Nicole Ari Parker’s Empire Is Made up of an Impressive Career, an Unbreakable Marriage and a Passionate Drive
Written By: Jennifer Pellerito
Photographed By: Joe Magnani and Jared Schlachet
Styled By: Sara Borgese Nicole Ari Parker
Hair By: Kiyah WrightNicole Ari Parker
Makeup By: Astrid Monzon Nicole Ari Parker
Whether playing a role on TV, the big screen, or on stage, Nicole Ari Parker commands a presence that has captivated audiences worldwide for over 20 years. Her passion for acting sparked as a young girl, producing her own shows in the basement of her family home. Now, as a veteran member of the Hollywood elite, Parker has taken on the role of Giselle Barker in “Empire,” launched a nonprofit organization and started her own business, all while balancing home life with her husband and two children. Look up Parker’s name in the dictionary, and you’ll likely find this definition: power woman; determined; unstoppable.
No doubt, you’d also see a photo next to Parker’s name in the dictionary. Tall, poised and irresistibly alluring, she holds an aura of confidence that comes from years of experience in the entertainment industry. Naturally perceptive, Parker knows what’s happening in all corners of the room, showcasing a rare sensitivity to how all the wheels in motion work together. It’s no wonder that she’s woven her way through Hollywood, with even more yet to unravel.
The journey to fame for Parker started at a young age. At her childhood home in Baltimore, Maryland, she would dress up and entertain her parents’ friends whenever they came to visit. “I would even make a curtain with the rope and draw it back,” Parker said. “When I think back, I was a producer, basically, and a director, as well as an actor!”
From there, Parker’s love for storytelling evolved into pursuing her degree at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. “I like bringing people together,” Parker said. “That’s what happens in movie theaters, in Broadway theaters, in school gymnasiums—there are all these people who come together to use their imagination and go on a creative journey.” While performing on stage in school, she was drawn to the way an audience would respond to her through laughter, tears and applause. “It’s almost like being a rock musician who loves touring more than they love the studio,” Parker said. “It’s because of the feeling of the people.”
As with most good things in life, the journey takes time. After achieving her degree, Parker went to countless auditions. She was relentless and started landing a few small roles in the early years of her career. “It’s a hitting-the-pavement kind of gig,” Parker said. “You have to keep going.” At times, when she was turned down for a role, her parents were there for her through thick and thin. “I could hear my father’s voice telling me, ‘You need to get up,’” Parker said. “When I did three or four callbacks for a job, I could hear my mother’s voice saying, ‘You did the best you could. Feel good about that.’”
It’s easy to see that the inner strength Parker radiates today roots back to the perseverance she upheld from the very beginning. After seven years in the industry, Parker landed her big break on the TV series, “Soul Food,” based on the 1997 film, Soul Food, which ran for four seasons, and soon the stars seemed to align. The set of “Soul Food” also happened to be where she met her husband of 13 years, Boris Kodjoe, who serendipitously played Parker’s love interest in the show. Soon, Parker’s breakout role sparked the first flames of the fire she’s known for today.
And, the heat is rising. Parker’s character, Giselle Barker, in the hit TV drama “Empire,” came on in the fourth season as Eddie Barker’s (Forest Whitaker) ex-wife. Parker said, “I got a call saying, ‘Do you want to play Forest Whitaker’s ex-wife on “Empire?”’ I said, absolutely. It was a hit show and an Oscar winner in one phone call.” Soon after, the writers decided to make Giselle a recurring character on the show for the fifth season.
As the season unfolds, Parker’s character develops on screen. “I came in as the side piece who got lucky, married a mogul, then got divorced and is in a crisis because his money is going down the drain,” Parker said. “When it was time to write for the fifth season, the writers wanted to find a way to discover the other side of a character like that.”
“Empire” has created major buzz since its 2015 debut, changing television as we know it today. The show follows the story of a family’s power struggle as they feud over who will gain control of the hiphop music and entertainment company, Empire Entertainment. Critics have raved over the show, and each season brings in even more viewers globally. “You have an African American cast breaking those barriers and getting those numbers,” said Parker. “That’s very important for this industry to witness.”
When she’s not on the set of “Empire” in Chicago, Parker spends her time at home in Los Angeles with Kodjoe and their two children, Sophie and Nicolas. How does Parker find balance between work and family life? Actually, Parker said, “There really isn’t any balance. Our children are our priority in this world. We want to be present for them as much as possible.” As soon as “Empire” wraps for the week, she’s jet-setting back home to help her kids with math homework and tuck them into bed at night. Being there for them is what makes everything else in life fall into place.
So does an unshakable marriage. Parker and Kodjoe have been together almost 14 years after hitting it off on the set of “Soul Food.” “We just took our time and got to know each other,” said Parker. “We were friends who fell in love.” Parker recalls an anecdote: Long before they began dating, Kodjoe came right in her dressing room and flat-out said, “You know we’re going to be married with two kids someday, right?” Parker laughs, “I looked at this gorgeous man and I said, ‘Sure, yeah, yeah, definitely.’” Who knew they’d be exactly where he predicted only a few years later?
Above all, Parker says she believes that marriage is about wanting to make it work through the many ups and downs that life brings. “I’m married to someone who wants to be married,” Parker said. “You have to be ready for that kind of life. Marriage is commitment, sacrifice, time put in and communication skills that you might not have.” For Parker, it’s about finding a partner who knows every day isn’t going to be perfect—there are going to be fights—it happens. The most important thing is to be on the same page about making it work, no matter what.
Not only that, but Parker has also found it’s important to have separate interests outside of your relationship, too. “So that when you come home, you’re not making that person the curator of your happiness,” Parker said. “You have to bring some level of your own happiness to the table.” Last but not least: “And you know…you have to remember to make out!”
Ask Parker about her entrepreneurial endeavor, the Gymwrap, and a flicker of excitement will appear in her eyes. “I was just trying to solve a problem—I wanted a band that could deal with all of my own personal hairstyles,” she said. “I blow my hair out and I want to keep it for a few days, but I don’t want to miss working out.” Problem solved. Parker made the Gymwrap in her kitchen with her daughter, and the rest is history. The Gymwrap can now be found in four major retailers and online.
Even better, part of the proceeds from the Gymwrap benefits the Sophie’s Voice Foundation, a nonprofit founded by Parker and Kodjoe with the mission to help individuals and families affected by spina bifida. Their daughter, Sophie, was diagnosed with spina bifida at birth, a medical condition that affects the spine. But if you met Sophie, Parker said, “You would just see a bright, happy, bossy big sister to Nicolas. You wouldn’t know she has a high-maintenance lifestyle. It’s her normal.”
At the end of the day, Parker is driven by her positive outlook and enduring resilience. “I’m not afraid to ask questions about what I still don’t know,” she said. Much is on the horizon in the year to come for Parker, as she’s already started to make strides in the direction of producing, directing and writing. Even if a new endeavor doesn’t go as planned, she believes that there’s knowledge to be gained through the process. “[People] often think they need to wait for someone to give them the green light, or have someone to back them up,” said Parker. Her advice: “Produce something first, no matter how small it is. Even if you fall on your face, you’re just that much smarter, because you tried.”
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