Issue No. 42
Words: Michelle No
Visuals: Erika Salazar
To her 200,000+ international social media followers, Alex Elle (as Alexandra Smith is more commonly known) is the face of pure bliss.
On any given day her Instagram feed showcases her 6-year-old daughter Charleigh’s (pronounced Charlie) toothy smile, while a tweet proclaims a truism from her bestselling book, “Words From a Wanderer.” (“If you are unsure of who you are, you will easily get lost in others.”) Collectively her digital output encourages self-love and resilience and regularly doles out positive affirmations.
“I try my best to only spread words and images that will incite happiness, positivity, love, and peace among people,” Alex Elle explains. “It’s part of my personality.”
Despite the cheer of her online persona, the self-published poet and author endured dark formative years which bear little resemblance to her current circumstances. An early high school graduate who enrolled in community college when she was 17, Alex Elle grew up an old soul. But she soon found herself in the most adult of circumstances—unexpectedly pregnant.
“I was kind of [a] statistic: young, African-American woman pregnant by age 18, you know what I mean?” Alex Elle says now. “I was depressed and lost a lot of weight even during my pregnancy. During what she calls “probably my worst point,” her mother suggested she get a late-term abortion. (“I’m pro-choice, but I said no because that is really, really not a good thing,” she says.)
While her intuition and family tugged her in the opposite direction, the father of her child ultimately convinced her to go through with the pregnancy. Even with the psychological toll her pregnancy took on her, Alex Elle was able to transition smoothly into her new role as a mother—Charleigh’s peaceful demeanor definitely helped, she says. Integrating her new lifestyle with her friends, however, wasn’t as easy.
"I was a parent and a lot of the people I was friends with were single with no kids, so our priorities were different,” she recalls. “My personality was [also] changing; I was becoming more self-aware, more spiritual, more at peace with myself, and I think I was using the crowd I was with as a crutch. I had to steer into my path and purpose to prepare to be the best mother and woman I could be."
Alex Elle started on her current path at age 20, when an end-of-the-year thesis project prompted her to create a marketable brand. From this assignment materialized Safi (“pure” in Swahili), a line of all-natural, handmade hair-care creams, conditioners, and body butters that was so popular, she was forced to close the operation due to high demand.
But her entrepreneurial streak didn’t end with Safi. After deciding college wasn't the best match for her, Alex Elle began a jewelry line—her “side hustle”—while working full-time in the nonprofit world.
"My mom actually had been making jewelry for years and she wanted me to get into it,” she says. “I fell into it and it’s been awesome. The jewelry is really where things started snowballing for me as far as [my] clientele and the [social media] following goes."
She soon added poetry and writing into her oeuvre, encouraging a hobby that had been a creative compulsion since childhood.
“I started writing when I was 12; I was a very angry, depressed, and troubled kid, so my mom gave me a journal, and that [became] my therapy [and] an outlet,” she says. “I really got into poetry and I carried that with me through middle school, high school, [and] college.”
Last year, Alex Elle heeded her fans’ requests and self-published a 57-page book, “Words from a Wanderer.” The compilation of uplifting poetry made it to Amazon’s Top 100 Bestsellers list for poetry, and has sold more than 4,000 copies to date. It continues to sell hundreds of copies a month.
The book’s success, combined with her hunger for independence, led Alex Elle to take her biggest career leap yet in 2013.
“Charleigh was just starting kindergarten and I did not want to miss out on it, [nor] first, second, or third grade,” she explains. “[My job] had just given me a promotion, a salary raise, and all this great stuff, [but] I quit. I knew I could do it and I wanted to build my own dream and not someone else’s.”
These days her schedule includes speaking engagements, producing jewelry for her line shopALS (Alex L. Smith), and working on her second book, Love in My Language. Set to appear on Amazon in July 2014, Alex Elle describes her new work as “longer, more personal, and more transparent” than her first.
Though she’s happy with her DIY career, she stresses it’s not a path for everyone, including her daughter or any future children she may have.
“I want my children to be happy and fulfilled,” she says. “And if that means going to college and getting that degree, and going to work in corporate America, awesome. If that means not going to college and doing something entrepreneurial, awesome.”
Above all, there is a sense that Alex Elle’s successes have transpired as a result of her determination to redefine the nos she’s heard in her life as a teenaged mother.
“Just because we have children young, or make mistakes in our younger years, doesn’t mean that our lives are over,” she says. “For a long time, I thought I would have no place in the world—’I’m a mom, no one’s gonna want me, my life is over.’ And although I do not advocate for being a teen mom, it is not the end of the world. It can push you to be a better person, and that’s how I’ve tried to use my situation.
“Everything they said was gonna happen, happened,” Alex Elle admits. “But I had to go on [that journey], or I would not be the woman I am today.”
How did you find out you were pregnant?
I really have to sit and think about my pregnancy. It doesn’t just come naturally to me because it was such a dark and emotionally trying time. I’ve kind of erased it, and I don’t remember a lot of it, which makes me really sad sometimes. I recall I had a feeling I was pregnant and [Charleigh’s biological father] thought the same. He actually said to me, “I think you’re pregnant.” And then we got the pregnancy test.
What was your pregnancy like?
As far as being pregnant with Charleigh, she was a really easy baby to carry, which was awesome. She was just easy—even after she was born. She wasn't cranky and she was very peaceful. As far as my relationship with her father, that was really tumultuous. I was going to doctors’ appointments by myself, I didn’t have a partner there holding my hand. And what’s crazy about that is he wanted me to go through with the pregnancy while I was thinking of terminating. I can look back now and say that my daughter has changed my life, and she’s amazing, and I wouldn't change her for the world. But I felt pressured into having her and that's because I was not capable [at that point] of thinking for myself.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a mother?
My teen years were really difficult for me: being 17 and pregnant, 18 giving birth, and 19 trying to figure out what I was doing. I graduated at age 16 because I hated high school and [I was] in a rush to be grown and be out in the world. I get to college at age 17 and it completely was not the right choice for me to make. I wasn’t focused, I wasn’t really into it, and I’ve always known I’ve wanted to work for myself. But being impressionable, I was like, “You know what, I’m gonna go to school and find my footing there.” Trying to come into the woman I am today, it took a lot. It took a lot of wasted money, wasted energy, wasted time, and a whole bunch of failures, before things really started to look up for me.
What is your parenting philosophy?
To let your child be who they are. I try my best to influence Charleigh in a way that’s not forceful, that’s not, “Be this way.” I know a lot of parents want their children to be this molded version of perfection, but kids are flawed. They should be able to show those flaws, and be as creative, and adventurous, and imaginative as they like. So I try to let her be who she is. She can be whoever she wants to be as long as she’s not hurting anybody.
What is the best advice that your mother or other mothers in your life have given you?
To exercise patience. I think that’s something that I really had to learn because once they get to a certain age, they start to test you. I don't believe that spanking children is an effective way of punishment, and it's a sign of extreme frustration on the parents’ end. I was spanked often as a child, maybe that's why I feel this way.
I can count on one hand how many times Charleigh has gotten a pat on the butt—they didn't "work" or change anything. Kids are going to get on your nerves, they’re going to break things, they’re going to make messes, they’re going to do things they’re not supposed to do. I don’t want to resort to violence or to scaring them. I was scared of my mom growing up. She would just spank me, and that’s just how it was. My grandmother too. If we were out of line, we were getting spanked. I was scared of my mom for a long time and I never want Charleigh to be scared of me.
What kind of person do you hope Charleigh becomes?
A free thinker. Someone who goes after what they want, isn’t scared of failure, and isn’t scared of what’s gonna happen down the road. I’d like to make sure she's confident in who she is, especially as a woman of color. That’s very important to me. My mom and I are very close now but we had a rocky relationship when I was growing up, so I feel as though I didn’t really have the type of guidance that I’m giving my daughter. I don’t think I was really even receptive to the lesson that [my parents] tried to teach me because I was so caught up in my own craziness. I guess I would add that [I’d like] Charleigh to be able to receive, as well as give, to others.
What’s your partner’s relationship like with Charleigh?
[Ryan] just moved 3,000 miles from Los Angeles, California to be with us. I’m really excited to see how they grow their relationship together. Even when he wasn’t here, he was FaceTiming her, sending her books, and showing her that she was just as important as mommy was. So when they met for the first time last year, she instantly just clung to him. The love they have for one another is special to me.
Do you see more children in your future?
Oh, yes. If I could have it my way, three more. But I’ll settle for two if I can only get two. Ryan wants children too and we are excited to start a family with each other. It’s going to be awesome to have a partner I can go through pregnancy [with]—doctors’ appointments together, taking Charleigh along, having them watch my belly grow... It’s just going to be amazing.
What are your creative plans beyond your second book?
I’m probably going to do a couple of children’s books and use Charleigh as the main character, have her turned into a cartoon. There are a lot of different things that I’m going to be exploring in the upcoming years, but children’s books will probably be next.
How has motherhood changed your life?
Charleigh brought our family together. She softened my mom, she softened me, she softened my stepdad. She’s changed our entire family dynamic, and the past six years have been phenomenal. If you ever had the chance to ask my mom the same question, she would say the same thing. Charleigh changed everybody’s life.
Issue no. 42
Most women hope to accomplish by 35 what Alexandra Elle has done by 24. Career-wise, Alexandra counts author, jewelry designer, motivational speaker, and social media maven among her many titles. These titles may come naturally to Alexandra now, but they were far from her reality in 2007, when she first found out she was pregnant. Alexandra chats with mater mea about the challenges she faced as a young, first-time mother and the resulting insights that guide her now and then.