The Shade Room (TSR) has become a culture-pushing publication that highlights the good, the bad, and the hilarious by spotlighting celebrity lives, viral posts, highlighting Black-owned businesses, and much more. And if you’re familiar with the brand, then you likely know Thembi Mawema, the personable and sprightly beauty with the white hair and interview skills that put folks at ease and keep them on their toes – simultaneously.
Mawema has a long history with the publication, founded in 2014 by Angelica Nwandu. The Zimbabwe native joined the team as a Video Content Curator in 2016; seven years later, she is the acting Director of Social Content. It takes a strong person to hold down the award-winning brand’s social media page, which boasts 28 million “roommates” that flock to the comment section with their sometimes outrageous thoughts.
Beyond her work title, she is a stylish and fiery Sagittarius who lives authentically. She’s humble; she’s funny, and she’s shifting the culture through her unique voice. In an exclusive interview, Mawema discusses the pros and cons of her job, her favorite interviews, and how she discovered her signature look.
You’ve been with The Shade Room from the start and have seen it grow. What has been like the most difficult part of just being in the Director of Social Content?
TM: As I’ve grown in my career, there’s always been people who have doubted my abilities. I am young and started in the company pretty young. One of the most challenging things has been proving myself in a sense with people who are older or have more experience; they’ll maybe me think, ‘Well, she doesn’t have that much experience,’ so I think navigating through that narrative or, that conversation of younger people not knowing things or not having experience has been, or was something that was pretty challenging.
But having the support of Angie, the CEO, has been detrimental to my success in the company because she’s just someone who believed in me and pushed me regardless of what advisors or whoever else would say.
HB: I know this a stereotype, but I’ve heard that African parents will encourage you to become a doctor or a a lawyer, before doing something creative. How have your parents embraced your job?
TM: Oh my God, they love it. Growing up, I used to say I would be the next Beyonce. I don’t know why I was saying that girl, I cannot sing, but in my mind, that’s what I would be. I wanted to go to America, and I thought I’d be discovered on the streets because I watched America’s Next Top Model a lot, and Tyra Banks always talked about how she had just discovered people on the street. So from a very young age, I was sure I wanted to be in entertainment. I wasn’t sure what exactly, like I was trying to be Beyonce, but I knew that wouldn’t happen.
My parents were very supportive, but they were also like, you need to go to school because I used to tell them, ‘Take me to Hollywood. You’re sitting on talent.’ My mom would respond, ‘Mm-hmm, you need to finish school.’ They did not even entertain the idea. They told me, ‘When you go to and finish school, you can do whatever you want, but right now, that’s not happening.’ So going to college, I still very much had my Plan A of what I wanted to do, but also realistic enough to know, okay, let me at least major in something that will help me meet this goal and still support myself.
That’s why I chose Communications because with communications, I could be a PR for a major hospital, or I could do what I’m doing now. I was very aligned with what I wanted to do.
HB: What would you say is the most rewarding part of your job?
TM: Being able to be myself. I don’t have to put on a show or a facade within my personal and work life. I don’t have to flex on my personal Instagram and push this bad and bougie style. No, I’m fine and frugal, and I don’t like to spend money, and I buy my things from Ross before you see me in anything designer. The most rewarding part is being in this space where many people aren’t themselves or have to put on a different version of themselves or front a little bit.
Lately, the most rewarding thing is reading the comments and feedback after some of my interviews, and people are like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve never seen this side of this person,’ or ‘This made me like this person more.’ I think, ‘Oh wow, this person has had so many other interviews and talked to different people with even bigger platforms, but the conversation with me made you like them or understand them a little bit more.
HB: How did you land on your signature look?
TM: I wanted something different. I remember switching my hair up a lot, so it’s crazy that I’ve had the same hairstyle for so long. My sister used to do my hair, and I wanted to try a different color. And I went to the hair store and saw this white color and was like, ‘Oh my God, I love this.’ But I didn’t know how it would look on me. I searched high and low on the internet, on Pinterest, and Instagram, for Black girls with white hair or white brazen. Zero images popped up. It was stressing me out. I said, ‘Okay, let me try it and see what happens.’ I did it, and I loved it, and it just stuck.
HB: Who has been your favorite interview?
TM: My initial one used to be August. It’s still one of my favorites. That was years ago. He was so open and vulnerable, and we had such a great conversation. But most recently, Ja Rule, only because it’s the nostalgia for me. This is a man I grew up listening to, and his music is so, like, just everything to me. Just classic. I may have fan-girled a little bit.
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