to performing to your best ability?
At eight and nine [years old]…it didn’t have to be direct advice, she created the environment for us. She created an atmosphere of easy-going, good-natured fun, and I think it allowed us to not even consider that we were performing in front of a camera that’s gonna be syndicated to the world. It really kept us, in a very palpable way, engaged with each other and focused on the dance. That’s something that I think the best artists retain—the ability to invite you into their small, intimate inner space, and let that be what radiates. That’s sort of what I learned from Missy, that everything is really inside out.
“It’s not about the achievement; retain that sense of young exploration, hobby, outlet, expression. I think this climate of social media and viral videos can get compromised really quickly. I understand the Olympic mentality, but it’s pretty intense on a young psyche.”
She’s definitely that kind of artist that makes you think, ‘Oh! That’s what she was trying to tell us!’
Yeah, and she leads by example. That’s the best way to learn, and I was taught so much just by being around her. At that age, I could only work a certain number of hours, and she’s only in a couple of shots, so she made a lot out of the few moments that we did have together.
Coming from a small town growing up, when people started to notice you from the videos, what was your first reaction to that?
It was exciting, [but] it was also odd. I don’t think a young person ever really quite knows what’s going on when their norm becomes going to the grocery store with sunglasses on at 11 years old. It’s kind of weird, and I’ll say it also went to my head the first little season, because that became normal for me. Then, it was all about maintaining a career at 10 years old and staying out in the public eye with new projects. ‘New, new, new, new, new!’ It’s had its severe effects over the years, but looking back I’m grateful.
If I choose to stay in this industry, I’m grateful that I was exposed to it at a young age, so I’m able to sort of maturely handle the nature of fame being sort of this illusion that we buy into, knowing it’s not really real, but it still comes with responsibilities. When you have influence, what you say and do matters. Even if you didn’t want to be judged for it, you will be. I learned a lot of lessons really young.
Since being in Missy’s videos, you’ve worked in movies, you’ve worked for Disney, you’re a singer, you still perform. Looking back, what it is like to see that it started out with dancing?
I think the best part in this moment, looking back, is that I’ve never loved dance so much as I do today. The fact that my soul and my entire being still feel alive when I think about dance and when I’m moving is one of the few, few…and I mean few [laughs] elements of being in this crazy industry that makes it absolutely worth it. It gives you that reassurance that you’re tapped into a true part of yourself, and your hard work has paid off, but you’re also still excited about what’s ahead.
Trust me, it’s up and down, but I’ve never loved dance as much as I do today, and that feels really great. It feels like an old friend!
You did a tribute dance to Missy a few years ago. What was it like putting all of that together?
That was so stressful [Laughs]. Man, I got off a plane and I had about 300 messages asking if I was going to be on the  Super Bowl performance, or why I wasn’t there. Then all the memes started circulating with my young face [Laughs]. By no means was it me trying to capitalize on a moment to reclaim fame, but I did feel compelled to create an honorable tribute, to pay homage to Missy and thank her.
Assembling about 40 people in three days, a crew pulling all favors, everyone coming together for free. That was sort of the first example of me taking charge of an idea and line producing and coordinating an entire set, and running an entire show, while also performing myself, and being in the editing room with my videographer, and saying, ‘Not that shot, this shot,’ ‘this honored the original choreography best,’ making those decisions.
A lot was riding on that video. Hours before we were supposed to release it, my YouTube [channel] got hacked. It was a series of those events that test you. I was sitting on my kitchen floor with my publicist trying to come up with ideas, exhausted. Buzzfeed was on the other line asking for the code for the video, and handling so many things but still hearing the question in my head, ‘How badly do you want it? How much do you care?’ I said ‘I could throw it all away and call it off, but my gut feels like this is meant to happen.’
Honestly, it was one of the first times I trusted my gut. I was told by my team and my family not to do the video. They thought it would come across negatively. I said “I think as a person and a performer, people will see the quality of people in this video, and that our energy is positive and full of gratitude.” It has like 18 million views on it, which now is not even a lot compared to viral videos, but at the time, it was a part of that first wave.
I’m so humbled! Honestly I never knew How many appreciated my music but I am grateful🙏 thank u @Alyson 4 a beautiful tribute
— Missy Elliott (@MissyElliott) February 14, 2015
I bet she was really excited to see it. She has such a respect for the dance community.
It’s been nice! We stay in touch a little through mutual friends, some in her main crew are friends of mine. Whether it’s a ‘happy birthday’ message here, or an encouragement there, it’s nice to feel her presence. Hopefully in the future, I’d love to link up with her again and speak as adults and say, “Hey, here’s who I’ve become as a woman. You’ve inspired me, what might we be able to make together for the next generation?”
Would that be the one thing you’d say to her if you saw her today? Or you’d say something else?
I’m in a creative space making my album right now. If I saw her today, I would create a room, and the speakers would be the floor, and we would just lay down and listen to music, feeling the vibrations of the music underneath us. We would talk or just be quiet, and enjoy music together and then create something. That’s what I would love to see happen!
That would be really cool! Just the thought of having a room with speakers on the floor…
Yeah girl, a new music video idea! [Laughs].
So you’ve worked with Missy, you’ve worked with Eminem, you’ve worked with monsters in the game. Being able to say you’ve worked with such superstars in the industry, what’s that like? Does that feeling validate anything?
I’m probably not gonna give you the answer that I would have given you two years ago—I would have been like, ‘Yeah it’s so great!’ But to be a little more honest, there’s such little control about how your career materializes. I think I’m grateful for the fortune of it, but it really could have been anyone. There’s a specialness to savor the moment because I had the fortune of meeting them, but with that comes a sacredness to do something great with it. If you’re gonna be surrounded by greatness, don’t miss out on the opportunity to find the greatness within yourself.
It was Steve Martin in Cheaper [By The Dozen], and Hilary [Duff] had Lizzie McGuire, and she was the biggest tween star at the time. It’s awesome to be surrounded by people operating at high levels, because I immediately came into the industry expecting the best out of myself, and setting high standards. Without those, I don’t think you build the tenacity to endure what’s ahead.
This industry has a lot of parts that no one outside of the industry will ever know or understand. These people pushed through and built something memorable, so that was my standard. That has to be my launching point. It can only get bigger and better from here. I am grateful for it, but really, it could have been anyone. I could have quit after the millionth ‘no’ that I’ve gotten, and someone could have taken my spot in a heartbeat. It’s so unpredictable.