Ananda Lewis is a great big ball of energy. Her mind moves at a million miles per hour, speaking in quick-witted, rapid-fire responses—a trait that most media personalities will work toward their entire career. But with Ananda, she doesn’t see it as a secret to a successful stint in the industry. It’s just plain who she is. Raised by her grandmother amidst a rocky relationship with her own parents, things could’ve turned out very different for the San Diego native. And despite a life filled with ups and downs, she’s a testament to the old adage, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. One thing is for sure, whatever this strong-willed chick puts her mind to, she does it . . . and does it well. From interviewing high-profile celebrities and making music for her friends and family to digging trenches in her backyard (yes, she’s a master of the DIY home improvement), she’s more like a real-life Wonder Woman. In a candid two-part interview with Clutch, Ananda speaks her brilliant mind and tells us the honest—and sometimes painful—truth as if it were going out of style.
Clutch: You’ve been working for quite some time now in radio, television . . . all across the board in terms of national media. How did you get your start?
Ananda: My first kind of national start was with Teen Summit on BET. I think the only reason I got Teen Summit and went out for the audition pretty much had to do with my background in youth work. I’d been doing about eight years of conflict resolution, violence prevention and all kinds of work with young people from the time I was a teenager actually. So it started as peer work and it grew into youth work. And it just really where my heart was. I went to school to be a teacher. I still feel like I should’ve taken that route (chuckle)! But you know, the left turn was cool.
Clutch: BET is a former employer of yours . . .
Ananda: BET calls me to do all kinds of stuff, so I’m still in good cahoots with them.
Clutch: Within the past seven or eight years, programming for the channel has taken a major turn from what it was, to what it is currently. It’s safe to say that they are aware of the negative feedback their programming has garnered, but for some reason, the network is still slow to change. Why do you think that is?
Ananda: That they’re slow to change? I think BET—especially after Bob Johnson sold it and now they’re owned by Viacom—they are a network like any other network that bases it success or failure or the success or failure of the shows that they air on ratings. I think it’s great if they’re getting feedback through email and people are letting them know what they do or don’t want to see. But that’s not really where it makes a difference. If you really don’t want something on air you have to stop watching it and supporting it. And if there are enough people out there watching and supporting it, that’s not BETs fault, that’s the viewers’ fault. Though, I think it’s a matter of being more discerning about what we’re willing to accept into our minds and our homes through the television. Until we get to that point, networks don’t have to change a thing. And for what? They’re making their money; that’s what they’re in it for. They’re not righteous, social systems that we can depend on to educate our kids. And I think it’s wrong for us to assume that they are.
Clutch: Ten years ago you wrote a sort of manifesto for YM Magazine explaining why you decided to become celibate for six months, and urging other young women to think about their actions before engaging in sex. Fast forward to today—considering the way modern media has transformed our ideas about sex and female sexuality; do you think an article like this is realistic for today’s youth?
Ananda: You know, being that that article was so long ago I barely remember it. I know that it was true for me at the moment. Usually when I speak on things, that is true for the moment. I’m not psychic and I don’t tend to dwell on the past. So whatever was true for me then, may or may not be true for me now. And I’m sure may or may not be true for people reading it ten years later. I barely remember what I said, but I do remember that it wasn’t some manifesto necessarily. I didn’t set out to tell people to be celibate. The person who was interviewing me, we got onto some pretty personal issues. I shared with her the fact that I was raped at fourteen. That turned into a conversation about why I had decided to not have sex at that point in my life. I still felt like I was dealing with anger issues from the rape. I felt like I was dealing with aggression issues toward men that I was channeling through sex. And I knew even then that it wasn’t a healthy way for me, spiritually and emotionally, to be living.
I will say that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with sex. I don’t think it’s fair to use it to sell products and to get people to buy stuff, but then turn around and say to kids, “Oh, it’s so bad.” You know, it’s how we all got here. God gave us the ability to have sex for a reason. Every animal in the kingdom does it, and I don’t think we should be so hung up about it. I think we have a very repressed society in a lot of fundamental ways, and it’s affecting us in really bad ways because we won’t let that repression go. I think we adopt other people’s morals as normal and we don’t even question for ourselves if it’s right or wrong for us. That said, I went through a period of celibacy even after that article. I was probably back and forth for a minute, and then there was like a three-and-a-half-year window where I just wasn’t having sex. It’s not something that I go, “Oh, I want to take a stand and represent the people.” I make decisions in my life solely for myself—as all people should. That’s the only way you make right decisions . . . when they’re just about what’s good for you. [But] because I was in a position of having an impact on young people at the time, especially young women, I think it was taken as me saying what they should or shouldn’t do. More of it was for me sharing my own personal experience; why I was doing what I was doing and letting them know it’s OK if you don’t, because there is so much pressure to do it. You shouldn’t be doing it if you don’t want to. You shouldn’t be doing it if it’s not the right decision for you. And you shouldn’t be doing it if you don’t know enough about it to know your body and be getting the most out of the experience, you know what I mean? It was all a very personal reflection for me on a time in my life that was really chaotic and dramatic, and that I was never was able to share with anybody at the time, and it has taken a very long time for me to heal from it.
Unfortunately, I think a lot of people in media—more so in online media and radio kind of people—took that and ran with it and really, I feel, threw it in my face and tried to meanly use it against me. It has made me not as open to media when I talk to people now, because I feel like things are twisted and misrepresented a lot of the time. And not just toward me; please, I’m the least of the people with the problems. I see it on the news all the time. Even watching Showbiz Tonight especially. Everything is so “surprising” and “scandalous” or “shocking.” Everything is so blown out of proportion it’s ridiculous! It’s like, calm down! I know you need ratings, but don’t manipulate people’s lives to get them. And I think it’s unfortunate what media has come to, when it used to be about journalism and telling the truth.
Clutch: Speaking of media, what role do you think music and television plays in the way our society views women?
Ananda: See, it always goes back to that personal thinking for yourself issue. Like, using your own brain. Japan has 80 percent more violence on TV than we have here, but probably the same percentage in terms of lower violence in their streets. We have to learn as a society, mainly as individuals, to not let every single thing we see become a part of what we actually do in our lives. Things are not out there—all things are not out there—to get you to do them. Some things are just there for your observation. Entertainment is called that because it’s supposed to entertain you, not tell you how to live your life. I do think that the increase of popularity in television—[increase] of television sets in people’s houses, the increase of channels that are available now as opposed to ten years ago—combined with the decreasing of family structure, especially in our communities and underserved communities, but also in every community. Even white families are falling apart too . . . it seems to be more of an economic division that’s happening right now more than a racial division. Either way, broke people, that doesn’t mean you can’t think for yourself. It’s ridiculous to think that you have to be rich to have some sort of common sense.
I think we all have to give ourselves a good shaking in the head and go, “Hey, does that work for me? Is that right for me? Should I be applying that to my life?” Unfortunately, young people don’t have a whole lot of guidance, so the easiest thing to do is to follow what’s right in front of you. They’re watching more TV than ever and that’s what’s right in front of them. I get why the influence is happening, I just don’t think it’s a proper influence—and you see the fallout from it. To me, it’s proof that it’s an improper influence because people are going down the wrong paths in their lives based on entertainment. Based on something that in and of itself is not even real! And so I think that’s a huge problem. I don’t know if I put all the blame on entertainment. I think people are going to do—just like we were talking about BET before—they’re going to do what sells. Period. It’s up to the consumer to say, “Do I want to buy that? Do I want to be a part of it? Do I want to represent that?” And at the same time, I grew up with N.W.A. and I know every single lyric to Eminem’s albums and all the lyrics to N.W.A. and Eazy-E songs, tough! I grew up cursing up a storm, listening to rap and it didn’t affect me in a negative way because I knew that it was not what I based my example for life on. I think that’s where we have to start making more progress. It shouldn’t matter what comes in your presence; you should have enough mental capacity and intelligence of your own that you can determine whether or not that belongs in your life. Make a determination that’s “No” and be able to live with that. I think we have a hard time saying no to things in our society. I don’t know where to place the responsibility for that. I kind of think that we all bear some responsibility to it.
Clutch: I hear what you’re saying. But I worry about kids. And when I say kids, I mean people under the age of 20 years old. I personally know people who have two, three kids, and will sit them in front of a television as some sort of babysitter. This is where they’re getting their influences; their training for what’s going on in the world. So if momma and daddy are the ones allowing this, then it’s showing them that maybe it is OK.
Ananda: But who do you hold responsible for that? Do you hold the parents responsible for putting the kids in front of the TV or do you hold the TV responsible for being on? But simultaneously, in addition for those negative things on TV, there are more positive influences on TV. You just have to turn the channel to where those things are. It’s setting your taste buds, if you will, to have those kinds of shows being more palatable than the flashy, blingy, bootied-out. What are you being turned on by? It still comes on to your own personal responsibility. If we’re talking about children, then yeah, [it’s] their parent’s responsibility. When I have kids there isn’t going to be a TV in the house. There will be a TV in my bedroom for when I want to see it, but they’re not going to have access to it. I think parents have to put their foot down. Unfortunately, most of the really young people I know who are parents became parents accidentally. When you have “accidental” parents, they don’t tend to be—and I hate to say it, but it’s true—parents who really wanted that. They didn’t plan for that child. They didn’t make room in their life for that child. That child kind of came and now they’re accommodating their presence. They’re trying to keep up, scrambling to make ends meet and to accommodate that kid. But we need to be more responsible when we have children and when we’re ready for children. On some level as a society—individually, in our communities and even on a personal level—we have to get really clear that we just can’t keep bringing unwanted kids into this world. The worst-case scenario, it’s going to be things that you hear about all the time. It’s not the norm, but it’s certainly a big enough problem that we have to start looking at it.
We have to stop being so sensitive to people telling us we’re wrong. We are going to be wrong at some point in our lives. We have to be able to hear that “I’m wrong.” Self-correction has been a huge been thing for me in the past five or ten years. That even when it comes to jobs, I found that I didn’t want to be involved in this business to the extent that I was before. Because there was so much misrepresentation, bad representation, I didn’t want to be involved in that. So many projects would come up and I’m like, “Really, I can’t do that. For me as a person, as a human being, I don’t want to do that.” I left jobs that I didn’t want to be in, but I was stuck in contracts and couldn’t get out. And you have to learn from your experiences and say, “I made a bad decision and I want to fix that.” So the next time it’s time for me to make another decision, I’m not continuing to make the same decision over and over. I’m making new mistakes, but at least it’s not the same ones. We all have to get really clear with ourselves and say, “I’m wrong” or “I’m foul right now” or “I need to go get myself some help right now.” But we’re so used to being so placated and spoiled and being told that every thing is OK. Or being told, “No, you’re not fat” or “You can read fine,” when you can’t. If all of those things were true, we wouldn’t have the type of problems we have right now.
Stay tuned for Part Two, coming next month. . .
Ananda is also conducting a series of on-air workshops for young women who want access to all of the knowledge, tips, and personal insight she has gained over 10 years of doing all types of television. The first one in the series will take place in Baltimore for more information on the workshops please visit hollywoodinabottle.com
(Photo Credit: Ananda Lewis)