On her first day going to prerecord announcement tracks for the 94th Academy Awards, UNC class of 1999 alumna Janora McDuffie found a source of comfort in an unlikely place.
Down the mustard-colored hallway in Sunset Las Palmas Studios in Hollywood, in the sound production stage bathroom two doors down from her recording studio, hung a painting called "Eight Ball" by Durham native Ernie Barnes.
Though she had never seen that particular painting before, McDuffie said she recognized Barnes' art style. Next, she noticed his signature in the bottom-right corner.
“So to have this artist, this artwork up from a Durham artist and I'm on this Hollywood studio lot,” McDuffie said. “I just felt like that was everybody from back home saying, 'You got this girl! Go on and do this. We see you!' And so I was moved from day one of being part of this journey.”
McDuffie will be the voice behind all of the announcements at the Oscars on Sunday.
Early life and career
Originally from Durham, McDuffie attended the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics for 11th and 12th grade.
She attended UNC from 1995 to 1999 and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and communications studies with a concentration in performance.
While at UNC, McDuffie was a Morehead-Cain scholar, an inductee of the Order of the Golden Fleece and a member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority and the Black Student Movement.
She said that for her first yearlong professional job out of college, she moved to Atlanta to work as a consultant for Ernst & Young.
But deep down in her heart, she wanted to pursue a career in performance.
McDuffie distinctly remembers standing up in a BSM meeting during her senior year at UNC and announcing that she was going to move to Los Angeles after college, she said.
“All of a sudden, these dreams got replaced with corporate dreams (by getting offered the job in Atlanta),” she said. “But I was still super excited because, ‘Man, I'm not going be a broke college student anymore!’”
Kimberly Joy Morgan, an actress, author, and health and life coach who is a friend McDuffie made at UNC, moved to Atlanta with her because the two of them had gotten the same job at the same company.
“We both were management consultants and life was great money-wise,” Morgan said. “But we both were really unhappy in the sense of what we were doing because we both were actors at heart and performers and creatives.”
In 2000, after talking with the recruiter who hired her and her counselor at EY, McDuffie decided moved to Los Angeles to pursue her acting dreams.
'Always been a performer'
McDuffie’s mother, Nora McDuffie, said she always thought her daughter would find a way to find her passion in acting.
"Janora has always been a performer, even as a little girl,” Nora McDuffie said.
During her 22 years living in Los Angeles, Janora McDuffie has appeared on different shows — with performances as “Social Worker Janet” on two seasons of "Grey’s Anatomy" and appearances in “The Unit,” “24” and “Lie to Me” — and has done voice acting for commercials, video games and other animations.
Leila Ryan, McDuffie’s wife and and an officer for the Los Angeles Police Department, wrote in an email that it has been amazing to watch Janora persevere through highs and lows. She said it has been a testament to her commitment to the journey.
“It’s been a beautiful process to be a part of watching the growth in her career and growth as a person,” Ryan said.
To McDuffie, acknowledging her identities and the communities she is a part of is important — a responsibility that comes with her platform.
In particular, she shares parts of her identity that people may not know or see because visibility and representation matter, she said.
"I am so excited to represent the African American community and specifically African American women in this space," she said. "But just looking at me, you don't know that I have a beautiful wife at home. So in that case, it is still just as important for me to acknowledge that part of my life."
By sharing these parts of her life that people may not see, McDuffie said she hopes that someone is empowered or validated even more by seeing themselves in her.
“I feel like by being publicly authentic, I am continuing to break stereotypes and barriers,” she said. “And usher in a bit more love."
Vydashon-Telese Coleman, a personal trainer and childhood friend of McDuffie, said in an email that she believes McDuffie represents both the Black community and the LGBTQ+ community well.
“And as proud of that as I am and she is,” Coleman said. “I would want her to be seen as not just ‘the LGBTQ+ actress’ or ‘the Black woman actress,’ but also as just ‘a great actress!'"
McDuffie added that her identities are all a part of who she is.
“That's a mixture of Durham,” she said. “That's a mixture of Chapel Hill, that's a mixture of Black, that's a mixture of woman, that's a mixture of bisexual, that's a mixture of woman with a wife.”
She said these identities inform who she is and how she looks at the world.
“So as I speak, or as I act, that comes out and you can't put your finger on it,” McDuffie said. “And that part is different for each person. But it's the beauty of what makes us all unique and connected.”
Ryan said she is proud of and beyond excited for McDuffie, and is also happy for McDuffie's parents — because she knows how much they mean to her.
“This is her time,” Ryan said. “Now the world gets to see what I see.”
McDuffie said she enjoys work, whether voiceover or on-screen acting, where she gets to be herself.
“So in that realm, also finding additional opportunities to be Janora,” McDuffie said. “To share some Chapel Hill flair, mixed with Black girl magic and a little bit of rainbow sprinkles.”
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