You may recognize Alyssa Cheatham as Will Smith’s daughter and co-star in the feature film Collateral Beauty, but this tween is an icon in the making both off and on screen. Since her acting debut at the age of three in Every Secret Thing, the now 11-year-old actress was set to star in one of Nick Jr.’s latest additions, Made By Maddie, as 8-year-old NYC-based fashionista and designer Maddie. However, the show that was projected to air on September 13th, was met controversy as #BlackTwitter pointed out similarities between the Nick Jr. show and Matthew Cherry’s award-winning short, Hair Love. Nickelodeon decided to pull the show from the scheduled lineup and delay the debut.
After working hard on this project for nearly two years, we’d assumed Cheatham would be devastated but her positivity and strong spirit shined bright as she addressed the issues on her parent-monitored social media account.
“I think Black girls of all shades need to see themselves on TV and in movies because when you see yourself in someone else, you believe what you see is possible,” she said to HelloBeautiful exclusively about the importance of diversity for Black girls on television.
I had the pleasure of connecting with the tween vocalist and actress via email on HelloBeautiful’s behalf to talk about inner beauty, staying positive amidst controversy, and Made by Maddie as a necessary representation for young Black girls.
Let’s talk about Made by Maddie. What was the show about and what excited you most about being part of this show?
[Maddie] has a huge heart and she loves her friends. She is smart, spunky, creative, and solves problems through her love of fashion because for her, there’s always a fashion fix. I was really excited when I booked the role of Maddie in Made By Maddie because I was given the opportunity to voice a character that looked like me, my family members, and my friends. Her family looked like people in my family and that’s so needed in the media.
How did you feel about the show being cancelled? What are your thoughts on what people are saying about the show’s similarities to Hair Love?
I actually didn’t find out about the show being cancelled until hours after it was announced on Deadline. My manager found out and told my mom and then my mom told me later that evening. When she initially told me, I did feel disappointed and sad because as an actor, we want our work to be seen by people and I worked so hard for almost two years on this show. My mom immediately said she understood why I was feeling that way but [to] think about the positives. She asked me to make a list of what I gained from the experience of working on Made By Maddie.
After, I felt a lot better and then my mom said, “we need to address the controversy.” That’s when I suggested I make a video of how I felt. I spoke from my heart and I am okay now with everything. I understand why people feel the way they do. I am not in control of what happens since I am just the voice actor and Made By Maddie isn’t my show and I don’t own the network. I just hope things can work out for everyone.
What inspired you to speak out about the controversy on social media and tell your Instagram followers how you feel?
People were tagging me on social media and saying I shouldn’t support the show because if I did, I didn’t support Matthew Cherry. I am 11-years-old and I don’t even know why people thought that was okay. I watched Hair Love, I loved it and I do support Matthew Cherry. I also wanted to share my work and the stories I tell on Made By Maddie. The stories are different, even if the characters do have similarities. Since I don’t know what will happen with the show, I am not focusing on that. I am only going to focus on what’s in my control.
Amidst the controversy and cancellation, how do you remain positive and maintain inner beauty while you’re in the spotlight?
If you walk around having a negative attitude about everything that doesn’t go your way, you will be one miserable person. I know that the show cancellation is bigger than me. Even if no one ever sees the show, it doesn’t take away the fact that I worked really hard, had so much fun, and grew as an artist. I try my best to focus on who I am, how I can be better everyday and just appreciate things for what they are. If I focused on every little thing someone said, good or bad, I would not be happy. I am focusing on doing what makes me happy and with my career, people get a chance to watch how I do that.
In Santiago of the Seas, tell me about your role of Lorelai and why is this role so important to you?
Lorelai is a Black singing mermaid who has the ability to transform into a pirate girl. She is a part of Santiago’s crew and she travels as they go on sea adventures, fight sea villains and solve problems along the way. This role was really important for me because I get to be a Black mermaid on TV. Growing up, I’ve never seen a Black mermaid on TV or in movies. I saw Ariel from The Little Mermaid but she didn’t look like me. It’s important to show diversity in the media because when kids can see it, they can dream it.
What does “diversity and representation” mean to you? How do you demonstrate this to young Black girls your age?
Diversity and representation means showing up for Black and brown kids. We come in all shapes, colors, and sizes. What’s so cool about the characters who I get to voice on Santiago of The Seas and Made By Maddie is that the characters are browner than me and I think that’s important. A lot of times, we see shows where there is only one Black girl or boy in the entire cast and most times, they have lighter skin. I am beautiful and I love my skin, but my friends and family members with browner skin are equally beautiful.
How will you continue to be a role model and inspire others?
I don’t consider myself a superstar or anything, but I know I have a platform and I want to use it to help others. I am just doing what I normally do and I am not trying to be someone I am not, for social media. That’s too much pressure. I am sharing my life as it is, even with the mistakes, and hopefully it will inspire others. I have a lot of ideas about stuff I want to create. I know that with hard work, those things will happen. I want to write my own sitcom and star in it and I want to hire people that look like me. We need more people behind the scenes that look like me.
My third song will be out in a few weeks and it’s all about positivity and moving forward, even when the world tells you that you can’t. The song isn’t a response to the Made By Maddie controversy, though. The song was written last year and so it just happens to be a fit for what happened recently. I just want to use all my talents, however I can, to empower and inspire others.