13 Celebrities Who Are Making Pop Culture More Innovative, Inclusive and Interesting

Adweek looks at the year's high-profile creative icons

Actress, producer and screenwriter Lena Waithe created Showtime’s The Chi.
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High-wattage celebrities are plentiful, but only a small number make the cut each year in Adweek’s Creative 100, where we honor the actors, musicians and iconic personalities who bring multiple talents and bold perspectives to everything they do. Below, you’ll find this year’s selections, many of whom have used their considerable pop-culture platforms to create and celebrate a bigger, more inclusive world.

Artist, Musician

While many might know Solange for her contributions to the music industry—her 2016 album, A Seat at the Table, received widespread praise from critics and fans alike—this artist does much more than drop killer albums. Over the course of her career, Solange has perfected the art of connecting music with other, boundary-pushing artistic pursuits. Earlier this year, she was honored at the 70th annual Parsons Benefit for her contributions to the world of fashion, design and art.

Emblematic of her ability to merge artistic worlds can be found in this year’s Metatronia. In the performance art installation, which she directed, a series of dancers performs different movements in front of a massive cube sculpture. Solange partnered with Uniqlo, agency Droga5 London and the Hammer Museum on the piece, meant to explore the process of creation while also highlighting Uniqlo’s line of sportswear.

Solange says about the work: “Continuing my practices and interest in exploring the relationship of movement and architecture as a meditation, Metatronia centers around building frequency and creating change through visual storytelling.”

Solange also brought her directing talents to the music video for SZA’s hit song “The Weekend,” and it was recently announced that Solange’s Saint Heron collective will be collaborating with Ikea on an as-yet-undefined project about “architectural and design objects with multifunctional use.”
Katie Richards

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The Entire Cast of The Good Place

Creator and showrunner Michael Schur expected that audiences would initially watch his wildly inventive NBC sitcom about the afterlife because of stars Ted Danson and Kristen Bell.

“But we all knew this is an ensemble,” he says. “It was always going to be about four people [D’Arcy Carden, William Jackson Harper, Manny Jacinto and Jameela Jamil] who are locked in a weird, private hell , the demon who was torturing them [Danson] and the weird repository for all the knowledge in the universe that is there for the ride [Carden].”

To fill out a cast that deftly sells every farcical twist and matches comedic wits with Danson and Bell, Schur credits casting director Allison Jones and her associate Ben Harris for “finding these people who no one’s ever seen before, who magically fit the roles perfectly. Jameela was a host from England, and had never acted before. Manny is a Filipino kid from Vancouver, Will was a New York theater actor, and D’Arcy was an L.A. improvisational actor.”

For Season 2, as The Good Place switched gears with the big revelation that its characters were actually in “the bad place,” Schur and his writing team amplified the cast’s comedic strengths (“we know what the weapons are now,” he explains), leading to more moments like a scene early in Season 2 where the cast distracts Jacinto’s dopey Jason with a lit sparkler, to his utter delight. “It’s a very simple scene,” Schur says, “but they’re so alive with each other, that even those tiny, throwaway moments become really special.”
Jason Lynch

Lena Waithe
Actress, Producer, Screenwriter

This is Lena Waithe’s moment. This year alone, Waithe appeared in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One and stole the spotlight on the red carpet at the annual Met Gala wearing  a colorful, pride-inspired cape. She’s earned accolades and notice for her breakout role in the Netflix series Master of None, where she plays Denise, a character coming to terms with her sexuality. Then there’s Showtime’s The Chi, which Waithe created and serves as executive producer.

A prolific writer too, Waithe co-wrote (with the Master of None creator and star Aziz Ansari) the groundbreaking “Thanksgiving” episode, which aired during the second season. In it, Waithe’s character grapples with how to tell her mother about her sexuality, eventually bringing a love interest to the family’s holiday celebration.

In addition, she’s become quite the ad star, anchoring a multipart Nike campaign in which Waithe plays a “shoe therapist” helping athletes cope with their footwear obsessions.

Her work, both on screen and behind the camera, earned Waithe an Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series—the first black woman in history to be so honored. Talking about African-American representation in TV, at a Blackhouse Foundation panel during this year’s Sundance festival, she said: “We as artists can do whatever the fuck we want to do. We just have to do it really, really well. … You have to write and develop and wait for the world to catch up to your art.” —Katie Richards

Courtesy: BBC America Sid Gentle Films Ltd

Phoebe Waller-Bridge
Writer, Producer, Showrunner, Actor

Fear is a powerful motivator for Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who says she knows she’s found a worthy new project “when I start to feel nervous or a little bit scared about what I’m writing.”

That’s what prompted her to turn Luke Jennings’ Villanelle novellas—about an MI5 operative tracking an assassin around Europe—into Killing Eve, BBC America’s critically acclaimed new drama, starring Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer. “With Killing Eve, strangely, writing the psychopath wasn’t the thing that felt dangerous. It was writing Eve, who was an everywoman, and then revealing her darker self, that was the hook.”

Hooking viewers too, Killing Eve has built on its 18-49 and 25-54 demo audience each week during its just-completed debut season, which BBC America says is the first new scripted series to do so since Nielsen’s live-plus-3 measurement began more than a decade ago. The drama helped Waller-Bridge avoid Hollywood pigeonholing after the success of her 2016 BBC/Amazon comedy series Fleabag, which she starred in and created (second installments of both series will air next year). “I feel like you have to teach the industry about the kind of creative you want to be,” she says. “I want to keep swerving left—or right!—and keep surprising people, because it keeps it fresh for me as well.”

Her mantra led to yet another unexpected turn this year: a motion-capture performance as droid L3-37 in the new Star Wars film Solo. “I’ve made a career through Fleabag on ridiculous facial expressions, and not being able to have that box of tricks was a fun challenge,” she says. “It was very liberating.”
Jason Lynch

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Cardi B

“You know what makes a good outfit? A good, poppin’-ass shoe,” says Cardi B, the multitalent hyphenate in her campaign for Steve Madden. The rapper, who released her first full album, the chart-topping Invasion of Privacy, in April, starred in several 15-second vignettes for the fashion brand back in December. In those spots she offers fans “daily tips” on shoe styling in a way that only Cardi B can (wearing a pair of bedazzled boots in one and proclaiming: “Why her shoes so shiny, she thinks she’s in da club”).

No matter what the rapper is doing—from starring in brand campaigns for Madden, to sharing very candid updates with her 24 million-plus Instagram followers, or announcing her pregnancy during a Saturday Night Live performance—Cardi stays true to the persona fans know and love: based on her “no-filter attitude.”

The 25-year-old (born Belcalis Almanzar) got her start as a dancer and then quickly became a household name through her famed Instagram account. 2017 (and it seems 2018, too) was truly the year of Cardi. She gained massive attention when her track “Bodak Yellow” unseated Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” on the Billboard Hot 100 chart last September, making her the second female rapper ever to reach the top of the charts as a solo artist.

She also had a scene-stealing role in Amazon’s Super Bowl ad this year, in which Cardi offered her services as a replacement voice for Alexa.

Cardi has another major collaboration in the works with an influencer favorite, Fashion Nova. The clothing line, Cardi B x Fashion Nova, is slated to drop in October.
Katie Richards

Adam Rippon
Olympic Figure Skater

When Adam Rippon stepped onto the red carpet at the Oscars, even jaded Hollywood raised its eyebrows. It wasn’t that “America’s Sweetheart” (as the Olympic figure skating champion proclaimed himself) wasn’t expected to show up—it’s just that he wasn’t expected to show up wearing a harness under his tux jacket.

The touch of leather was fitting. Rippon isn’t just good at commanding attention, the openly gay Olympian has also learned how to use his media moments to establish himself as an emerging cultural figure—one that’s equal parts stylish, political and fearless. As the New York Times put it: “What happens when a newly minted gay icon kicks off the Oscars red carpet? Pure, unapologetic edge.”

Most Olympic medalists fade from the scene shortly after the games are over. But as he leaves the world of competitive skating behind—28 is old for the sport—Rippon is arguably better positioned to step into celebrity shoes than anyone on the medal stand. The talented skater, as we all know can dance, but he can also sing and those quick quips and musings will keep him in the spotlight for some time to come.

“Right now I’m in a morphing stage,” Rippon says. “I’ll always be an athlete at heart, but at my very core I’ve always been an entertainer and a performer.”

Most recently, Rippon proved that his fancy footwork isn’t limited to the ice by taking first place on Dancing With the Stars—which helped (along with the shirtless pics) push his Instagram following to 829,000. Rippon’s recent Twitter fight with Vice President Mike Pence over gay rights has also moved him away from mere athleticism and into the realm of social commentator.

Which probably means that, before long, the brand endorsement deals will be coming. Rippon isn’t opposed—so long as “it stays true to the message of who I am,” he says. “If it feels [like] you’re just doing it for money, people see right through that.”
Robert Klara

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Reese Witherspoon
Actress, Producer

You’ve heard the one about the Oscar-winning actress who, even though she’s in her prime and is one of the most accomplished actresses of her generation, has aged out of getting the parts she desires in Hollywood, right? That could have been Reese Witherspoon’s story—if she weren’t Reese Witherspoon.

The actress has transformed her career by zeroing in on the kind of stories she wanted to tell and see told about women—and becoming a producer who knows how to get deals done, with her company Hello Sunshine. Oh, and those deals? They are happening all over town.

At Apple, she has three shows in the works, including one based on CNN senior media correspondent Brian Stelter’s best-selling novel Top of the Morning, which will see Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston battling the morning television wars.

Then there’s the second season of Big Little Lies at HBO, for which she scored Meryl Streep; and an adaptation of Celeste Ng’s novel, Little Fires Everywhere, for Hulu.

On top of all that, she’s got a slew of narrative and documentary films in the works. “You get older and the phone does stop ringing,” Witherspoon told The New York Times in January. “It’s systemic, because the people who are writing the stories aren’t 40-year-old women. You write what you know. Well, there were no 40-year-old female screenwriters, and now women of color are writing screenplays and getting them made at big studios. I’m as incredulous as everybody else. I never thought this would happen.”
Kristina Monllos

Photo: Geoff Moore

Jimmy O. Yang
Actor, Writer

If he wasn’t in comedy, HBO’s Silicon Valley star Jimmy O. Yang says he would be in hip-hop, his first passion. He acknowledges he can’t rap per se, but he still makes beats and produces—even recently working with rapper Too Short.

That Yang ended up in comedy, he says, is due in part to comedian Dave Chappelle. “When Chappelle’s Show came out, if you didn’t watch it on Wednesday night, you had nothing to talk about in high school the next day,” says Yang. “It’s amazing to me—when I first came to this country, I watched BET Comic View, which had all these cultural references and stereotypes. I learned a lot about [American] culture through comedians. It was my first exposure. In Hong Kong, there wasn’t a lot of comedians.”

Yang says Hong Kong, where he lived until he was 13, is very business-centric and his parents wanted him to pursue a career in that vein. “I studied economics and thought I wanted to play with the stock market—my dad was a financial adviser—and I was going to go down that path. I was an intern at Smith Barney,” he says. “But I couldn’t imagine sitting behind a desk for 30 or 40 years, so I decided to take the leap, quit [and] disappoint my parents.”

An Immigrant’s Guide to Disappointing Your Parents just so happens to be the subtitle of his book, which came out in March. Amazon calls it a memoir, but Yang sees it as “an honest, real immigrant story that is hopefully relatable for those going through assimilation, and also for people who aren’t too familiar with immigration and only see it on CNN with talking heads as a political issue.”

In August he’ll appear in the highly anticipated film Crazy Rich Asians.

His advice for aspiring comedians and TV stars: Just keep doing it. “You have to practice,” he says. ” If you’re an actor, keep taking classes, [keep doing] sketches. If you want to do standup, you have to go on stage. That’s the only way to get good—stage times. … If it feels like a chore, you should find something else.”
Lisa Lacy

Get to know the rest of Adweek’s Creative 100 for 2018:
13 Global Agency Leaders Whose Ideas Go Beyond Borders and Transcend Boundaries
27 Senior Agency Leaders Who Are Charting a New Course for the Creative Industry
29 Rising Agency Stars Who Are Keeping Advertising Relevant, Fresh and Fascinating
15 Ad, Film and TV Directors Who Are Raising the Standard for Storytelling
11 Branded Content Masterminds Who Are Elevating the Art of Marketing
11 Visual Artists Who Enlighten, Inspire and Bring the Impossible to Life
10 Writers and Editors Who Are Changing the National Conversation
• Cover Story: Filmmaker Ava DuVernay on the Creative Process, and the Intersection of Art and Activism

This story first appeared in the June 11, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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