When Crystal Renee’ Hayslett was growing up in Martin, TN, she would recreate pop stars’ performances and recite her own acceptance speeches for the entertainment awards she won in her young mind. Not only was a performative talent bubbling inside of her, but there was also an unstoppable resoluteness she could — and would — stand out among her peers. From the University of Tennessee at Martin, Crystal was recruited to Washington, D.C., to work for a United States senator. When her formative chapter on Capitol Hill came to a close, she knew it was time to tap into that creative expression within her, but shifting gears came at a cost. For almost a year, Crystal leaned on family and friends in Atlanta for support while she auditioned for small acting roles and took jobs as an extra just to get her foot in a door that remained frustratingly hard to pry open. But the “no’s” didn’t stop her.
When she landed at Tyler Perry Studios, Crystal worked her way upward through one of the South’s most reputable and prolific TV/film studios into a role she could only have dreamed of as a child. Now widely known for her role as Fatima on Tyler Perry’s “Sistas” on BET, Crystal is a true representation of committing to a dream and patiently and courageously working your way toward it despite the odds. It is safe to say she will be making an acceptance speech on a real stage one day. Get to know our new FACE of the South, Crystal Renee’ Hayslett.
Tell us about your trajectory from growing up in Tennessee to where you are now.
Growing up in Martin, TN, really gave me the space to dream big. I always had a love for the arts, and I’ve never been one to shy away from the spotlight, even as a child. I found joy in activities like singing lead in my church choir, starring in school plays, and participating in beauty pageants like Jr. Miss Martin and Miss Tennessee. Something in my heart during these moments knew I wouldn’t be in Martin for the rest of my life. Still, I had no idea the places I’d go.
My junior year at UT Martin, I landed an internship on Capitol Hill for the U.S. Senate, working in Senator Lamar Alexander’s office. A big jump from Martin, I must say I quickly fell in love with the beauty of the city and all the history D.C. had to offer. My senior year, I got a call from Senator Alexander’s office asking if I would like to join the team full-time. After two-and-a-half years of politics, I decided it was time to really go after my dreams. So, I moved to Atlanta in 2009 and pursued a career in singing and acting. It didn’t take long to figure out things weren’t going to happen overnight, but I stayed the course. Working as a background extra and auditioning every moment I got, but never landed a gig — talk about dealing with rejection.
By 2013, my stylist at the time was working at Tyler Perry Studios* and told me about an open position as a production assistant. I interviewed for the job and got it. It was humbling getting coffee, running clothes to set, making copies — but I did it with a smile on my face, and soon I was promoted to a costumer. This led to being offered the costume designer position in 2015. Later that fall, I was also hired to be Tyler Perry’s stylist. I did this job for five years, not once auditioning — I’d put my passion on hold. That’s not to say I wasn’t living another passion. I was able to get up every day and play dress up and be creative for a living. I was happy. I was also around one of the most prolific men of our time, Tyler Perry. During this time, I learned so much from him and continue to do so. Not everyone is as lucky as I am to see greatness day in and day out. It changes your mindset, your work ethic and your vision. He taught me to dream bigger and never doubt the places God can take you.
In 2018, “Sistas” was created and I was working on the show as a consulting producer. As Tyler began to write the scripts and develop characters, a woman named Fatima was created, and the role was actually written for me. Fast forward two seasons later, and I’m now a series regular on the show. Your passion will always have a way of finding you when it’s time.
What was it like working on The Hill? What made you go in a different direction?
Working on The Hill was so much fun! I started in the front office and soon became a legislative correspondent for the H.E.L.P. (Health, Education, Labor & Pensions) Committee that Senator Alexander is the chairman of. I learned a lot from working there, but if I’m honest, it was never a lifetime goal of mine to work in politics. After two-and-a-half years, it was time for me to at least give my dreams a shot. That’s when I made the move to Atlanta.
Have you always wanted to be in entertainment?
Yes. When I was a child, I would record Janet Jackson’s performances and learn them. I would give acceptance speeches on the fireplace in the living room. There was always something that intrigued me about the world of entertainment.
What got you through that time of uncertainty and “no’s” you experienced before you got to Tyler Perry Studios?
I got to a point in my life where I stopped trying to map out my entire life and actually let God order my steps. It was then [that] I began to see things happen organically, and doors started opening for me.
Tell us about how you worked your way up on “Sistas.”
During season 1, I was basically the underdog. I felt like I had to prove that I belonged since my route to getting on the show was much different than everyone else. I think it’s safe to say I proved something in season 1 — especially after getting bumped to a series regular. When that announcement came that I would be a regular in season 2, it was more pressure. The pressure to prove [that] now I can handle this load and deliver.
What’s a common misconception about what it’s like working on a major TV show?
Some people think it’s all glitz and glamour. It’s not! From a personal point of view, it takes a lot of disciplines like studying for countless hours, rehearsing for countless hours, continuing your education to make sure you’re always at the top of your game, diet and a solid fitness regimen. There’s a lot that goes into the process of getting your favorite show on your TV screen.
Secondly, I’d say people think once you land a major TV show, the grind stops. You actually get even busier!
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How have your Southern roots affected your life as you travel to and work with people from other parts of the country and the world?
I honestly had to toughen up quickly when I first moved to D.C. I was used to speaking to complete strangers in the South — if you’re walking past someone on the street, you say “good morning!” I soon learned that wasn’t the way of life everywhere. After a few confused looks from people, I got the memo. That’s not to say I let go of my Southern ways; I just learned there’s a time and place to show your Southern charm. We are naturally caring and giving people, so it’s easy to be taken advantage of. I learned over the years to use my discernment as a protective mechanism.
When you’re not working, where can we find you?
You can find me in the gym — I lose myself in there. It’s really a place of release for me. Before COVID-19, you could definitely find me traveling – I love experiencing different cultures. Now more than ever, you can find me at home, reading, studying for an audition, binge-watching a show or cooking — I love to cook!
What’s something people are often surprised to learn about you?
I am an extrovert for only a certain amount of time, and then I need my alone time. I actually enjoy being alone — it’s in those moments I’m able to fully recharge.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
It was from Tyler. He told me as I continue to climb, to never forget where I started. And to always remain humble. That resonated deeply with me.
What are three light-hearted things you can’t live without?
My phone, my computer and a good pair of sweatpants.
Thank you, Crystal, for chatting with us, and thank you to Kayla MaDonna for the stunning photos.
*Acquired by Tyler Perry in 2015, the 330-acre lot is located in the heart of Atlanta on the historic grounds of the former Fort McPherson army base. The major motion picture studio, one of the country’s largest production facilities, showcases 40 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, 12 purpose-built sound stages, 200 acres of green space, and a diverse backlot.
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