On a rare cloudy afternoon in Los Angeles, Tanika Ray shares her story — a story of using her platform at Extra to shine a spotlight on African-American talent, of how she learned she was being sidelined by the celebrity news show, and of putting her future in God’s hands.
The longtime entertainment journalist sat down with Urban Hollywood 411 in the hills of L.A.’s Porter Ranch neighborhood, to discuss her recent departure from the long-running Warner Bros. and Telepictures program.
“For me, the hardest thing has been managing other people’s emotions about it,” she explained. “On my Instagram, people DM me, people are calling me, celebrities are calling me, publicists are calling me asking, ‘What’s going on?’ I’m like, ‘I’m not there anymore.’”
Ray noted one of her biggest regrets is no longer being able to provide news coverage on projects from black actors, directors and musicians.
“The thing that really is the most sad for me, is that I held up my community so hard,” she said. “I rode for us every single day. And with black celebrities that may not have gone mainstream… I made sure to get them on our podium or our platform. I made sure to do an incredible interview with them. That gives them [producers] no choice but to put it in the show.”
[Watch the interview below]
Bringing Diversity to Extra’s Coverage
One of those celebrities was the late Nipsey Hussle, whom she interviewed at the Grammy Awards this past February. Ray said she was the only Extra staffer on the red carpet familiar with the rapper and activist’s work.
“They didn’t know who the hell he was. I did and I knew that he was important, so I brought him over and did this interview,” she said.
Related Story: Nipsey Hussle Remembered by President Obama, Stevie Wonder at LA Memorial
Extra ultimately decided not to include Hussle in its Grammys coverage, she said. But after the rapper was fatally shot in South Los Angeles on March 31, Ray said she urged the producers to retrieve the interview with Hussle and girlfriend Lauren London from Extra‘s archives. They posted it online and the video went viral.
“This has been shared by Lauren. It has been shared by Nipsey’s fans because it was a beautiful moment of them sharing their love together, talking about the business, talking about the relationship, and had I not been there, they’re not going to get that,” she said. “There’s none of the people that are there now, who will know those types of people in our culture.”
Extra recently added former NFL player Nate Burleson as a New York Correspondent. While Burleson is black, Ray said he’s not based in Southern California, where the bulk of the show’s coverage originates.
“I haven’t seen his work, but he seems very charming from what I know,” Ray said about Burleson. “And, it’s great. He can do his thing and add the diversity that way. But when you look at the opening credits, it’s Billy and four Caucasian women, and then he comes in.”
Getting Her Start
Before finding a home in entertainment journalism, Ray studied theatre at Spelman College in Atlanta and considered a career in acting. After graduation, the Washington, D.C. native landed a job in the Warner Bros. production assistant program and was assigned to Friends, when the sitcom premiered in 1994.
“I was on stage watching [director] James Burrows make magic every single day, watching these six actors make brilliant TV,” Ray recalled.
After that, she became a professional dancer and booked jobs with artists such as Will Smith, Brandy Norwood and the Backstreet Boys. One day, she said, she saw Joan Rivers on TV and decided it was time for a career change.
“I remember watching the Oscars, and there was Joan Rivers. And this is the time when she was the only person on the red carpet. There wasn’t hosting as a job. And I was like, ‘I can do that. That’s it,’” Ray said.
Related Story: Red Carpet Outrage – Black Journalists Denounce ‘Back of the Bus’ Treatment
She got an agent and started looking for on-camera work. One thing she made sure of was to stay true to herself, and not conform to Hollywood’s standard of beauty by straightening her curly hair.
“I’ve been wearing natural hair on TV since 2002. And what I know to be true, is that nobody supported me wearing my hair natural my entire life,” she said. “I was made fun of at Spelman. Those are woke sisters, but it wasn’t the time.”
Landing That Big Break
Ray landed a job with Extra in 2004 as a New York correspondent, and was later promoted to weekend host. But within a few years, as the focus of entertainment news coverage shifted from movie stars to reality stars and celebrities in crisis, Ray said she wanted out.
“It was the time in entertainment television where the most famous people were Paris Hilton, Britney Spears for losing her mind, Anna Nicole Smith for her insanity. And I just wasn’t interested in those topics,” she explained.
“I went to a red carpet for a Brad Pitt movie, and my producer said, ‘The most important people to get are Heidi [Montag] and Spencer [Pratt], from The Hills.’ She had just had like 35 surgeries in one day. And I was like, ‘this is dumb.’ And I just literally was no longer interested,” Ray recalled.
Changes at Extra
Ray voluntarily left Extra in 2009, and picked up work hosting design programs for HGTV and reunion shows for Lifetime and VH1.
Yet in a surprise move, the producers at Extra called her back in 2017. Ray was enlisted to join Mario Lopez as a co-host, along with Renee Bargh and A.J. Calloway.
In December 2018, the ground began to shift at Extra amid news that NBC planned to drop the daily strip from its owned-and-operated stations. The show ultimately landed on the Fox-owned stations in several major markets, but major changes would accompany the move. Adding to the uncertainty, multiple women went public accusing Calloway of sexual assault and he was suspended. Calloway vehemently denied the allegations at the time, through his attorney Lisa E. Davis.
Then, in March 2019, the Daily Mail broke a story saying Natalie Morales was being pushed out of rival Access Hollywood to make way for Mario Lopez to take over as host.
Related Story: Natalie Morales Exits ‘Access Hollywood’ and ‘Access Live’ Amid Shakeup
With Lopez potentially leaving Extra, Ray said she had no clue about her own future with the show.
“There was no communication,” she stated. With just weeks left in production before the show’s summer hiatus, Ray insisted she still had no idea what was happening.
“Two or three weeks out, the crew didn’t know if they were staying. So there’s something about the way that they operate where there’s just, they operate by silence and mystery,” she said about the show’s producers.
Lisa Gregorisch-Dempsey, senior executive producer of Extra, disputed Ray’s claim that she was not given ample notice.
“We knew that we were going to Fox right after Christmas,” Gregorisch-Dempsey told Urban Hollywood 411 by phone. “First, I talked to Tanika’s agent — she had a new agent — on February 8, and told him then that I was probably going to start mainly fresh. I met with Tanika on April 22, and told her officially that she would not be coming back.”
Gregorisch-Dempsey said she also notified Ray’s talent manager. “I feel like I gave Tanika more than enough notice,” she said. “I told both of her representatives, and Tanika, by April.”
The longtime Extra boss went on to insist that the team on the program is diverse. She pointed to other talent of color, including Miss USA 2019 Cheslie Kryst.
“Yes, I have Nate Burleson in New York and I also have Cheslie Kryst — who corresponds for us three days a week — she’s African American, and Terri Seymour,” who is biracial, Gregorisch-Dempsey said.
Billy Bush Joins Extra
The changes at Extra continued throughout the spring and summer. Warner Bros. Television announced it would part ways with Calloway following an investigation into the assault claims.
NBCUniversal confirmed Lopez would join Access Hollywood. Meanwhile, Extra announced former Access and Today co-host Billy Bush would anchor a new version of the show called Extra Extra [the title has since been changed back to Extra].
The announcement was a major coup for Bush, who’d been off TV since he was pushed out of Today during the 2016 presidential campaign, when a 2005 audio tape leaked of him laughing at lewd remarks Donald Trump made about women.
Ray said her jaw dropped when she learned Bush would be the face of Extra.
“Only in America. I think that we live in a country where it’s been proven time and time again, that privilege is real,” she said. “He can make a comeback. Whereas one of my co-hosts, A.J. Calloway, he was allegedly involved in some sexual scandal. It’s never been proven, but he will never work in TV again. But that’s America, isn’t it? And once we understand the reality of it, we can move to changing that. But sure, he [Bush] can get another chance. That’s sort of the world we live in.”
After getting official word that Bush was in, Ray said she was finally told “we still might need you.” However, with a five-year-old daughter about to start kindergarten, the possibility of work wasn’t enough and she left. [Gregorisch-Dempsey told Urban Hollywood 411 the door is still open for Ray to contribute to Extra on occasion].
As for what’s next, Ray said she’s leaving it up to God.
“Only God knows. And I’m excited to get in line with that, to be in the flow of my purpose, which is how I run my entire life. There’s no reason, as you know, that I should even be a television host or play the role of a reporter. Because I never went to journalism school,” she said.
“It’s about what I naturally do well, and it synced up with being a TV journalist,” she explained. “I’m a great listener. I’m naturally curious about people. And I love finding out what makes people tick.”