We spoke with Ilene Chaiken about “Empire,” her impact on the LGBT community, and more.
The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) held its annual Respect Awards ceremony on Monday at the Cipriani 42nd St. For over 25 years, the organization has spearheaded the movement towards the inclusivity of all people “regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression”, according to glsen.org. GLSEN primarily focuses on LGBT issues in the educational system beginning from Kindergarten through 12th grade.
Introduced in 2004, The Respect Awards are held annually in Los Angeles and New York City. Every year, they honor students, educators, and individuals who have had an impact on the youth of the LGBT community.
Ilene Chaiken, executive producer of Fox’s Empire and one of the evening’s honorees, arrived at the ceremony beaming and eager to speak with reporters, guests and students. Chaiken’s claim to fame was in 2004, with the creation of Showtime’s The L Word, a show that she co-created and executive produced. The show followed a group of lesbian friends as they lived their lives in Los Angeles. In 2015, the hit series Empire was created and Chaiken says she knew it would be a hit from the moment she read the pilot.
Jussie Smollett, who portrays the gay character ‘Jamal’ on Empire, was to present the Respect Award to Chaiken. As executive producer of the Grammy and Emmy award-winning show, Chaiken says that representation of LGBT characters “couldn’t be more important,”
We got the chance to speak with Chaiken at the Respect Awards:
Why is the portrayal of LGBT characters on television important for you?
Ilene: It couldn’t be more important. I came up during a time where there were virtually no LGBT characters on television. I was fortunate enough to work in television and didn’t even realize that I was going to make it my life’s mission to try and represent us. But, the minute I got that opportunity and the feedback for doing The L Word, I learned how important it was, by the response mostly from gay women — not exclusively a lot of people who aren’t gay women who don’t identify as gay also told me how meaningful it was. Representation is everything. Representation in popular culture, representation in popular entertainment. Young people who don’t see themselves are really missing out and when we do see ourselves represented, it gives us hope, it saves lives, it makes us part of a community.
Empire is a hugely successful show and full of diversity. What factors played a role in the show’s success?
Ilene: It’s thrilling! It’s thrilling that the show is such a big success. I feel really lucky to be involved with it. The reason that I wanted to do it was — I didn’t create this show, so I saw this pilot that Lee Daniels and Danny Strong made and the minute I saw it, I knew it was a game-changer. It’s so powerful to be able to tell these stories and defy the conventional wisdom and let the world know that not only is it possible, but it’s valuable to the companies that make television, to the sponsors, to the people that are just in the business to make money, it’s money. It’s money in the bank to represent, to put diversity on the screen, to be inclusive, to tell stories that haven’t been told.
What projects can we look forward to from you in the future?
Ilene: I’m right now just now starting the new season of Empire and it’s kind of all consuming. But I am working very quietly and eagerly on a couple of projects of my own. I definitely want to tell some more stories that feature gay characters and particularly lesbian characters and I have a couple of things in the works.
Among those honored, were married couple George Stephanopoulos and Ali Wentworth along with the Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education, Catherine E. Lhamon and Optimedia CEO David Ehlers.
Sponsors of GLSEN’s Respect Awards include Target, Wells Fargo, Optimedia, Morgan Stanley, 21st Century Fox, Bloomberg, and more.