Jasika Nicole recently played her first-ever queer role on network television in the reboot of Punky Brewster, something she found a bit shocking considering she is herself a queer woman who has been acting in several television shows for many years. We sat with Jasika to talk about her role in the reboot, her career as a queer woman of color in the television industry, and her inspiring passion for making all of her clothing with her own hands.

Jasika Nicole

Photo by Claire J. Savage.

Jasika plays a recurring character in the latest season of Punky Brewster, which was rebooted by Peacock earlier this year. This time around, Punky and Cherie are all grown up and Jasika plays the playful and helpful lawyer Lauren, Cherie’s girlfriend.

If you were a child during the 80s you likely grew up watching sitcoms like Punky Brewster. The reboot features both protagonists Punky and Cherie reprising their original roles. In the original show, Punky (Soleil Moon Frye) finds a new family after being left behind by her parents, in Peacock’s reboot we get to meet her family as an adult. Now, Punky is a single mother of three, trying to welcome a new child into her loving family. Cherie (Cherie Johnson), Punky’s childhood neighbor, best friend, and almost-sister, is always by her side and thus they welcome Lauren into their family.

Besides playing Lauren, you could also know Jasika from her roles in The Good Doctor, Fringe and Scandal. The multi-talented actress has also connected with a few other arts-related crafts, such as pottery and making clothes from scratch. All her clothing she makes herself in an effort to promote and participate in the ‘slow-fashion movement’, to counter fast-fashion brands that are unsustainable with both their workers and the planet. She constantly displays the beautiful pieces and the evolution of her crafts on her Instagram page, where you can see the many dresses, blouses, and even shoes that she made with her own hands.

In our interview, we talk about said passions, and much more! Read the full interview below or watch an extract here!

How did it feel to join this show that you had watched growing up? What did you expect?

I was excited to be able to be a part of the show that I had some context about. Obviously reboots have become very popular over the past few years, and I gotta be honest I haven’t really watched any of them. Punky Brewster was the first one that I felt excited about because it felt like a really integral part of my childhood, it was one of the only TV shows that felt like it was really focused on kids, and most of the shows we had were animated shows, cartoons, and I loved cartoons but it was really nice to have a show that felt like it was catered to me. I was like six when it came out so I was definitely in the demographic of the age of the girls and what they were going through so it was a real honor to be invited back on to the show, because I think it’s a really wholesome heartwarming family-oriented kind of show, and I don’t think we can ever have too many of those. Even though I prefer horror. 

How would you describe your relationship with the cast?

Everybody was really lovely. I particularly loved working with the kids–”the kids”, you know, some of them are teenagers, some of them are kids, but they were all very talented, had a great work ethic, and were just really fun to be around. And I think I really liked them because they were still kids. I think there’s this propensity for child actors to be more adult-like in a lot of ways and to be very focused on work and that’s fine. I feel like I was one of those kids I was like I always hung out with people who were older than me and I was more interested in hanging out with adults, but it can be really tricky particularly in this industry to have very young kids pushed into this very professional life from such an early age. And so, I loved that they seemed like kids, they were just kids who were very talented but you know they were still silly and goofy and we still had a lot of fun together. 

When talking about yourself, your life as a queer woman of color, and your career as an actress. How did it feel to finally get to represent who you are on screen? Because you said in previous interviews that you hadn’t gotten a queer role until now.

Yes, it’s true. I’ve never played a queer character in network television, although my friends and I did make a movie, several years ago at this point, maybe like five years ago, called Suicide Kale and we all wrote it so we all got to play queer characters. That’s technically my very first time playing a queer character, but that’s in the indie film scene, which obviously is very different than network television.

I gotta be honest with you, I’m really shocked that it’s taken this long, and disappointed, to be honest. Obviously nobody wants to be pigeonholed into one specific kind of role, and you know I’m not so interested in playing a particular sexuality, I just want to play a well-written role and so I want there to be more well-written roles that are for people who are people of color and queer people and disabled actors and trans actors and, you know, all of that, obviously. But Hollywood has a tendency to, I think they think it’s safer to hire straight actors to play queer roles, so they feel like they’re ticking the box of having a diverse storyline, but it’s like they feel uncomfortable to have an actual queer actor play that role because I think there’s still a conversation about women in film and television being sexy and available. Like obviously actors are not available in any kind of way, aside from what they portray on screen but there’s this fantasy that Hollywood is always trying to boost up where everybody on television is sexy and they could be your girlfriend or they could be your boyfriend or whatever it is. And I think they think that they’re cutting that off if they have like an out queer actor playing a role. I don’t know what they’re thinking, to be honest, that’s like the only sense I can make out of it because it doesn’t, it doesn’t make any sense to me there are not a ton of out queer actors of color in Hollywood, so you would think that– I feel like I should be working all the time! Whenever there’s a queer role written for a woman who is like in my age range I’m always like “Ah! I’m right here!,” like I’ll go in for it and it just doesn’t happen that way so I’m disappointed that it’s taken this long, but I’m happy to finally be able to knock it off my acting bucket list. I’ve finally played a queer role on network television.

How do you feel knowing that now both younger and older queer audiences will be able to see themselves represented through you on screen, in a series that, for example, didn’t offer any queer roles back then when it first aired?

I think that that is one of the exciting things about rebooting these old shows. You have a show that was made or that debuted in 1986. There was not a lot of gay storylines, a lot of gay narratives, no regular gay characters, at the most you might get a guest star who was playing gay or something but television didn’t really focus on the queer community at all, and certainly not the trans community at that period of time. And so, as we have all grown up, we have all, I would think collectively, come to have a better understanding about the queer community, and some people have come out, you know as queer in that period of time. If we think about the 30 years since the show debuted initially and now– you know, I certainly was not out when I was six years old, and in kindergarten, because I just didn’t really think about myself and my sexuality in that way. Although some people do! Which is really cool, but I wasn’t one of them, I was a very late– not so much of a late bloomer, but it took me a really long time to get to a place where I felt comfortable being out. Which is fine, everybody has a different journey, but that is like the natural progression of a life, to start out one way, and to hopefully grow, be challenged, learn, educate yourself and more, as you get older, and so when we bring these reboots back, if we’re not elevating where the original storyline was, then what are we bringing it back for? We’re just looking at people who are older and have kids now, we have to be actually trying to elevate the conversation in some way and so I think that this was one of many ways that Punky Brewster wanted to elevate the storyline, elevate the narrative and make it feel realistic. Of course there’s going to be people who have come out in the process of the 30 years since this show has been on the air, and, like myself, and like Cherie’s character on the show and of course I play her girlfriend [Lauren] on the show. And so, it just feels very, very timely, and it’s nice to be able to have to two points to look at historically and say like this is where we were in 1986, and here we are in 2021, and this is all that is changed and this is all that has stayed the same. It just makes for a very believable and relatable narrative, I would say.

What do you want for queer presentation in the future? How do you think we could get there [to that future]?

My go to answer normally is: we need to have queer people that are making decisions in Hollywood specifically, I’m thinking about particularly my industry, people who are producing, and people who are network executives. But I don’t know if that’s the answer that I want it to be anymore because I don’t think it’s so much about just being queer I really think it is an intersection of identities that will really feel like it is propping up the queer industry within media and entertainment. So like, there’s a lot of gay white men in Hollywood, they don’t represent me (giggles). So it’s not just about having queer people making decisions, it’s about having queer people that are surrounding themselves with other members of different communities to create a narrative. I want to see narratives about disabled queer people and I want to see narratives about queer trans people, and queer people from other countries, like I want a really much broader idea of what it looks like and what it feels like to be queer in television and film. And so, I want the people who do have power who are queer in Hollywood. I want them to keep bringing up other people along with it like it’s not so much than just climbing the ladder and getting in and being the only people there. I need them to start inviting more people to climb up that ladder with them, people of all different experiences and backgrounds and histories, I feel like maybe that will make a really big difference in the way queer stories are narrativized in Hollywood. Because the truth is that the more we see ourselves in television, the more that people who are not in our community also see us in television, and that is really significant too because those are the people that we kind of have to get on board and say, “Oh yeah, we might not be queer, but we want to see your stories too, we support your community too! We want to prop you up too.”

Talking about your hobbies and new passions, and you’ve said that you don’t buy fast fashion anymore and that now, everything that you wear, you’ve made yourself. So, what I wanted to ask you is, was it liberating to channel your self expression through art in your clothing [that obviously you make]?

I guess it is liberating. I’ve been doing it for so long, and it never felt like I was doing it in order to like make a statement, it was really something that I just wanted to do for myself but now of course, my making is a big part of my presence on social media. Like nobody ever follows me because I’m on television. People follow me because I sew and I make shoes which, you know I’m completely fine with, and now it does feel like a bit of a movement, the “slow fashion movement”. The being thoughtful about what we invite into our homes, where we get it from, thinking about who made it, if it’s ourselves or if it’s somebody else. Where did the materials and tools come from, because the fast fashion industry right now it’s not just a mark on the environment in a negative way, it’s a mark on communities, mostly communities of colour, people in other countries who are working in these factories to make these tank tops that people in the West might wear two or three times, and then like throw away or send off to Goodwill or something. And then it just gets stuck in a landfill, and it’s usually polyester because polyester is one of the cheapest materials and polyester doesn’t biodegrade in the same way that more natural materials do and so it just sits there for years and years and years, and that’s obviously terrible, but we also have to think of the human element of how the fast-fashion industry impacts our world globally. And it’s so easy to turn to turn your eyes away to that if you are in the West, there’s hardly any more clothing factories, at least here in the United States, pretty much everything is sourced out to other people, to other countries and it’s so easy to just go to a store and not think about how that item got there, you know? I feel like people walk into an H&M and they’re like, “it’s magic! Everything has been restocked and every week I come in here and there’s something new”, and it’s not magic at all. It has a deeply impactful cost on the environment and on the communities of people who are working in the factories to make these clothes even be tactile things that we can purchase in the first place.

So I would say that initially, like I’ve always been a maker since I was a kid, I’ve always liked to be busy with my hands, and as I grown up, I found a way to kind of make my art functional, because like everything I’m wearing right now, I made. And so not only is it a way for me to express myself but also it’s usable stuff. I wear all my own clothes and I enjoy doing it and I enjoy getting people– I don’t necessarily want to convert everybody to be a sewist because that’s not reasonable or realistic or possible for everybody, but even to just get in the mindset of remembering that every single thing that you wear hands made it. I think sometimes people think that again just kind of like magically went through a factory and came out a t shirt, and it’s that’s not true. There’s a human element to it and so even recognising that –I’m hoping– will allow people to be more thoughtful about where they spend their money, how they spend their money and supporting the slow fashion movement whenever possible. Not everybody can afford the slow fashion movement, slow fashion is expensive for a reason. The reason that fast fashion is so cheap, is because they’re not paying enough, they’re not paying living wages for the people who are making these things and slow fashion is about making sure that the people who make these items of clothing are getting paid a living wage, that the materials are sustainable, all that stuff costs money. And so, you know when these people do these like hauls of clothes, and they go to Zara and they’re like, “I spent $150 and I got 85 items of clothing!” and it’s like “Girl. Yeah, that’s not right.” It’s not supposed to work out like that. So yeah I’m just hoping that maybe people who are interested in the stuff that I do, will be able to educate themselves a little bit more, and think about, you know the impact that they have on the environment, and on the culture as well.

Putting Punky Brewster aside, out of all the series you’ve worked on, which will be your favourite?

I was on a– Okay, I have two answers! One television show I was a part of is called Underground, and it was a deeply intense show to be a part of because it was basically about slavery and abolition. And you know it’s funny that I say that’s one of my favourite projects I’ve been a part of because I am really past, like, traumatic black narratives. I’m over them, I’m not interested in seeing any more stories depicting our traumatic history, or putting us through– you know, we’ve had a traumatic history and we have a traumatic present right now, you know there’s still Black people getting killed by the police, by state sanctioned violence on a pretty regular basis. So, you know, I’m ready to move away from that but I will say that Underground was a beautiful show and it was so unique in that it was trying to tell a story about history, not through the lens of whiteness, and I think that that’s how most of our stories have been told, that’s how our textbooks are written. That’s how so much of our history that we’ve been taught, has been given through the lens of whiteness and Underground was specifically trying to tell this story through the eyes of the people that were experiencing it, and it wasn’t so much that white people had to free enslaved people. We were trying to free ourselves and that’s not a story that you hear about very often. So, I feel like it’s one of the most important productions that I’ve been a part of. And even though it was really tough at times, I felt that the cast was was really great. And so I was excited to see more of that show like I was so disappointed that it only got two seasons and my character showed up in a second season and the third season was gonna be so amazing! And then of course we never got to actually do it. So that would be my favourite TV project that I’ve been a part of, but I also was the narrator of a podcast called Alice Isn’t Dead, and the podcast got optioned to be a television show, and unfortunately, they never ended up developing it, so I’m not sure if anything will ever happen with it, but it would have been a remarkable television show. It’s about a Black queer woman who is a truck driver, and her wife has gone missing and everybody assumes that she’s dead, but my character would see her on TV in the backgrounds of like news stories, she would see her like walking around in the crowd. She was like “I know she’s out there” and so she got a job as a trucker so she could travel all across America looking for her dead wife. It was such a bizarre story, but it was definitely rooted in kind of like creepy American Gothic Quarter. And again, that’s a genre that you never see centered through a Black lens much less a queer lens. And so I just thought it was an incredibly moving story, and I really wish that it was a television show. You know, I’m not gonna give up hope, you never know what could happen! I could win $500,000 tomorrow and I’ll develop the show myself!