The rise of twin sisters JaNeika and JaSheika James is a classic Hollywood success story of outsiders becoming major forces in the entetainment industry. And their new book lays out a clear roadmap for others who have dreams of making it. Upon graduating with bachelor’s degrees in Telecommunication from the University of Florida’s College of Journalism, JaSheika went on to work for hit shows like “Desperate Housewives” and “Dexter,” while JaNeika worked for her hero, “Living Single” creator Yvette Lee Bowser, on UPN’s “Half & Half.”
Eventually, the siblings were promoted from staff writers to supervising producers on Fox’s phenomenally successful series, “Empire.” They now serve as co-executive producers on HBO Max’s “Gossip Girl,” and are developing a USA pilot, “Philly Reign,” as executive producers alongside Oscar-nominee Mary J. Blige. They have continuously expressed their commitment to “creating, developing, and writing projects that enlighten, inspire, and entertain audiences around the world.” And now, you can read all about their fascinating creative journey in their new book, Living Double: How Identical Twins Unlocked the Door to Success in Hollywood, which is now on sale today.
I interviewed JaNeika and JaSheika recently by email and by Zoom, and had a delightful time with them talking about their process of becoming published authors and showrunners. They were enthusiastic and generous with their time and in the end provided enormous insight into what it takes to go from being a dreamer to a doer. And they had advice for those entering the entertainment fray: “Our book is for dreamers. We want them to release any fears around their dreams. Don’t run away from your dreams, trust that they will come to fruition. Have conviction in your vision and go all out. There is no Plan B.” And last, “have integrity.”
First things first, you pay homage to Yvette Lee Bowser for inspiring you with her hit TV show “Living Single,” where you got to see African-American women venturing out into the world in ways you had not thought possible at that time. How has “living double”—that is being twins—helped or hindered you in show business?
“Living Double” as twins has benefited us in so many ways. It helped us gain access on the set of “Dawson’s Creek” when we were asked to be extras after taking a road trip to Wilmington, North Carolina to tour the set of the series during a college spring break trip. It has protected us in many ways, as we can depend on and have each other’s backs in writers’ rooms, on sets, and throughout our creative process. Two heads are always better than one. It’s also made our journey in Hollywood a lot less lonely and ridiculously fun when peers and co-workers who’ve previously only worked with one of us get the blessing of working with two of us at once, while also enduring what we like to call our “spirited debates” from time to time.
In writing this book, did you learn anything about each other that surprised you?
Initially, we balked at the idea of writing a book, thinking we haven’t done anything deserving of that honor. “We have so much more to do,” we said, when the idea was presented to us by our dear friend, Carolynn Smith. But when we took some time and thought about what we could offer to people in the same positions we were once in years ago—when we first started in this business—we realized we were selling ourselves short in terms of how much we’ve accomplished in our careers thus far. We didn’t have any connections when we first moved to Los Angeles, and yet, we relocated to California from Florida, and jumped right into having jobs in television—a huge accomplishment within itself. That’s one of the things we’ve learned—that we were so busy looking FORWARD, we forgot to LOOK BACK and see how far we’ve actually come.
Something that did surprise me [JaNeika], was discovering JaSheika was up for an opportunity to attend Film School at Florida State. I never knew my sister was considering film school or even drove up to Tallahassee for an interview that never took place, as she describes in the book.
Writing “Living Double” gave us an opportunity to look back, and allowed us to reflect on our journey in hopes of it being a form of encouragement for others. You know, working in Hollywood, you can tend to get jaded, especially when things don’t come at the times we believe they should. We wanted to make sure we had a testimony that would encourage others. We had a 10-year journey. Are we encouraging others to take 10-year journeys? Absolutely not, but we want them to know the power in declaring what they want, so they can start seeding a vision for it. Dreams can become very real and tangible once they’re put out into the world.
Your book will undoubtedly inspire many people who have dreams of entering the industry. Let’s start with some basic definitions: what is a “Writers’ Room?”
The writers’ room is the room where the magic begins. In TV, it’s where all the writers gather to collaborate and pitch story ideas and themes for the season, create character arcs, and break episodes of a series.
And what is a “Show Runner?”
If you consider a TV show to be a fortune 500 company, the showrunner is essentially the CEO. They are the person who has the final say on scripts, wardrobe, hair and makeup, editing, etc. A showrunner is usually the creator of a series, and therefore has a clear understanding and foundation of who the lead characters of the series are, a general idea what the lead character’s journey will entail for the season, and where they will wind up in the finale.
And when did it dawn on you that you wanted to go from being in the Writers Room to being a Showrunner?
To be honest, we always wanted to be creators/showrunners of our own shows. That seed was first planted when we discovered Yvette Lee Bowser was the creator/showrunner of Living Single. But when it took us almost ten years to get staffed as television writers, we were just so grateful to finally gain our seats at the writers’ room table, we completely lost sight of our initial dreams. We thought we just wanted to remain employed and to consistently staff on TV shows. We tried to convince ourselves that would be enough, because we were so happy to have finally accomplished our dream. Soon, we realized that simply working on a show is not always creatively fulfilling. See, when you’re hired to write on a show, your job is to fulfill the showrunner’s vision for said show.
Generally, when we sit down to write scenes in a script, we get to visualize every detail of what occurs in the scene: What the characters look like, how they feel, where it’s located, and what they say. But when you’re hired on someone else’s show, you’re not in control over the execution of your scenes— the showrunner is. They determine what ends up as the finished product that airs on television.
What we came to realize is that the seat at the table was not enough for us. We want to step into the roles of showrunners so that we have opportunities to bring our creative vision to life, from script to screen.
You wrote your book in classic script style. Why did you take this approach?
We were really inspired by Hillary Clinton and Chelsea Clinton’s book, The Book of Gutsy Women. The way that they wrote about various women’s stories throughout history from their own, unique perspectives, we thought to ourselves—we’d love to share our story in a similar way, as a bit of a dialogue between us, because although we have always been headed toward the same destination, we’ve taken similar, yet very different and unique paths to get here. It was great to share with readers that there’s not just one specific route to take when it comes to following your dreams.
Our parents used to tell us to stop watching so much television because it would rot our brains, but it did just the opposite for you—it filled your head with dreams. Tell us about that process that started when you were living in Germany.
The seeds of television writing dreams were first planted when we were military brats growing up in Wiesbaden, Germany from four to eight years old. At the time, there was only one German television station available to watch, and because of this, our grandparents, Clifford & Ethel Stallworth, and Annie Ruth Rhodes, would send us VHS tapes to watch of American TV shows, including “A Different World”, “The Golden Girls”, “Empty Nest”, “The Smurfs”, etc. From there, a dream was born.
I am impressed with all the credit you give to others in your book. Usually by the time you become a success you hear the word “I” a lot. But you very clearly show that it takes collaboration and teamwork, and reaching back to help others. Why was that so important for you to emphasize?
This has always been important to us, mostly because it is how we were raised—both in life and in this business. Watching our mentors— women like Yvette Lee Bowser, Wendy Calhoun, Celia Hamel, Dawn Soler, and so many more—not only be excellent in their respective crafts in this business, but also how they make it a point of responsibility to mentor, guide and help other dreamers navigate this business.
It’s impossible for us to believe that we’ve accomplished any of the successes we have so far, without the help and guidance of others. Yes, we are grateful to God for the gift that we’ve been blessed with, but we are also thankful for the people God’s placed in our lives that have helped us along the way. It’s important for us to always acknowledge those who’ve guided us on our path to success, and for us to encourage others who are coming up in this business to do the same.
What is one of the most important things you can tell someone to help them change from being a dreamer to being a doer?
To get out of their heads and move in faith. We believe that our dream of writing for television was purposely placed on our hearts, and when we began to follow our dream and take the steps to move in the direction of achieving it, we noticed that things began to happen that supported us in ways we never expected. For example, JaNeika made a phone call to Yvette Lee Bowser’s assistant for months before she was finally scheduled to speak to her. Once she did get the opportunity, what was meant to be a 15-30-minute call turned into a three-hour conversation. JaSheika interviewed for a program at ABC called the Production Associates program. She didn’t get the job, initially, but was told she was the “first runner-up.” She was disappointed and thought, “Okay, that was that. I attempted to follow my dream, and I failed.” But she didn’t. Less than two weeks later, she received a call from the program head, Jean Hester, telling her if she could get back out to Los Angeles, the job was hers—even after she was initially told it wasn’t.
Of “Fear,” you warn that it won’t go away, It’s always there. Is that so even once you have achieved your dreams? And if so, how do you deal with it? And how do you deal with rejection?
We’ve learned to feel the fear and move through it. Once we embraced that fear is something we’ll never escape—no matter how successful we’ve become—we kind of learned to use it in a way that helped propel us further. There have been plenty of times where we’ve allowed fear to cripple us and keep us stuck, and when you do that, you tend to miss out on opportunities that could be life-changing. When we got tired of missing out, we shifted our perspective, and even our definition of fear. For us, F.E.A.R. is now better known as: Fun and Exciting when Achievement becomes Reality.
We used to take rejection really hard, but today we are of the belief that “rejection is God’s protection.” We didn’t coin this phrase, but it is one we’ve applied anytime we miss out on a job opportunity. In hindsight, we recognize that we have been protected from such opportunities because we are meant for greater one. That was JaSheika’s experience when her option wasn’t renewed on “Revenge”, and instead, she was hired to work on “Empire”.
In chapter 17, “The Fun in Fear,” you talk about a signal you use with each other when tag-teaming a pitch. I know you may want to keep that a secret but can you share if it’s a verbal or nonverbal signal? And is this something you just developed for pitching in your career or is it a signal you’ve used in life as sisters?
As twin sisters, we’ve always had a sort of shorthand with each other, where we can often finish each other’s thoughts, or clarify each other’s pitches if they’re not landing with the masses in the writers’ room. For the most part, we’re pretty vocal about what we like and don’t like when it comes to a pitch; especially when it’s one of our own and we’re in disagreement. It may make our peers uncomfortable when we have what we like to call “spirited debates”, but at the end of the day, we’ve been doing it for decades. It kind of is what it is, and we’re quick to move past it once we’ve vocalized our perspectives.
But in general, it’s great that we know and understand each other so well, because supporting each is so second-nature when it comes to pitching projects and taking meetings. Because we’ve entered this world together from the womb, it’s like having a built-in support system.
What was one of the most fun episodes you contributed to the hot series, “Empire”?
Looking back, we had so much fun writing all of our “Empire” episodes, but one that stands out the most was a Season 4 episode we co-wrote with Diane Ademu-John, directed by Millicent Shelton titled “False Face.” In the episode, we were able to work with a multitude of phenomenal talent, including Forest Whitaker and Alfre Woodard. It was truly a dream come true, and to be honest, a full circle moment. Years ago, I [JaSheika] worked as a Producer/Publicity Assistant on “Desperate Housewives”, in season 2 when Alfre Woodard had joined the cast, and back then she had given me some words of wisdom on how to balance your career and home life. So, to be able to work with her again, this time in a different capacity—as a writer—and remind her how much her words had impacted me back then, was truly a full circle moment. We’ve had several serendipitous moments like this throughout our journey in this business, which is why we continue to encourage others to push toward their dreams. You never know what full circle moment is sure to come your way.
What did you take from there that you will apply to your own shows?
One of the major things we learned is to be upfront, clear and direct with talent. Some people believe withholding information from actors works to their benefit, but actors—most of the greats, at least—are emotional, intuitive beings. When you break their trust, it’s hard to regain it. Trust is an integral part of the creative process, especially when you’re collaborating with other creatives to bring your vision to life. It goes along with the integrity piece we discuss in the book.
And why did it help that you had worked on shows of various ethnic backgrounds and cultures?
Fortunately, we’ve always been able to work in diverse writers’ rooms and on diverse productions. It’s all we know, and to be honest, it’s how all writers’ rooms and productions should be. Having a room full of people who actually reflect the television viewing audience networks desire only increases a series’ appeal to larger portions of the population.
Okay, spill the tea on combining a successful career and a successful social and personal life. How has this evolved for you?
Honestly? Finding and creating balance is an ongoing battle for us both. Our lives look very different, personally, as we discuss in the book. JaSheika is married, JaNeika is single, and although we absolutely love what we do, we recognize that what we do is not all encompassing of our existence. So, we work very hard to create the balance we desire so that we may grow and expand our families, our wellness and self-care practices, as well as our health and service to others. Not only for our own sanity, but because without balance—we lose sight of what we love to do in creating, as it becomes that much more difficult. We are still very much “works in progress” when it comes to this.
The last question I like to ask: If I could wave my magic wand and grant your every wish. What would you wish for generally for the world?
For folks to have unconditional, undeniable, unapologetic, and uninhibited love for one another. Grace and mercy are somewhat difficult to find in abundance throughout the world right now, yet so desperately needed.
And which projects would you like to see funded immediately?
Two projects we’re developing that we’d love to see greenlit are based on books written by Black women with two vastly different lives. My Soul Looks Back is a memoir we’ve optioned written by renowned cookbook author, Jessica B. Harris. We’re also developing a pilot titled Philly Reign, based on the life of Thelma Wright as told in her book, With Eyes From Both Sides: Living My Life In and Out of the Game. These are two women whose powerful stories are told throughout the same time of the 70s and 80s. Although they take place around the same period, the vast difference in their experiences (one at the tail end of the Black Artist Movement in New York, the other in the drug game at the center of the City of Brotherly Love) help showcase that we, as Black women, are not a monolith, and that our unique and powerful stories deserve to be told.
For more information on JaNeika and JaSheika James or to purchase their book, Living Double, visit their official site.