WASHINGTON – Cleo Wade strides into the hotel lobby, one hand dragging a small suitcase and the other pressing an iPhone to her ear. She is dressed in red silk pajamas paired with silver hoop earrings and striped sneakers, an airport-ready outfit that requires her high level of confidence to pull off in the middle of downtown Washington, D.C.
“I love you,” Wade says before hanging up and turning to embrace a reporter she has just met. Anyone could have been on the other end of the line – she professes her love quite often, directed over the course of our afternoon conversation at everyone from her fans to TV show crushes. A tattoo along Wade’s left thumb reads “Love. Why wouldn’t you?”
But it is not a word the 29-year-old artist uses lightly. She pours the feeling into her work, which largely consists of handwritten poetry dispensed on social media and in her new book, “Heart Talk.” The comment sections below Instagram posts of her self-affirming mantras – such as “Maybe don’t be the one you are waiting on” and “Don’t let your heart get in the way of new love” – are littered with heart emoji and grateful messages.
Wade’s work pricks emotion IRL, too. Earlier this month, a 38-year-old fan got choked up while discussing the poetry during her book tour stop.
“It’s so needed right now,” Kibibi Devero said of Wade’s positivity after hearing her speak. “Just to know that someone loves people enough to go out and foster that among other people, it’s just incredible to me.”
The work appeals to modern culture’s desire for brevity while still managing to captivate its audience of primarily millennial women. Somehow, Wade avoids coming off as superficial to them – a seemingly miraculous feat most of her generation’s “Instagram poets” have yet to master.
“(With) anything online, if it’s used as a starting-off point and not an answer, you really understand how it can be a tool for connectivity and not a weapon against our humanity,” Wade says, obliquely explaining her approach to sharing her work on social media. She sits on a red hotel-lobby couch, against which her matching pajamas disappear and caramel-colored curls pop. It is her first full day off in roughly seven months, she says, having wrapped a seven-city domestic book tour the night before.
Her celebrity is building – apart from her network of more famous friends. It speaks volumes that barely any heads in the packed D.C. bookstore turned when Sen. Cory Booker, Wade’s rumored boyfriend, described in the book’s acknowledgments as “a constant source of light and inspiration,” walked into her reading.
The often disdainfully uttered “Instagram poet” label is one that former Teen Vogue editor in chief Elaine Welteroth emphatically rejects on behalf of her good friend.
“I actually think it’s reductive to call her an Instagram poet, because if we were to think of what Maya Angelou would look like, how her work would move through this world in this day and age, it would probably look like Cleo,” Welteroth says.
Such bold evaluations are not new to Wade, whom New York magazine dubbed the “millennial Oprah” in late 2016. The comparison is “in line with her abilities and ambitions,” the article stated, given “her way with an inspirational aphorism.” Wade was in the middle of writing “Heart Talk” at the time, described as a “self-help book aimed at those fans who turn to her for advice, the ones who send her hundreds of emails a day, the ones who write on her feed, Your posts say what my heart and mind think/feel.”
If the poet had her way, there would be no comparisons made. Though flattered – coincidentally, she has just returned from visiting the “amazing” Oprah Winfrey exhibit at the National Museum of African American History and Culture when we meet – she hesitates to compare two women because she feels “it is something that has held us back for so long.”
“No one’s walking around and calling Paul Ryan the millennial Mitch McConnell,” Wade says. “He just gets to be him.”
Of course, it is also impossible to know how Winfrey’s trajectory would have been altered by the digital age. Wade came up through the fashion industry and worked as a consultant to support herself while creating art, which eventually found its way to Instagram in 2014. “I am writing you this letter to inform you of my unbreakable nature. That’s all,” reads the first poem she shared on the platform. “Love, women everywhere.”
Her simple prose surged in popularity after the presidential election, soothing anxious minds and popping up on protest signs ever since. She had set up an outdoor booth in Manhattan that summer with signs that asked “ARE YOU OK?” and promised “peaceful and loving conversation,” both of which she brought back the weekend before visiting Washington earlier this month. She chatted with passersby from 11 a.m. until 8:30 p.m., when she got kicked out of the park.
Wade doesn’t pick favorites – because “everyone is great,” she explains – but shares a memorable encounter with a deaf fan named Jonathan. He brought a notebook to the booth and the two exchanged handwritten messages, leading Wade to realize that her tour hadn’t been accessible enough. Two days later, after much scrambling on her part, a pair of sign language interpreters came to her D.C. stop.
The secret to any success Wade has experienced, she says, is her “ability to always be excited to change.” She said the same the night before to a room full of women (and a few men) who nodded along as she later quoted a Harvard professor whom she recently heard say, “The difference between sadness and depression is that depression is sadness without hope.” The crowd sighed in agreement.
An ability to build meaningful relationships has broadened Wade’s network. She hobnobs with celebrities such as Katy Perry, activists such as DeRay Mckesson and fashion designers such as Prabal Gurung. She gets asked to speak at national conventions and on a TED Talk stage; appears alongside Fashion Week runways and in fashion magazines; and writes colorful messages that have appeared outside the Beverly Center and in Times Square.
Wade didn’t grow up wealthy or especially well connected. She says she was raised by three parents who indulged her creative side: her chef mother, Lori; her artist father, Bernardo; and the vibrant city of New Orleans.
Bernardo and Lori Wade divorced when their daughter was young, and she wandered the French Quarter’s lively streets when staying with her dad. At 12, she began to work at local boutiques and developed a quirky style by pairing discounted items with hand-me-downs. Instead of attending college, she landed an internship with M Missoni in 2006 and moved to New York.
“I had an amazing mentor there,” Wade recalls. “I used to sit with her and write those press releases, and she’d be, like, ‘You’re really good at writing these things.’ It’s strange how much we bury our dreams.”
Her current Manhattan apartment – which Welteroth describes as having a “black Carrie Bradshaw vibe” – is blocks away from the Lower Eastside Girls Club and the Women’s Prison Association, where Wade teaches a class on storytelling. She calls herself the Kimmy Gibbler or Kramer of both places: “Are you guys home? What are you doing?”
Jenna Barclay, who provided feedback on many drafts of “Heart Talk” and made sure it would appeal to a wide variety of readers, met Wade in 2007 when the two worked as fashion assistants at Halston. She notes Wade’s “ability to really put her finger on the pulse of what people are feeling and so concisely express it in a way that’s sometimes disarmingly simple, but in a way no one else would be able to boil it down. She doesn’t use an unnecessary word in her poetry at all.”
So brief are Wade’s words that four separate aphorisms fit on the back cover of her book:
“You are more okay than you think.”
“Not every ground is a battleground.”
“Know the value of knowing your value.”
“Baby, you are the strongest flower that ever grew – remember that when the weather changes.”
Georgetown University professor Seth Perlow focuses on experimental poets and relates Wade’s work to “sentimental poetry” of the mid-19th century. While some academic circles would view this as a dig, he says, she is writing in easily decipherable language of “political solidarity and emotional honesty” that meets people where they are.
“In the mid-19th century, poetry was a vehicle of political sentiment and national sentiment,” he adds. “Wade is not espousing nationalism, but she’s reaching a large audience and making public use of poetry in a way that’s really admirable.”
Wade doesn’t shy away from politics, having campaigned for Hillary Clinton. But she approaches tense conversations with a sense of hope often missing from today’s climate. Amid news of migrant children being separated from their parents at the border, Wade posts prose from “Heart Talk” to Instagram: “The dangers of the world are furthered only when we decide that the suffering of others is not our problem. Do not live your life in a bubble and, if you do, let it be one that is large enough for all of humanity.”
At the hotel lobby, she explains how vital it is that we not let dreadful events block “our ability to see amazing things happen.” Her social media feeds were filled with friends who don’t regularly speak up expressing their feelings about the administration’s border policy and urging political action, she says.
An alarm sounds from Wade’s phone – it’s 3:15 p.m., and she has a flight to catch. She elaborates a bit more on the importance of being a “healthy citizen” and how she wishes therapy were more accessible before wheeling her suitcase to the door and calling a cab.
“I just love taking taxis,” she says. “They’re so good for conversation.”
Sonia Rao/The Washington Post