After getting her start in commercials for Coca-Cola, Honda, and Nike’s “Bo Knows” Campaign with Bo Jackson & Bo Diddley, African-American Costume Designer Michelle R. Cole broke into the TV world with In Living Color, the iconic sketch comedy show from the 1990s that helped launch the careers of Jim Carrey, Keenen Ivory Wayans, Damon Wayans, and pretty much the entire Wayans family.
Receiving a total of four Emmy nominations while working on the sketch series, Cole credits that experience with setting the groundwork for her entire career. “That was my first job as a costume designer. I got very blessed that was my first one and it was my first Emmy nomination as well. That show really taught me a lot,” recalls Cole.
Cole received her historic ninth Emmy nomination for her vibrant costume designs on ABC’s Emmy-winning comedy show Black-ish, starring Tracee Ellis Ross and Anthony Anderson. It is the costume designer’s fifth nomination for the Kenya Barris created show. “Nine times is such a blessing. It’s beyond your dreams,” says Cole. “I am so honored and humbled by it all. Every time I get nominated, I cry. Every single time. I just can’t believe it.”
Black-ish tells the story of an upper middle class black family, the Johnsons, as they juggle their work and personal lives while also dealing with sociopolitical issues. After eight successful years, the award-winning comedy show aired its series finale in April, while the spin-off titled Grown-ish, which stars Yara Shahidi and follows her character in college, just wrapped its fifth season.
Culture and fashion has always been a big part of both shows, and Cole’s hand has been directly involved with every element, from dressing the cast’s look for a monumental wedding ceremony to dressing Michelle Obama.
Cole spoke to Awards Focus about getting her start as a costume designer, working with Bernie Mac for close to a decade and how she balances such an insane work schedule.
Awards Focus: Starting from the very beginning, from your work on In Living Color amidst all those crazy costumes and characters and the fast-paced nature of it all. How does that experience stand out today in your long career?
Michelle R. Cole: In Living Color taught me to trust my first instincts when I’m working. It was a comedy and it was fast. We had Fly Girls and four dance breaks on top of the sketches. That was a job where you stayed until two or three o’clock in the morning.
You get the script on Monday and have a concept meeting with lightning, production design, props, hair and makeup, director, producers… basically everyone. Then on Thursday, you get the costumes to the truck Friday to shoot on Monday. Your fittings build you only have three and a half to do it in. Alterations and fittings are a lot of work with a big cast like that, which really prepared me for Grown-ish which is a big cast with a lot of changes per show.
But that was my first job as a costume designer. I got really blessed that being my first one and it was my first Emmy nomination as well. It was a really good time, but it was a lot of work. If the sketch didn’t make it, you had to scratch it. Keenen Ivory Wayans would start a new sketch and you had to build a new costume for that one. In Living Color really taught me a lot. It set the groundwork for my career. A lot of people don’t like to do comedy, especially with a lot of flashbacks, and the comedy you have to build to it.
AF: You have worked with a lot of high-profile stars throughout your career. What was it like working with the comedy legend Bernie Mac on The Bernice Mac Show?
Cole: I was just thinking about him the other day, I was going through my Instagram and he popped up. You forget that Bernie Mac voice which is just lovely. I was with him for almost eight years on the show and privately, Bernie was the kindest person and he really took care of his crew.
Everybody would come back every season just for him. He was so pleasant and so funny, being at work was like watching a stand-up show all day long.
AF: Could you give a little overview from your side of things on the crazy nature of working on a TV show?
Cole: Sitcom world is fast and furious. I do single camera. You get the script on Monday. You only probably have three and a half days to do it in. You have to have alterations and fittings. Black-ish has a big cast, so does Grown-ish. There’s a lot of changes per show. And with the kids it’s pretty fast because they got to go to school.
I have friends in the feature world who tell me, “How do you do it? I could never do that.”
It does take a village to do this job. You need a great crew to do this. Black-ish is a full-time job, Grown-ish is a full-time job and your life is a full-time job. So, it can get a little crazy. My average workday is 12 to 15 hours. I’m on set, I am doing fittings, I’m shopping – I’m always around. I get to work early. With the kid actors, they have to go to school so you have to work fast on fittings.
AF: Looking back now decades later on such an illustrious career. How do you see your journey so far?
Cole: It’s been a nice 42 years. It’s been a nice run. I didn’t believe this was ever going to happen to me in college or in high school. Didn’t even imagine my world being like this.
A lot of work goes into this. Sometimes people look at the accolades and they don’t see the hard work. Before I got started, I did commercials for Diet Coke, Honda, the Nike campaign with Bo Diddley and Bo Jackson. That’s how I got seen. Somebody discovered me doing commercials and that’s how I got to work on In Living Color.
And then I got into to the Costume Designers Guild. There wasn’t that many of us, myself, Ruth Carter, Sharen Davis, Francine Jamison. We had to fend for ourselves. We learned the ropes ourselves. Now the guild has diverse committees and you have a pool of support which is great. We didn’t have that. I leaned on my family. And thank God for families. It was a lot of work being black women, being black period. In the early part of our career, the red carpet wasn’t coming out for us. Our fights were in different ways. It was extra work. My father would always say to me, “You’re going to have to work harder.” And I always have.