Who is Ariana DeBose?
Ariana DeBose was born on January 25, 1991, in Wilmington, North Carolina, where she devoted herself to dance and theater. After a brief stint on reality television, she headed to Broadway, where highlights of her career include appearing in the original production of Hamilton and getting a Tony Award nomination for her role in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical. DeBose then brought her talents to the big and small screen: She starred in Netflix’s Prom, AppleTV+’s Schmigadoon! and portrayed the pivotal role of Anita in the 2021 movie remake of West Side Story.
On March 27, 2022, DeBose received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for playing Anita. She is the first Afro-Latina, the first openly queer actor of color and the first openly queer woman to win an Oscar, as well as the first openly queer woman of color to receive an acting nomination.
Early Life and Education
DeBose’s Afro-Puerto Rican father was never a part of her life. Her white mother, Gina DeBose, raised her as a single parent in Raleigh and Wake Forest, North Carolina.
At the age of 3, DeBose started taking dance classes. Her talent was soon evident. DeBose’s mother shared in an interview, “I always like to say, she came out dancing.”
Her mother was accepting when a 13-year-old DeBose came out as queer.
DeBose graduated from Wake Forest-Rolesville High School and had a short stint at Western Carolina University.
Start as a Performer
When DeBose was about to begin sixth grade, her mother, who worked as a teacher, moved to Wake Forest to give her daughter more opportunities in the arts. There, DeBose continued her dance lessons. At 15, she won a Cold Stone Creamery dance contest.
DeBose’s original career goal had been to become a backup dancer, but when she was around 10 or 11 she fell in love with theater. In North Carolina, she appeared in productions of Aida, Les Misérables and A Chorus Line. While working on A Chorus Line, DeBose met the show’s star, Charlotte d’Amboise, who then became her mentor.
In 2009, an 18-year-old DeBose appeared on the reality show So You Think You Can Dance. She reached the top 20 before being eliminated. Though she didn’t win, the show helped inspire her move to New York. “I left the show knowing I wanted to do more than just dance,” DeBose told Latina magazine, “I missed the challenge of singing, dancing and acting at the same time.”
From Broadway Ensemble to Star
In 2011, DeBose was cast in Bring It On: The Musical, an adaptation of Gabrielle Union and Kirsten Dunst’s movie about opposing cheerleading teams. DeBose was part of the show’s national tour, then made her Broadway debut in 2012.
In 2013, DeBose portrayed Mary Wilson in Motown: The Musical. She also understudied the role of Diana Ross for that show. She next appeared in Pippin.
In 2015, DeBose became part of the original cast of Hamilton that journeyed from Off-Broadway to Broadway. DeBose was a member of the ensemble, but had a special role as “the Bullet,” which called for her to interact with Alexander Hamilton and others when death was near. DeBose also joined other original cast members to advocate for profit participation because they had contributed to the musical’s development.
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After Hamilton, DeBose took a role in the musical A Bronx Tale. In 2018, she starred as “Disco Donna” in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical. She received a Tony Award nomination for her performance in that role.
Throughout her theatrical career, DeBose constantly sought new opportunities because, she has said, “I believe in challenging myself.”
‘West Side Story’
DeBose was initially reluctant to audition for the role of Anita in Steven Spielberg’s movie remake of West Side Story. She explained to Elle UK, “I thought they were going to want someone that fits the entertainment industry’s prototype of what it looks like to be Latina–and that’s not me.”
After DeBose agreed to audition, she asked for more time to prepare before reading for the part, as she was then busy starring on Broadway in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical. This meant she had to turn down Spielberg when he asked her to read, though he was amenable to her coming in at another time.
Before she was cast as Anita, DeBose shared that she wanted the role to address the “double dose of prejudice” being Afro-Latina can mean. She said Tony Kushner, who wrote the film’s screenplay, heard her and helped incorporate this experience into the script.
Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the 1961 movie version of West Side Story, also had a part in the new film. DeBose said her predecessor, who’d won an Academy Award for her performance, was a supportive presence. Making the movie was also a “healing” experience for DeBose, who told The Wrap, “I didn’t grow up with access to my culture. When I was growing up, I was one of the only people who looked like me in my community. West Side Story gave me the opportunity to completely immerse myself in a way that I had not been afforded until then.”
DeBose’s portrayal of Anita received universal acclaim. She won a Golden Globe for best supporting actress and a Screen Actors Guild award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role. Her SAG Award win made her the first Latina to be honored as an individual performer.
DeBose also received the BAFTA award for Best Supporting Actress from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. On March 27, 2022, she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. DeBose’s Oscar makes her and Moreno part of an exclusive club of actors with Academy Awards for playing the same role (other members include Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro, who both portrayed Vito Corleone, and Heath Ledger and Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker).
Movies and TV
DeBose appeared on the show Blue Bloods in 2016. In 2020, a recorded performance of Hamilton, with DeBose in the ensemble, was released on Disney+. That same year, DeBose was seen as popular cheerleader Alyssa Greene in the musical Prom on Netflix.
In 2021, DeBose brought her talents to Schmigadoon! on Apple TV+. In this parody of past musicals, she acted alongside Keegan-Michael Key and Kristin Chenoweth. DeBose also hosted Saturday Night Live in January 2022.
DeBose founded the Unruly Hearts Initiative with her Prom co-star Jo Ellen Pellman to support LGBTQ+ youth. She said, “Jo Ellen and I created UHI as a bridge for young people and their parents to be connected to resources to help them along their journey with identity.” The organization has raised money for The Trevor Project, Point Foundation and Covenant House. DeBose also serves on the board of Covenant House.
DeBose and Broadway props master Jill Johnson were previously in a relationship. She is currently dating and living with Broadway costume designer Sue Makkoo in a country cottage in update New York.