Taraji P. Henson’s motto is as sweet as the meaning of her name: “to hope, to love.” Henson’s road to fame today wasn’t the easiest, but it’s a sweet success story that we can all learn from. The actress, born Taraji Penda Henson, was born to a working-class family in Washington, D.C. in 1970. Henson always had a passion for performance and applied to performing arts high schools in the Maryland area. Henson did not get accepted into the high school of her choice and initially majoring in electrical engineering in college, per Vogue, but Henson did not let adversity steer her away from her dreams. Unlike the Hollywood stars who got their first taste of the big-screen at a tender age, the actress pursued her career while in college.
Over two decades, 35 awards, and 75 award nominations later, Henson’s dreams have come to fruition. She has earned several major roles in her career, including her prominent Golden Globe-winning role as the sassy-yet-stern Cookie Lyon on the drama series Empire. In addition, the star hosted the 2020 American Music Awards, giving us a dance number that’ll have you questioning whether she’s really 50 years old or much younger. If you’re curious how Taraji P. Henson found her way to stardom — and you’re looking for a reason to smile and feel motivated — keep reading!
Taraji P. Henson developed her work ethic in college
Taraji P. Henson is not afraid to admit that she gets her consistency and hustle from her parents. Coming from a father who was a janitor-slash-metal fabricator and a mother who worked as a department store manager, per an interview with Vanity Fair, Henson was not unfamiliar with working a 9 to 5 during her time in college. The Washington, D.C. native transferred from North Carolina A&T State University to Howard University, where she studied theatre. Henson held several temporary jobs during her time at Howard, including night shifts singing Tina Turner renditions on a cruise ship, and working as a secretary at the Pentagon.
During her time at Howard, Henson realized that she was pregnant. Juggling the responsibilities of working to pay off student loans, being a single mom, and going to class, Henson recalls telling herself one piece of advice: “This is part of my journey. Act accordingly.” Henson honed in on her singing, dancing, and acting skills, and even told her acting teacher not to bench her from performances due to her pregnancy. In 1994, Henson gave birth to her son, Marcell Johnson, but her education didn’t stop there. In 1995, Henson completed her Bachelor’s of Fine Arts from Howard University at the age of 24 and walked across the stage with her then-infant son. Check out the throwback graduation pic Henson shared on Instagram below:
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Taraji P. Henson landed her first breakthrough role in this movie
Before becoming the award-winning actress that we know and love, Taraji P. Henson took a leap of faith and hustled her way to Hollywood stardom. A year after graduating from college, the Hidden Figures actress and her then-infant son moved to Los Angeles so she could pursue an acting career. With only $700 in savings, a 26-year-old Henson followed her calling for acting after having a conversation with her late father about her aspirations. “My dad knew that acting was my calling,” The Empire star told People. “One day, he looked at me and said, ‘How do you expect to catch fish on dry land?’ So I moved out here with my son with $700 in our pocket.”
It wouldn’t be long before Henson would get her onscreen debut in the 1998 film Streetwise. However, her first prominent role came in the late John Singleton’s 2001 comedy-drama film Baby Boy, where she portrayed Yvette alongside singer-actor Tyrese Gibson (pictured above). The film received three nominations at the 2002 NAACP Image Awards, including Outstanding Motion Picture, per IMDb. Four years later, Henson would appear opposite Terrence Howard for the first time in the award-winning film Hustle & Flow (2005). Henson would receive her first BET Award for the film in 2006. In 2008, the actress earned a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in the film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
Taraji P. Henson's peace of mind is her main priority
Taraji P. Henson’s journey to fame is a beautiful story, but fame can sometimes strain one’s mental health. In December 2020, Henson revealed that she contemplated suicide for a couple of days while in quarantine after she sunk into a “dark place.”
“For a couple of days, I couldn’t get out of the bed, I didn’t care. That’s not me. Then, I started having thoughts about ending it. It happened two nights in a row,” Henson said on an episode of her Facebook Watch series, Peace of Mind with Taraji. “One day I just blurted it out to my girlfriend… She called me in the morning and I was like, ‘You know I thought about killing myself last night. Oh my god, I feel so much better. I’m not gonna do it now.'”
Henson has been a longtime advocate for mental health. In 2018, she founded the Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, which works to destigmatize mental health issues viewed as taboo in the Black community. In addition, Henson’s Peace of Mind with Taraji series features licensed therapists who will discuss the experiences of each of her weekly guests, including Tamar Braxton, Mary J. Blige, and Gabrielle Union. Aside from acting, the Acrimony star hopes to be a guiding light for those who need help addressing their mental health challenges. She told USA Today, “This is something I’m very passionate about… Acting is great. And I love it. But I feel like that was the path to get me here.”
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
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