Dascha Polanco doesn’t just love being photographed—she requires it. In a world obsessed with the willowy, caucasian prototype, the Orange is the New Black starlet finds herself clutching at her mujeron thighs and her watermelon ass if only to serve a mean vogue. At the sound of the shutters, la Dominicana – not built to suit a fashion model’s size, but demands your attention just as easy – lets down her hair, sticks out her booty and puckers her highly sought-after bodacious lips. “Y’all want real curves? Then take these curves,” she says, wildly flirting with the camera in nothing but a half open robe.
Holding court inside celebrity photographer Eric Johnson’s New York studio, Polanco ruminates on the nature of Hollywood, comparing it to a pompous bouncer at the door who whips out his “you’re not on the list” punchline when folk like her pull up to the scene. “I’m not a size zero, and I’m very transparent when it comes to that. I’m not your cookie cutter actress. I am full of curves, not sample-sized,” says the mother of three, now wafting her #ismellgood slayage of sparkling top notes and poppy flower goodness. “So the issue with that is a lot of roles are not designed or designated for a Latina. Or a Dominican. Or a woman like me.”
It didn’t take for Chris Rock’s incredibly sobering yet culturally insensitive opening monologue at the 2016 Academy Awards for Polanco to understand how racist (and classist) the world of television and film is. As early as high school, she would come to know the odds stacked against her while attending Florida theater conferences to compete against her thespian counterparts, largely Anglo. What’s more, she’d come to face over and over again the daunting task of staring down the white gaze.
Latinos don’t f*ck with me. —Dascha
“I’d go in there and freeze up,” she remembers, arms folded and perched in a bar height director’s chair. “I mean I have this Spanish accent mixed with a Brooklyn accent, and I’m in Central Florida where there wasn’t much of a cultural spectrum. I sometimes wouldn’t be able to perform because of that insecurity.”
The insecurity that Dascha speaks of is one that builds over time and festers deep within from years of watching cable television programming, which does little to include brown girls and women in roles that challenge the status quo. “You see what is considered acceptable and instead of feeling like maybe I could do this too, I would feel like I don’t belong, like I am not talented enough,” she adds while adjusting her naturally dipped bosom. “I felt very insecure, very scared.”
Years later, Dascha is a far cry from the shy and curiously artsy-craftsy teenager she used to be. “I began to realize that I was only putting a burden on myself, allowing what’s out of my control to affect what I wanted to pursue,” she admits. “So I began to look at the differences that I had as my uniqueness—that thing I could bring to a role.”
Now thick-skinned and well-acquainted with the long and winding road to the upper echelons of the filmmaking industry, she encounters a different kind of prejudice, and from her own people no less. “Latinos don’t f*ck with me,” says Polanco bluntly, flipping her marooned coils over her bare shoulder. “I mean Latino markets ain’t checking for me until it’s time to pull out that card, because we’re trending or something.”
Which is to say that Dascha’s aesthetics – however coveted by multitudes in popular culture – might not, at any given time, fit the bill for either market. “If I’m not American enough and I’m not Latina enough, then what am I? I’m just nothing,” she quips. But no one around is laughing. Her experience is made palpable everyday by the wave of millennial Latinos living in America who teeter between cultures and languages, negotiating relationships with their homelands.
Dascha’s magnetic from-around-the-way steez is nevertheless recognized by fans from all over the world. Approximately 1.5 million faithful followers on Instagram sing her praises in comments under images that explore her day to day routine, whether she’s breaking a sweat at her local gym or traveling to Haiti on a mission trip. It’s evident the people love this chica, so why not create more ambitious roles for women like her?
“I think it starts from the material, the casting agencies, the writers, the directors,” she muses. “I don’t think there is an emphasis in the Latino community about the opportunities that exist in Hollywood. You don’t have to be an actress. You can be a writer, a director, or you can produce. There are so many different fields to go into. A lot of people are focused on the superficial part of [Hollywood] and what they see on the surface, as opposed to studying the other parts that make up the business.”
I don’t think Zoe’s intention was to discredit Nina Simone in any way. —Dascha
Considering more white people get cast to play people of color than actual people of color, a dearth of Latino writers and directors swimming in the mainstream cause for concern.
During an interview back in March with Power 105.1 The Breakfast Club, Dascha and the show’s hosts discussed the controversial casting of Zoe Saldaña (who is of Dominican and Puerto Rican descent) as Nina Simone in a newly released biopic. The outcry over Saldaña’s portrayal of the legendary jazz singer reached a fever pitch when the biopic’s trailer released earlier this year, depicting Saldaña in blackface. Dascha, like many of Simone’s fans, had concerns that make up and prosthetic fixtures were used to darken Saldaña’s skin, and alter her facial appearance.
The problem according to Dascha is not that Zoe isn’t black enough, which many have argued, but that she aesthetically represents everything the late musician and civil rights activist did not. “I think that if we’re going to go that route we didn’t need to do the extra prosthetic and skin coloring. If that was the issue then there are plenty of actors I think could have played the role,” she said on air while schooling Charlamagne Tha God on what it means to be Afro-Latina. “I don’t think Zoe’s intention was to discredit Nina Simone in any way, but I would have loved to see Uzo [Aduba] play that role.”
While Hollywood does an insistent, thusly crummy job of pandering to people of color, Dascha is making lemonade out of life’s lemons. After winning at the 2015 SAG Awards for Outstanding Cast in Comedy, Dascha joined Jennifer Lawrence in Joy, as Joy’s fearless best friend who helps her bring an entrepreneurial dream to fruition. She then accepted the role of Pressie, the wife of Donald Faison (Clueless) in The Perfect Match, and recently, our favorite jailbird sweetheart landed the lead role of Jana in iCreep.
Snagging the principal role in a dark comedy (that follows the life of a loner and his true love) is a goal scratched off the bucket list of a femme fatal who wants to master the art of drama and see herself in the shoes of varied complex characters. Albeit her dream project is to live out the role of a lead super heroine from the Marvel franchise, she’d really like to try her hand at a discrete position that is most often realized by her melanin-deficient counterpart.
“The other day I was watching the Thor movie where Natalie Portman plays a scientist and Thor’s love interest,” she explains with gusto and talking hands. “There’s never a movie where the superhero falls in love with a curvy Latina! Or a Latina heroine, you know what I mean? I’d love to play her.”
Dascha’s sentiments arrive in a timely fashion. Just this April, Deadline reported Afro-Panamanian and Mexican actress Tessa Thompson (Creed) will foray into Marvel opposite Natalie Portman in Alex Garland’s Annihilation. She will then transition to the third installment of the Thor franchise as Chris Hemsworth’s love interest. (Insert the collective YAAAS here.)
Sheroes and doe-eyed main squeezes aside, Dascha one day wants to also dramatize exactly what she is: a beautiful, talented, smart Dominican woman with an interesting life to live and a lot to say. She’s in fact putting her money where her mouth is and starting to craft her own material, with hopes of directing in the near future.
“I am obsessed with the creative world. I can draw, dance, act, and I’m going to write—I am writing,” she says matter-of-factly. “I educated myself enough to be able to branch out in different areas and get to work with someone who knows the writing process and create.
My kids know to stick up for themselves and for kids they see are being bullied. —Dascha
“Everyone’s perception is different,” she adds between bites of Thai vegetable stir fry. “A white person writing comedy won’t be able to portray me as a Dominican. They won’t know how to culturally connect. They would need a lot of consulting. For me it’s important to not only be an actress, but to write and direct as well. I cannot and will not limit myself.”
Dascha has seen the last four or five years a force of evolution and perseverance. Prior to landing her role in OITNB, the 33-year-old actress battled a severe bout of depression following the death of her mother, and struggled to raise her daughter as a single parent. After coming to terms with a mental condition she initially ignored, she sought professional help. Where she was once happily engaged to a “good-hearted” man, she’s now raising three kids without being romantically attached to anyone. She even found herself not too long ago in a legal matter where she was being accused of beating up at 17-year-old girl, a moment in her life she describes as a “rude awakening.”
“People try to extort from you not knowing that you don’t have to give,” she says wide-eyed and still apparently in shock. “I now have to go to that extent where I have to defend myself because of the intentions of others. It’s scary because it’s hard for the public to have an honest perception without knowing the facts, without knowing what went on behind closed doors. And unfortunately, due to legal issues, I’m not able to speak on the truth while knowing the truth.”
No easy feat for the woman who lives to tell it like it is; who, for as long as she can remember, had nothing to lose. But when given a spot in the coveted proverbial limelight, you play by the rules even at the expense of your pride and dignity. “You realize you’re human and going through these human emotions,” she adds, “but the public will look at you as something else. There are people that don’t even want to lend me jewelry because I’m now being perceived differently, despite the fact that members of my team are the very ones who support said company.” [Laughs]
Having children at a young age – a source of difficulty and the greatest lessons all together – have taught her more about self-worth than she ever imagined. Consequently, she purposefully drums into her kids the very same principle. “I instill a lot of self love in my children. A LOT of self love. I was a bully confronter because I hated what bullies tried to do to me and others like me,” she said. “My kids know to stick up for themselves and for kids they see are being bullied.”
Motherhood and the parental roles standardized by our family-centric society will not limit Dascha, however challenging or tiresome. “I’m a really cool mom, and I’m a strict mom. But I’m also a me mom, you know what I mean? I have my life as well. I have a journey to complete, too. And I’m going to raise my children right, set them on the path I think is best,” she asserts. “Soon they’ll follow their own path, and I’ll support 100 percent, teach them what I have to teach. But again, I also have a purpose, and I have the responsibility of carrying out that purpose. Some people might think that’s selfish, but nah. I’m good.”
Hours later the spring sun is setting, the studio floor is being cleared, and Dascha is back to wearing sweatpants—hair tied, chilling with no makeup on. I look around and notice her entire squad is made up of mostly entrepreneurial women of color, from her publicist to hair stylist. I break out the iPhone and nudge her for a picture. She throws her arm over me and flashes a grin stretching ear to ear. We gently spill into the hallway to make a slow exit, and I begin to mentally peruse the hours-long exchange we just had, which included jamming out to ‘80s pop music and breaking bread.
“I feel I could only change so much, I’m only one person. The little that I can do is work to create more opportunities. Sure, there needs to be more theater programming in schools, more education on film and writing and theater and directing,” she says, mulling over the legacy she wants to leave behind. “But change only occurs from within the source. We can only accept it, bond with it, and embrace it. Yet things will continue to evolve and change on their own. I don’t want to necessarily change anything. I just want to offer my contribution and be a functioning piece of the puzzle.”
Alas, Dascha, I’m afraid your intent to progress and pay it forward will stir the waters anyhow and create a ripple effect of change. Might as well take up that gauntlet and own breaking the mold.