Michaela Jae (“MJ”) Rodriguez has earned a place in our hearts and in television history with her portrayal of Blanca Rodriguez-Evangelista in FX’s Pose, featuring the largest cast of transgender actresses in a scripted show ever. The show’s series finale season packed an emotional punch and went out with a bang, a vibrant celebration of the characters, the laughs, the tears, and the ballrooms that have become part of our LGBTQ storytelling on mainstream television.
Not only did we see Blanca grow into her role as Mother, but we also saw MJ blossom as an actress in her first major TV role and as an activist for the trans community and beyond. The final day of filming was bittersweet.
I knew there was another chapter for me. I knew I wanted to pursue other ventures in my life, but I did not know that it would happen so quickly. But I will say it was beautiful. It was emotional, it was endearing. And more than anything, I feel so strong and empowered. So, the last day I just cried tears of joy.
The ballroom scene presented by Pose was not new to Michaela Jae, she had been voguing from the age of 14, hand-picked by her house father.
My house father at the time was coming to my school and was teaching fashion shows. I was already voguing at high school, with my friends, and we were having battles in the cafeteria, we had all this stuff. We were voguing down! But I just remember him seeing me at a fashion show. I did like this kind of like arm crack behind my back and he was like, “That’s my daughter right there!” And the rest just went on from there!
MJ’s Blanca became mother to us all, her advice and show of unconditional love a force for our present-day LGBTQ community. MJ’s own mother would be her foundation and inspiration.
My mom was one of the main driving forces of why I’m in the music industry today. When I was 11 years old, she put me into a program at New Jersey Performing Arts Center (North New Jersey, all day Brick City – just wanted to throw that out there!). My mom made sure she was adamant with me. She made sure that she kept my energy focused and she saw that I had a knack and a love for the arts, especially music. So, she just kept me diligent in it.
MJ’s childhood would be a colorful one, being raised in an African American and Afro-Puerto Rican father. Her heritage is at the core of every performance and every song.
I love being an Afro-Latina woman, I love being Black and I love being a Latina. I feel like there are pieces of my community that have shown up in ways that I’d never thought before. It is empowering to be an Afro-Latina woman in this time and to be a trans woman and just live in my truth. I stand for every part of my communities and my culture.
No one could have predicted the success of Pose. Not only was it a hit with the LGBTQ community, but the show’s reach and presence in the mainstream media also put trans actors into the spotlight. This new generation of actors was here to make noise.
I was not ready for all of it! I was ready for the work of it all, I was ready for the professionalism of it all. I was ready to get down and dirty into an industry that I had already been ready to be a part of, but I didn’t know that it was going to get the extreme reception that it got. I was insecure. I was worried that the world was going to talk about us and, you know, deem us something other than what the world usually does with people or individuals that they have no understanding of. And I was fooled. I was proven wrong. The world instead, or most of the people of the world, shows nothing but love.
What I learned about myself is that Blanca taught me to be a strong woman, a grown woman, a leader. I don’t know how I’m leading, but I know I’m doing it. And I live freely. I live autonomously, but I also live with direction. I make sure that I have a set direction, a set purpose. I don’t know what my purpose is, but I know there’s a purpose. I feel like that’s what I’ve learned from Pose is that there’s a purpose that may be bigger than you, but you got to just follow it. So, I am following it.
Pose was a history lesson for our community. With the younger generation of our community not having experienced the fear we lived in during the AIDS epidemic, it opened our eyes to the reality of that time. MJ started researching the stories of people of that era.
What shocked me most is that (the news) did not shine a light on trans women of color having this disease. And for me, I was just so sad about that because I can only imagine how many women wanted some kind of resource, some kind of place to go to, but they didn’t have it because they weren’t being seen, even as much as the gay community – and that’s no shade to the gay community, but it’s the truth. There were trans women who were not seen. They were considering it “the white man’s disease, gay man’s disease.” And then more research came out and they started sticking it to just gay men in general, when not realizing that it was a disease that affected everyone and that everyone needed the care, and everyone needed help when it came to that disease. I learned a lot when Pose shed a light on that.
In addition to the attention MJ received for her acting, she also became a strong voice as an activist. Looking back at the young, theatre kid, did she have any idea that she would become such a leader in our community?
I did understand what I wanted to do and what I felt my purpose could have been at a very young age. I wanted to be someone who was changing and helping and pushing forward and just being truly and completely immersed in the arts. And boy, was I surprised that it happened the way it did, and I’m glad that it’s going to stay that way. I am excited. I am blessed. I am filled with love. I want to constantly keep instilling that in people, it just feels good. I know I never dreamed it to happen so quickly, but the fact that it did it just showed me that I have worth, and people are looking to me now. And I’m glad because I’m going to be the example, or at least I’m going to try. I always say that I’m going to try to be the example as best as I can. I’m human.
Telling the stories of our community is nothing new to MJ. While attending college, Rodriguez was cast in a theater production of Rent as the iconic Angel, a role that she had wanted to play since first seeing the film. Actress Fredi Walker-Browne (who originated the Broadway role of Joanne) saw MJ’s performance and helped land her an audition for an upcoming off-Broadway production. MJ got the part and earned a Clive Barnes Award for her performance. This year marks the 25th Anniversary of Rent.
What I learned from Angel, and what I incorporated from her, is that she lives every day as if it were her last. And I live my day, like every single day, if it were my last. I LIVE, she taught me that. What a strong individual that person was, simply bearing and dealing with the onslaught of HIV and AIDS at that time – that was empowering to me. Her death was very emotional to me, but the fact that her spirituality, her energy was left through all these strong characters, this strong ensemble, made me want to leave that kind of legacy. It made me want to leave that kind of impression on people when I’m gone. Like, this is what you need to do, what you need to keep doing. You need to give love. And sometimes when people are down, get them up, make them happy, you know?
MJ got to play another iconic theatre role. She challenged theatre norms with her portrayal of Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors at Pasadena Playhouse. Everything from what had been presented with that character changed. Vocal keys were different, the energy was different, the role of Audrey was thrust into the modern day. She and her costar, George Salazar, performed the show’s hit “Suddenly Seymour” on The Late Late Show with James Corden, a performance that, for MJ, was at once as exhilarating as it was terrifying.
I was very nervous at first because the vocal keys were changed, and I was still in this phase of comfortability with my voice and how people receive my voice and in all different facets of it. So, that came into play. Once I got over that, the focus was really representing all women. No one has ever gotten a chance to play Audrey who is trans and Afro-Latina. So, I wanted to speak for every single last person who was within those intersections – Black, Latina, trans, Asian, or a white woman that doesn’t feel like she’s the stereotypical blonde woman who has to feel inferior or has to be considered dumb because she’s blonde. I wanted to break down those barriers, and I feel like the only way to do that was to go into that role. And now any woman who goes into that role, whether she be cis or trans, she is not going to go into it thinking that she must be this caricature, she can go in there with the story of this woman who is fighting and who has been battered and who has been broken but finds herself through someone who actually sees her, who is Seymour. And that’s one of the reasons why “Suddenly Seymour” was one of my favorite moments too, because it was speaking to myself – those words spoke to me as a woman of the trans experience. And if it spoke to me, then I know it spoke to all those women out there who were looking at me, who possibly knew, or did not know, that I was trans, but saw me and understood.
And now, in her own voice, Michaela Jae has “Something to Say.” This summer, she dropped her debut single, a definite summer bop with a message. Music has always been a major part of MJ’s life, she was a multi scholarship recipient at Berklee College of Music. This time, there’s no role, there’s no script, just pure Michaela Jae.
When we ended on the third season, I was just like, “work!” This is a perfect time for people to see the person outside of Blanca and inside of MJ, which is Michaela Jae. I want people to really see what I have to offer as an artist and what I have to say as an artist, which is “Something to Say.” The song is really about upliftment and togetherness and speaking out, knowing who you are and never being afraid to speak out because we all have something to say, knowing that we all have more in common than we realize, and it doesn’t take just one group of people – it takes all of us. My favorite lyric is “black and brown and yellow, and why let’s stand for something tonight.” We are here as a collective, as the human race. So, yeah, there’s a bigger purpose behind the song. The music gets you up, but the lyrics are very serious.
Saying something, as MJ has, can ignite hate. There are people saying something and standing for something on the opposite side of the fence that rally against us and hurt our community. How do we build bridges with them? Or do we just work on making our community stronger?
I think most importantly, we must keep trying. I think there are some people out there who just don’t have the education and who don’t mean any harm. We know the people that mean harm have been very prevalent to us and now it’s everywhere, we see it now more than we have ever. So now we know those specific people to distance ourselves from. But the people who are willing to learn, more willing to understand, really willing to getting into our lives and our story, we should give them just a little bit of grace too. I still think there is a space for everyone on this earth for understanding and not every person on this planet understands the human condition, right? But there are some of us who so happen to be in the LGBTQIA community, who also happened to be in the black and POC community, who happen to be in the white community, who do understand the human condition and see the bigger picture and why we deserve to be together. So, those people who’ve been creating those legislations and who have been deeming us something that we’re not, you can keep doing what you’re doing, but we’re not going anywhere and we’re going to keep fighting. And we’re beating the stereotypes, we’re stepping up and fighting up against the stigma. We are literally here, and we are not going anywhere.
Michaela Jae is a modern-day superhero. It is fitting that she takes her stage name from Marvel comics. MJ is a play on Mary Jane from Spider-Man, and she made history playing Sister Boy on the TV show Luke Cage, marking the first appearance of both a transgender actress and character in the Marvel universe.
My love of comics started when I was a child. My uncle got me hooked on comics. Luke Cage was one of his comics that he had stacked up in his closet, and I was just sneaking into his room and stealing his comic books. And, after a while, I had already known how to draw so I was like, I’m going to just start drawing and creating characters that I think best represent me or who I felt more resonant with.
We will see a lighter side to MJ in the upcoming AppleTV series Loot starring Maya Rudolph.
I’ve always wanted to just delve into comedy. I knew I had that kind of knack, and I knew that I had the ability to just take it head-on. And when I found out that it was Maya Rudolph, I just felt safe, with her protecting me in that space and just being comforting. She’s been in the business for so long, I feel like I’m someone that’s going to be under her wing. I can’t wait, I cannot wait until I play next to her. And we get to delve into these two different characters, a totally different character from Blanca and the world gets to see it. They get to see this whole story.
And what does Michaela Jae want to say, right here, right now?
I got something to say, and this is what I’m going to say. Dear babies out there across the world, no matter if you’re cis or if you’re trans, or if you’re a part of any type of culture or community – keep being you, keep loving you, keep pushing, never let anyone tell you that you don’t deserve to live or exist because you do. You have a purpose on this earth and I’m a testament to it. And if ever you feel that you are going to falter, or if you feel that you don’t deserve to be here, look to me. I promise I’ll be there.
You can follow Michaela Jae on IG: @MJRodriguez7
Check out our in-depth podcast chat with MJ at Metrosource.com
Last modified: August 2, 2021