Blueprint for Champions
Actor Jay Ellis takes a defense position against the epidemic, tackling the disease through his charitable efforts
by Dann Dulin
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Sean Black
The twelve-day, 1,600-mile trek from Milwaukee to New York City, with stops in Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland, raised $170,000 for amfAR. It was Kiehl’s fifth LifeRide which was led by Kiehl’s USA president, Chris Salgardo. Since its inception, Kiehl’s LifeRide has contributed over $1 million to AIDS research.
“It was an honor to ride with Jay,” remarks Chris. “He has such a strong commitment to HIV and AIDS education, and gave up his personal time to ride through the country to spread the message. I’m always impressed by people who are trying to take some action for a cause they believe in and I know HIV and AIDS awareness is a personal issue for him. When AIDS has affected you personally, it’s hard not to do something actionable. I have the utmost respect for him.”
Jay believes that noise is Chris’s motivation for the LifeRide. Create noise in order to bring attention to AIDS. “Nearly fifty percent of those inflicted with AIDS are African Americans,” notes Jay. Indeed, the CDC reports that African Americans are most affected by HIV when compared to other ethnicities; the rate of new HIV infections among African Americans is eight times that of whites, a stark contrast considering that African Americans make up roughly thirteen percent of the population. Gay and bisexual males aged thirteen to twenty-four suffer the greatest impact. An estimated one in sixteen African American men and one in thirty-two African American women will be diagnosed with HIV infection, according to estimates.
These staggering statistics compelled Ellis to join Keihl’s LifeRide. It was both a challenge and an opportunity. “It’s not so tough, especially because you’re doing it for something bigger than yourself,” he says. “Those few days of discomfort are worth it. And it’s a great group of genuine, easy going, and caring people. On long days, everyone brings each other up when we get tired.”
The epidemic first entered Jay’s awareness at the age of eight, when his uncle died of complications from the disease. “I was really young but I knew that it was incurable, untreatable—and a killer…”
Jay recalls that his uncle was an upbeat person. “When I was around him he was always smiling and gregarious. My first visit to San Francisco was when he was living in the Bay Area and he took me all over the city. He was so proud to show it off. I recall seeing the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, the WWII decommissioned war ship, the SS Jeremiah O’Brien and just roaming the city’s local neighborhoods, from Chinatown to the Haight and everything in between.”
Shortly before his uncle passed, Jay and his family visited him in the hospital. Jay knew that his uncle was sick but, at the time, didn’t understand the cause. “The physical toll it took on his body was right in-your-face,” exclaims Jay, recounting the sojourn. “He was so frail and weak, but his lighthearted personality was still there. He told jokes and kept us all laughing. He told us stories about my dad and his brothers from when they were kids; even stories of my grandmother. [He was Jay’s great uncle.] I’d Iike to think he was just enjoying having all his family around him again, but sometimes I wonder if he was trying to soften the situation.”
Jay still grieves for his uncle. “I looked up to him and wished I could have learned more from him. He was so smart! My grandmother always said he was the fun-loving mischievous one when they were growing up and as a kid I loved that about him. I was also mischievous. I wish he had been able to live out his dreams, like I’ve been able to live out mine.”
Though his acting resume is packed with appearances on such popular shows as NCIS, Grey’s Anatomy, How I Met Your Mother, and Masters of Sex, Jay’s probablybest known as rookie wide-end receiver, Bryce “Blueprint” Westbrook, on BET’s The Game. Like Jay, his character is educated, a skilled sportsman, and the product of a military family. The self-ascribed “Army brat” (he was born on an Air Force base, lived in Germany and the Philippines, and attended twelve schools in thirteen years), Jay first appeared in season six, two years ago. But it took eight auditions before he landed the role!
“When my manager called I was on a ladder putting a banner up on the wall in my new Pilates studio,” explains Ellis, a certified Pilates instructor and co-owner of Body + in Lafayette, Louisiana. “When I answered the phone, he immediately put me on hold, so I went back to what I was doing. I was really into making this banner look nice and forgot about the call. Then he came back on the line and as soon as he said, ‘Congratulations you got the part,’ my heart raced and my hands just went flying. I fell off the ladder!” His friend heard the crash and dashed into the room. Jay shouted, “I’m okay. Get the phone! Get the phone!” Since he first appeared on The Game—in a nude scene—Jay soared to heartthrob status and has become an integral part of the series.
Ellis’s End Zone
What do you think happens after we die?
I hope one hell of a party with the people we love!
What do you do when you get depressed?
Watch Frozen—but don’t tell anyone.
What’s your favorite city in the world?
That’s really tough. Paris, Como (Italy), and home sweet home…Los Angeles.
Where are you dying to travel that you haven’t been?
There are so many places. Top three: Koh Samui, Thailand; Istanbul, Turkey; South Africa. I have wanderlust, so you can literally send me anywhere!
Have you ever been starstruck?
All the time! But the first time was years ago at a restaurant in Los Feliz called Little Dom’s. Garth Trinidad from KCRW was sitting in a booth behind me and I flipped out! I just couldn’t approach him….
How many times during the day do you look at yourself in the mirror?
As few as possible! [He giggles.] I know what I look like and get tired of looking at myself.
Briefs, boxers, sockjock, or thong?
It depends on the day and the occasion, but usually boxer briefs. Nothing when I’m at home.
Whom do you consider to be a hero in the HIV/AIDS epidemic?
Everyone who is a part of the cause and fight to cure, treat, educate, spread awareness, and end HIV and AIDS in the world.
Out of the many people you have met is there one in particular who stands out the most?
Charles Orgbon, a youth environmentalist from Atlanta, GA. He was not only running a national recognized non-profit that helped other youth fund initiatives in their cities, but at seventeen years old, he had already been a Ted Talk speaker.
Whom would you like to meet that you haven’t met yet?
Elon Musk, Richard Branson, Oprah, Will Smith, and Brad Pitt.
Before Hollywood, though, Ellis was an athlete and a model. The six-foot-three-and-a-half-inch basketball star was offered a scholarship to Concordia University in Portland, Oregon. After graduation, he completed an internship with the Portland Trail Blazers. Jay became a model while attending Concordia and appeared in ads for Abercrombie & Fitch, The Gap, Diesel, and Air Jordan.
The idea of modeling came to him when his friend earned a whopping one hundred dollars for a one day modeling job. Upon meeting his friend’s agent, Jay self-assuredly declared, “I want to be a model.” The agent responded with a loud sarcastic laugh, but he saw Jay’s potential. The very next day, he snagged a modeling job!
His parents, Paula and Wendell Ellis (Jay is a Jr.; his birth name is Wendell), nurtured his tenacity and spirit. He was an only child and had to adapt to diverse living situations while growing up.
Not surprisingly, Jay was the target of some ribbing from his teammates, who labeled him, “pretty boy.” Deciding not to pursue a pro sports career, he moved to Los Angeles and became a retail executive, opening such stores as True Religion and Kitson. After work, he diligently attended acting class and learned the craft.
worked with AmeriCorps for two years, beginning in the spring of his first year at college, and completing the program on graduation. Founded in 1994, it’s an initiative of the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) that engages adults in community service in the fields of healthcare, environmental protection, public safety and education. Jay worked with middle school students.
“I loved it!“ he shouts, flashing that familiar, infectious smile. “It was so inspiring to be around these kids. They have no filter. If they don’t like your shoes or your haircut, they tell you.” He breaks into a reminiscent laugh. “But to watch a shy fifth grader begin the program and then leave for high school as a confident and academic-achieving student…,” he stops, momentarily grappling with his emotions then continues, “is almost surreal.” He clears his throat. “I literally watched some of those kids grow up.”
Ellis continues to work with youth, albeit, in a slightly offbeat manner. Last December, Jay served as an event chair for amfAR’s generationCURE Holiday Party in New York City. Formed in 2011, generationCURE is a small group of young professionals who are dedicated to helping amfAR in its search for a cure for HIV. In 2012, they raised more than $50,000 for a new cure-focused research project. In all, they’ve raised more than $150,000, hosting events in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. From Eric Muscatell, amfAR’s V.P. of Development, “We were really grateful to have Jay on LifeRide last year. In spite of his hectic schedule during the summer, he still took the time to join us on this thousand-mile journey—which was oftentimes grueling and exhausting—yet he had boundless energy and a generous spirit. He’s also a really funny guy; he had me in stitches nearly every mile. When you’re fighting something as serious as AIDS, and covering hundreds of miles a day on a bike under the August sun, it’s important to have a guy like Jay along!”
Another cause close to Jay’s heart is the Armed Forces. “A long line of family members have served,” Jay reports proudly. “My parents were always big on giving back even when we didn’t have the means to give anything other than time,” he explains. “I’ve been fortunate enough to be in a position to give, and I wouldn’t be here today if someone had not volunteered their time in an after school program or a youth center when I was a kid.”
Pausing momentarily, he remarks in a staccato liturgical tone, “Education. And. Awareness. These are two key factors in the fight against HIV infection. We can’t be afraid to have the conversation. Ask! Get tested!” He stops and reflects on this statement. “Humans, for the most part, fear the unknown. It’s our nature.” Jay’s voice rises. “We have to do a better job of reaching out to the youth. HIV/AIDS awareness needs to be discussed in high schools, in youth programs, and at community centers. Everyone must get tested.”
“My first test was back in 2004 when I moved to L.A.,” he offers, in a boyish manner. “The experience was a bit unnerving, but learning that I tested negative was very much worth the few nervous minutes.”
Single for two and half years, when he dates, he’s direct. “Open communication is the only way to go. I just ask!” raves Jay with gusto. “It’s best for both to know their status. There’s too much going on out there not to be upfront and honest.”
Despite the demands of his acting career—Season 9 of The Game premieres in June—Jay maintains a rigorous workout program six days a week. “To beat monotony, I’ll jump rope, do Yoga, surf, or simply take a hike—and I meditate twice daily,” he expounds. Jay also has a hobby. “My sneaker collection is probably what Michael Jordan’s trophy room is like to him. I really love random shoes. I still have my high school shoes which I pull out every once and a while.”
In fact, Jay was wearing “Jump” sneakers at the finale of the LifeRide, The World AIDS Memorial Quilt Dedication, on New York’s Governor’s Island. Jay was one of several LifeRiders who read the names on the Quilt of those who died from the disease.
“The event was insanely powerful,” says Jay delicately, taking a forceful breath then expelling a heavy sigh. “To see such a small piece of the AIDS Quilt and to realize not only does that piece represent a life, but that the piece is only a small part of the whole quilt, is intense. After the reading, I was speechless. It’s heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time.
“The little things we do can help generations.” Does Jay plan on joining the LifeRide again this year? “Absolutely!” he revs passionately. “As long as Chris will have me, I’ll be there. We’re a bike gang to kick AIDS!”
Keep up with Jay at www.jay-ellis.com.
Post-production by Eve Harlowe. Visit her website: www.EveHarlowe.com.
Dann Dulin interviewed Sharon Leal for the February cover story.