Who Is Michaela Jaé Rodriguez?
Actress Michaela Jaé Rodriguez’s love of the arts led to her starring as Angel in an Off-Broadway revival of Rent in 2011-12. This role influenced her decision to medically transition. Despite concerns that transitioning might hurt her career, Rodriguez continued to be cast in shows, most notably as Blanca, a trans woman who’s part of the New York City ballroom community of the 1980s and ’90s in the television series Pose (2018-21).
Rodriguez was born on January 7, 1991, in Newark, New Jersey. Rodriguez’s mother is African American and her father is half Puerto Rican, half African American. (She used to go by Mj in honor of Spider-Man’s Mary Jane Watson but stated in November 2021 that she would henceforth go by her full name to bring attention to the actress behind the nickname.) Rodriguez, who was raised in Newark, has said, “At a very young age I knew that being a young Afro-Latina, there were going to be some uphill climbs for me.”
Rodriguez grew up with an interest in the arts: “When I was little all I could think about was just being on some kind of stage, whether it be on a live stage, whether it be on a set stage.” Her mother encouraged her daughter via programs like the Summer Youth Performance Workshop at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.
While a student at Newark Arts High School, a 14-year-old Rodriguez joined a ballroom house in New York City (a similar experience to her character in Pose). She sometimes snuck out to participate. Rodriguez found acceptance and built confidence in the ballroom community, where “There were people like me living unapologetically.” She has stated, “If I hadn’t had that scene, I would never have been the person I am today.”
‘Rent’ and Decision to Transition
When Rodriguez saw the 2005 movie version of Rent, she felt a connection to the character of Angel, telling her father, “I feel like that is me, Daddy.” At 18, she was cast as Angel in a production of Rent at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.
While studying at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Rodriguez had the opportunity to audition for an Off-Broadway revival of Rent. She landed the part of Angel and joined the cast in 2011. Rodriguez had her own take on the role—instead of playing Angel as a drag queen, she considered Angel a trans woman. Her performance won her accolades, including a Clive Barnes Award for young performers.
In addition to being a career milestone, portraying Angel sparked Rodriguez’s desire to medically transition. She had understood she was female from the time she was 7, but being in “Rent was one of the main defining moments, and it was like the precipice of my transition.” Rodriguez said in 2018 that the role “let me live out loud and see the woman that I was on stage.”
Her mother was supportive of her decision, but Rodriguez worried about the risks that transitioning might pose to her career, fearing she could “lose everything.” Fortunately, her agency stood by her and agreed to only have her pursue female roles going forward.