I met America in August 2009. I was performing in a musical with her husband Christian in Raleigh, North Carolina and she came down to meet the cast. Almost a decade later, I now consider her to be one of my dearest friends. She is enormously talented with a career spanning from producer, opera singer and pop star to stage, film, and television actress. America is also an activist and in 2013 became a spokesperson for BabyQuest Foundation.
Michelle : Where is your hometown?
America : I grew up in the San Fernando Valley, just outside of Los Angeles. Home of the Valley girl!
M : Was “Valley Girl” meant to mean just a girl from the Valley? Or something more?
A : I think when the term was coined it was sort of fun. Everybody was talking in that accent. I've trained the accent out of me! 4 years of Juilliard!
M : Speaking of Juilliard, what is your occupation now?
A : My occupation right now? Crazy cat lady. Also sometimes an actor, self-proclaimed real estate mogul! But my degree is opera/theater, I studied classical voice at The Juilliard School.
M : Which brings me to my next question. What brought you to New York? Juilliard?
A : I come from a family of 6 kids and my Mother, a Gemini, thought she had sort of “placed” her children. For me she would say, “You’re my New York girl!" I’d never been to New York, and I didn't really understand why I should be her "New York girl." So when I was 16, I was on my way to Europe to sing with one of those national choirs. And my Mom said, “Why don't you stay with my friend Penny?” She hadn’t talked to Penny in years. "Oh my daughter is coming into town, stopping in New York City on her way to Europe. Take her around and show her New York. She's going to live there someday!" This sweet lady was an actor. She was really hitting the pavement, going to auditions, going to open calls everyday and she's my Mom's age! She had an amazing apartment on the Upper East Side so I kind of got to understand the actor's life and what "hitting the pavement" really meant. It actually kind of terrified me. I thought, "Wait, what? Thats what being an actor or singer in New York is going to be like? And this is what I'm set out to do?"
So I told my mom I'm not living in New York. It’s crazy only seeing the sun from 10am to 2pm. I live in California why would ever do that? It's “rush rush” and I was still wearing Birkenstocks. I had never cut my hair before. It was down to my knees, always letting it flow, hippie style. I was still stopping people on the corner and asking them what their sign was. I was so California. When I got back home to California, I was like "that New York thing is never going to happen." And so went to school at CalArts right after that. I started college when I was 16. I skipped a couple grades growing up.
M : Smarty pants!
A : Not at all. It was all my Mom. My Mom was really pushy and insistent that I was genius. I wasn’t. I believe they tested me about 14 times and they'd say, “Dude she’s normal!” and Mom said, “Nonsense!” She dragged me to this private school and made me lie about my age and tell them that I was older than I was.
M : After one year at CalArts, what made you decide to leave?
A : There was an earthquake. The Northridge Earthquake. It took the school down. My situation was a total force of nature. I did not want to move to New York. I had tried it out and it looked coo-coo for Cocoa Puffs. I was into the Cali lifestyle and then life quite literally shook me out, threw me out. I'm not going to lie, I was terrified of earthquakes after that. It split the school in half. It was an act of God that got me out of California. I had a friend suggest we should go to New York, which sounded pretty nice at that moment because there were no earthquakes. I couldn't afford the plane ticket so we had a garage sale. My friend sparked the whole move to New York. It was all her. And funny enough, I'm the one who ended up here. I ended up heading back to Los Angeles after school was done. But I really liked it in New York. I was going to stay here! But I got a lucky break.
M : So many years moving coast to coast!
A : I was supposed to stay here in New York after school. I was even looking for an apartment and I had stuff in storage. I went out to L.A. just for the summer to hang. My sister knew somebody in the industry and I had a couple interesting serendipitous things happen. My very first professional gig I was in front of 70,000 people singing the theme song to Titanic opening for Ricky Martin in China. It was a wild experience. I had my 15 minutes of fame there. Its communist, so you're on every single newspaper and every single television station.
M : State sponsored media?
A : Yes! They hired me. The country hired me. The actual government. I was in this 5 star hotel, which was amazing. But I was jet-lagged, and I wanted to see the real China. I would try and sneak out at 2 in the morning. And no matter what hour I would sneak out, there would be someone waiting for me. They'd say "Miss Olivo! I'll take where you want to go" and every time they would take me to the same place. The "American Mall" or something.
M : What was their reaction to the fact that your name is quite literally "America"?
A : Could not comprehend it. They called me “Olive Oil”.
M : Olive oil?
A : That is what I was called because my last name is Olivo and they knew "Olive Oyl" from Popeye. So the only thing they could latch on to was Olive Oil. "Miss Olive Oil! Miss Olive Oil!" That entire trip was straight out of the film Lost in Translation. And the people went crazy for us, the fans. It was really wild. They interviewed me for the newspaper, but the language barrier was an issue. I would think I was being asked questions like, "What do you think of McDonald?" And I was like, "McDonalds? It's fast cheap and convenient?" and later when I got my clipping from publicity it said, "What do you think of Madonna?". "AAAHHH! Whoops! I guess that kinda works?"
Following the gig in China, I was working with my friend on this demo in the back of a garage and an executive friend set up a meeting for us with some industry professionals. Suzanne de Passe happened to be in the building at the same time. Now Suzanne is the fiercest Nasty Woman there is! She was Berry Gordy’s right-hand woman, an African American female singer and producer in the 60s Motown era. She happened to walk by the office during our meeting and heard our demo. Suzanne walked right in and said “That’s my band. I am going to take that.” She went on to get us a record deal with Dreamworks.
M : I remember you and Christian moving to New York City after you got married. What sparked your move back to the east coast?
A : I moved him to L.A. when we got engaged and I didn't know he was severely allergic to Los Angeles. Like, an anaphylaxic response. So he was having a lot of convulsions, spiritually and physically. We got married 6 months later in Lake Como, Italy. And when we were walking down the aisle he says, "I can't do this." And I said, "I'm sorry what?" He's really good at these moments. And he responded, "I can't live in L.A. I don't want to get married if we're going to live in L.A. I love you but I can't do it." What a time to have an ultimatum! So I said "we'll move!".
M : As a woman in living in New York City, have you felt any difference in your day-to-day existence here?
A : For so many reasons, yes. Absolutely. I'm married now, so that makes a difference. Also when I was here the first time in 1994, I lived on 125th street in Harlem. Before the whole Giuliani white-washing of New York. It was still a very Puerto Rican neighborhood and it had so much insular culture that I felt extremely protected. The culture here was very different in that people were very neighborhood-y, community oriented. What was lovely was that everyone knew my name in the area. They'd watch and wait for me to come home. And they were really nosy when you had a date and you didn't come home the next day. "America! America! Where you were? Where you were?"
M : Can you compare your experience of living in Upper Manhattan as a young student to how it is for you now?
A : Being in New York, being a student, and not having money is a whole thing. I went through extreme depression, I gained 50 pounds during that time, and I had some health problems. And I struggled with anxiety issues. I didn't ever have a handle on it. What's lovely about getting older is that we start to better understand how we work, how our bodies work, and our mechanisms. In general, my experience as a human being is much nicer now than it was in my 20s. They don't give you a manual.
M : Going through so much change, and then to be in a city that is so chaotic already!
A : I remember first moving here, I didn't have the rhythm to get into the game fast enough. And it felt like I would get run over.
M : Like double dutch!
A : Yes! That's a good way to put it. Coming back here I didn't want to come back poor. I didn't want to live that life again. New York is hard. It's nice for the rich, hard for the poor. We first moved to Toronto and we brought the cat. And then I lied to my agents and said I lived in New York. I was flying back and forth for auditions which was hilarious. At one point I had to fly my cat to the Four Seasons. Eventually, I booked Spider-Man. And that’s what brought me back. Spider-Man.
M : Julie Taymor.
A : I signed an NDA. So I can't really talk about that.
M : Do you consider yourself to be a feminist?
A : Thats a good question.
M : Well, what does being a feminist mean to you? What is your definition?
A : Unless you're self-hating, isn't every woman a feminist? I hope I'm not self-hating. I don't know, I’d have to really make sure.
M : We all are in our own ways, aren't we?
A : Yes. It’s interesting because I have posed for Playboy Magazine, and in a full cover spread. Everything. At the time, it felt like a very pro-feminist thing for me to do. It felt empowering, the idea that I was going to be able to drop decades of Catholic shame about my body in front of the world. I loved the idea of finally get past the “burka” of Catholic prudishness. I was really happy to shed that. In my head, I thought, "Oh yes! I'm going to be so brave and I'm going to do this thing that scares the crap out of me!". It did make me feel good to do that, and I didn't take money for it. It wasn't something I thought was going to further my career. In fact if anything it kept me away from doing a lot of things. I couldn't work in children programming for awhile because of the Google-ability. If you Googled my name it could give your computer a virus. So those are some of the prices you pay when you do things like that.
Ten years later, I was at an event at my alma mater, Juilliard. Gloria Steinem was hosting "Makers". It was a presentation, a preview of things that they were going to include in their PBS series. I remember sharing an armrest with Ariana Huffington, I'm watching Gloria and she's talking about women and feminism. Showing us films about when women were first allowed to run marathons. (Which was not that long ago.) I had this moment, a feeling of shock. Here I was back at my college, and a class like this had never been offered to me as a student. Not once. I wish I had, which was precisely her point. At what point did women get complacent? Women walk, and march, and protest for everyone else's causes. But we forgot about our own. It was the unfinished business of the 20th century. We weren't marching for ourselves — but now we have. It was truly an eye-opening experience.
But then had this weird reaction and I felt like I'd be so embarrassed if Gloria Steinem knew that I had posed for Playboy. It wasn’t that I regretted it. I did what I did and it was an interesting life experience. But there was this moment, ten years later where I was wondering, “Had I known all this, would I have made a different decision?” I had also done a wonderful interview, just as natural as this is, that was meant to accompany the Playboy photos. I spoke to this terrific interviewer about feminism, and none of it made the cut for the magazine. Instead, they extracted the most inane comments and placed them over pictures of my naked body. This airbrushed version of myself. It was not me. It was some illustration of what my body looks like. I was almost felt intimidated by my own picture and I looked at it wondering how I would be able to live up to it.
I think those are the types of things that I would have sat with a bit more had I received this education from Gloria Steinem. I have to be careful because I don't want the next generation to perpetuate this issue of the airbrushing, and of the total dimwit, idiot woman Barbie doll that I sounded like. And I think would have chosen differently. Maybe I would have fought to see the pictures before they were published, or maybe fought for the interview I wanted. I look back on it now wishing I had the education.
M : How do you lift up other women?
A : I am totally spoiled with amazing friends who all support each other. I love it. I mean we all have our days, but generally, I feel like everyone is so supportive of one another and everyone is a good person. Not a bad one in the bunch. I'm so lucky. And I think there's a difference in what you do with your career and how you lift women up professionally. I have had to negotiate “boob time” in horror films I am working on. I work in an industry where I have to have serious conversations about onscreen “boob time.” It's frustrating that the business perpetuates these types of weird negotiations simply because it helps box office sales overseas, or whatever the reason may be. But I have to require time restraints because being a women in this business, in this career, we have to be examples for one another. It’s a ripple effect. If I take a stand, others will too.
A : I'm seeing them as a comprehensive movement for women's rights. It's allowing women to come out and speak up, to feel there is a voice, and to know they're not alone. We all have each other's backs. I'm getting chills just thinking about it, watching it all unfold. Women all over the world are coming out for one another. Not the nitpicking, though. Not the, “who really deserves the attention?” or “why didn't she wear a black dress at the Golden Globes?” I'm not getting involved in that nitpicking. I'm focused on the overall. I also think there are some people out there getting attention by pointing fingers. I am frustrated at those pointing fingers. And men. Vilifying all men, who does that help? I think some of this is fuzzy, and so we need to really dig in and make sure we’re giving people their due process before we hang them socially or professionally. That goes for men and women. But I do love that this is happening. I love what the world is saying, as a collective voice. I have faith.
M : Do you have hope for the future ?
A : If you don't have hope for the future, you're suicidal. So yes, of course, I have hope for the future.
M : And for your industry as well?
A : My industry. I don't really think that our industry is that different from other industries. I think we're just more visible. I think the world is shifting at such a rapid speed. We're in a time of extreme shift. I have hope that mankind will survive, and that we’ll be better for it. For me, the metaphor that comes to mind is the slingshot. Something that's pulling back, but creating more tension that will inevitably move everything forward.
M : Is there a historical figure that you must identify with?
A : I feel like it's a cliche, but Maria Callas. It's such an opera singer answer thing to say but I feel like I have some tragedy somewhere deep inside me. Much like so many opera singers. But I don't know if my life at all is in parallels with them.
M : Someone you admire?
A : I admire so many women. I am in awe of their strength. And I'm going to give you another cliche, but I always think Oprah is just awesome. Oprah has done it all and she came from a place where everything was working against her. I don’t know why it feels funny to say, "Oprah" because it seems so obvious.
M : You're a true fan!
A : I am! And funny enough my first love was Cyndi Lauper. I used to dress like her. I had orange hair.
M : Are you registered to vote?
A : Yes.
M : Are you politically active?
A : God yes!
M : Did you attend any of the women's marches last year?
A : I did not attend The Women's March! I was in an airplane. I was coming from L.A. to New York. My flight was the exact time when the march was happening in L.A. and in New York. So I stomped up and down the aisle of the plane saying "I'm doing the mile high march!"
M : What's something you still want to accomplish?
A : I want to live life more presently and less objectively. I would like to be more present in my life and see what happens. My “usual" state being in a constant state of focus, I'm very goal oriented. As I'm reaching the "over the hill" age, I want to appreciate everything. I don't want to talk about the future anymore, I want to be present and enjoy it.
M : When you’re a little Type A its hard to let go!
A : What is it they say? ADH Type A? Ha!
M : Is there any lesson that you feel you have to learn over and over?
A : That who I am is enough. To trust myself. I’m always trying to be somebody else, for better or bigger or thinner. God, thinner! Always thinner. Why? Who made that up?
M : What do you think are the biggest challenges facing women today?
A : Each other. I think we are so conditioned to feel like we have to fight each other for that one spot in every industry. Men have been hoarding the lion's share of these positions. And because of that, they have inadvertently created this small little sliver that all women are trying to get their hands on. We're clawing at each other to get there, and we're so conditioned to take each other down in the process. We become jealous of each other because there isn’t enough space. But now that the space has been created, we have to get out of that habit. There is a lovely phrase that my old manager Suzanne de Passe used to say, “The lie is that there’s not enough room. There's plenty of room at the top, ladies. It's the bottom that's crowded." I love that. There's enough room for us all, we don't have to take each other down, and we don't have to compete. Let's just all go up together.
All images © Michelle Kinney Photography (Minnie Kinney LLC)
Hair and Makeup by Anna Scheumann
Edited by Bligh Voth