Brandee Evans Is Strong As Hell. She Just Doesn’t Want To Always Have To Be.

The “P-Valley” star discusses balancing caregiving for her mother, chasing her dreams and taking care of herself in new ways.
Illustration: Chris McGonigal/HuffPost; Photo: Getty Images

I Run This is a weekly interview series that highlights Black women and femmes who do dope shit in entertainment and culture while creating visibility, access and empowerment for those who look like them. Read my Syreeta Singleton interview here.

As graceful as she is, Brandee Evans is balancing a lot more than you know.

Before she is Mercedes of the Starz hit series “P-Valley,” she’s a caregiver to her mom, Diana Harrington, who has Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis. Evans shares the highs and lows of taking care of her mother on her Instagram.

More than anything right now, Evans is balancing what it means to be strong while tapping into a more vulnerable side of herself. She hasn’t always felt she was allowed to do so.

“At one point it was just like, I’m not allowed to break,” she said during a phone interview. “So I would just take it all on. Having more time with my mom and being a caregiver longer, I know it’s OK to break, but I hear my grandmother in my ear saying, “Get back up now. It’s OK to break, but get back up because those diamonds got to press on.”

She and Mercedes have that in common. The Memphis, Tennessee, native has a background in dance. She really leaned into her skills as an outlet after the stillbirth of her daughter, Lyric. Around that time, her ex-husband had also been deployed, and she had been fired from her dance coaching job. For her sanity’s sake, she took a trip to Los Angeles to take dance classes.

That led to her auditioning and landing a dancing gig on a Lil Wayne tour and quitting her job as an English teacher. She’s landed roles dancing at major award shows, including the Grammys and the BET Awards. She then took Tasha Smith’s acting classes, which paved the way for her to book roles in “Beyond the Lights,” “Games People Play” and “The Bobby Brown Story.”

When she got the call for “P-Valley,” Evans was struck by the similarities she shared with the no-nonsense pole dancer who’s just trying to get her skrilla to secure a better life. Like Mercedes, Evans had a strained relationship with her mom and was a preacher’s kid through her dad. She tapped into some of the traumas that she’s healed from to give her character life.

It’s not easy, especially while taking on the physical and mental challenges that come with learning how to pole dance. But Evans said the topics explored on “P-Valley,” including sex work, domestic abuse and LGBTQ issues, are just the kind of topics she hopes to continue to highlight in her life’s work.

Mercedes has taught Evans a lot about herself, too.

“Playing Mercedes has taught me that it’s OK to fall down and just keep fighting because it’s going to turn around,” Evans said. “The pendulum always has to swing back.”

Evans breaks down what that journey looks like for her, the heaviness and importance of “P-Valley” Season 2, and how the show has changed her life for the better.

Brandee Evans stars as Mercedes in "P-Valley."
Brandee Evans stars as Mercedes in "P-Valley."
Curtis Baker/Starz

I know that you’re the caregiver for your mom. How is that for you? You balance so much, work, travel. How are you right now?

I am making it. My feet are still pounding as I have this interview in the bed right now. I’m literally sitting here, this voice is cracked, but I’ve had the best time of my life. It was also a lot because I literally was multitasking wound care via phone. Like, “OK, let me see the wound. OK, it’s healing,” talking to my best friend, Leatriece Franklin, who’s a director of nursing. She’s very skilled in everything that I don’t know. So I’m sending her pictures from the caregiver.

She texted me this morning, and she’s like, “I’ve been doing check-ins all weekend. I’ve seen everything. We were on group chats without you that you didn’t even know about, all is well.” I’m just very grateful to have a support system. But it is a lot, it is overwhelming, but I’m just trying to figure out how to navigate doing both.

In a way, it’s refreshing to see you be so open about your experiences taking care of your mom. What made you decide to share that with the public?

Before any of the TV stardom, I was just a girl from Memphis that was trying to take care of her mom and go after her dreams, so I was very open about it. I felt like it would be a disservice to all of a sudden not share that because I know there’s a bigger platform. So there’s another woman or another man out there that is caring for their loved one, too, or they’re wondering, “How do I live my dream? How do I do this, God, should I have a bad day?” Sometimes I’m like, let me not put it out there. But, no, let me absolutely put it out there. Because it’s not always perfect. I’m not always glam. Some days I didn’t get to comb my hair. I want people to know this is what’s real.

When these cameras go off and this glitz and glam is not happening, it’s real life. I’ve got this bonnet on right now, and as soon as I get off this interview I’m going in there to talk to a new caregiver about how to train her to care for my mother properly. I’m not alone in doing this. Someone else may not be on TV; they may be a nurse or a teacher, working at Target, anything, but we are all the same, just trying to care for our loved ones. I think if I share that we are more alike than we are different, it helps people because I wish I had that.

A lot of times I would just go online and talk live because I couldn’t afford a therapist, so I was like, let me just talk to people. Then that’s when I started finding it’s more people like me than I knew, where I’m saying the same thing they’re saying. Mama’s having a bad day, and then I see someone else, their mom’s having a bad day. I’m like, OK, I’m not alone. It just feels good to know you’re not alone.

Before you got that reassurance that you weren’t alone, how did you find the strength to do all of that, to be able to pursue your career, make sure food is on the table, take care of your mom and all that. Where do you harness that strength?

My mom used to say, “Stay strong.” But what I’ve learned now is it’s OK to not be strong, but I understood what she meant. At the same time, it’s going to be hard, but you can do it. We have matching tattoos with diamonds on them because grandma used to say, “You have to be diamond strong because diamonds don’t break.” At one point it was just like, I’m not allowed to break, I’m not allowed to break. So I would just take it all on. Having more time with my mom and being a caregiver longer, I know it’s OK to break, but I hear my grandmother in my ear saying, “Get back up now. It’s OK to break, but get back up because those diamonds got to press on.”

I know that, and I hear my mom, every time when we get off the phone, she would say, “Stay strong,” and so I hear that. I can cry, but you get back up and make it happen.

I think that’s very much a Black woman thing to do. I’m right there with you as far as telling myself, “Hey, it’s OK to be vulnerable and have your moment.” But, yeah, it is hard for us to stay there because the world requires us to be that strong.

Then my thought is, OK now, you’re going to sit here and cry it out for how many days? You still got to feed your mama. You still got to take care of yourself. You got to get up because no one’s going to come and save you, so you got to save yourself.

When these cameras go off and this glitz and glam is not happening, it’s real life.

I’ve been reading some of your previous interviews about just your journey and how essentially you have always had that drive to save yourself. How did you find healing through following your heart in some of those tough times, like during your divorce and those earlier tough times?

I just knew. That is the Diana Harrington in me, my mom. I would see her go through so much growing up, and even my grandmother, but yet they would still keep going. I was like, “I know that this cannot be the journey that God wants me on. He’s got something better for me, so I just got to keep pushing. It’s like, I was trying to really just keep going because I’m like, after my daughter passed away and I was like, oh, my gosh. Then I lost my job, and then my husband left me. I was like, I know God has something else for me. So then I just went after it.

I knew this was not the life that God had planned for me. I knew that if I lost it all, it’s because he had so much more planned for me. Then mama got sick, and I was like, “Now, how am I going to do this? Now I don’t have a job.” But I knew that I was going to take care of her. I didn’t know how, but I was like, if I just do what I have always believed, to honor your parents, I believe in the Lord and I believe that is what you’re supposed to do, I know that He will take care of me. That’s just how I still live right now. I don’t know if there’ll be a Season 3 of “P-Valley,” I don’t know what’s coming next for my career. But I know I’m going to keep taking care of my mama. That’s all I know I can do, and that’s all I can control.

Period. When you talk about the job that you lost, are you talking about your teaching job?

Oh, no. I actually wrote a resignation letter and stepped away from that. I was coaching. I was like Mercedes, coaching a dance team. I was just as crazy, I was probably worse, but those girls won the competitions, and I was very tough. They won nationals, that was maybe two weeks after my daughter had passed, and I had to take little girls to Disney World, the happiest place in the world for a mom but the saddest place if you lost your baby. The girls won nationals, and I came back to the school and they fired me because they said I was too tough after they won nationals.

After losing Lyric, after losing my job, and then at that time my ex-husband got deployed to the military. So I put a title loan on my car and I went to L.A. and I wanted to take a dance class. Every time I would go to class, it would just be like therapy. I could just dance and have not a care in the world.

The teacher told me about Oththan Burnside, a choreographer. He’s like, “I think she’d love you. You should go check her out.” I just went to it thinking I was going to another dance class. It turned into an audition to dance as an opening act with an artist on the Lil Wayne tour. I was on break, school vacation, as the department chair of the English department. I booked that job. I wrote my resignation letter on the tour bus and stopped teaching, and my life just took off after that.

Wow! That’s such a testament to just following your calling, following what God has ordained for you. That’s so amazing. So the dance team, did y’all have a show?

I did. You’re thinking about “Dance Crash” with the OWN network. It was based on what I do. I would go around to different teams. They would hire me to get their dance teams together so they could win competitions. With this one, this was a team that was in Atlanta, Georgia, and they actually won the competition, so they brought me on to get the team, whip them in shape.

They’re usually the dancers that are not the most trained, they’re not as strong. But see, I wasn’t a trained dancer, so I knew how to make a girl, or a guy or any dancer look better than they were because I would give them the tricks that I knew. I’m like, I was never ballet-trained, but I knew how to perform and I knew how to do what I did well.

Let me tell you, I watched a clip from that show, and I was like, “Is this Mercedes?”

That’s what’s funny. People are like, “Oh, it’s like Mercedes.” I’m like, no, baby. I’ve been Brandee for a very long time. Mercedes just happened. It’s crazy how Katori Hall, our creator, didn’t even know. I actually coached the dance team where Katori Hall went to school, at Craigmont High School, and we never knew each other. We wrote for the same magazine and newspaper, all of that, in high school, and we never met each other until this moment.

Wow! The alignment there is so crazy. How has playing Mercedes taught you about yourself? Especially because there are so many similarities between the character and your story.

Playing Mercedes has taught me that it’s OK to fall down and just keep fighting because it’s going to turn around. The pendulum always has to swing back. It’s taught me patience. It’s taught me to be confident in my body and be OK with exactly who I am as a Black woman with curves. It’s OK to not have on makeup — I think you see me so much without makeup on Instagram Lives and all of that because I truly do not care. But before I think I cared more about that. That’s why I love that Katori Hall was like, “Yes, so we don’t want you in makeup on this scene,” or, “You’re just going to have those straight backs on that scene.” I’m like, this is wonderful because this is what girls at home are doing, snatching your wig off, you got braids underneath. Some days you don’t have your makeup on, it’s OK. It’s normalizing and humanizing us, and so it just makes me feel comfortable and confident.

When you first read the script and saw Mercedes’ arc this season, what were your initial thoughts?

I said, “Oh, the fans are about to go crazy.” But I’m very excited because you think you’ve seen the arc. Just wait until six, seven, eight, nine and 10 happen. She’s just getting started. I am very excited about this journey that Katori has Mercedes on this season. I’ve never been more grateful. I was so afraid when I first started seeing the scripts. But I feel like when I’m afraid, it’s the best work. I was afraid last season of Episode 5 with the jail scene, and that’s my favorite episode. So Episode 7 is my favorite episode this season. It’s a tough one as well, but I’m just so grateful. Katori gives you stuff that can grow you as a person and an actor. So I’m very, very, very honored to have this moment to play her.

Evans landed her breakout role in "P-Valley" after a series of traumatic events led her down a new road of self-discovery through dance and acting.
Evans landed her breakout role in "P-Valley" after a series of traumatic events led her down a new road of self-discovery through dance and acting.
Erika Doss/Starz

One thing that I thought was really on point was the episode where you meet Coach’s wife and you are looking at her photography and you break it down so beautifully as far as it being shot from a woman’s eyes, from the female gaze. It feels like this show, especially this season, you can really tell that women led this behind the scenes and in front of the camera. For you on set as an actress, how does that play out? How does that empower you?

Oh, my gosh, in every way. First of all, let’s go back to 2018, where when you think you’re getting a job to play a sex worker or a stripper, dancer, the first thing that probably comes to mind is: What am I going to wear? And how do I look in my body? The first thing Katori said was please don’t lose weight. I’ve never had someone tell me that. Because as a dancer behind artists, before I started acting, all I’ve ever heard was, “Lose weight. You’re curvier than the other girls, you’re a little thick.” So to have Katori say to me, “Don’t lose weight, and it’s OK if you gain weight.” I just felt like, well, at this point I can just live my life. Working out is for fun now, not to keep my job.

On this show, I know that if there’s a Season 3 and I came back 20 pounds heavier, Katori will probably clap. That’s what’s made it important, to know that you’ve got women at the forefront. I remember Karena Evans, our director of Episode 1, saying, “I will never shoot you in a way that I wouldn’t shoot myself,” and I see that. Even though I was scared, I was so afraid for Episode 3 and the Mercedes experience. Because when you’re doing all the things and my legs are open and all that. But the lighting, we had a woman lighting that episode. It’s just so beautifully done. It just looks like art. Even Richard, who is our male [director of photography], he understands Katori’s vision. So even the men that are a part of it, the few men that are a part of the show, they understand that this is shot from a woman’s gaze, and it’s always going to be in respect of the women, and I love that.

Yeah. Even the queer story arc with Mercedes and Farrah. I’ve seen shows that just don’t get it right at all when dealing with scenes that involve that level of intimacy between two women. It feels very objectifying or flat. But this feels super nuanced. I’m wondering, specifically there, what’s your take there? How do you feel like “P-Valley” differs from other ways you’ve seen especially queer Black women love on each other in this way?

I think that, first of all, Katori’s not going to sugarcoat it for anyone. She is being so authentic to herself and us as a community. She doesn’t shy away from the hard stories, from domestic abuse to LGBTQ love and hate. We’ve seen that just in Episode 4. I think it’s very interesting that people praise Mercedes and Farrah, but they shun Lil Murda and Big Teak. I want to ask Katori that if it was done that way on purpose, but more likely it was because she’s very intentional to have two women in an episode together and two men in the episode together. But notice how people trip out on the two Black men because they’re two masculine-presenting Black men, and people didn’t like to see that. But it’s real.

I love that Katori’s not afraid to make that very clear to all the audiences. Giving a stage for every bit of love, all types of love. Just last night I was with a lot of my friends, my male friends that are gay, and all they could talk about was how thankful they were to see themselves represented on TV. And when I was at the strip club with Alphonse, who plays Lil Murda, I had a girl cry in my lap, and she was just like, thank you, and I was like, wow! This is why we do this. Because she’s being seen, and I love that. This is what’s important to me. I really don’t care what the press says. I don’t care about the accolades. What I care about is that woman who’s actually doing this job and I’m doing her a service. That’s why I’m proud to play Mercedes.

What has playing on “P-Valley” taught you or how has it cleared up any misconceptions you may have previously had, especially around the world of sex work?

First of all, that it’s very much so a business. Just even going into the club was so different the other day because now I know. I’ve gone into the locker room with the girls. I just wanted to be around them and just be like, thank you, too. I told one girl, “I know how much time you spent on your hair and makeup tonight. You look beautiful.” Because I’m just thinking, you got to do all this for me just to pretend to be in this world. Then I’m looking at her doing all these tricks and I’m like, wait a minute. Girl, I know how much your legs hurt. You up there upside down; I know what it feels like. Y’all are only throwing this. You know how long she probably rehearsed this routine for y’all? I respect it so much.

Then to leave and I know they might be moms when they go home. Some of them are nurses and in school. They’re doing things to get out of this world, and some of them are doing it because they love it, and that’s OK, too. Just knowing it’s very much so a business, it’s very much so acting. Watching them act was beautiful to watch. I love that now because I’m like, “Oh, she is making this man think that she loves him, and she is on to the next.” It’s beautiful to watch them put on a show.

I know your background is in dance, but how did pole dancing challenge you, not only physically but mentally?

It is so hard. These women are athletes. Of course, physically you’re going to get battered and bruised up. I’m still dealing with that myself. But then I also smile because I’m like, “I need to know what it feels like.” Don’t be a caricature; really be there. If you’re going to be in there and play it, really be in there and do it. So that feels good. But it is, mentally you get strong because, yeah, you get strong because you’re flying. It’s literally flying like a toy set. It’s beautiful.

We haven’t seen Mercedes with her mom this season. Will we? What are you hoping for their relationship to be, without spoiling any plots?

Oh, you gotta keep watching for sure. I am hoping that there’s some sort of resolution. But knowing Katori, she got to give us a little bit more drama before we get that resolution, and I love that.

Brandee Evans (left) and Katori Hall attend Starz's "P-Valley" Season 2 premiere on June 2 in Los Angeles.
Brandee Evans (left) and Katori Hall attend Starz's "P-Valley" Season 2 premiere on June 2 in Los Angeles.
Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Starz

I know that you’ve talked about how special this show is for you, especially being from Memphis and the dialect and language and all of that. My people are from Copiah County, Mississippi, so I feel very seen with this show. But as far as a varied amount of representation of this kind of Southern culture, I think there has been a void that “P-Valley” fills. On what level does that fit you as a Memphis girl?

First of all, I get to speak like Memphis. It’s so funny when I hear people, they’re like, “We don’t talk like that.” I’m like, “Girl, I would talk like that, too, if I wasn’t an English teacher. I just turn my switch off for a while.” Just because you got a country twang or you might say “mane” does not make you ignorant. You are very smart. So for me that was the most beautiful part, just being able to tap into the culture that I grew up in, the neighborhoods, all of the things. Katori uses a lot of Memphis references, the music. It just feels good. It feels like home.

What doors has “P-Valley” opened for you?

I think the platform has been beautiful. Then it’s so funny, I’ve learned that the more popularity I gain on this show is that I love it for a different reason. I love that now I can switch it and go, “OK, now you’re over here on my Instagram, but let me talk about trans women. Let me tell you about multiple sclerosis. Let me tell you about this.”

That door is open for me, being able to work with Alzheimer’s Association and multiple sclerosis organizations. Those are very important topics to me. Because I’m not going to be Mercedes forever. But as long as my mom has air, I will be a caregiver, and even after she’s gone, if she leaves before me, I plan to still advocate for caregivers.

What do you think your calling is?

Oh, wow! I’ve never been asked that question. I think I’m still figuring it out, but I know very much so to be a vessel to share. The teacher in me is always going to be there. So I feel like, even though I try to run away from the teaching aspect, for some reason it is always here. So, yes, to teach and to share.

What is that big goal or big dream that you have, whether it be in Hollywood or otherwise?

Movies. I want to do a lot. Yes, I definitely want to tap into big box office movies. I love rom-coms, so I want to do romantic comedies for sure. I just want to do things that I feel like aren’t just good but tell stories and teach people, and I think that’s what “P-Valley” does. Yeah, it’s hot, it’s sexy, it’s fun. But you talking about it in different ways. It’s opening your mind. It’s opening doors, that’s what I want. Opening doors for other people, not myself. I feel like it’s allowing a Lil Murda in this world to feel comfortable, an Uncle Clifford, nonbinary character, to feel comfortable in their skin. That’s the type of stuff I want to do. For a Mercedes who might be bi-curious, to be OK with who you are.

What do you want your legacy to be?

That she was afraid and she did it anyway because that taps into, from the career, to mama, to pushing on after a divorce, pushing on after a stillbirth and just she didn’t give up. That’s what I want my legacy to be.


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