Making Space

With Kindness and Dignity, Houstonian Chantal Rochelle Is Creating Waves at Buzzfeed

A local girl explores Black identity as a web host, on her own terms.

By Emma Schkloven October 8, 2020 Published in the Fall issue of Houstonia Magazine

Chantal Rochelle

In just minutes flat, Chantal Rochelle can rattle off more inspirational phrases than could possibly adorn all of the world’s coffee mugs and throw pillows. But the 28-year-old, who grew up in northwest Houston and is making a name in Los Angeles as the editor of Buzzfeed’s nascent Black culture and entertainment vertical, Cocoa Butter, doesn’t just recite highly quotable, uplifting phrases as a gimmick. She means every one of those optimistic words.

“It’s honestly because I have good home training,” she says with a chuckle.

She was raised with tight connections to her late mother, Millicent, and grandmother, Millie, both of whom shared her middle name Rochelle (her last name is Follins). The two women showed Rochelle how to move through the world with kindness and dignity, without sacrificing who they were. “They’re my warriors,” she says. “Everything that I do is in tribute to them.”

On Cocoa Butter’s web show The Era—a deep dive into how the ’90s have shaped today’s culture, a series that she conceptualized and now executive-produces and hosts—Rochelle always appears poised. Plus, she has the rare quality of getting celebrities, from award-winning actress (and fellow Houstonian) Loretta Devine to Roots drummer Questlove to open up during interviews. But she wasn’t always so self-assured.

As a kid she didn’t entirely fit in. Bookish and reserved, she had a habit of rushing from Klenk Elementary School back home, just off FM 1960, so she could watch Oprah—not the typical after-school activity of most 8-year-olds. But Millicent was always there, encouraging Rochelle to enjoy Pokémon, the Spice Girls, and Oprah if that’s what she enjoyed. Her identity as a Black girl was not a rigid one, her mom told her.

Even so, Rochelle says, “I started to perform this form of Blackness that other people wanted me to show, listening to music I didn’t like, changing the way I spoke.” Her mom’s advice? If you can’t find a place you feel like you fit, go out and make one.

Rochelle did. While attending Langham Creek High School in Cypress, she began to write about everything she was interested in, from the coolest new kicks to Rihanna’s latest single to the 2008 election—first on her blog, then on Tumblr, and eventually on Twitter. Rochelle quickly acquired readers and followers, and kept it up, tending to her online presence while studying communications at the University of Texas, Austin and after graduation, working at a tech company.

By the time she landed a job interview with Buzzfeed in 2015—she’d never stopped longing to be like Oprah, even with a budding tech career—they quickly saw her potential. “There was no content yet. There was no vision. There was no direction,” Rochelle says of Cocoa Butter’s origins. “They brought me in because of my vision for Black content.”

Rochelle has since created a platform where folks can embrace their Blackness in their own way, whether they want to reminisce about a TV show that changed their lives, commiserate over shared experiences of racism, or appreciate a century’s worth of hairstyles in five minutes.

She’s scooped big publications like Entertainment Weekly and Variety on breaking stories, been nominated for a Shorty Award (a national honor for stellar social media content), and the platform now boasts more than a million Facebook followers. But Rochelle is just proud to have created the kind of space online that her mother always encouraged her to envision. “Having someone pour love into you and setting space for you,” she explains, “showed me how important it is for me to make sure that love and kindness is at the forefront of everything I do.”

Millicent died last year, but she did get to see Cocoa Butter take off and share in that joy over her daughter’s success. Now Rochelle is hoping to keep her teachings alive.

“My intention every single time is to make sure that other people, other Black boys and girls, know that they are enough,” says Rochelle. “That’s what my mother did for me.”

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