Actor Jussie Smollett tried to make it big for years, picking up roles in the smallest of films and working odd jobs to support his dreams. His breakthrough came when he was cast as Jamal Lyon on the hit Fox TVshow Empire, where he stars as a gay musician who struggles to gain his father’s approval and support. But his talent doesn’t end at acting. Smollett also has experience with television directing and in music — and he has various awards to prove it. He’s been the recipient or nominee of prestigious honors such as NAACP Awards and Teen Choice Awards.
But there’s far more to this California-born creative than his professional accolades. He’s notoriously private, and did you know that he starred in a film you probably watched over and over in the ’90s? From his love life to his personal struggles, let’s take a closer look at some of the things that have slipped under the radar. This is the untold truth of Jussie Smollett.
His career went through an awkward phase
Jussie Smollett’s career breakthrough undoubtedly came thanks to his role on Empire, but he began acting long before the Fox series premiered in 2015. You just may not have noticed because those roles were fairly small.
According to his IMDb page, Smollett made his acting debut in 1991, when he starred in the TV film A Little Piece of Heavenalongside Growing Pains actor Kirk Cameron. The next year, he snagged a role in the hockey cult classic The Mighty Ducks. He plays Terry Hall who, as BuzzFeed points out, “was facepalming before it was a thing.” Smollett apparently took a pretty long break from acting after his role in the mid-90s TV show On Our Own, which seemed to be because Smollett was of a weird age and, therefore, had some trouble booking gigs. He addressed that professional hiatus with Out magazine. “I wasn’t a cutesy kid anymore, but I also wasn’t a leading man,” he said.
Talent runs in the family
Think of them as The Jacksons or the Jonas clan. Jussie Smollett and his five siblings — Jojo, Jazz, Jurnee, Jake, and Jocqui — all starred in the ABC series On Our Own, a show that followed the life of a family that was “left orphaned by a tragic accident,” according to IMDb. Some of his siblings backed away from the spotlight after the show ended in 1995, but his sister, Jurnee (pictured above), has appeared in some significant films, including 1997’s Eve’s Bayou and Tyler Perry’s 2013 film Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor (which also features Kim Kardashian).
This family also loves to cook, and the Smolletts’ shared culinary skills earned them a show on the Food Network called Smollett Eats. On the series, the crew cooks up yummy recipes for close friends and family. In 2018, Jazz, Jurnee, Jake, and Jussie also released a cookbook titled The Family Table: Recipes and Moments from a Nomadic Life, which includes more than 130 classic recipes that are meaningful to their family.
To be clear, he ‘doesn’t own a closet’
Though Jussie Smollett’s sexual orientation was never a secret (via Out), the public still had questions, fueled, in part, by his longstanding policy of not discussing his personal life in the press. However, Smollett chose to put some rumors to rest in 2015, when he spoke about his sexuality with Ellen DeGeneres on an episode of her eponymous daytime television show. Although he refused to talk about his personal life during the main segment of the show, he later opened up to the famous TV host in a “special sit-down chat.”
“It was really important to me to make sure that it got across that there is no closet. There’s never been a closet that I’ve been in. I don’t own a closet…” he said. “I have a home and that is my responsibility to protect that home, so that’s why I choose not to talk about my personal life.” It was a true heart-to-heart moment that ended with DeGeneres, a fellow LGBT-identifying person, saying she was “so proud” of him.
He was the victim of a horrible crime
On Jan. 29, 2019, the Empire star was reportedly targeted in a possible hate crime. According to ABC News, Jussie Smollett was outside walking around 2 a.m. when he was allegedly attacked by two men who yelled racial and homophobic slurs, “poured an unknown chemical substance’ on him, possibly bleach, and wrapped a rope around his neck,” and shouted that this is “MAGA country.” According to TMZ, Fox Studios received a “threatening, homophobic letter addressed to Smollett” days before the ambush and offered him extra security as a result, but the actor reportedly turned it down due to the intrusive nature of having “around the clock” security (via TMZ).
At the time of this writing, Smollett has yet to speak out about the attack, but his family issued a statement to ABC News calling him “a warrior whose light cannot be dimmed.”Based on some of his previous comments, we have a feeling they’re right. Speaking to Billboard in 2018, Smollett said, “If I get in an argument and someone yells out a slur about my race and sexuality, I’m like, ‘That’s all you got?'”
He won’t tell you about his beau
Jussie Smollett might work under the bright lights of Hollywood, but he’d rather keep his romantic relationships out of the spotlight. In a 2018 interview with Essence, the actor said that, while he’s willing to admit when he’s in a relationship, he’d rather keep his partner on the DL because “[he] didn’t ask to be in the light.” Smollett added, “[I’m] not keeping a secret. If you see me with Baby, you see me with Baby. But it’s not something I feel right now to flaunt.”
His inspiration behind this decision reportedly stems from Scandal actress Kerry Washington, who not only kept her relationship (and marriage!) with former NFL player and actor Nnamdi Asomugha a total secret, but she also shielded their children’s identities (via E! News). In other words, you seriously shouldn’t get your hopes up for any big PDA moments from these stars.
Music is life
Jussie Smollett had already been dabbling in music before landing a spot on Empire(via Bustle), but the show exposed his vocal talents to the world, and it wasn’t long before record labels came knocking. The same year the show debut, the actor revealed to Entertainment Weekly that he’d signed a deal with Columbia Records. “So darling, I’m label mates with Beyoncé and Adele and Barbra Streisand,” he raved to the outlet (via Vibe).
Speaking of Beyoncé, the “Drunk In Love” singer appears to be a major influence on Smollett. In fact, he told Billboard in 2018 that he feels weird drinking water at his performances because a friend once pointed out that the Lemonade crooner did her entire 2018 Coachella set (which contained ridiculous choreography over the course of two hours) without even having to hydrate. “And I’m like damn. Now every time I take a sip, I hear her voice,” he told the magazine.
Mariah Carey ‘schooled’ him
Mariah Carey has influenced or inspired everyone from Ariana Grande and Mary J. Blige to Beyoncé and Britney Spears (via Vibe), but not everyone can say that they’ve received some hands-on advice from the R&B icon. Jussie Smollett can. According to the actor, while his music career was in its infancy, Carey stepped in and showed him the ropes regarding the business. “Who knows more about publishing than Mariah Carey? She schooled me,” he told Outmagazine in 2016. “She truly is one of the most brilliant people that I’ve ever talked to.”
These two seem to have formed a close-knit relationship. They even collaborated on a song for Empire. In fact, Smollett told Entertainment Tonight that he and Carey “go back like babies and pacifiers,” which, as the outlet points out, is a lyric from Carey’s “Fantasy (Remix).”
Stage fright is a thing for him
Smollett’s stage fright seems to be as big as his voice. In a 2018 interview with Billboard, the actor revealed that he gets “pre-game jitters” as showtime approaches to the point that it seems almost paralyzing. “I get freezing cold right before I get onstage. Like, freezing. It’s so weird. My fingertips get really cold and [the audience is] like, ‘Yo, this n***a ’bout to pass out,'” he told the publication. You’d think he’d ease up once the music drops, but he claims his anxieties only worsen from there. “Then, I get really, really hot. I’m like a melting glacier. I know people are like, ‘Yo, this fool is like a crackhead.’ I’m not.”
For what it’s worth, Smollett said he tries not to let his nerves get the best of him. “We just put a lot into it and give it our all every single night,” he said.
He’s in it to win it
In a 2018 interview with The Fader, Smollett opened up about his road to stardom, telling the publication that he’s worked “every kind of job” to support his dreams. “I was gonna create regardless whether people saw it or not, my friend would call me and I’d be in the studio and I know they were thinking … why?! … your s**t has gone double plastic … why are you still trying?”
Smollett said he kept trying because it was simply what he felt he had to do. “There was never a time I was going to give up. There were so many moments of bulls**t. I knew I could do other things but there was nothing else I loved to do. I’ve always had a job since I was four years old. There was no way I would ever stop making music,” he said.
Clearly, the sky’s the limit for this actor. Keep your eyes peeled for what’s to come.