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Who is Ariana DeBose? What you need to know about the Oscar winner

Ariana DeBose
(Image credit: Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic)

Ariana DeBose, the gifted 31-year-old Afro-Latina triple threat, is making waves, and history, taking home an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Anita in Steven Spielberg's West Side Story.

For the non-theater kids turned Broadway diehards amongst us, DeBose’s name isn’t likely to ring many bells prior to 2021. Here’s what you need to know about Ariana DeBose. 

Ariana DeBose Bio

Born in 1991 in Wilmington, North Carolina (N.C.), to an Afro-Puerto Rican father and a white mother, Ariana DeBoise started young (opens in new tab). She studied multiple styles of dance at CC & Co. Dance Complex in Raleigh, N.C. — and competed regularly at New York City Dance Alliance and West Coast Dance Explosion — before switching focus to musical theater as a teen. 

After a short stint in the Top 20 on Season 6 of So You Think You Can Dance and then three months at Western Carolina University, a 19-year-old DeBose decided it was time to go pro and moved to New York City.

Ariana DeBose on Broadway

After making the move and beginning the auditioning rounds, DeBose quickly went from famine to feast — booking three jobs simultaneously: Diana in a non-Equity production of A Chorus Line, an ensemble role in the first national tour of Wicked and Nautica in a new show, Bring It On: The Musical. So at 22, Ariana DeBose made her Broadway debut in Bring It On

Roles in Motown: The Musical, Pippin’s 2013 revival, and a lengthy run in the ensemble (and as “The Bullet (opens in new tab)”) of Hamilton followed after. In an unexpected move, DeBose left Hamilton to "reset" and with the aim of stepping out of ensemble roles in the future.

The renewed focus led first to a leading role in A Bronx Tale, as Jane, then to the part of Disco Donna (opens in new tab) in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical at the La Jolla Playhouse; she then reprised her role on Broadway. DeBose’s breakthrough performance as the icon earned her a Tony Award nomination (opens in new tab) for Best Featured Actress in a Musical and won her the Chita Rivera Award (opens in new tab) for Outstanding Female Dancer in a Broadway Show in 2018.  

Ariana DeBose in Schmigadoon!

After achieving critical acclaim on stage, DeBose shifted gears to film and television. In 2020 the actress played Alyssa Green in Ryan Murphy’s film adaptation of The Prom. But it was as the scene-stealing Emma Tate, in the Apple TV Plus musical comedy parody Schmigadoon!, that caught a lot of people's eyes.

Introduced into the series slowly, Emma is a confident woman, a slight outsider in the musical town. She offers a range of emotions many of the other show’s characters don’t, in an effort to balance out the bewilderment with a healthy skepticism. She’s charming but determined to make choices rather than simply bend to fate. DeBose’s witty schoolmarm added surprising depth and dimension to the colorful yet sweet foundation of the series.

Ariana DeBose in West Side Story

West Side Story Ariana DeBose

(Image credit: 20th Century Studios)

It’s DeBose reimagining of Anita — the role made famous by Rita Moreno — in West Side Story that’s made the biracial powerhouse a household name. DeBose’s Anita fully reinvigorates the character and adds new depth. She’s bold, brash, unapologetically Black and absolutely mesmerizing. So much so, her performance easily eclipses that of the leads. Her dynamic portrayal not only anchors the film but it's also made her the supporting actress to beat this entire award season.

DeBose won multiple regional critic prizes, the Golden Globe, a BAFTA, a Critics’ Choice Movie Award and made history as the first openly queer woman of color (opens in new tab) to win an individual film award at the 2022 Screen Actors Guild Award. Her SAG Award also marks the first time an Afro-Latina has been recognized by the guild (opens in new tab) for acting.

Ariana DeBose on SNL

Not every prize comes in the form of a statue. DeBose recently served as the host of Saturday Night Live for the first time fresh off her Golden Globe win and she gave a heartfelt monologue showcasing a keen sense of humor and willingness to throw herself into the fun. New Governess and All on Me were stand out skits of the night:

Ariana DeBose Oscars 2022

West Side Story earned seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, but DeBose was the only actor from the movie to earn a nomination — for Best Supporting Actress. Her dynamic turn as Anita proved to be the stuff of gold, as she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

With her win, DeBose is the first Afro-Latina to take home a statue for Best Supporting Actress.

Other nominees in Best Supporting Actress included Kirsten Dunst’s tragically downward spiraling Rose in The Power of the Dog; Jessie Buckley’s riveting portrayal of a young Leda Caruso in The Lost Daughter; Aunjanue Ellis’ as Oracene Price, the powerhouse matriarch of the Williams’ family in King Richard; and Dame Judi Dench’s stalwart Granny in Belfast. It was category jam-packed with stellar performance, any of which could walk away with the top prize, but DeBose pulled off the win.

Ariana DeBose upcoming projects

Ariana DeBose will stay in the spotlight with three projects already lined up for the future. She’s set to star alongside Aaron Taylor Johnson in Sony Pictures’ Marvel movie, Kraven the Hunter (opens in new tab). It’s not yet confirmed but DeBose is rumored to be playing Calypso — voodoo priestess and Spider-Man adversary — in the movie. The project is slated for theatrical release in January 2023. 

After that, she’s due to join Henry Cavill, Bryan Cranston, Samuel L. Jackson and Dua Lipa in Matthew Vaughn’s action film Argylle from Apple. She'll also star in Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s space thriller I.S.S., alongside Chris Messina and Pilou Asbaek. 

Ro Moore
Ro Moore

Ro is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film/tv critic, writer and host on several of the MTR Network's podcasts. She's a member of the San Diego Film Critics Society and the Online Association of Female Film Critics. She's a former culture columnist for San Diego CityBeat (may it rest in peace) with a serious addiction to genre fiction, horror and documentaries. You can find her sharing movie and book recs and random thoughts, on her podcast I Talk Sh!t and Read or in her newsletter, Shelf Envy.