As we enter the final stretch of the year, most of us are starting to look back on the many ways, big and small, that our world changed in 2023. I, for one, am living for the cultural shift that seems to have happened where women officially have no f*cks left to give.
In the books we read, the music we listen to, and the media we consume, women are embracing exactly where they are at the moment — whether that means loving our gray hair or accepting that, when it comes to motherhood, we’re mostly just winging it. The transparency is a goddamn revelation.
It’s that space in which I met Anjelah Johnson-Reyes.
As far as years go, you can definitely file this one under “banner year” for Johnson-Reyes. You probably know the comedian, actor, author, and internet sensation from her wildly viral “Nail Salon” sketch or her alter ego Bon Qui Qui, a disgruntled fast food employee with no filter.
But this year, you could say she reinvented herself once again… twice, actually. Not only did she become a first-time mom at 42, but in May, she also released her sixth comedy special, Anjelah Johnson-Reyes: Say I Won’t — which, in a ballsy move, she fully financed and produced for YouTube, where her career first took off.
In both endeavors, Johnson-Reyes has proven to be real, relatable, and hilariously honest.
In fact, some of the biggest hits from her special (and subsequent shows) have been jokes grounded in everyday life. “This T.J. Maxx joke is just crushing. I got my Maxxinistas out there like, ‘Yes, girl, I’m right there with you!'” Johnson-Reyes reveals.
But an even bigger hit than the home-goods-bargain-hounding has been the comedian’s material about her relationship with her sister.
“I’ve been getting a lot of feedback about my joke about my relationship with my sister, and how I call her at work all the time and bother her to tell her nothing,” she says, laughing. Every time I get in the car to drive somewhere, I just call my sister. It’s a habit. I put my seatbelt on, throw it in reverse, and then I go, ‘Hey Siri, call Veronica.’ And then Siri’s like, ‘I don’t have a Veronica in your phone.’ I’m like, ‘Quit playing, girl. You know who I’m talking about.’ And then she’ll finally call my sister, and we talk about nothing. And my sister’s at work … but I’m just like, ‘So, anyway, oh my God, I had this burrito yesterday. It was so good.'”
The fact that her stories about her sister seem to resonate so much with her audience is a welcome surprise to Johnson-Reyes.
“That makes me happy because it really is just me sharing my life, sharing my family, my relationship, and the fact that it’s so relatable because I want to make people laugh,” she tells me. “But more than that, I want to connect with people on a human level, and I want people to hear what I’m saying and go, ‘Oh my God, me too.’ ‘Oh, my dad does that too.’ ‘Oh my gosh, shut up, my husband is loud too.'” All the things.”
Johnson-Reyes filmed the special before welcoming her daughter Rosalie Harlow Reyes, with musician husband Manwell Reyes, in June. It was during her last show that she had an epiphany about how significant the moment was at this season in her life.
“I was like, ‘This is my last show as this version of me.’ The only version of me that I’ve known for all these years,” she shares. “I’ve been performing standup as single Anj, married Anj. And this is the only version of me that I’ve known. Now, when I come back, I’m coming back as still me, but a different version of me now having a child, having a different perspective on things.”
And as any parent can tell you, that perspective shift — and the learning curve that comes with it — can feel seismic. “I keep saying, ‘We have no idea what we’re doing.’ We don’t know anything,” Johnson-Reyes admits.
“We waited until we were in our forties. I never bothered to learn anything because I didn’t plan on having kids. And most of my friends are like, ‘Nobody knows what they’re doing, so that’s OK. You just figure it out. You figure out what’s best for you. You figure out what works for you. But none of us know what we’re doing.’ And that has probably been the most comforting advice I’ve gotten from people… that we’ll figure it out. It’ll kick in.'”
Plus, Johnson-Reyes knows how to pivot. It’s evident in her career, as she’s evolved from dancer to comedian to ever-expanding-multi-hyphenate. But her journey to becoming a mom itself was a complete swivel: She’d always said she never wanted to have kids.
“I was very career-focused. Kids always felt like a consolation prize to me. I would actually say that! I would be like, ‘Well, if I have kids, that means I didn’t achieve my goals and get my dream.’ That’s how I felt.”
Then the pandemic happened, and Johnson-Reyes found herself at home — not touring, not acting, not going to auditions or meetings.
“I was home. I was building a garden. I was swimming in the pool. I was sitting on the balcony. All these things I had never done because I didn’t have time because I was always hustling, working. It was always onto the next, onto the next. And I was enjoying my home. I was enjoying the fruits of my labor,” she says, adding, “It was the first time I felt like I didn’t need my career. I never thought I would get to that place where I would say that about my career, my baby, this thing that I thought so so fulfilling that all of a sudden was not as fulfilling as I thought it was.”
It was then that Johnson-Reyes started flashing back to all the times her friends had told her how fulfilling it was to have kids.
“I started to think to myself, ‘Oh my God, did I mess up? Should I have had kids? If here’s my career, the thing that I thought was so fulfilling, is all of a sudden empty, what if I messed up and I should have had kids?'”
Still not fully boarding the baby train yet but curious about her options, she made an appointment to get her various levels tested and see how viable her eggs were: “That’s when I found out my doctors were like, ‘Hey, you don’t have very many options, so if you want to do something about this, you’ve got to hurry up.'” She was 38 at the time.
And so it began.
First, Johnson-Reyes just went into it thinking she was going to save her eggs “just in case.” But at seemingly every turn, doctors had bad news, and that changed everything. “The more bad news I would get, the more I wanted it, and the more it switched for me to, ‘OK, I’m not just saving my eggs. I’m trying to have kids.”
Although, like many of us, she felt wildly unprepared to become a parent, you know how the saying goes: We get by with a little help from our friends. And Johnson-Reyes has some pretty incredible ones to lean on, like actor Gina Rodriguez.
“She has been somebody that I have just reached out to, and she’s given me the most sound advice. And she’s like, ‘Girl, we read all the books, we did all the things, and nothing prepares you for what you experience,” shares Johnson-Reyes, adding, “That helped me because I’m like, ‘Did I read enough? Did I research enough? Did I watch enough TikTok videos?’ So, I’ve kind of just let it go and have been like, ‘OK, I’m ready for the unknown. I’m ready to not be ready.”
Johnson-Reyes has also reached out to fellow comedians who are moms to pick their brains about going back on tour after having a baby.
“I’ve reached out to Amy Schumer; she’s given me great advice. And I’ve reached out to Ali Wong, Iliza Shlesinger. There are some comedians out there who do have kids, and they do tour, and they’re very successful and they’re making it happen,” she says. “Everybody does it differently. Some people bring their baby on the road; some are just like, ‘I’m going to go and come back, and she’ll be fine when I get back in two days.’ I’ll have to figure out what works for me, because I honestly don’t know.”
Johnson-Reyes does have a unique advantage many new moms don’t have — she has built-in backup (in addition to her husband) because her best friend lived with her during her pregnancy. That experience has also given the comedian an insider perspective on ages, stages, and how motherhood is basically a moving target.
“Her son is my godson, and I’ve seen him from the day he was born until now. He’s 12, and he’s going through… I don’t know what. He’s going through 12 is what he’s going through. It is wild just watching her go from stage to stage with him and learning,” Johnson-Reyes says. “Now, you learn a whole different version. Now, you learn how to be a mom to a toddler. Now, you need to learn how to be a mom to an adolescent. And we’re always learning.”