Janelle James Gets Real About Her Pre-Fame Struggle: "I Was Broke as Hell"

Janelle James has received awards and fan adoration for her breakout role as the stylish and self-centered Principal Ava Coleman on "Abbott Elementary." But just five years ago, she was living in the back of a bike shop in New York. "There was an air mattress and a rat," James said in Variety's April/May cover story. The shop belonged to a friend who let her sleep there four nights a week between comedy gigs around the city. "I would wake up and get out before the store opened. I'd just walk around all day with my stuff until I did shows and then I'd go back to sleep."

James's origins as a struggling actor may be surprising to those who've seen her work. As Ava, she's a natural on screen, delivering punchy one-liners that have quickly gained her a cult following. Seeing her success as an award-winning actor, it's difficult to imagine James doing anything other than thriving in front of the camera. Her journey to fame, however, has been years in the making.

"I'm confident in my abilities, confident that I'm funnier than most people."

After high school, she attended New York's Fashion Institute of Technology but quickly learned that connections were more valuable than talent in the industry. "Everyone who seemed to be going on to better things was already in the business, their parents were in the business, or they already had money," she said. "I was broke as hell."

To make ends meet, James began taking odd jobs. Her résumé included party planning for a PR firm, distributing cigars at a strip club, and running her own food delivery service for startups. In between jobs, she'd stay with friends she met on the street. Eventually, James left school, got married, and started a family in Illinois.

Years later, on a whim, she attended an open-mic night as an audience member. Her infectious laughter caught the crew's attention, and soon enough, she was performing four minutes of original material in front of a roaring crowd. "I remember the first laugh I got," she said. "In my head, I was like, 'Oh, this is it. This is what I'm doing now.' I was in it then."

Bit by the comedy bug, James became a regular at Jukebox Comedy Club in Peoria, IL, and made a name for herself in the stand-up business. From there, she split her time between Illinois and New York, where she stayed in the aforementioned bike shop. Her hard work paid off when, after receiving her first paycheck and a call from Chris Rock, she landed her first writing job on "The Rundown With Robin Thede." In 2019, she began writing for Showtime's "Black Monday," and a year later, she was cast in "Abbott Elementary."

Her experience in the writers' room came through in her wit and timing on screen. "Abbott Elementary" creator and star Quinta Brunson described James's audition as "perfect." Brunson said, "It was just exactly what I was looking for. You couldn't get me off the Janelle train. Once I saw her, it was case closed."

Now, two seasons into "Abbott Elementary," James has acting opportunities pouring in — so many, in fact, that she frequently has to turn them down. One particular turnoff is when a character is described as "sexy," an adjective she avoids at all costs because she doesn't want the size or shape of her body to define her career. "I turn down so much sh*t," she said. "I could be so much richer than I am right now. I only do what I want."

As a woman in the entertainment industry, James admits it's not easy. Still, she looks back on her climb to the top with pride. "I'm confident in my abilities, confident that I'm funnier than most people," she said. "That's not even my ego, that's years in the game. I did the work, have the respect of others. And not only others, but men. Once a man says you're funny, that's all it takes — which sucks. But you need the respect of men because they are who're at the top of this profession. You need that co-sign. So nobody can take that away from me. All I have in this sh*t is respect and admiration for people who've done it already."