Angelica Nwandu merged her celebrity obsession and love of writing to create The Shade Room.
When she came up with the idea for The Shade Room (TSR) in 2014, a news site that follows trending stories and the actions of celebrities in real time, Angelica Nwandu was broke, unemployed, and had no blogging experience. But she believed in her idea. Nwandu started an Instagram account and began to anonymously blog about celebrities. She'd spend hours scouring the social media pages of famous and borderline-famous people, and report on their lives based on their social media activity. TSR attracted more than 700,000 followers within its first year, which led to he New York Times calling it the TMZ of Instagram.
Nwandu's focus has always been on the news and celebrities that interest the African-American community. In addition to giving plenty of blog space to stars such as Chris Brown and Nikki Minaj, TSR covers breaking news and political topics — from #BlackLivesMatter to #BlackGirlMagic — from the point of view of people of color.
Today, the Shade Room properties — which include a website, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and YouTube pages — have amassed a following of more than 8 million people. Nwandu, 26, who made this year's Forbes' 30 Under 30 list, says she wants to create nothing short of a media empire.
When I was 6 years old, I lost my mother at the hands of my father to domestic violence, and I entered the foster care system. Trying to cope with the pain and confusion of the situation led to me getting in trouble in school. I was angry all the time, and I was fighting a lot with other kids. When I was 12, I met one of my mentors, Zaid Gayle, from Peace for Kids. It's a program that helps foster youth find creative outlets to let their anger out. I joined the poetry program because I didn't want to do anything else like music or art. Writing became my therapy. I stopped fighting. I was doing well in school. I started to see myself as different than my circumstances.
I went to Loyola Marymount University on a full scholarship. I studied accounting and human resources. My biggest concern was that I had to support myself. Who else was going to help me?
After graduation in2012, I was hired to work with a senior accountant at a motorcycle shop in Los Angeles. I did the daily grunt work of paperwork and filing taxes.
I hated my job. After two years, I told Zaid that I wanted to be a writer. I was worried that he would think I was a failure. When I chose accounting as a major, Zaid set up meetings with executives in the industry, so I could pick their brains and make connections. Now I wanted to turn my back on that path. But Zaid surprised me. He was like, "Finally. I was waiting on you to do what I know you're supposed to do."
The next week Zaid introduced me to Jordana Spiro, who had done volunteer work with Peace for Kids and was writing a screenplay about a foster youth whose father killed her mother. It was very similar to my own story. The first time we sat down together, we knew we had to write this together.
Jordana had a screenwriting degree and a lot of technical experience. I knew how to put my heart and soul into everything. I would contribute ideas and experiences, and she taught me how to shape them into a script. She lived in New York, so we would send scenes back and forth to each other, and I would [take days off the accounting job], fly out, and spend weeks writing with her. She would often pay for my tickets because she knew I didn't have any money.
We were working on the script for about six months when we submitted it to the Sundance Institute Screenwriters Lab [a two-week incubator for beginning filmmakers]. When they chose us, I didn't know how big of a deal it was. I just felt validated that I was doing what I should be doing. Once we got to the Sundance Mountain Resort in Utah, I met people who had been submitting their work for years and never made it in. I was only 23, and I hadn't written anything but poetry before.
The program is like a boot camp. You're paired with amazing writers and directors who are great mentors, but they also break down everything you've written — completely tear it apart. At times I thought, Why did you even choose me? But then they build you back up again and push you to think about your writing in different ways. It helped Jordana and me reshape the screenplay, which has been in progress for three years. We hope our latest rewrite will get picked up.
Midway through the program, you're asked to present something you've written before to the audience of mentors and students. Big directors like Quentin Tarantino came to see us. Everyone else had short films to show. I didn't have anything except for some of my poetry.
I was about to get on stage and my boss called me. It was January; tax season. He yelled into the phone, "You'd better hop on a plane and come back here tomorrow or you're fired." I still had another week left of the program. In that moment I thought, Either I choose my dream or I choose my job. I said, "There is no way I'm coming back tomorrow and losing this opportunity." And he said, "Fine, then you quit."
When I hung up the phone, I was like, You're so stupid. How are you going to pay your rent when you get back home? But I had to go on stage. The poem was very emotional, about my parents and my childhood. As I started to read it, I was bawling. By the end, the audience stood up and clapped, but all I wanted to do was run to the bathroom and cry, and try to figure out my life.
As I was walking off the stage, Michelle Satter, who is the founding director of the Sundance Institute, came up to me and said, "Angelica, I have to give you a grant so you can start writing." It was enough money to last me a few months. Jordana gave me money as well because she said she believed in me and she wanted me to be a part of the film.
I went to New York for a month to work on a rewrite with Jordana. Then I came back to L.A. to brainstorm my next project. I had no idea how to be a writer [on my own]. I started reading screenplays and watching old movies trying to research and learn the craft.
I also spent a lot of time reading celebrity blogs. It was early 2014, and the Chris Brown and Rihanna drama was happening. I had always loved entertainment and celebrities like a normal person does, but I didn't get obsessed until I didn't have anything else to do. All my friends thought I was a loser because all I was doing was watching the celebrity blogs and sending them updates about what was going on.
One day, it clicked. I thought, If I'm always on these sites and I enjoy this, let me figure out a way to create my own blog. I didn't know how to create a website, so I started an Instagram and began publishing articles to The Shade Room.
I would watch celebrities on Instagram and Twitter and write about what they were saying, what they were doing, what they were posting, every little thing they said in the comments. I didn't know how to make money, but I knew that if I got a lot of followers, it could help me build a website, which could translate into money eventually.
My goal for the year was to get 10,000 followers. It was not going to be my full-time job. I thought I'd be writing screenplays. But once I started blogging, I became obsessed with it. Every new follower I got, I wanted more. Buy the end of the first week and a half, I had over 10,000 followers.
One of the first stories I did was on a popular transgender model named Amiyah Scott. She was having a messy breakup. She came and commented on the story, then her boyfriend would respond to her in the comments. Then they started fighting on our page, and it just got crazy. Very rarely did celebrities use blogs as a platform to communicate with each other, and The Shade Room quickly became the place for them to do that. We've had everyone from the Kardashains to Nicki Minaj to 50 Cent commenting on our Instagram. And Chris Brown is a regular.
whether it's politics, celebrity news, or covering a black boy being shot. What sets us apart is that we are a click away from the celebrities we're writing about. They are talking on social media, we are talking about them on social media, so it's easy for them to come right to us to continue the conversation. And everyone who follows these celebrities can join in the conversation as well. The comments on every post are just as important as the [initial] story
For the first nine months, I was blogging on my own — all day, all night, and I didn't sleep. I didn't make any money. Friends would say, "You're wasting your life on Instagram. Just get a real job and come back to this later." But I knew it wasn't something I could come back to. I was up to 500,000 followers, and I could see the potential to grow even more.
In July 2014, I had gotten down to negative $400 in my bank account and rent was due. I wrote a check to my manager knowing it was going to bounce. I had three days to figure out a way to make some money before I'd start incurring fees or get evicted.
I decided that day to start a store on Big Cartel, an online marketplace. I created ad packages for small businesses [such as clothing and beauty companies] to buy posts on The Shade Room. You can't sell traditional ads on Instagram. They purchased [promotional] posts that I would write. I was almost instantly bombarded with payments from businesses. Then I spent $45 and created a website on WordPress. I put up Google Ads and started collecting money almost instantly. By the time my landlord cashed that check, I had funds ready in my account.
In September 2015, I hired my first employee, an assistant. I was getting so tired I almost couldn't do it anymore. And there was a young woman who kept emailing me saying she wanted to work for The Shade Room. Then I hired a brand manager because a recent Morehouse graduate kept emailing me saying I needed one. He didn't have any experience. My assistant had never written anything before. But I saw a hunger in them that I saw in myself. I had never run a media company before, but I was passionate about it. We now have 20 paid employees. Everyone I hire has that fire to just make something happen.
I created a community for my followers, who I call Roommates, to be a part of something. I have paparazzi everywhere, and no one knows what they look like. They send us their tips, photos, and videos of what they see, and my writers fact check by doing research, gathering evidence — every Roommate talk must come with picture/video/logistic evidence — and/or contacting the celeb's team personally to verify. I can't say we're completely unbiased. I like to think we represent the popular black opinion on these situations. We express what our followers feel.
Our Instagram was deleted in December 2014. It turned out to be an accident, but we had to build our audience from scratch. In April this year, Facebook deleted The Shade Room's account [citing violation of its community standards], and we lost 4.4 million followers. All those hours. All that sacrifice. I didn't know if I could do it all over again. Now the Instagram page is at 5 million followers, and our new Facebook page has more than 200,000. People come back to us. It's a brand they want.
I don't take vacation. If I got a week off, The Shade Room would probably burn down. As the business grows, I have to learn to delegate. The problem is I can't take my claws out of it. I love it too much. I definitely want to fall in love and have a normal, stable life. It's just not going to be for a while. The dreams that I have are so big that I don't think I can rest until I achieve them.
We have a lot of offers on the table from studios wanting to invest to make us a digital empire. I intend to partner with someone who will allow that to happen. I want to build a digital network and create scripted shows, not just celebrity and entertainment news.
I definitely think about how rare it is to be a young black woman running a media business. I have to convince myself every day I can do it. I've never had anyone in my family reach this level of success, or even have this kind of opportunity. Every day, I try to see myself in the light of a businesswoman, and not that girl who has all this baggage. I'm still dealing with some of the trauma I went through as a child because I blocked it out growing up. But nothing I went through has stopped me from being successful. If anything, it's contributed to my journey. It inspired me to find a creative outlet in writing. I think that my story is proof of what can happen when you believe in yourself.
This Article is first published on Get That Life by Heather , follow her on Twitter.