The moment seemed almost too perfect. Issa Rae, the stunningly talented and glammed-up star of her own HBO series, walking onto the stage at the BET Awards looking nothing like the “awkward black girl” who made her a YouTube star. But before she could reach the microphone, Rae was introduced as … Yara Shahidi.
No joke. Yara, of course, is 17 and plays Zoey on ABC’s “Black-ish.” Rae, 32, stars on HBO’s “Insecure,” which launched its second season Sunday.
“That’s Issa!” screamed Yvonne Orji, who plays Molly on “Insecure,” trying to correct the moment from her seat at the Microsoft Theatre in Los Angeles.
Rae, after a pause and a stammer, pushed through a clumsy bit with host Leslie Jones to introduce a performance by SZA. Backstage, before returning to her seat, she texted her writing staff about what had happened and managed to retweet a spot-on analysis by a fan named Deon.
Deon’s right. For Rae, a creative dynamo capable of turning heads on the red carpet and in the writing room, these moments just happen, whether in real life or on a set. And Rae’s ability to turn everything, whether a disastrous date or a workplace bumble, into comedy has carried her from YouTube sensation to a different kind of leading lady.
In “Insecure,” she plays Issa Dee, who can show viewers her vulnerability without totally showing her hand, a character as self-assured as she is self-loathing. She’s funny, maddening, manipulative and trying her best. To her legion of fans, she’s simply Issa.
Which, interestingly enough, is something the real Issa admits has started to get tiresome. As Rae grows older, she’s finding it less charming to be confused with this fictitious Issa.
More than six years have passed since Rae emerged on YouTube as the creator and star of “The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl.” The Web series, clicked on by millions of viewers, led to a false start (a failed pilot for ABC); a a collection of essays; and, finally, “Insecure,” which she developed with veteran comedian and writer Larry Wilmore.
The show’s acclaimed first season packed much of what’s driven classic sitcoms — office conflict, dating foibles, dishy friends — with much that is rarely, if ever, seen on TV. The show’s blackness is as essential as its comic sensibility. “Insecure” also puts a spin on how race plays out in the workplace with a specificity never before seen on a sitcom. “Insecure” producer Prentice Penny describes this as capturing the “paper cuts of racism.”
Director Ava DuVernay, whose own TV drama, "Queen Sugar,” recently kicked off its second season, is just glad “Insecure” exists. She has never bought into the criticism of “Girls” creator Lena Dunham for not including significant black characters on the show. The way to diversify popular culture isn’t through token characters, she says, but through shows such as Aziz Ansari’s “Master of None” and Rae’s “Insecure.”
There are times when Rae’s been referred to as a kind of black Liz Lemon, a reference to Tina Fey’s character on “30 Rock.” She loved that show, but whether she embraces that comparison, she admits, depends on “the mood and context.”
On camera, as Issa Dee, Rae is electric, snapping off improvised raps in the mirror, battling with friends and wrestling with her conflicting emotions about her longtime live-in boyfriend, Lawrence. Off camera, she’s quieter, less direct and friendly, without being confessional.
Not even a year into her HBO run, she is the picture of the Web star in transition, the celebrity in progress. She’s on billboards, but she still goes to the supermarket by herself. Ask her about fame, and she’ll shake her head.
That’s not to say she does not realize her life has changed. In “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl,” her memoir, Rae wrote of her childhood in Maryland and her traumatic move to California — middle school was miserable — her struggles with weight, her parents’ divorce and even her complicated heritage. Her father was born in Senegal, and her mother in Louisiana. (Rae’s full name is Jo-Issa Rae Diop.)
Rae is intensely loyal and craves her long-term friendships or with the creative partners who helped her along the way.
At the BET Awards, Rae emerges from a black SUV to screams of “Issa.” And that’s where she is reminded that not everything goes as scheduled.
She doesn’t complain publicly or pout about the name flub. Eventually, announcer emcee Lyte corrects herself.
“It was so perfectly Issa,” Orji says. “It’s just like, she’s not going to be upset. She took a moment and paused, and they got it right.”