Photographed by Bryan Sheffield. Dress by Fausto Puglisi, ring on right pointer finger by Melinda Maria, all other rings by Adornmonde.
The following feature appears in the March 2016 issue of NYLON.
Serayah doesn’t just want to be a star. She wants to be a whole constellation. And the thing is, you’ve probably only seen a fraction of what the triple threat—actress, dancer, and singer—can do. The 20-year-old, who plays bisexual pop star Tiana on Fox’s juicy hip-hop drama Empire, has been dreaming of performing since she was nine. The former model recently dropped her last name, McNeill, professionally and is now a one-name wonder like Beyoncé and Rihanna (two artists whom she loves). She has big plans ahead, too: Serayah’s preparing to release a mixtape of pop-R&B later this year, and hopes to land her first feature film role.
But first, Serayah’s still celebrating being upgraded from a recurring character to a regular on Lee Daniels’ addictive prime-time soap, and she’s collecting loads of fans along the way. “I think everyone is attracted to the ghetto-glamorous lifestyle,” says Serayah about Empire’s appeal. “Fans tell me they love how Tiana dances and sings, her attitude, and how she is relentless in getting what she wants.”
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Photographed by Bryan Sheffield. Top and skirt by Solace, shoes by Soebedar, all rings and bracelets by Adornmonde, sunglasses by House of Holland.
However, the gig does come with its challenges—namely, the occasional offensive interview, such as when New York radio station Hot 97’s Ebro Darden opened up Serayah’s first visit to “Ebro in the Morning” by asking if she’s ever “walked into a rapper’s dressing room and had sex with him on the floor.” The confident singer held her own in the hot seat, unfazed by the rude line of questioning. “I think they’re not really trying to be informative, but get the best-sounding interviews,” she says. “So they go for shock value sometimes, which throws off artists.”
Other stars maybe, but not Serayah. She has had a good career role model in friend Taylor Swift, even getting to star beside the pop star and the likes of Cara Delevingne, Gigi Hadid, and Selena Gomez in Swift’s “Bad Blood” video. Contrary to popular belief, Serayah says the squad doesn’t feel cliquish. “Being new to the industry, I think I was very lucky to meet Taylor and the girls at the time I did, because they’re very down-to-earth and cool,” says Serayah. “I know that Taylor’s been friends with a lot of the group for a long time, and the ‘Bad Blood’ video definitely made everyone a lot closer.”
The two also recently shared the stage, when Serayah sang “Style” with Swift during a tour stop in Chicago, where Empire films. “It was amazing. I got to perform in front of 55,000 people,” she says, still in awe. “That’s more people than I can even imagine! It was like the ultimate high.” From that performance, Serayah realized she and Swift have an overlapping fan base. “A lot of the girls from 10 to 15 or even younger were like, ‘Oh my god, I love you!’” she says. “It made me realize how many young girls I really reach.”
Though she now boasts 700,000 Instagram followers, Serayah is still a regular-degular girl, a former community college student who studied business and theater. The California native still makes time for her crew back home, even though it’s not always easy. “Sometimes, you know, I’m not able to make every birthday or event, but my friends understand,” she says.
Photographed by Bryan Sheffield. Top and skirt by Solace, all rings and bracelets by Adornmonde, sunglasses by House of Holland.
When the busy actress does have time to chill, though, she and her friends go to the movies, try new sushi spots, or hang at a hookah bar. Serayah says she doesn’t sacrifice that relationship with her “day ones,” because those girls know her better than most. In fact, one of her close pals is really into astrology, and has helped her learn more about her life as a Gemini on the cusp of Cancer. “I relate more with Cancer,” clarifies Serayah. “Whenever you say you’re a Gemini people are like, ‘God!’ But I think we’re pretty balanced right there in the middle. We get to feel emotion and show emotion, but we’re still the life of the party.”
For Serayah, that means being a born entertainer. “I just love to do it,” she says. “I don’t know how it feels not to know what you want to do. It’s been what I’ve wanted for so long, so it’s just natural for me to want to [perform] every day.”
Hair: Randy Stodghill at Opus Beauty using bumble and bumble. Makeup: Allan Avendaño at Opus Beauty using Diorskin Star. Manicurist: Christina Aviles at Opus Beauty using Dior Le Vernis.