Who is Ariana DeBose? Everything you need to know about the triple-threat making her 'SNL' debut

Who is Ariana DeBose? Everything you need to know about the triple-threat making her 'SNL' debut
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Ariana DeBose won her first Academy Award for her work as Anita in "West Side Story." In doing so, DeBose became part of an elite Oscars club: She and Rita Moreno both won awards for playing the same role.

In the past year, DeBose has been on our screens — whether through musicals like "West Side Story," "Hamilton," and "The Prom," or through live events like the Oscars and "SNL."

If you’re not familiar with the Broadway actor turned on-screen star, here’s everything you need to know about DeBose.

Who is Ariana DeBose?

DeBose, 31, is a triple threat performer as an actor, singer and dancer hailing from North Carolina. The actor grew up in Raleigh where she began to dance competitively when she was seven-years-old, the New York Times reported. In 2009, she was even a top 20 finalist on season six of “So You Think You Can Dance.”

In high school, DeBose attended Triple Arts, Broadway veterans Charlotte d’Amboise and Terrence Mann’s musical theater summer intensive. The couple helped coach the young performer for auditions, suggesting she skip college and go right to Broadway instead. Though she started college at Western Carolina University in spring 2010 as part of the musical theater program there, the actor ultimately dropped out to pursue her career.

Ariana DeBose attends Disney Studios' Los Angeles Premiere of
Ariana DeBose attends Disney Studios' Los Angeles Premiere of

Her Broadway career

Before she was a Golden Globe winner for her on-screen work, DeBose found her footing on Broadway. Throughout her career, spanning over a decade, she has starred in countless productions. She made her debut in 2011 in the original production of “Bring It On” as Nautica and starred as the role of Mary Wilson of the Supreme in “Motown” (2013) and as the Leading Player in the 2014 revival of “Pippin."

Most notably, DeBose appeared alongside Lin-Manuel Miranda in “Hamilton” from 2015 to 2016 as a member of the original cast in the Broadway and off-Broadway productions. After departing from the Tony-winning musical, she portrayed Jane in “A Bronx Tale” from 2016 to 2017.

The following year, she took on the role of Disco Donna in “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.” This role earned her a nomination for best featured actress in a musical at the 72nd Annual Tony Awards.

Ariana DeBose as Anita in 20th Century Studios' WEST SIDE STORY. (Niko Tavernise / 20th Century Studios)
Ariana DeBose as Anita in 20th Century Studios' WEST SIDE STORY. (Niko Tavernise / 20th Century Studios)

Making the transition from on-stage to on-screen

In recent years, DeBose has found herself starring in multiple on-screen roles both in television and film. At the end of 2020, she portrayed the character Alyssa in Ryan Murphy’s Netflix movie “The Prom,” which starred Hollywood legend Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Andrew Rannells and Keegan-Michael Key.

In 2021, she reunited with Key when she starred in the AppleTV+ hit “Schmigadoon!” alongside “SNL” star Cecily Strong. DeBose was in great company with fellow Broadway stars Kristin Chenoweth, Aaron Tveit and Jane Krakowski, who also played roles in the musical satire.

Most recently, DeBose struck gold in Steven Spielberg’s reimagining of “West Side Story,” which premiered at the end of 2021. DeBose followed in Rita Moreno’s footsteps by portraying Anita, a role which helped earn the now 90-year-old actor an Oscar back in 1962.

DeBose opened up about the audition process for “West Side Story” during her appearance “The Tonight Show” on Friday, Jan. 14. She admitted to host Jimmy Fallon that she told Spielberg “no” when he asked if she would read for the part after she danced and sang for him and Tony Kushner.

“I had said the night before, ‘Look, these scenes, these are Tony Kushner expanded scenes. They can be wordy and they’re important,’” she told Fallon. “You gotta nail it and quite frankly, I’m not in the business of going in a room as a Black woman and not getting it right. You gotta come in prepared and I was just like, 'I’m gonna tell them no but I’d love to come back.'"

Everything obviously worked out for DeBose in the long run. Weeks later, DeBose got a call from Spielberg when she was at a nail salon where he told her she had gotten the part of Anita.

During the whittled down Golden Globes — DeBose snatched the trophy for best performance by a supporting actress in any film, following in Moreno's footsteps who also won that prize back in 1962. They both won Academy Awards.

Being part of the LGBTQ community

DeBose identifies as queer, and she has been open and honest about her sexuality throughout her esteemed career. With her Oscar win, she made history as the first Afro Latina and openly queer actor of color to win an award.

“The fact that we both identify as queer just made the work more deep and vulnerable, and you can see it on screen,” she told Popsugar of her role in "The Prom" alongside Jo Ellen Pellman. “It’s been said that we have great chemistry and I think that helps as well, and that’s how we normalize (having queer actors tell our stories)."

"It shows that we can tell a story like this and do it so beautifully, and I’m just so proud of what we were able to accomplish. I think you end up falling in love with Alyssa and Emma, because we loved each other, and I think that’s really cool.”

Last year, her and Pellman founded the Unruly Hearts Initiative, connecting the film's young audience with vital resource for the LGBTQ community that tackle housing insecurity, mental health and education accessibility.

​"I was blessed to have a family that accepted my sexuality, which I am painfully aware is not the norm," she says on the initiative's website. "Through my work with Covenant House I have seen the correlation between homelessness and LGBTQ+ youth. Helping young people find resources in the face of adversity and directing families towards tools for acceptance and understanding is something I’m extremely passionate about. It’s my hope that the Unruly Hearts Initiative is an accessible resource for young people and parents alike."

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