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Her Kind of Town
By Jim McFarlin | Photo: Photography by Irvin Rivera | February 22, 2017
Grace Gealey’s acting work kept bringing her back to Chicago—and finally to her big break on Empire.
Grace Gealey, who plays the vindictive vixen Anika Calhoun—or as she is better known to TV viewers, “Boo Boo Kitty”—in the blockbuster Fox music-industry drama Empire, can say with certainty Chicago is her kind of town. True, the series that provided her career breakthrough is filmed here—but she was acting in the city long before landing the role.
“After I graduated with my MFA [from the University of California, Irvine], I moved to New York because I wanted to do everything! Theater, TV, film!” the Pennsylvania-born, Cayman Islands-reared beauty recalls. “I didn’t realize how small a fish you can be in a big ol’ pond. Auditioning becomes your job, and it’s so common to not get a callback. But I was booking a lot of Chicago gigs out of New York. It was so strange how my work kept bringing me here, and I just loved it. The city is so charming; so very welcoming. So I moved to Chicago and signed with an amazing agency, Paonessa, and just got to it.”
Chicago provided her both a series and a husband; Gealey married Empire co-star Trai Byers last April. “I think our training in theater helps us on the set,” she says.
“We’re there to work, and we are fully in character mode.”
One of the role’s demands is that she frequently appears in various stages of undress, displaying her lingerie-clad body to millions each week. She has a plan for that.
“The truth is, I have a personal trainer. I have to work out four to five days a week, and I work out tremendously hard,” she says. “I think that’s the key. When you work out so hard, you think twice about what you eat. And that sucks, because Trai and I love to eat!”
Next to their passion for history and museums (“We go to the Shedd more than we probably should,” she laughs), the couple indulges in Chicago’s embarrassment of fine dining. “Sunday brunch at Shaw’s, Joe’s Stone Crab, Kinzie Chophouse is phenomenal, Signature Lounge,” she rhapsodizes. “We’re like regulars everywhere.”