From ‘Gossip Girl’ to ‘Bel-Air’: Alumna navigates Hollywood

JaNeika James
JaNeika James G’05

JaNeika James G’05 always loved television, but never considered that writing for television could be a career. Then she came to Newhouse to earn a master’s degree in television, radio and film.

Now, James is a showrunner for two television series from Netflix; the co-author of “Living Double , a book she wrote with her twin sister, JaSheika, about being women of color in Hollywood ; and co-executive producer on “Bel-Air,” a reboot of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” which NBCUniversal’s streaming service Peacock just won the rights to.

We talked with James about writing a book with her sister, her favorite part of working on “Gossip Girl” and her best advice for female writers of color wanting to break into the entertainment industry.

Why did you decide to write “Living Double?”

JaSheika and I had never thought about how our experience becoming television writers could really help other young people who were like us women, people of color. We were always obsessed with TV when we were growing up, but we didn’t have any connections. We didn’t know that writing for television was something that you could actually do. We didn’t know all of the positions that are involved in bringing something to life, in film or TV. We had no awareness of what that world actually looked like. I know that there are a lot of young people who are like us, who love television, and if they have the opportunity to be a part of it would absolutely do it. They just have no idea how to get there.

The book was an acknowledgement of the road that we traveled and giving some insight for other young people who can be inspired and encouraged to keep on their own road when they’re pursuing this as a passion.

JaSheika James and JaNeika James
JaSheika James and JaNeika James

What has been your favorite part of working on “Gossip Girl”?

I really appreciated how the showrunner, Josh Safran, was very committed to making this new version of “Gossip Girl,” one that was more inclusive. Not only are the two leads black women, but [there are] stories that are inclusive of LGBTQ+ kids. [We] were able to tell the stories in a very nuanced way, but in the “Gossip Girl” soapy, luxurious fashion. I hope that people are enjoying [that it maintains] the fun, soapy tone that it had on The CW back in the day, but also really embraces diversity in the storytelling as well as the cast.

What is the best way for aspiring writers who are women of color to enter the industry?

I think that it’s important for us to understand that your path is your path and there is no one particular way to get into this business. I can tell you several different ways. You can be an assistant. You could be an intern. I think that the best advice is to not think that there’s one particular path that is specific to your success. The biggest thing that is specific to your success is having the vision and the desire [to do what you] want to do. I don’t think people realize the power [that comes from saying what] you want to do. Declare it  and everything else will fall into place by faith.

Elizabeth Kauma is a senior in the magazine, news and digital journalism program at the Newhouse School.