She boldly went where no other women of color had been and became a role model along the way.
Nichelle Nichols, Lieutenant Uhura from Star Trek, The Original Series, was one of the first African-American women cast in a TV role other than a servant. She locked lips with William Shatner in one of the first interracial kisses broadcast in the US. An asteroid was named after her. Bold indeed.
Now 85, she'll play the matriarch in a new television film, Noah's Room, about a black family that rescues a white boy from the abuse he's suffered in the foster care system. She still attends comic conventions year-round.
Nichols was in the San Francisco Bay Area this week for the third Silicon Valley Comic-Con, where she presented a keynote titled "Pursuing the extraordinary" with Mae Jemison, the first woman of color to travel in space. She also signed autographs and happily snapped photos with fans.
"The people first," she told me when we sat down in a hotel lobby for an interview. Nichols has glowing skin and a contagious laugh, and she gives you her attention in such a focused way you quickly feel like you're talking to someone you've known for years.
"The people that came to see you, the people that literally put you there. It's like a destination that you know is gonna happen and you just kinda lean back and enjoy it," she said. "You know, step on in baby. I like what I do, I love what I do."
It shows. Charlie Wagner, the CNET cameraman who came with me to the interview, is a big Star Trek fan who had a crush on Uhura. As I took a few shots of the two of them after we'd stopped recording, she snuck a kiss on Charlie's cheek that made his eyes grow big.
Nichols started her career in the early '60s performing in plays and musicals, modeling and even singing with Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton. Then, producer Gene Roddenberry came along, offering her a guest role in his first television series, The Lieutenant.
A few years later, in 1966, Roddenberry cast her in Star Trek as the communications officer of the USS Enterprise, a groundbreaking role cast in the the middle of the civil rights movement.
But Nichols' passion was Broadway, so after one season she handed in her resignation. Roddenberry tried to persuade her to stay, giving her the weekend to think about it. She happened to meet Martin Luther King Jr. that weekend, and after King confessed to being a trekkie, he made her see the importance of having her in that spaceship as a role model for women and people of color everywhere.
"I think it was a moment in which I really realized not so much who I am but where I was going, and it felt very good, it felt like in a rush kinda to get there," Nichols said, recalling the pivotal moment that make her realize the importance of Nyota Uhura.
Nichols stayed on the show until the series was canceled in 1969, but we can thank the reruns for letting us tag along with the original cast that explored space aboard of the USS Enterprise commanded by Captain Kirk.
"It was well worth it," she said. "It was worthy being there and with them and them with me."
After the show was canceled, Nichols helped NASA recruit women and minorities to be astronaut candidates and was able to sign up Guion Bluford, the first African-American astronaut, and Sally Ride, the first female American astronaut, among others. Jemison has cited Nichols as one of her inspirations.
"It was a big deal on both sides," she said. "It was almost like we're going 'hi girl' and opening up to one another on where we've been, where we're going, what we're doing now."
I asked her, of course, about that famous kiss with Shatner (well, kisses, because they had to do a lot of takes), but you're going to have to watch the video to see what she said.
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