Mj Rodriguez Takes The Mic For Her Next Act As Michaela Jaé

·8-min read

Once upon a time, the woman on the other side of a late August Zoom call was Mj Rodriguez, best known as the emotional anchor of FX’s Pose, where she played the saintly Blanca Evangelista. But the actress speaking into the virtual depths doesn’t answer to Mj anymore — not exactly.

“I can finally officially say that I am moving from Mj Rodriguez to Michaela Jaé,” proudly says the 30-year-old, who, according to her, is wearing a jumpsuit. I do not know for sure because Michaela Jaé’s camera is off, given that she’s been beset by a busy couple of days and is feeling under the weather ahead of another set of neverending busy days. This is self-care in COVID times: she can see me but I can’t see her, an interesting reversal for someone in the spotlight and so used to being seen, discussed, and appraised.

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Michaela Jaé is ready for her next chapter. “I wanted people to see that I was more than just this character that I played on a television screen. … It was only right and even more personal to let people know who the woman inside of Mj is: Michaela Antonia Jaé Rodriguez,” she explains, a move heralded by the August music video release of her disco-laden single “Something to Say.” “The only way I was going to do that was if I really made a mark through my music and separated myself from the person who Mj was, which is the actress that shows up and that keeps it together.”

On Sunday, Michaela Jaé did show up and attended the Emmys as the first-ever out trans woman nominated for a major acting role in the award show’s 73 years, capping off her time as Miss Blanca. She is the third Latina and the first Afro-Latinx performer to be nominated for any best actress Emmy; Rita Moreno and America Ferrera round out the painfully small group. Then there is the Ryan Murphy-produced, Steven Canals-created series Pose, which broke barrier after barrier since 2018 as a period piece led by Black and Latinx performers throughout the trans and queer spectrum — with Michaela Jaé at its very centre.

Though Michaela Jaé didn’t nab the Emmy — that honour went to a repeat winner, The Crown’s Olivia Colman — it’s impossible to deny how momentous the occasion was. “Being herstory is so profound. Beautifully profound,” her voice says to me through the Zoom call. “Finally, finally, I get to be in the same spaces that I’ve been dreaming of when I was 5 years old.”

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The world has never seen, or so passionately celebrated, someone quite like Michaela Jaé. Nearly every headline about her includes “history-making” or some heavy reference to “representation.” By comparison, other actors of her generation (read: white, cisgender colleagues who never have to consider the delicate nuances of gender identity and the distinctions between “Latino,” “Latinx,” and “Hispanic” in front of millions) simply get to be. Michaela Jaé takes the task of existing as a living piece of history in stride. “It hasn’t been as daunting as I thought it would be,” she swears.

But the tightrope she walks puts her between an honest desire to represent the communities she is so proud to be a part of — “I’m a strong Black woman, a strong Afro-Latina woman. Strong all-of-the-things.” — and the refusal to let Hollywood define her by them. Because Michaela Jaé is nobody’s token anything.

“I just pray that, at a certain point, people get to see the human being,” Michaela Jaé says about her celebrity. “That people get to see the person who is all types of intersectionalities — Black, Latina, trans, a woman, all things encompassed in one — and not use it as a logline or a subtext title where it’s like, ‘This is what she is and look at what she’s done because she is trans.’”


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Michaela Jaé has spent a lifetime being adored. Her voice lights up when she speaks of her mother and Emmy date Audrey, a Black American raised in New Jersey; her father Michael, who was born to a Black mother and a Black American and Puerto Rican father; and her stepfather Don McNeilly, whom she affectionately calls her “second father.” “When I tell you I was raised on familia, I was raised on that. That was a deep-rooted thing that’s just been embedded in my genetics,” she says.

Michaela Jaé herself grew up in predominantly Black areas of New York and New Jersey and admitted her understanding of her Latinx history “has grown and continuously grows every single day.” Her Pose co-star Indya Moore — who identifies as Afro-Taíno — has been a central force behind that push. “[They’re] like, ‘You need to go to Puerto Rico. You need to come to the Dominican Republic, girl! Get an understanding of your heritage,’” Michaela Jaé laughs. And I’m like, ‘Don’t worry. I’m going to.’”

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It is difficult to imagine when Michaela Jaé will have time for an island-hopping vacation. In November, she’ll appear in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Netflix musical drama Tick, Tick… Boom!. Her mysterious Apple TV+ series Loot, co-starring another Emmy history-maker, Maya Rudolph, is just starting to get off the ground. And amid it all, Michaela Jaé launched her pop music career, shooting her video for “Something to Say” in mere hours despite its complicated dance sequences and grand set pieces. She plans to soon work on her full-length album — which means she is cultivating her “baby” music career right this second. Despite the newness of this latest project, Michaela Jaé is keeping her fingers crossed that ascendent Black femme artists like Doja Cat or Chloe Bailey agree to hop on a track.

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Because Michaela Jaé Rodriguez is Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, she must traverse these massive opportunities while also considering the complicated power systems at play in Hollywood that want to pigeonhole her in “diversity” roles. For example, she is highly aware of her responsibilities as a lighter skinned Afro-Latinx actor. “I don’t think when it comes to colourism right now that there is progression,” she says, echoing the important conversations that dominated internet discourse this summer following the debut of In the Heights. “If not everyone’s a part of [what’s on screen], and you only see a group of people who are of a lighter complexion, especially if they are assimilated to whiteness, then that goes to show there’s not a lot of work being done. The work is happening, but there needs to be more.”

Loot, she believes, will help move Hollywood in the right direction for authentic and inclusive trans representation. Her character Sophia is “a boss” with dry humour and whose gender identity is not a central plot point. In fact, it’s never mentioned. That alone is proof to Michaela Jaé — whose Blanca was one of just 29 trans characters across linear and streaming TV last year, according to a GLAAD study — that decision-makers are finally starting to respect her as an actress separate from her identity as a trans woman. “I do believe Hollywood is seeing me. If I weren’t able to book Loot, I probably would have different words,” she says. “But now that I’m doing a show where my transness is not highlighted, [I’m optimistic].”

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Beyond the avalanche of projects she has already secured, Michaela Jaé wants to do a rom-com à la her “beacon” of inspiration, 2000s romance queen Jennifer Lopez. But she has concerns other romantic heroines do not, a stark reminder that being a cultural pioneer can be emotionally taxing work. “I would love to work with an actor who is comfortable sharing an active romantic space with me,” Michaela Jaé admits. “We can portray characters who are obtainable and are actually realistic in real life, too — [so it’s not just men characters] being afraid because I’m a trans woman.”

“I would just love to be a silly, goofy girl who falls head over heels for this guy or vice versa,” she adds. “I see myself showing people another side of the [romantic] experience of a woman like myself and many other women who go through it. It’s not just the trans experience.”

Michaela Jaé’s sense of duty to the public — whether that be “normalising” transness, as she says, or ensuring women like her feel represented on a mass scale — comes up often, even when she talks about her own love life with her devoted boyfriend of two years. “I like to keep my relationship obviously as private as possible, but when we do step out, I do love that people can see us positively and happily together because they know it’s possible for them,” she says.

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Despite obstacles that few stars before her ever had to consider, Michaela Jaé is ultimately hopeful about what comes next for her. And not just because her dad has started prodding her about having children. (“I’m like, ‘We’re going to have them, Daddy,’” she says. “I just have to succeed a little bit more in my own right.”)

“I wanted to be the girl that was just in a movie and that was doing her hard work and just maybe, who knows, get awarded for it. Maybe possibly get a nomination,” Michaela Jaé says. “Now it’s happening. With my dreams coming true, so many more babies behind me — their dreams are going to come true even more than mine.”

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