The Come Up: How Luvvie Ajayi Took Over The World

We look into how Luvvie Ajayi, the internet's favorite culture critic, went from a buzzy blogger to a best selling author.

This feature is in conjunction with our inaugural list—“OkayAfrica’s 100 Women”—where we take a look at the women making an impact on the African continent and in the diaspora.

Check out the biggest names in culture to young up-and-comers in "OkayAfrica's 100 Women" list here.

Luvvie Ajayi is her own best hype woman. It’s mid November and Ajayi is in a Manhattan boardroom wearing a sparkly red tee emblazoned with the title of her new book, I’m Judging You. She’s giving a talk at the Publicis NYC offices—one of the world’s largest advertising companies—to talk about her book and to network. Her charisma commands the room. Those who came to get signed copies of the best-selling book listen intently as Ajayi tells her story of going from witty blogger and social critic to best-selling author.

“In three and a half weeks, I wrote a 52 page proposal, with 17 page chapter summaries” Ajayi says as she explains her breakneck pace. “I just showed up one day to my agent and was like ‘Oh yeah, by the way, here’s my proposal.’ And he said, ‘I asked you a month ago and you didn’t have one—you already have one?’” Less than six months later she had a book deal. Five months after that she submitted a manuscript.

A 13-year blogging veteran, Ajayi amassed a loyal following with her blog, Awesomely Luvvie, where she talks all things pop culture with wit. She also provides much needed tips on the tech side of things with Awesomely Techie.

Ajayi has an online squadron of fans known as LuvvNation—who are responsible for half a million hits on her blog, a growing following on Twitter with 148,000 followers and over 250,000 Facebook fans—they engage with her content in ways that you don’t see anywhere else.

Ajayi is so busy it’s difficult to get her in a room to talk one on one. Her grind has her on The New York Times Best Sellers list and a show in development from Shondaland—that’s right, she’s working with Shonda Rhimes. But while her book went from conception to best seller in only a matter of months, it took many years of hard work to get to that point.

For the Nigerian-born writer, the drive was always there.

As she mentions in her book, what was assumed to be another usual vacation to the States as a child—her family moved for good. She realized it wasn’t like any other two-week stay when her mother dropped her off at school and her principal led her to her new teacher and new classmates. Being the “new girl” was never a thing for her.

Her family settled in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood when she was 9 years old. Ajayi is the youngest of three siblings—her brother, Dele, the middle one and her sister, Kofo Akibola, the oldest.

“I call Luvvie, Ife,” Akibola says about her baby sister. Ife is Ajayi’s Yoruba name. Ajayi is a descendent of Yoruba royalty by ways of her grandmother and grandfather—and that legacy had an impact on not only their mother, but on themselves as well.

In I’m Judging You, Ajayi explains her name further in the chapter, “Zamunda Is Not A Country. Neither Is Africa.”:

“My name is Ifeoluwa, and I love it and I wanted to protect it fiercely. It means ‘God’s love,’ and it is made up of five syllables that might look confusing at first glance, but really, slowly spoken, is no tongue twister. E-FE-OH-LOO-WAH. But when people used it, it took on a sound that was unrecognizable. Soon I was going by the nickname my aunt gave me: Lovette.”

Since their parents divorced when they were very young, it was their mother’s side that the three siblings identified with. This emphasized the pride they took in their roots and their family name, a name that holds weight in Nigeria.

“Our grandmother was really important to us—very, very important,” Akibola says about their mom’s mother. Their aunts and uncles also had a great influence on their pride as well.

“All of them are very educated. My two uncles, they're generals in the Air Force, in Nigeria,” she says. “Our family's well known, so our name is very respected in Nigeria. That had an impact to how we felt when we came over here too because nobody really knows us. We just kind of had to mix in and adapt.”

Culture shock was definitely a factor in settling in Chicago, but according to her siblings that struggle was something Ajayi handled without a fuss—she was not one to complain as a child, and she rarely complains today.

“We just kind of fell into it. It was quite a different lifestyle from what we had in Nigeria,” Akibola says. “Our mom had two jobs and I had to step up and take care of everybody. It was a culture shock, but we didn't really complain. Luvvie doesn't really complain. Her transition—it wasn't like she was bullied. There were no problems. I just saw her adapt to each phase she fell into.”

Growing up, getting into trouble in a Nigerian home can yield punishments you wouldn’t wish on any other kid. And this fear may have inadvertently been the genesis of Ajayi’s writing career. Akibola remembers that at seven or eight years old, when Ajayi got in trouble with their mother, she began apologizing with long letters.

“We'd all get in trouble,” she says, “but Luvvie was the only person to write an extended apology letter to my mom. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. You have such time.’ I was not that person, but she was.”

So it was no surprise to Akibola that when Ajayi landed at college, she started writing an advice column for the student newspaper, The Daily Illini.

“In her mind, she might have thought that she fell into it, but I think for the most part she always liked writing, even if she didn't know.”

Akibola also mentions noticing Ajayi’s over-achieving drive when she cried the first time she was ranked second attending primary school in Nigeria.

“When we were little, we all went to private school. Of course, that system is not here in the States,” Akibola says. “In Nigeria, there's a ranking system at the end of every term. There's a first, second, and third student in class depending on whatever you did. Luvvie was always first. This was since she was 5 years old. The first time Luvvie got second, I kid you not, she cried for hours. She wouldn't stop crying because she just couldn't wrap her head around it—I guess in her mind she just failed terribly.”

A post shared by Awesomely Luvvie (@luvvie) on

It was at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign that Ajayi met her friend Tesheena Russell. In 2003, Ajayi was the roommate of Russell’s cousin and like any college freshman figuring out where she belongs, Russell found great relief in dropping by her cousin’s dorm. But Ajayi wasn’t the warmest when they met.

“She’s going to hate me for saying this, but she was rude at first,” Russell says with a chuckle about the nascent blogger. But there was something intriguing about Ajayi that made Russell gravitate towards her.

“I was new to the blog world, so I found her ability to speak her mind on a platform like that intriguing.”

Their friendship has been one of constant support and encouragement, even 14 years later. She notes that she was able to foresee her success. Recalling that fact fills her with emotion. “We can’t sit and chat for hours like we used to, since our schedules are all over the place,” Russell says. “It’s not a bad thing, though. As our friendship progressed, I always felt an obligation to protect her. I always feel the need to make sure that she is good—it’s always been like this even before her come up.”

Ajayi’s success thus far is just the beginning for Russell. In the midst of it all, Ajayi makes sure to celebrate her and her other friends just as much (if not, even more). “Our inner circle is of black women who support each other,” Russell says. “When one person wins, we all win. I count it a true privilege and honor, to be in the company of someone who’s such a fearless game changer.”

Like her early apology letters, Ajayi’s early foray into online writing was to express herself and to find truth.

“I think it’s just important to tell the truth, which is essentially what I do,” Ajayi says in an interview with her alma mater’s newspaper. “I am outspoken, and I speak up even about the uncomfortable things.”

Ajayi also saw blogging as a hobby at first, but was always consistent with producing fresh content that ultimately gained her a loyal following with LuvvNation.

“Neither of us are overnight successes, and her success should really be attributed to a constant, consistent grind,” Patrice Yursik, creator of the award winning blog Afrobella, says. “She has always had her eyes on a prize.”

Yursik, who has known Ajayi for since moving to Chicago in 2009, sees Ajayi as a sister.

“We've worked together on several things,” says Yursik. “We wound up doing a lot of events together. We tried to support each other in terms of opportunities—in terms of anything that comes to mind. If there is a panel that I'm asked to do that I'm not the right person for, she would be the person I would recommend. She's been very generous in that sense as well.”

In fact, Ajayi was able to get Yursik the ultimate ticket—to Barack Obama's final speech in Chicago.

“She hits me up the night before, says Yursik, “and was like, ‘Hey! I have an extra ticket.’”

For Yursik it’s an ongoing symbiotic sisterhood relationship: Ajayi’s success is hers as well.

A post shared by Awesomely Luvvie (@luvvie) on

For those in Ajayi’s inner circle, while they love every bit of her rise, the new demands on her time mean it’s been hard for them to connect like before.

“It’s too long for me if we go a week or a week and a half without speaking,” Russell says. “I also shoot a quick text to see if she’s taking care of herself.”

For Akibola, she tries to touch base with her three times a week.

“I can't keep up with her. I really cannot,” she says laughing. “I'll text her if I really need to say something and she'll go, ‘Okay, can I call you back in five minutes? Is it really, really important?’ It's hardly ever important, but I'll Skype with her every once in awhile just to have an idea of what she's doing at the moment.”

Yursik, as a fellow writer, understands Ajayi’s new distance but she appreciates her efforts to catch up.

“It's hard, it's really hard, especially with her on this never-ending book tour, to find that face-to-face time,” Yursik says. “When she's in town and I'm in town, we do at least make the effort to talk honestly.”

From the outside looking in, having buzz and clout, especially on social media can be overwhelming. If not handled smartly, the pressure can get real. But for Ajayi’s sister, it doesn’t phase either of them.

“I don't think I will fully ever wrap my head around how big Luvvie is because she's Luvvie to everybody else. To me she's Ife,” she says. “It's surreal. Even my co-workers, when they found out about the book, one of them said, ‘This is your sister,’ and I'm like, ‘Yeah,’ because to me she's still just Ife.”

Ajayi’s fans love her ability to fuse her honesty, humor and wordplay with ease. She holds nothing back. As one who’s always amplified her voice using the latest digital platforms, Ajayi is constantly on the cusp of something new.

“She's always been that over achiever-type of person. She's always been an individual,” Akibola says. “I didn't go away to college. I went from home to school everyday when I was in college. So did my brother. Luvvie was the first to break out of that mold. She went away to college. She was always independent. She did her own thing. She didn't need validation from anybody.”

Photo: courtesy of Natsai Audrey Chieza

100 Women: Natsai Audrey Chieza is Changing the World One Petri Dish at a Time

Her interdisciplinary approach to biology and fashion has sparked conversation about the future of sustainability and pollution in textile manufacturing.

The bold jewel tones of OkayAfrica 100 Women honoree Natsai Audrey Chieza's silk scarves aren't the product of hazardous chemicals or silkscreen printing. Instead, they are the product of bacteria. Specifically coelicolor, a strain of bacteria found in soil that happens to excellently synthesize organic chemical compounds. Working in the trade for six years, the Zimbabwean materials designer quickly came to understand why the textile industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world. Knowing that the most harm occurs during the process of dyeing fabrics, she decided to take action.

Chieza has worked with leading brands such as Microsoft, Nissan, and Unilever to usher in a new approach to science and design. Through her creative R&D; studio Faber Futures, the design innovator uses the process of creating with bacteria to assist in moving mankind away from our fossil fuel dependency. As the biopigment expert put it [last year during her TED talk "Fashion has a pollution problem—can biology fix it?"], in the future we must make sure that we are not "mirroring the destructive legacies of the oil age."

Her interdisciplinary approach to biology and fashion has sparked spirited conversation about the future of sustainability and pollution in textiles. Here, Chieza expounds on her start, the pros and cons of creating something new and the urgency of change.

The following has been edited for length and clarity

Akinyi Ochieng for OkayAfrica: STEM and the arts are often conceptualized as separate worlds. However, in your career, you've managed to find the overlap. How did you, a materials designer, end up dabbling in biotechnology?

Natsai Audrey Chieza: I've always really wanted to work within the creative field. I used to work in architecture where I really enjoyed my education in a systems approach to designs and designing for multiple contexts. But I wanted to explore a different side of the design world, so I began exploring the skill and context of material flows, and how technology and futures fits within this framework of how we design.

For my own work and my practice, not having a scientific background made me try things based on what I understood about materials and what I understood about the interactions in which those materials existed in society. I'm interested in a political lens, an economic lens, and how textiles perform in reality. That's not necessarily the approach that a scientist would have taken. Now that's not to say that science isn't important—it's vital. But innovation can occur in that intersection.

Did you go into this thinking, "Oh, I'll figure it out. There must be a path to make this work"?

To be honest, when I started off, the field was not defined. I think I found something really interesting, which was about how biology was becoming a realm of design, and I just explored that as best as I knew how as a designer and non-scientist. It just so happened that around me there was a context that was imagined but enabled me six years later to say, "That's the industry where this work belongs" and stakeholders who give me a space to further my work in a creative and experimental. The path was never anything clear at all. I learned as I grew.

There's a phrase that is often repeated today: "You can't be what you can't see." But you have really created a niche for yourself. What are the benefits of entering an emerging space?

I think what's amazing is not having anyone or anything telling you that what you think is impossible. If you're carving a new territory then you must trust in your instinct and vision to effectively push where the work can be and where it exists. You're not asking permission to do anything. Of course the flip side of that is you have to bring people with you, and so part of you being able to do the work is convincing people that your vision has legitimacy and it's worth exploring, worth taking a risk to look outside of that box.

It's often quite challenging to figure out how to find the strength to push something that hasn't been done before. There's no precedent or rulebook to my work, but sometimes it's really nice to have a rulebook. [Laughs] However, I think it's made me a person who doesn't see challenges as obstacles that are in the way, but more as problems that can be solved. And I think that's the good thing.

Much of your work is about biopigments. What color excites you?

It's not really the colors that excite me. It's color as a cultural context that really fascinates me. I'm really interested in if a microbe is almost like this living factory that produces this pigment, and the technology can be shared and deployed with people as to how you work with it across the world, then what are the cultural interventions that can happen in South Africa versus in Argentina versus in the United Kingdom, based on this common microbe. I think that's always been what interests me the most, the context in which our materials exist. I think a really good example is indigo, and how from Japan to West Africa, indigo is just this really, really rich material, and the process and the craftsmanship that goes into it. I'm interested to see how the future ecology of making arises in response to biotechnologies across the world.

Where do you see yourself and your work evolving in the near or long term?

I'm sort of going through that growth moment where you've been working toward something and then you've arrived at that and you're like, "Right, what's next?" I think I'm fundamentally somebody that wants to use design as a discursive tool to understand how our technologies proliferate. My focus is really on the imagined life sciences and how they're going to become very much a part of all of our lived experiences, and particularly in the context of really urgent changes that are happening from a local level to a global level. From global warming and climate change to resource scarcity across regions, our response to what I think being able to design with living systems, can afford us in the future. So my work really is about understanding how to engage stakeholders across different sectors to grow a consensus around how we're going to leverage these sorts of technologies so that they can be technologies for good. That's really where this is going.

This article appears as part of OkayAfrica's 100 Women 2018—a project highlighting the impactful work done by African women across the globe. Throughout March, we will be publishing a series of profiles, videos, interviews and feature stories on these inspirational women.

Click here to see the entire list of 2018 honorees.

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The Assassination of Marielle Franco and the Dawn of Brazil's New Civil Rights Movement

Marielle Franco was one of a new generation of black activists trying to overturn Brazil's entrenched and violent racism

The violence in Rio de Janeiro right now is akin to a war zone, with per capita death tolls resembling those from Afghanistan and Syria. Two weeks ago I traveled there for business and stayed in the relatively safe and trendy neighborhood of Santa Teresa. Each night of my stay, was abruptly awaken by long streams of gunshots and also fireworks from the nearby favela of Falett. The fireworks—as I learned from my local friends—were not a result of any celebration, rather a signal that either drugs, guns, or the police have arrived. This is the norm for many of the 763 favelas in Rio which houses nearly 25 percent of the city's population.

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