Note: This was previously hosted as part of the People Project for Boston.com, a long-form profile project that has since ceased to exist online.
By Rachel Raczka, Boston.com, May 2015
Since she became the first African-American woman to lead The Harvard Lampoon, Alexis Wilkinson, 22, has been the subject of many profiles wondering where she'll go next: Saturday Night Live? NBC’s next big comedy? Conan?
The first time Wilkinson applied for a writing spot on the Lampoon’s masthead she was declined. It was her freshman year, and at the time, comedy didn’t sound like a realistic career path, but she knew she was funny. She reapplied that spring and snagged a spot.
The perceived white, male dominance of the student population at Harvard inevitably permeates its associated fraternities and social clubs. The Harvard Lampoon, despite its lighthearted nature, is no different. The publication is known for its mostly male alums who include Conan O’Brien, Colin Jost, B.J. Novak, Simon Rich, and Andy Borowitz.
But coming from a small town outside Milwaukee, Wilkinson is no stranger to a lack of diversity.
“The first thing people say when they learn I’m from Wisconsin is like, ‘My grandmother's best friend is from there,’ or ‘I didn't know there were black people in Wisconsin,’” she says. “And I say, ‘There aren't a lot, but we all live in the same 10 mile radius, and we all know each other. And my family makes up about 50 percent of them.’”
The frequency in her byline and the buzz increased following her barrier-breaking presidency last winter. New York magazine profiled her in their Encounter series, writing, “Wilkinson claims not to be a performer, but 10 minutes in her presence disproves this.” NPR had her on “Tell Me More,” and host Michel Martin congratulated Wilkinson and her vice president, Eleanor “Ellie” Parker, on their recent win. The Chicago Tribune interviewed her mother, Regina, who said, “So there was no stopping her, which is fine, I suppose. It's not like Harvard gave Conan O'Brien a comedy degree either.”
Publications asked Wilkinson to pen pieces for them as well. For TIME, she wrote a supportive letter to Maya Peterson, the black female student body president of a prestigious prep school, whose presidency was redacted after she playfully mocked her white, male classmates on Instagram. Curators of fashion coolness, Opening Ceremony, asked her to write a series of stories, ranging from tracing the origins of the “bad bitch” to a personal manifesto against the special hell that is the shopping mall. In addition to her comedian confessional for Cosmopolitan, Wilkinson gave the lowdown on the power dynamics of hooking up at Harvard.
“Sex at college is all about finding what does it for you,” she wrote. “It's a salad bowl of sexual experiences — the slutty cherry tomatoes and virginal carrot slices are all in this together.”
The attention has had its ups and downs. And online commenters have done what they’re known to do: post cruel, presumptuous, and unwarranted opinions.
“I stopped reading the comments. I used to before, and it really bothered me,” she says. “You get really surprised by how much people think they know you… Especially coming from [Harvard] and the Lampoon, people make so many assumptions. Thinking that I’m rich and saying, ‘Oh that’s just another spoiled little rich girl.’ You mean my growing up with a single parent with two children? It gets to you. It’s like, how dare you try to discredit me when you don’t know anything about me?”
The real story is that Wilkinson’s father, a chemist, died when she was four, leaving her mother, a computer engineer, to raise her and her younger sister, Rachel, on her own. The sisters, only a year apart, grew up close -- petty arguments aside. When their mother took a job in Louisiana, the sisters stayed behind, opting to finish the year at their high school together.
“I think that's the sort of situation that forces you to look at each other and say, ‘I won't bail on you and you can’t bail on me,’” the younger Wilkinson explained.
Rachel Wilkinson, 21, is as vibrant, articulate, and charismatic as her sister. She’s pre-med at Yale, a school she chose because of its proximity to Harvard.
Following a glowing review of her sister’s character and charisma, the Yale junior confirmed, “Alexis was always the entertainer. She’s always been the life of the party. And yes, she knows how to tell good jokes.”
And with two high-achieving sisters, both excelling at Ivy League schools, Wilkinson recognizes the value of independence and self-sufficiency taught at a young age.
“My mom was working full-time the entire time we've been alive. I realize more and more with time that we were very independent at a young age. Especially coming here, where a lot of kids grew up with their parents never letting them out of their sight,” Wilkinson says. “My mom stopped checking my homework and signing my permission slips when I was in third grade. I think especially now, the two of us are way more capable than a lot of other people our age. Not that we get it right all the time, but we're used to having to do it by ourselves and not having a backup plan.”
“I really liked growing up in a state that relatively safe and having a backyard and a treehouse,” she continues. “It was so fun to go exploring and not have people worry about me. I watch way too much ‘SVU.’ But if my mom was cleaning the house and wanted us out, she’d be like, ‘Go look -- what’s that outside?’ And then she’d lock the screen door and be like, ‘Run, play, come back in three hours.’”
When you ask Wilkinson about aspirational goals, they mostly involve one coast or the other: Los Angeles for TV and film writing, or New York for comedy and late night. But she admits that eventually, the idea of settling down and raising a family in a small town might be appealing.
“I don’t know what I’d be like if I hadn’t grown up in a very safe place and not had the room to run around,” she says. “People say, ‘Oh, you can live by a park, but I think you need to feel ownership over your whole domain. Run wild a little bit, and feel like you can run away, because then you don’t actually have to run away.”
At Harvard, Wilkinson is a member of Leverett House, the student residential-social dorm she was placed into her freshman year. In her final semester, she’s arranged her schedule so that she only has classes three days a week, carefully budgeting her extra time to apply to jobs, go to the gym, write in the Lampoon’s Bow Street castle, and bid farewell to the campus she calls home.
Over the past three and a half years, Wilkinson has kept track of her goals, short-term and long, in a document titled BigFatCollegeDegreePlan.doc. Every time she accomplishes a class, gets published, learns a skill, finishes a new book, she crosses it from her list.
“For me it’s very gratifying to look back and say, ‘Oh I did that,’” she explained. “Just being here [at Harvard], you can be bogged down and think, ‘Why am I working so hard, why am I spinning my wheels. What is the end goal?’
Wilkinson keeps a second folder titled “Big Picture,” full of docs (TenYearPlan.doc, 20YearPlan.doc) as a home for her “very big” goals for the future -- career goals, but personal ones, too. Her future daughter(s)’ names are jotted down in that doc, Azaelia and Gabriela.
The reasoning comes down to versatility, “I like names that you can shorten, because I like being Alexis. You can be Alex, Lexi, Al, or Lex."
Her sister calls her Lex, and her mother calls her Alex, but she says she’s trying to make Wilkinson stick on the roll call among her Lampoon colleagues.
“I like feeling like I’m in the Army.”
Wilkinson admits she did toy with the idea of adopting a pen name or pseudonym. She feared her birthname was too long for comedy.
“Three syllable first, three syllable last. For comedy people, that’s not a thing,” she explained. “I say this and everyone thinks I’m crazy, but look at Tina Fey. Her real full name is crazy long. And Mindy Kaling, that’s not her real name either. All of them have shortened their names if they were three syllables or more. Mine is just one syllable too long. Ali Wilkinson? Okay. A.C. Wilkinson? Maybe.”
But Wilkinson’s manager advised against changing her name. She’s already too well known.
Before the masses learned her name, Wilkinson’s cheer squad was small, but mighty. Her then roommate Angela Mathew, a fellow Harvard undergraduate, was the first to rally when she was originally rejected from the Lampoon staff her freshman year.
“I cried and cried and cried, and she says, ‘Let’s go egg the castle! You’re way funnier than those guys!’ But then, of course, I decided to comp again and she was so supportive about it, and then freaked out when I got on.”
The two first lived together as freshmen after being sorted into a room with two other female students by filling out a “giant Match.com-style survey” about their likes and dislikes. Mathew, a neurobiology concentrator, and Wilkinson, a what concentrator, quickly became best friends, concluding on the first day, “They put the craziest bitches on campus in one room.”
In February 2014, Wilkinson’s junior year, Mathew was in a head-on auto collision while traveling back from mock trial competition in Virginia. She was with three other students on the New Jersey Turnpike when they were struck by a tractor-trailer. The three others suffered non-life-threatening injuries, but Mathew was pronounced dead on the scene. She was 20.
Wilkinson had just become president of the Lampoon. Our first meeting occurred the day before the one-year anniversary of Mathew’s death, a calendar date that Wilkinson had just realized. She sighs deep with this realization while recounting the sequence of events, but speaks with clarity and calmness. She’s done this before.
“It was hard because it was so sudden, it’s not like she was sick. And I don’t know why I always jump to that, maybe it’s because my father had colon cancer, and it was like you knew this was coming. It wasn’t a surprise. Like I don’t have any grandparents, but it’s like they’re sick and old, you knew this was going to happen. Even with medical things, like a heart attack, like oh okay, he wasn’t healthy, I understand that.
“But something about her being my age and having gone [on] a trip, it didn’t happen in front of me. It felt very not real. It felt like, ‘They’re wrong. She’s going to come back. I didn’t see it. This is just a made up thing that’s not real.’ There was a lot of holding onto that. She had the walk-through bedroom, and we were still living together, and all her stuff is there. It was like, ‘Her suitcase is just gone, because she’s on a trip!’ It’s so easy to say, ‘This is all a big mistake.’ It took me a while to really admit that this is real. And she’s not ever coming back."
The responsibilities of the presidency and sudden influx of media coverage intensified the pressure for Wilkinson. But camaraderie runs deep at the organization and Parker, then the vice president, stepped in to make sure Wilkinson had time -- even if it was just an hour or a day -- to grieve and find balance.
“That was a really tough time,” says Parker, 22, a second semester senior. “Obviously Alexis had so much going on, and it was really a terrible firestorm, because she had a lot of media attention on her at this point. Reporters were reaching out for her to write stories and give interviews. There were a lot of demands but also opportunities. I can’t imagine that chaos of it.”
Parker describes her relationship with Wilkinson as “buddy cops” -- “Good cop, bad cop, cool cop, weird cop. But always cops. Sisters who are cops.”
The ability to take time off, but also keep busy and be open and honest about a difficult time, shaped Wilkinson’s reign as president. Rachel, Ellie, and Harvard’s campus services played a role in Wilkinson’s resilience during that time, but a story for XOJane on dealing with Mathew’s death became another therapeutic method of coming clean and coming to terms, not only with herself, but also with her staff.
“It was very sort of hard for me to be vulnerable and put those feelings out there, but I think it was important for a lot of people at Lampoon,” she says. “I had just been showing up and doing the work. They knew she had passed away, but I was very adamant that, ‘Don’t talk about that to me, because I’m president, and I’ve got stuff to do. That’s out there, and I’m in here.’ And I think it was good for them to see that I am dealing with it, and I’m not heartless, not that they were thinking those things, but it was a peek inside myself.”
For some of Wilkinson’s press interviews, Parker accompanied. They embraced the media attention, even when they questioned the news peg, knowing that it was best for the Lampoon; it’s not often that the publication gets attention from national networks like MSNBC.
“There was all this pressure for us to discuss gender dynamics,” explained Parker. “But when Alexis and I were elected from within staff, for us being women, it was a consequence of it, it had no bearing on why we were elected or what we planned to do going forward. Then for her, someone who is black and female, that creates a weird dynamic when you’re trying to lead an organization of your friends and writers on staff, but then you’re constantly being spotlighted for being different.”
She added, “I think, on the other hand, the media attention motivated both of us to do something really significant.”
During their tenure as leaders, Parker and Wilkinson pushed the Lampoon staff to produce a much larger volume of writing than usual. They put out seven issues of the Lampoon in their calendar year, as opposed to the typical four or five. And they launched a satirical news website called the Huffington Psst last September. (It was almost called the Huffington Poon… but was vetoed for obvious reasons.) The Lampoon went daily digital for the first time with its summer parody project, integrating video and daily articles into the mix. The site amassed more than 200,000 uniques visits, garnering the attention of both Sheryl Sandberg and Arianna Huffington, both of whom were parodied by Psst.
“We didn’t just be the two women who were in charge,” says Parker. “We wanted to make our own mark on the place.”
Following Wilkinson’s appointment, one former Lampooner who reached out was Maiya Williams, who would have been the Lampoon’s first black female editor in the mid-80s — had she not run against Conan O’Brien.
“Just my luck,” Williams says, laughing, during a call from her home in Los Angeles. “Of course the year I decided to run, I was up against one of the biggest comedic powerhouses at the school.”
Williams, 52, is one of the Lampoon’s best success stories. She lost the presidency, but she was Ibis during O’Brien’s term in office. An author, producer, and writer for the past 29 years, Her resume includes “Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” “Mad TV,” and Nickelodeon's “The Rugrats,” as well as a number of novels .
She and Wilkinson connected shortly after the election, much to Wilkinson’s delight. While Williams couldn’t be happier to see progress in diversity at the publication, she says she didn’t ever feel unwelcome or unwanted during her time on staff.
“People would say, ‘Why are you in that racist organization?’ and I’d be like, ‘What are you talking about?’” remembered Williams. “But then again,” she added, “the first black male writer had joined just a few years before me.”
Wilkinson and Parker left their offices in December and are now comp directors, which means they oversee the Lampoon’s application process. Typically less than a dozen new members are accepted each semester, but it varies. It’s rare to get in on the first try, and that spans all departments: writing, art, tech, and business.
The gender breakdown, Parker estimates, is about one-third female, including the five female writers on staff. She says the atmosphere of the Lampoon has felt friendlier and more open every year that she and Wilkinson have been on staff, but it could just be a result of growing comfortable with their surroundings and seniority.
A large part of being on staff at the Lampoon, according to Williams, is pitching your jokes out loud, and being prepared to take criticism, rejection, and edits from your peers. This practice, she notes, serves as excellent practice for building the thick skin and creative stamina required to duke it out in TV writers’ rooms.
On our last call, Wilkinson is on spring break. She’s cheerful and relaxed, and a low-key weekend excursion to Cape Cod is suiting her just fine. She’s less than 90 days away from graduation and the reality of her final semester is finally sinking in.
“I get weepy almost every other day,” she says. “It’s the weirdest thing.”
Wilkinson specifically recalled a December evening at the Lampoon’s offices after junior Calvin Willett was named the new president of the publication. While the passing of the torch was always inevitable, Wilkinson was the last one left at the Bow Street castle, and well, all the feels suddenly became very, very real.
“It was a Christmas time, and everything was so beautiful, there were decorations everywhere, and I just cried like a big, big black baby. You know how little kids cry so much they don’t know how breathe? Like they’re heaving a little bit and about to throw up. I was doing that. And I was like trying to figure it out. Am I sad? Is that it? But no, I was relieved. I was happy. It was Christmas. I’m a little bit sad. And I’m a little bit anxious about what’s to come. I think it’s just very rare that you have a chapter in your life that so cleanly closes.”
While the anxiety of finding a job after graduation outweighs her ability to relish in her last weeks on campus, Wilkinson’s bouts of nostalgia already have her thinking about Harvard in a past tense.
“I mean, the clichĕ thing to ask is, 'If you had to pick Harvard all over again, would you?' And for me, I would say yes. And I don't know pretty much anyone here that would say no. I mean, if you asked around, I'm sure some people would. But, for me, for the Lampoon alone, I can't separate the two. Harvard is the only place that has the Lampoon. And without the Lampoon, I wouldn't be in comedy, I don't think, just because I would know nothing about that world.”
Wilkinson’s actively applying for jobs -- and jarred by the growing list of classmates with confirmed post-grad offers -- but she keeps quiet when pressed for specifics. (She’s on the market, you know?) While her sister Rachel was accepted into Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and New York’s late-night opportunities are ideal, she still won’t pick a favorite, for now.
That’s because Wilkinson is keeping her eye on the long game. She wants to change late-night comedy entirely.
“I think in 30 years, I would like to be a late-night host of ‘Shut the Fuck Up with Alexis Wilkinson’ that would come on at 1 a.m. and no one would watch it but me,” she deadpans. “I want it come really late so I can say ‘fuck,’ and then there would be panel and guests who can come on to hawk their wares,” she smiles. “I would be very mean about it,” she bursts out laughing. “That’s the 30-year dream.”
[Suede jacket by Veda; Gown by Sass & Bide; both provided by Curated by the Tannery, 711 Boylston Street, Boston, 617-272-5500.]