"The biggest obstacle I have had to overcome is doubt," says the actress and dancer.

Ariana DeBose, one of People en Español's 25 Most Powerful Women of 2021, is about to be everywhere. The actress and dancer starred in last year's Netflix adaptation of the hit musical The Prom, but her biggest role is yet to come — she's playing Anita in Steven Spielberg's new movie version of West Side Story. "Power to me is a combination of insight, knowledge, and influence," she says. "I feel most powerful when I understand the world I am living in. I have a strong sense of people, and when I have all the information, I know the best parts of myself to bring to the table. I think understanding that there are so many resources living within ourselves to deal with a myriad of circumstances is a powerful thing. Trust yourself."

The Puerto Rican star, 30, is thrilled to take on the West Side Story role played by the iconic Rita Moreno. "West Side Story is going to be epic!" she says. "I am so excited." It took her a while to feel this level of confidence in herself, though. "The biggest obstacle I have had to overcome is doubt, including the doubt from others and how that can make you doubt yourself," she recalls. "I was crushed when I was voted off So You Think You Can Dance at 19 years old. I was young and needed to sit with my emotions surrounding those voices and how I heard the criticism. Once I was ready, I got back in there and trained harder, and I moved to New York to prove to myself that the things echoing in my head were not true."

Ariana-Debose-CREDIT-Robb-Klassen Poderosas 2021 - ONE-TIME USE
Ariana Debose
| Credit: Robb Klassen

Her character in The Prom — a high school student who is in love with another girl — and her own coming-out story as a queer woman motivated her to launch the Unruly Hearts Initiative with her Prom co-star Jo Ellen Pellman, to help other LGBTQ+ youth. "I was so lucky to have a loving and accepting experience coming out. It was almost simpler than my Afro-Latina experience. It's a dream come true to be able to connect people with resources, tools, and a set of blueprints to navigate their coming out and at the same time let them know they're loved and accepted," she says. "I love reading the stories that people are sharing. Some of them break my heart, but to know we are partnered with people and organizations that can truly help is a powerful and exciting thing. Everyone should get to live in the truth of who they are! 

The pandemic has changed her perspective and pace. "Like everyone I have had to learn to live more presently. I used to have a five-year-plan," she shares. "Now I live peacefully with a five-day-plan. I would like to continue to build a healthy home life and choose work that allows both my personal and professional life to be in balance, so I guess my current goal would be to learn to say no to what doesn't serve me and the ones I love."

Having her family's support has also made a world of difference. "I was a dancer first and everything else second for my entire youth. I had a lot of love and support from my mom and grandma. I could disappear into dance; it somehow was truly mine," she says. "Professionally, I have always known who I was, which is important when you are surrounded by folks judging you, your talent, and your Blackness.

Representing the Afro-Latino and LGBTQ+ communities is something she's proud to do. "I take this very seriously. I am a 'positive vibes only' person, especially in my social media presence. There are young people out there watching what I say or do. I don't want to give anyone a reason to put these communities down. That being said, I say what I mean and mean what I say," she says. "Afro-Latinos have been underrepresented in our industry. I am excited to continue to be a part of moving the needle forward so we can reach a day where there is balance in how we represent the beautiful spectrum of Latinos, and not just one 'traditionally Latino' prototype."