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Interview: Nia Peeples—The Elements of Life

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Courage. Adventure. Individuality. Forgiveness. Those are just a few of the essential “Elements of Life,” according to Nia Peeples. The actress-singer-songwriter-choreographer-TV host has gained much expertise over three decades in showbiz. Yet, it was through helping others in need—victims of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami—that the former Fame and The Young and the Restless star unveiled the wisdom that is guiding her life in the most gratifying ways yet. After years of searching for perfection, she aims to share her newfound insight via a philosophy-driven website that encourages others to look within to unlock the true answers to health, beauty, and fitness.

It’s a pleasure to speak with you, Nia! I grew up listening to both of your albums, Nothin’ But Trouble and Nia Peeples; and, of course, seeing you frequently on TV. Your work has covered such a variety of genres. Unlike many who have childhood dreams of moving to Hollywood and making it in showbiz, you were actually in the “City of Angels” from day one. Has it always been home for you?

Well, I lived in Texas for a short while during childhood. I have a lot of family in Waco. Then again, when I was shooting Walker, Texas Ranger. I also lived in Vancouver for a year. Other than that, I’ve always lived in the Los Angeles area.

You’re of Filipino and Scottish heritage?

That’s two of the many! My mother is actually French, Filipino, German and Spanish. My father is Scottish, Irish, English, and Native Indian.

Were there certain cultures of those which had a profound impact on your growing up?

Well, my parents were very conservative in some ways; yet, they really thought outside of the box. My dad came from the South, where everything was, “Yes, ma’am, yes, sir.” Yet, he married a woman of color at a time when it was illegal for them to even hold hands in most states. They had a wonderful relationship. It wasn’t one of those mail-order bride things; it was a real marriage. They were only 19 and 20 when they got married; so they had a lot of courage. A lot of that came out of their not loving the way they were raised.

They had three children right off the bat. They really battled a lot of odds; and in order to do that, they just created their own world, where they taught us that anything was possible. We had some of the Filipino culture, because both my grandparents had moved here from the Philippines; and we had a lot of the Texas–Mississippi-Louisiana roots from my dad’s side.

Part of the premise of Elements of Life revolves around the myth of perfection. Growing up in Hollywood, did you feel a lot of pressure to be “perfect”?

I had my own kind of pressure that I put on myself; and that wasn’t necessarily due to living in Hollywood. Because when you’re young, your world is really only as big as the few blocks around your house and your school. Also, it’s very different today, because the media is just everywhere. It wasn’t so completely out of control when I was growing up.

I was a very, very shy young lady—to the point of tears. My parents were really worried that I would never survive in the world; because if I thought someone was giving me a dirty look, I would burst into tears. I was so happy to live in my own little world. I couldn’t handle the way people talked to each other or about each other. Everybody seemed so mean and cruel. I was just so sensitive to everybody’s feelings. My dad eventually pushed me into choir, because he knew that I loved to sing—but only in the closet and the shower. I think we had just moved back from Texas. So, I was in a new school, and I was kind of coming in during the middle of the year. There were two-hundred kids in this choir; and we were told there was no room. My dad threw a fit and forced them to audition me. And I just remember getting called out of class in the middle of school. I can still hear my footsteps down the hallway and the sweat running off. Oh, it was horrible! I remember going into the room. There was Mr. Kessler, the choir teacher, sitting at the piano. That’s where it all began.

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You ended up being very active in high school in a diverse range of extracurricular activities, ranging from tumbling to student government and marching band. How did you go from such severe shyness to being involved in so many groups?

Really, it was a place for me to hide. I found out that I was really good at all of these things. It became a part of my identity to be an overachiever. The busier I could be, I didn’t have to socialize with other people. I had to deal with them, and I did well; but it was always around a subject—we were always trying to get some place or achieve something. But I didn’t have to engage in any real socializing.

From what I’ve read, one of your first show business experiences was opening for Liberace in Vegas?

I did work with Liberace; but I wouldn’t say that I opened for him. I was with an amateur show choir called the Young Americans. Very much what Glee is today, only it was a higher extension of that. We traveled around the world performing numbers from various musicals—singing and dancing. We were the opening act for Liberace and were incorporated into his show. It was a phenomenal experience, believe me! He was so uniquely wonderful. At first, I was like, “Whoa!” Because I grew up in a sort of protected area. He was just bigger than life. But he was one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. I remember the twenty-five or so of us all decided we were going to take him out for his birthday. He let us take him to this dive Mexican restaurant—’cause that’s where we ate all the time; that’s all we could afford. And he let us pay for his meal, but he paid for all of ours. He was a really kind, beautiful man.

He was really ahead of his time. It’s a lot easier now for entertainers to be outlandish. He was really doing it at a time when that stuff wasn’t even talked about!

And he really wasn’t doing it just for attention. This was truly an expression of who he was. He loved wearing those clothes; he loved living that life; and that’s even better, you know?

Did that gig have anything to do with you landing your very first TV role as Darcie on The Music Shoppe?

That was really funny. I went to school at UCLA on an alumni scholarship. So, all that overachieving did get me through college! While I was there, I met a girl from the original Broadway cast of Annie: Robin Finn, who played Pepper. She had moved from New York and didn’t have a driver’s license. So, she asked me if I would drive her to a fitting she had for a children’s series. When I drove her and walked into the room, they said, “Oh, my God, she’s so cute!” [Laughs] “Do you sing?” And I said, “Yes!” They said, “We’d love for you to come audition to play a Siamese cat in one of our little children’s series.” Then they asked me if I acted; and I said, “Well, I don’t know. How much does it pay?” I was a broke college student! Long story short, I wound up doing a monologue for them and giving them a vocal demo tape. They hired me, not as a Siamese cat; but as Darcie on The Music Shoppe.

It’s worth mentioning that then-future record executive Benny Medina was on the show with you!

That’s right. Oh, my gosh, you’ve done some digging. The last time I saw Benny, I just had to rip him about that! He’s ultra-cool man now. Back then, he was the starving-artist Benny Medina, trying to schmooze his way on to anything. He played the bass player in our little band. But the funny thing is, when he came in to audition, he didn’t really know how to play bass. So, he wrapped his left middle finger in a splint of some sort and said that he broke his finger—so he couldn’t really play for them! [laughs]

It was a really cute show, obviously kind of low-budget!

Oh, God, yeah! Where did you find those episodes? That’s hysterical.

Well, there was a DVD put out a few years ago that has several episodes. You can get it on Amazon.

Are you kidding me? I didn’t even know that.

I never see it mentioned! But then I dug deeper, ’cause I’m an avid collector. I found three original VHS releases with a lot of episodes. I love stuff like that, you know, “before they were stars.” I suppose that the show was designed as a vehicle for the late Gary Crosby?

I was so fresh to it that I didn’t understand what it all was. Looking back on it, though, I realize that’s what it was. Most of the other kids were professional actors. They all had agents who came to the set—who all gave me their cards. And that’s how I got my first agent.

Let’s talk about Elements of Life. Who and what were some of the factors that shaped this company coming into life?

Well, I don’t even call Elements of Life a company. It’s a philosophy. Really, it has more to do with my upbringing than anything else. I’ve been through a lot of incarnations and a lot of career moves. I’ve met some very interesting people, from the wealthiest of the wealthy to the poorest of the poor. I’ve worked with some very creative people and top-of-the-line business people. But everything was kind of the same to me, because I was so grounded in certain beliefs. Throughout my career, people have come and they’ve asked me to write a book on this, or have a skin-care line, or write a book on health, beauty and fitness. They’d ask me how I achieved a certain thing; and it seemed so superficial to give a short answer.

In the last few years, some very big things happened for me, in terms of where I came in my life. When I turned 43, I got to this place where I felt like, as a woman, I had completely outgrown what I was doing. I don’t mean to the point of where I don’t want to do it anymore; but I became much more than what those things represent. I needed another avenue to express things that had become much more important to me than my work. As a young woman, being a singer or performer, a dancer and an actor, was a way for me to explore and express myself. Coming up, I got to experience many lifetimes in one through these various characters I would play; the various songs I would sing or interpret. But it eventually turned the other way around: where the experiences I had had in my life really were so much more than any role could encompass or any song could express. I personally had become much more valuable than any of my work could represent.

So, when the tsunami hit in December, 2004 in Southeast Asia, a small group of us—mostly surfers—put together a rebel relief organization called Surfzone Relief Operations. We pooled our money, dummied up documents, and went over to Indonesia. We chartered our own seventy-five-foot wooden panisi boat, and we loaded it with goods: well-digging kits; dugout canoes for the Mentawais with fishing kits; viable breeding stock; water; medical supplies; and school supplies. We went to the smallest, outermost islands off the west coast of Sumatra for a month and delivered goods.

That month-long journey was a way for me to be there, wholly, as Nia, the person—not Nia, the entertainer; Nia ,the singer; or Nia, the celebrity that people have questions for. But Nia, the woman. What was I capable of doing? I had to pull anchor; I had to sleep on bags of rice; I had to deliver the rice to people. I became an important, functioning part of what was going on right there. It was wonderful for me. It started this journey into integrating the woman that I had become with the career woman I had been. And out of that came an outline for a book called The Long Way Home; and out of that came a request for a book on health, beauty and fitness. When I sat down, I realized I couldn’t write an outline on such a book without talking about the inside. So, that’s what became the twelve elements of life—and those are the chapters of the book. Each chapter represents the importance of an element like individuality, passion, adventure, or forgiveness. There are 30-minute seminars on each element on the website. It’s very profound and powerful; and people are being very touched by it.

One of the key components of Elements of Life is “What you’re born with, how you feed it and how you treat it.”

Yes [laughs]. Elements of Life is really about getting people to understand that the greatest light that they have to give on this earth can only be given by them. So, the light that I bring onto this planet? Only I can bring this on. I can’t bring your light. You’re the only one who can deliver that light into our presence. It’s getting people to trust their own authenticity and individuality, and understand that their greatest happiness and success lies in coming closer to that authenticity. A lot of women will say, “How do you stay in shape? How do you keep your skin looking so young?” I can give you physical answers to those, but you have to start with three questions. One is, what are you born with? Genetically speaking, I will never be Cindy Crawford. I’m five-foot-two; I’ll never be five-foot-eight.

So, start with that and embrace it. Once you do, you realize, “Hey—I’m awesome this way. This is my gift.” How you feed it refers to nutrition and supplements; and how you treat it refers to your lifestyle. Do you smoke, do you drink, do you do drugs? Are you stressed out? All of those things affect it. Once you look at that, that’s how you understand which direction to take in being the best you that you can be.

Are the Elements of Life geared strictly towards women?

No. It is very much leaning towards women, because it’s through a woman’s voice. All the experiences and all of my anecdotes have to do with being a woman. But there are a lot of men who really get this and subscribe to it.

As I mentioned earlier, I’m a big fan of your music. I was wondering, was that chapter of your career a time in which you felt a lot of pressure to live up to a certain image?

Oh, absolutely. I didn’t feel pressure like I had to do it a certain way; but I have a lot of respect for what people do and their positions in life. So, when you’re a new recording artist and you have signed a very large record deal, you are assigned an A&R person. When they tell you, “Listen, this is the stuff that needs to happen,” you go, “Oh, okay.” Same thing with a makeup artist: you sit down with this person, who’s done everybody and her mother on the cover of such-and-such. But now I’m older, and I go, “You know what? It’s not me and I don’t like it. Let’s change it.” That’s not how it is when you’re younger, though, ’cause you’re still in that place of learning. And I hope I never stop learning.

Most definitely, though, the direction of those albums was not what I would have done. I was very aware of the fact that I was more of a performer than an artist. But I felt like I had it in me to be an artist— someone who can speak of something from the inside out, as opposed to interpreting something, like you mentioned, from the outside in. I said, “Give me one writer-producer, so that we can develop this sound and this messaging ourselves.” The record company said, “No, that’s not how you do it.” So, that’s why the albums are all over the place.

You did collaborate on writing a lot of songs on your second album—like “Hurricane” and “Heaven Help Me.” Was the sound still being shifted in a direction by the different producers?

Totally. So what you find is more consistency in the theme of that second album. If you listen to the lyrics, you kind of get a sense of who I am and what I feel. But in terms of the music? It’s still all over the place.

Another important aspect of the foundation of Elements of Life is the set of “three R’s.” Tell me what they are and what they mean.

Reassess, research and recommit. My greatest desire for everyone is to understand that the closer they are to who they are, the greater their light is— and the more they help people just by existing. Your ability to share your experiences verbally can be an inspiration to people. You don’t have to go out and try to create a way for you to be a philanthropist. Just in being and in living your life the way that you are, and being kind in your daily life, you are expressing philanthropy, and you inspire. Each decision you make to live a better life on your own is lifting the tide for everyone, not just yourself. You’re contributing by living authentically.

What about the Elements of Life definition of perfection not as something that you reach for, but as moments in your life?

That’s the very bottom line. It’s all built on this thing that I call the myth of perfection. It’s not even really a myth; I just think it’s misunderstood. Perfection isn’t something that you achieve; it’s not a place to arrive at. It’s something you move through, one moment at a time, and you get to experience it over and over again, because life is constantly changing. There is not one moment that is the same as the moment before. Today is not like yesterday, and it will not be like tomorrow. You have children, you have friends, you have people in your life—they’re changing all the time, and you have to understand that and embrace it. You can never have the belief that at some point you’re going to grasp hold of it and really get it. Because life is always changing—you are changing; your needs are. If you can accept that, then you will experience the moments of perfection that really are happening. You get to see them— because you’re not trying to grab them.

Looking back at some of the roles you’ve played on TV, can you give insights into what about the experiences was most memorable for you, and if they had any particular impact that helped your growth?

They always do. It’s been an interesting phenomenon to look back. Once you have a body of work and you’ve been doing it for as long as I have, you can start connecting the dots and see the through line—the similarities between all of them. So I’ve been able to look back and see a career where, regardless of the success of the show—which has a lot to do with many different things—my characters always tested higher than anyone else’s.

I thought, “Okay, why is that? What was the thing that I did in every role that I attempted to do?” And what I attempted to do was to touch a truth in everyone. So, regardless of who the character was, I wanted to find that piece that everyone could relate to. If I was a drug addict—which I can’t imagine myself being a drug addict, but I played a drug addict—I was thinking to myself, “What would it take me to get to the lowest low, to where I would need to do this? If I could figure what would actually drive me there, then I might be able to express it in a way where other people felt empathy for the character. So, they could see a piece of themselves in every character I created. And that’s really what it did.

Doing that takes you out of a place of judgement. When you get hired to play the bitch of the universe, or a murderer, or something just so out of the realm of possibility in your life, how do you make that truth? And so I think, “Okay, hmm. I’m playing a murderer, here. Why is this person murdering that person? Oh, she’s really pissed, okay. Well, hmm. What would piss me enough to make me want to kill someone? I can’t even imagine. Oh, well what if such-and-such happened to your daughter? What if I believed someone were coming after her to kill her? Oh, I’d kill them in a heartbeat.”

Even if it doesn’t make sense, even if you can’t rationalize taking those steps, it’s about what the truth is to that character. I have friends who are grieved and wanting to hang themselves because their cat died. I think it’s horrible when someone’s pet dies; but having children, I can’t imagine that reaction. But to them, that cat is their child. It’s the greatest love of their life. So that’s where the similarity and the truth is.

What about the impact that your role as Nicole Chapman on the Fame TV series had young, aspiring performers? How did playing her change or shape your life afterwards?

There is definitely a difference in that role from many others I’ve played. Nicole was someone who was striving for a dream—that’s what Fame was about. People of all walks of life watched it. It was a huge international hit. Not because everybody wanted to put tights on and sing and dance; but because everyone has a dream. And to watch kids having the courage to pursue that gave them inspiration, hope, and courage, in whatever their dreams might be. Nicole was one of those kids who was doing that. So when I would run into fans of Fame, I understood the connection. They were connected to the inspiration that my character brought them. There’ve been other shows where people are lining up to see me, but there’s no relation to the importance of that character. It was just like, “Oh, dude, it’s the girl on the TV.” [Laughs]

How about the music-variety show you hosted, The Party Machine?

That show was brought to me. Arsenio Hall’s prime-time show was ginormous; and when he re-upped his deal over at Paramount, part of the deal was that he was going to be able to take the half hour after his show and do whatever he wanted with it as a producer. That’s when he called me, ’cause he was a big Nia Peeples fan. He said, “Look, let’s do something. I don’t care what it is, we’re gonna do this.” So, we ended up with this show; but nobody knew what the show was going to be. When he first contacted me, he said, “We’re gonna do three nights a week”—after his weekend jam—“and let’s do live artists,” more like an acoustic, unplugged setting, where you get to talk to the artists. Then, after I signed the contract, it turned into this six- nights-a-week thing where everybody’s lip-syncing. And I just went, “Aaah!” I was not thrilled with doing that show. I’m much better with it now than I was in the middle of it. It was so not Nia; Nia is so not a party person. I love to dance and I love music, but I’m not like, “Hey-Oh!” I’m just not that girl.

You’re not going out clubbing every night.

No; and I never did. That was never me. It was so ironic that I had a number-one club hit [“Trouble”] It was like, “What?” [Laughs]

That’s interesting. Because even before that, you hosted MTV’s Street Party.

Well, that was a little bit different in that it was just Nia, the comedienne. There is a part to me that is very funny. There, it was really me just kind of walking around and introducing music videos and being funny.

As part of Elements of Life, you have an “Inner Circle” of professionals. What role does that play in the growth encouraged by the philosophy?

The inner circle consists of some very close friends of mine and some of the experts who have helped me out in my life. Mike Linderman, who’s the team whisperer—he was my son’s therapist and teen counselor through some of the very troubled times that my son and I had. I’ve also got a spiritual counselor there, who’s one of my very best friends and a practitioner at Agape Ministry. I have Garba, who’s been my physical fitness trainer for years. I’ve got a nutritionist. They’ve all agreed to come on and just be there for everyone to ask questions of. They blog; so they give all their information, and they all have kind of the same philosophy of life. They’re there for the community to access.

What are your future goals for Elements of Life? Do you plan to keep it internet-based, or are you also going to do live, in-person seminars? What else is in store?

Well, people have already been asking me to publicly speak. I’ve done one live seminar; I’ve got another one coming up in the spring. The sky’s the limit with Elements of Life. What I’m finding is that people really need this, and they love it and they’re responding to it. So my goal, immediately, is just to give what people are asking for and be able to expand in a way where it doesn’t grow so quickly that the philosophy and the hands-ongets lost. I’d like for it to grow naturally.

Visit Nia’s Elements of Life

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About Justin Kantor

Justin Kantor is a music journalist with a passion for in-depth artist interviews and reviews. Most of his interviews for Blogcritics can be heard on his Blog Talk Radio program, "Rhythmic Talk." Justin's work has been published in Wax Poetics, The All-Music Guide, and SoulMusic.com. A graduate of Berklee College of Music's Music Business and Management program, he honed his writing chops as a teenager—publishing "The Hip Key" magazine from 1992-1996. The publication, which was created out of his childhood home in Virginia Beach, reached a circulation of 10,000 by the time he was 16. At Berklee, Justin continued to perfect his craft with a series of 'Underrated Soul' features for The Groove from 1997-2003. This led to a companion TV show on Manhattan Neighborhood Network in 2002, as well as writing for the national Dance Music Authority (DMA). A self-described "obscure pop, dance, and R&B junkie," Justin also has penned liner notes for reissue labels such as Edsel Records and FunkyTownGrooves. He's excited to be a part of the BlogCritics team and indulge his musical fancies even further. Connect with him at his Facebook page, or via krystolfan@gmail.com.
  • Jordan Richardson

    Nice job, Justin. I had the biggest crush on her back in the day, so it’s cool to see what she’s up to now.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/justin-kantor/ Justin Kantor

    Thanks, Jordan! It was definitely a dream realized for me to speak with Nia. She has a delightful personality.

  • http://kidsfromfamemedia.blogspot.com/ mark1814

    Great Interview!I loved hearing it and loved reading it all through too. Nia is fantastic, she always has well thought out intelligent things to say. She is totally correct about why we still love “Fame” and why we connect to it’s characters. I never wanted to be a performer but “Fame” helped me believe in myself and to dream that I could have a betetr life.