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The ‘no’ that propelled Amber Riley to find her Big Girl Energy

Had it not been for trust falling back into her passion after a devastating rejection, the singer-actor probably would’ve been an exec at Ikea.

The ‘no’ that propelled Amber Riley to find her Big Girl Energy
[Photo: Courtesy Justin Frazier]
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Listen to the latest episode of Fast Company’s Creative Conversation podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, RadioPublic, Google Podcasts, or Stitcher.

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We all first fell in love with Amber Riley as the perpetually undervalued powerhouse vocalist Mercedes Jones on Glee. But before the breakout role that propelled her to film, Broadway, and recording her own music, she was actually rejected from American Idol, which almost made her quit singing altogether.

“Oh, I was devastated. I was devastated. I don’t think that I’ve ever cried so hard in my life,” Riley says on the latest episode of Fast Company’s Creative Conversation podcast. “I wasn’t ready for that kind of rejection, because my whole life in my small town doing community theater or singing at church or singing in school, I was always praised. That was my first taste of real rejection. It really made me doubt myself.”

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So much so that she abandoned her passion for singing and performing for a job at Ikea.

“I was over it. I was just like, ‘It’s not working out for me. I’m just going to get a regular nine-to-five,'” Riley says. “I’ve always been good with people. I worked in customer service, ended up moving up in the company pretty [quickly]. But I wasn’t necessarily happy. I was just content.”

In this episode, Riley explains what got her back on track toward her true purpose, why Broadway “ain’t nobody’s bitch,” how her recording artist rebrand as just “Riley” is part of a larger movement—and more. Check out highlights from Riley’s Creative Conversation below, and listen to the full episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, RadioPublic, Google Podcasts, or Stitcher.

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Trust falling back into your passion

“When I was working at Ikea, I remember my parents saying, ‘You don’t really talk about music much anymore. You don’t really sing much anymore. You haven’t been in an audition in years.’ I just gave up those dreams and I started saying I was just going to do it for fun. I’m not telling people to go out and quit their jobs, but I had the support of my parents and my sisters, and I did. I quit the job, and was just working little odd and easy jobs, singing at bars when I could, doing demos for people, getting money to do ghost backgrounds and ghost vocals for artists that are out now, just whatever I could do to make ends meet. I do believe people have always been my passion, so [working in customer service at Ikea] was my way of still feeding that. But it wasn’t the medium to which I wanted to feed that.”

The necessary “no”

“I would say that American Idol was the no that I needed to really make that decision that this is what I’m going to go after. The rejection is worth it. There’s this hunger inside [me]. I tried to do other things. I was completely unhappy. I believe [singing and performing is] a purpose. It has put me in front of people and given me a platform to do things that really matter, be it activism, or encouraging young women to love themselves, or showing young women you can look like me and have a career, and it may be a little hard, but you can do it. It’s a number of things.”

What’s in a name?

“I think [of] ‘Riley’ as a whole entire brand. As far as my take on mental health, ‘Big Girl Energy’ isn’t just about being a big girl, it’s about putting your big girl panties on and doing what needs to be done, despite obstacles, despite feelings, despite even the reality of what can be achieved. It’s a whole brand, and it’s a movement. I see Riley becoming this force that empowers people, in general, be it women, men—especially outcasts—or people that feel like they are outside of the world’s norm, the LGBTQ+ community, all of it encompassing just self-love. I want to be that vision of self-love, but not that toxic positivity shit. I don’t believe in those lies of ‘I feel great all the time. I completely love myself every single moment of the day.’ Sometimes the reality is you don’t—but that doesn’t make us less worthy.”

About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America," where he was the social media producer.

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