The hilariously inventive, culturally astute blogger counts Shonda Rhimes and Oprah among her 500k followers. But it still took her over a decade to realize she’s the writer we’ve been waiting for.
Life these days for writer Luvvie Ajayi—better known on social media as Awesomely Luvvie—is one big whirlwind of dreams coming true. After 13 years blogging and building her brand, this week her first book, I’m Judging You: The Do-Better Manual, went on sale and into the hands of her devoted audience. The glowing reviews and accolades have been rolling in all summer, earning I’m Judging You a place on must-read lists in countless magazines, and before summer was over, Luvvie’s already-huge book-tour stops in New York City and Washington D.C., were sold out.
“It is kind of surreal,” says the 31-year-old Nigerian native, whose conversational, informative, and often hi-larious sister-girl posts have made her the friend-in-my-head to a legion of fans. And “legion” is no exaggeration: She has over 500,000 monthly readers, and her trademarked brand’s accounts on multiple social platforms boasts more than 350,000 followers. We’re talking engaged, passionate followers who eagerly await every post, from show recaps to pop-culture news takes, are fluent in Luvvie-ese (you know what I’m “talmbout”), and though they may never step foot on the continent, will probably still sweatergawd (a Luvvie-ism) that Nigerian jollof rice is the best of all African nations. (Luvvie’s coined so many terms from “damb” meaning “damn” to “alphet” meaning “outfit,” that there’s a constantly evolving glossary. Catch up, folks.) So when someone like trailblazing writer-producer extraordinaire Shonda Rhimes becomes a fan and blurbs her book, calling it a “truth-riot,” you know the woman has really hit on something.
“Some time back, Shonda had posted that she was staying up to watch me and Rhetta live-tweet Scandal. That’s when I realized she was paying attention. I knew she was following me but some people follow you but they’re not paying attention to you,” says Luvvie. “Then I met her last year at Essence Black Women in Hollywood luncheon. I walked up and introduced myself, and she fangirls over me! It was crazy. She was like, ‘Oh my God, you’re one of my favorite people on Twitter.’”
“So she’s been paying attention and meeting her has been cool because she’s basically my fairy godmother now,” says the Chicagoan, whose shoe game is as hot as her word game (see @Mustluvvshoes on Instagram). “She actively cheers me on… It’s always important to surround yourself with people who are going to push you onward and upward. There are mentors everywhere. You don’t even have to have a formal relationship.”
Shonda isn’t Luvvie’s only fairy godmother: Luvvie interviewed Oprah in June, which would have seemed a pinnacle Omaguh moment in and of itself, but Oprah had already selected Luvvie for one of her Supersoul 100 list “of awakened leaders who are using their voices and talent to elevate humanity” back in April, which included a Supersoul 100 luncheon and photo shoot, which she had to keep secret until the time was right
“It was nuts. We could just say we were at this brunch but we couldn’t give it any context,” says Luvvie, who also co-founded The Red Pump Project in 2009 to raise awareness about the impact of HIV/AIDS on women and girls and is the nonprofit’s Executive Director. “But inside I was going, ‘This is the coolest thing ever! I can’t wait for it to drop!’”
Her writing can play in the land of the hysterically petty or shake the rafters with its gripping wokeness or be the best combination of both. In one of her most recent and most side-splittingly funny posts, she addresses a Blaxit (Black Exit), a la the Brexit: What would happen if Black people actually did leave America and took everything they created/helped build/made famous or indispensable. “This country is ungrateful as hell. You know good and damb well Black folks built this thing with our blood and sweat, literally. Now you wanna treat us like Starks at the Red Wedding and we do not appreciate it,” she wrote. “What are we taking with us when we go to New Blaxica? Hella OnyxLand? Republic of Noir? Land of Sable?”
And her book is a natural extension of her voice and her blog. I’m Judging You is divided into four sections: Life, Culture, Social Media, and Fame. Each section takes an insightful and funny look at some persistent bad behavior we have going on in the world, from simple annoyances like friends who never have enough money to contribute to group dinners to social media oversharers to latent homophobia. When asked to choose her favorite section, Luvvie points to the Culture section, which, like most of the book, feels particularly on point for this election season.
“I talk about race, feminism, privilege, homophobia, religion, misogyny. That section is very apt to this election cycle because it covers a lot of things. We have to do better when it comes to these things. Because as we’ve seen when it comes to Donald Trump’s candidacy, people are saying things like ‘I don’t support him.’ But if you don’t denounce and renounce his words, you are kind of supporting him. Because you’re saying his words deserve air and space,” she says. “‘Cause at this point he’s gone against LGBT people. He’s gone against disabled folks, Muslims, Black people, he’s basically combatted everybody. My Culture section really speaks to that, especially individually as every minority group is dealing with prejudice from all sides.”
Luvvie got the idea for the book about two years ago after she says a journalist stole some “three paragraphs of my work. I basically let him have it on Twitter and was like this is not how you’re supposed to do writing things,” she recalls. “And his response was, ‘Oh, I didn’t know.’ And it was in my head like, ‘Was there a limited-edition handbook of right and wrong that you didn’t get? Did some of us get this handbook and some of us didn’t? Why do people not know better?’ And I was like ‘Ooh, I could write that.’”
Things moved quickly after that. Two months after she had the idea, she received a random email from book agent Michael Harriot at Folio Literary Agency. She decided to sign with him, wrote a book proposal within a month and a half, and a month after they started shopping her book around, she had a book deal with Henry Holt & Company, Inc. (an imprint of MacMillan). She started writing the book in May 2015 and finished it in five months.
“This book was ready. It was time for me to write it. It was the perfect time,“ she says.
This part of her journey is all more than she could have dreamed of when she started her blog 13 years ago while working full time.
“I didn’t have hopes for my blog when I started because I didn’t look at blogging as a business or as a career. For me blogging was a hobby,” she says. “It was just because I love to write. There were no hopes. There was no failing because if you don’t have expectations there is no failure. So anything that happens was cherry on the sundae.”
Surprisingly for such a keen digital strategist, there was no strategy early on beside writing consistently about whatever she wanted to.
“I’ve always been the person who kind of spoke my truth in the way I wanted to speak it. It wasn’t a cognizant idea to build my voice. I was just writing in the way I would have a conversation with my friends. It’s probably why I didn’t think of it as a business because I was like, ‘This can’t be a business. I’m just saying what I want to say.’”
She started to understand her reach and audience after she won the Black Weblog Awards’ “Best Humor Blog” in the most popular category in 2009. “It kind of shocked me because I did not think my blog was popular.” She may not have thought it popular but she had started to get emails from readers telling her the impact she had on them. “I think that’s when I realized if you pay attention to following your purpose, really cool things happen. It’s kind of like the universe grabbing my face too and telling me to pay attention when i still wasn’t taking what I was doing seriously. It took a while to stand in that too because again, it’s hard to think outside of yourself and think whatever it is you’ve been doing or love doing, that it is worth monetizing. That it is worth making a living off of, especially if you’re a creative. It’s harder for us because you have to over-prove the work that you do. It’s kind of like an upwards climb.”
But even with all of that, together with her being laid off in 2010, Luvvie didn’t recognize the opportunity to write full time. She kept busy with projects and doing brand work but it would be a little while yet before she made the leap.
“I was still looking for a full-time job. I was still fighting the idea that I should be writing for a living because I didn’t know a lot of people making a comfortable living by just being writers. So I didn’t even think this writing thing could be beyond a hobby,” she says. “I would say probably 2012 is when I looked and said, ‘Yeah, I should be doing this writing thing and working for myself.”
She’s been open with her followers about the struggles and the joys of her current ride, including the fact that there are some who don’t fully comprehend the work that went into getting here.
“Somebody actually really emailed me recently and said. Hey, I want to write a book but I don’t want to build my social media following. Can I just blog for you?” she said as she laughed. “I was like, Okay. Well, kudos to you for asking. But, no. And I told him in an email that there’s no shortcut. You have to grind it out. You can’t skip an important piece like audience. There’s no shortcut to this. You literally have to write for a while. You have to practice your craft. You have to show that you are ready to do this.”
Following that game plan has led her to a place where she says she’s “excited to get out of bed in the morning, check my email and see what goodies await me. I feel very lucky about that.”
So what’s next on the world domination plan?
“The book has been my ultimate goal. Being a New York Times best-seller was the goal. I don’t know what comes next. And I’m fine seeing what comes next,” she says. “Because we can plan and plan and plan but it’s just cool to sit back and allow things to come to you. That’s where I’m at.”
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