Lydia Nicole: The Rose of Spanish Harlem

Actress, executive, motivator, she's a pioneer of bringing ethnic humor and diversity to urban audiences

By Al Carlos Hernandez - Contributing Editor
Published on LatinoLA: September 26, 2010

Lydia Nicole: The Rose of Spanish Harlem

Tenacity, courage, audacity and motivation are trademarks of Lydia Nicole. These qualities have served her from a Harlem childhood to the present.

She lives a very diverse life: mother, actress, writer, comedian, motivational speaker, and executive.

At the age of 13 she was given a job at New York's number one radio station and creator of urban contemporary, WBLS-FM in New York City. There she apprenticed under radio legends Frankie Crocker and Hal Jackson. She was promoted to music director by the age of 18. In Los Angeles her experience landed her a job working at Neil Bogart's legendary Casablanca Records whose roster included Donna Summer, the Village People, Parliament, Kiss, Cameo, and Cher.

Lydia traded her executive hat for a career in acting. Over the years she has been featured in various notable television shows and feature films: The Jeffersons, Hill Street Blues, Indecent Proposal starring Robert Redford, Hollywood Shuffle starring Robert Townsend and Stand and Deliver with James Edward Olmos.

Her acting career spans over 25 years. She turned her childhood misadventures into a comedy routine that landed her on BET's Comic View, regular spots at Hollywood's Comedy Store, and Laugh Factory, a mention as Hispanic Magazine's Top 100 Latino Comics list. She has had performances around the U.S. and Puerto Rico, where she also performed in Spanish. ("My father's a pimp and my mother's a prostitute," her act begins. "Out here that makes me an actress. . .") She is one of the pioneers of bringing ethnic humor and diversity to urban audiences, and has both starred in and co-produced a comedy troupe entitled The Funny Ladies of Color. Lydia co-founding the critically acclaimed stand-up comedy troupe, The Hot & Spicy Mamitas, who released a CD on Uproar Records and garnered interest from HBO for their own comedy special.

Lydia's career shifted gears when she wrote a one-woman show based on her childhood entitled A Rose in Spanish Harlem. The show explores her New York childhood. Built on the traditon of classic drama, her's is a story of hope, empowerment and the supernatural. Her character is gifted with the ability to see angels and spirits in the spiritual realm. The performance is a coming-of-age story about a half Black, half Puerto Rican girl whose father is a pimp, whose mother is a prostitute, and whose caretaker and confidant is a drag queen. The setting is on the mean streets of El Barrio's Spanish Harlem in New York City during the 1960's and 70's. According to Lydia A Rose in Spanish Harlem addresses, "The higher purpose question of who am I, and what am I going to do with my life."

The show balances being universally relatable, while still emphasizing Latino culture and community. This is a comedy that weaves laughter and tenacity throughout each act. Incorporated into the play's theme is Helen Keller's message that the best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched, but must be felt with the heart. Subtly the storyline touches and moves audiences young and old. The experience allows everyone, regardless of background, to relate to the comedic actor's life drama. Nicole's intention is to reveal how people can seize the internal power to transform lives. In A Rose In Spanish Harlem, Lydia transforms herself into a girl guru, portraying over 25 characters. She brings to the audience a global village of characters whose diversity spans race, gender, and socio-economics.

Lydia took a hiatus from performing to begin working behind the camera assisting filmmaker Robert Townsend. One of the projects of which she is most proud is Why We Laugh, a documentary on the history of African American comedians from slavery to present. This included interviews with such legends as Bill Cosby, Dick Gregory, Chris Rock and the Wayan Brothers. The film received critical acclaim at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.

Lydia uses her instincts and ability to turn a turbulent upbringing into a life of celebration. She has become an inspiration for thousands of at-risk teens. Speaking at inner-city schools, churches and juvenile correctional facilities has led to her upcoming book: providing life skills and tools to motivate young adults. She has also served as a spokesperson for Athletes & Entertainers For Kids, PEACE Fund and Artsreach, with whom she collaborated on the award-winning documentary When The Bough Breaks about incarcerated teen mothers. This past year, Lydia took two workshops into the California Youth Authority: A Garden Party and Boys to Kings. A Garden Party program taught incarcerated females to respect and nurture the garden they helped plant. Boys to Kings was a rite of passage workshop that initiated young men into adulthood. Lydia has recently completed a new solo show entitled "In The Mn's Corner", based on her rights of passage workshop.

Ms. Nicole is always active with her career, her ministry and enjoying time with her daughter in Los Angeles and New York. She is currently mentoring a women's group, tending her garden, and painting everything red.

www.LatinoLA.com Contributing Editor, Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez, talked to Lydia about her diverse artistic life experiences:

AC: Tell us about your family and growing up in Harlem. What was it like both good and bad, and how has this shaped your world view?

LN: It was amazing. It was the best of times and the worst of times. I learned valuable lessons and got great tools for life. I learned not to let "no" or rejection or fear stop me.

AC: You were very successful at an early age. What drove you to be different than everyone else? Who was your greatest supporter and who were the nay sayers?

LN: What drove me was the sense that God created me to do something great so I moved with that sense and not with the shame of my upbringing. I have been very fortunate in that I have had incredible supporters. My first was Gracie. She was a former prostitute who used to work with my mother. When I was little I would sit at her kitchen table and tell her my dreams and she would say, "Yes, you can do it!" When I first moved to LA she would send me five single dollar bills wrapped in toilet paper through the mail. I would use the money and the toilet paper. My other biggest supporter was Hal Jackson whom I met when I was 13 and working at WBLS radio. He became my surrogate dad and he thought everything I did was great. That support made me think I could fly.

The nay-sayers were in my family and those who lived on my block, but I did not really feel their ridicule because I believe that God coated me with teflon when I was young so that no negative things would stick.

AC: What events led you to begin a career in Radio at 13? How was it working with Frankie Crocker and what was the NY music scene like back then? How did you move up through the ranks so quickly and who was a good or bad influence on you?

LN: I used to sit outside on the fire escape of the tenement I lived in and listen to the radio. And I used to listen to Frankie everyday from Monday through Friday. One day I decided he had to meet me because I was an original. I bought him a black plain t-shirt and wrote his name on it in rhinestones and ventured down to the radio station to meet him. I waited in the lobby for him for five hours and the parking lot attendant asked me to go get him a soda from the store. I did and when I came back I saw Frankie leaving down the street in his car. I was crushed for about 2 minutes but I came back the next morning. That actually worked in my favor because when I got there Frankie was waiting for me and took me into the station, gave me a tour, then gave me records and concert tickets. I went back to the station everyday for the next week. His assistant decided to put me to work and that is how I got the job.

The music scene was amazing and WBLS was doing stuff musically that was fresh and innovative. Frankie was breaking all the programming rules by programming Frank Sinatra back to back with Marvin Gaye and Celia Cruz. I loved music and had a great ear. I also listened to different radio stations so I would tell Frankie and his assistant Wanda Ramos (who would go on to put WKTU on the map) about songs I heard like Elton John's "Daniel" or Billy Joel's "Just the way you are" which got added to the play list. I also was a quick learner so I went from opening the mail and answering phones to being an assistant music director by the time I was 17 years old. It was a great influence on me. I learned the business of show through the radio show.

AC: At 18 you were at the top of the New York radio food chain. Why did you move to LA?

LN: Because I wanted to be a movie star like everybody else. I moved out to LA with $500 in my pocket and no clue. But God takes care of babies and fools. As soon as I came out to LA, Casablanca Records co-founder Cecil Holmes offered me a job at the company and I learned a lot about marketing and promotions.

AC: Tell us about your years in the record business in LA.

LN: My years in the record business were wonderful. I got to work with wonderful recording artists, wonderful and crazy record executives, and I got to program radio and get high ratings. I loved it.

AC: After being on the business side of things, why acting? Which acting platform do you prefer (film, TV, stage) and why?

LN: Although I love the music business, I love acting and performing the most. I don't have a preference, they each offer different things. Theater is immediate and film records your performance forever.

AC: During your 25 years as an actor, what was your greatest acting success and biggest disappointment?

LN: I have many great successes but one of my favorites was working with Robert Redford and director Adrian Lynne on Indecent Proposal. The director gave me carte blanche to do what I wanted to. I got to sit next to Robert for two days and ask him all kind of questions.

My greatest disappointment was being judged by my last name and not by my talent. When I first started going out on auditions I had a casting assistant refuse to let me read to play an Egyptian character because she looked at my picture and saw my last name and thought I was Mexican. And I, being totally naive, said to her, "I'm not Mexican, I don't even eat tacos." I realized that I had to do something about people judging me before I came into the room so I changed my last name from Fernandez to Nicole. And I have never regretted my decision.

AC: How does comedy fit into all this? When and why did you decide to do stand up? Tell us about The Funny Ladies of Color.

LN: I started doing stand up comedy because, being ethnic, I needed a hook. All my friends could sing, dance, play an instrument and all I could do was tell stories in a funny way. So I started doing stand up. But when I started there weren't many women, let alone Latinas. I decided I had to create in my own way and it was to do a show with all women of different ethnic backgrounds.

AC: Tell us about your one-woman-show "A Rose in Spanish Harlem" and explain how that came about.

LN: My show is based on my childhood growing up in el barrio. it is about the good, the bad, and the funny. I wanted to write something that could inspire people to release their childhood past and live their life with purpose.

AC: You stepped back behind the camera again and worked with Robert Townsend as a producer. What did you accomplish and what are some of the projects you would still like to get on screen?

LN: I have learned what it takes to produce as a person of color. The opportunities are not abundant so you have to create your own opportunities. I have gotten to work on all kinds of projects. One of my favorite projects is "Why We Laugh." It is a documentary on the history of Black comedians as told by Black comedians. I would like to do a Latin version of that. I also want to produce a couple of screenplays that I have written.

AC: You have an interest in inner city teens and you are sought after as a motivational speaker for youth groups around the country. What is your message? What type of engagements do you do?

LN: I have a heart for inner city kids - that is my calling. My message to them is very simple: "You can do whatever you want." My job is to stir them up enough to start dreaming big. I talk to kids from 2nd grade to college age. I love talking to the at-risk youth because I see them as my kids, my family. I recognize that they just need someone to believe in them. I am that person.

AC: What motivates you?

LN: God and creativity.

AC: Tell us about the book you are working on.

LN: Well, I am very ambitious. I have four books and they include two devotional books, a goals book for teens, and prayer book.

AC: What are some of the other projects you are working on?

LN: I am working with Robert Townsend on his projects and I am looking to get my own projects off the ground next year.

AC: How do you feel about New Media as a tool and a platform for your creative activity? Tell us about your website?

LN: New Media is a creative opportunity for artists to do their own projects and to have ownership over them. This is a great time for artists to take their power back. Hopefully soon we will figure out how to make lots of money with it as well.

AC: What would want your legacy to be? How would you like America to remember you?

LN: I want to be remembered as a good citizen of the universe, as a talented artist and as one who encourages others.


About Al Carlos Hernandez - Contributing Editor:
Edited by Susan Aceves
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