Ariana DeBose on Her Historic Oscar Win: ‘I Knew This Moment Mattered’

Best Supporting Oscar winner Ariana DeBose knew what her win meant as a woman of color. But life after the win is what made her nervous—and has pleasantly surprised her. The Women in Hollywood honoree dedicated her speech at ELLE’s Getty Center celebration to discussing her career path, the pressure she felt representing her community, and what her experience in the industry has really been like as an Afro-Latina.

“I didn’t see a lot of me onscreen growing up, and as a queer woman I knew this moment mattered,” DeBose said of her Oscar win. “And when I won, my greatest fear was that I was a poster child for all these things and I’d somehow be told, ‘Thank you for checking all those boxes, and now please take your Oscar and go away.’ But that didn’t happen. I’m still here, still being asked to play parts that matter, and still being invited to wildly impressive and joyous gatherings like this one.”

DeBose’s remarks herself paid tribute to the fellow actors who lifted her up, her journey, and what comes next. Read her complete speech below:

Whew, my word! I cried I lot, I have a lot of feelings right now. Thank you so much to ELLE, to Kerry, my angel, and to everyone here tonight for this incredible honor. This is an award about impact, so as I began thinking about what to say tonight, I of course first watched Mamma Mia! for the 5 millionth time, and then I got to work. I started thinking about all the moments that have impacted me, the people that have influenced me, and what I’ve learned is that impact is kind of what you make of it. You could take a compliment and let it make you feel safe, or you could take a negative comment and let it live in your heart forever. Or… you could turn that negativity into fuel and toss it onto the fire of your creativity.

Here’s how I learned that lesson. When I was on Broadway, I said yes to jobs I “had no business” doing. I was cast in Motown the Musical and I understudied Diana Ross at the age of 21—I don’t know what I was thinking. When you’re stepping into iconic shoes like that, you have to sing, you have to act, you have sound like a legend when you do it. I could have listened to the many internal and external whispers that said I had no business doing that job, or that, to be perfectly frank, I wasn’t Black enough to be doing that job. Instead I heard those whispers, and I tossed them onto the fire. That burning made me do the work I needed to do, the work that I knew I could do, and so, I did it.

And when I filmed The Prom, there I was, in a movie with Kerry Washington and, um, Meryl Streep? Again, I’ve watched Mamma Mia! 5 million times. Now, I had prepared myself to truly be that Broadway girl no one had heard of or cared about, but Kerry greeted me with confidence and warmth and she was literally like, “Hi, I’m Kerry, and I’m here for you.” I just remember being so nervous, but not only did she make me feel like I belonged on that set, she made me see that I actually had something to offer, she told me that I belonged, she showed me I belonged. She helped carve out a space for me and I continued to carve it out for myself. And she was right. I did.

When I got the role of Anita in West Side Story, there was part of me that sincerely thought I had absolutely no business doing that job, or working with Steven Spielberg, or reprising a role that was made iconic by the legendary Rita Moreno. But if I’m honest, my biggest challenge was not the performance, the music, or the role—it was not listening to the comparisons and not being influenced by what people were saying about us. To her credit, Rita set the tone and she gave me a masterclass on how you can impact those around you. She’s cultured, she’s learned, she’s wise, and she helped make space for me.

The support I felt from the amazing community of women, the community in this business, it really helped me deal with the pressure I felt. And I DID feel the pressure, because my being Afro-Latina was A Thing. And you know what? Rightfully so, it should’ve been. Now, as an Afro-Latina, I didn’t see a lot of me onscreen growing up, and as a queer woman I knew this moment mattered. And when I won, my greatest fear was that I was a poster child for all these things, that somehow be told, “Thank you for checking all those boxes for us, and now please take your Oscar and go away.” But that didn’t happen, and for some odd reason, I’m still here, still being asked to play parts that matter, and still being invited to wildly impressive and joyous gatherings like this one.

When I first came into this business, honestly, I was nervous that other women of color might not be kind or welcoming to me, because there seemed to be this myth that there are so few opportunities and places for us to exist. But that hasn’t been my experience.

Most of the women I meet in this industry are welcoming and collaborative, and that’s the impact I want to have for other women, and other women of color. There’s plenty of room for all of us and it’s up to all of us to welcome everyone through the door to this industry.

Thank you, Kerry, for teaching me that.

For me, meeting this moment, at this event, and receiving this award is recognizing that evem with the changes in my circumstances, I feel comfortable enough to show up in any way that meets my humanity. There is power in being yourself, in being authentic, and there is a lot of power in this room tonight.

ELLE, Nina, my God—thank you to you and your team. You do such a beautiful job of celebrating all of our aspects of womanhood, our personhood. We’re all different, but we’re together, celebrating and validating ourselves. It’s actually one of the first time I’ve felt comfortable in Hollywood. That’s the truth. Now, I do feel very young to have had an impact on this world, but I’m grateful to the people who have shown me that what I’m doing matters.

So, now what? What do I do with this moment? I think back to all the auditions, all the effort, all the work, about the people who have impacted me… and I think the answer is simple. I just continue to do the work. I’ll follow the excellent example of women like Kerry, Rita, my dear friend Aida Rodriguez, who’s here tonight, that woman showed me support like nobody else during awards season, and I will forever be grateful, hermana. And you know what? The example of all of the honorees tonight, while some of you are new to me, I have looked up to each and every one of you for a very long time, and it’s a privilege to be among you. We’re going to continue to make space for everyone else rushing through that big, wide open door. And to women like me out there asking what to do to meet the moment? It’s simple.

You dance your ass off.