Dominicana Danielle Perez is booked and busy, but not at the expense of her mental health and well-being. The comedian-actor-writer-diva and disability rights activist is stealing scenes and punching out stigma and stereotypes, all while exuding dazzling joy everywhere she goes. After a Muni streetcar accident in 2004 when she was 20 years old led her to lose both her feet and a viral moment in 2015 when she won a treadmill on The Price is Right, Perez has been using humor to cope as a stand-up comic. Now nearly two years into a pandemic that’s wreaked havoc on people’s mental health, Perez is opening up about how her views on mental wellness have evolved and what she’s doing differently.
“Part of having a good work ethic and part of having a perspective in life worth commenting on is living a life, having a balanced life,” Perez tells HipLatina. “Being in a good place mentally will only make your artform better.” With the pause on in-person performances at the peak of the pandemic, Perez came to a realization, “Comedy is not a replacement for therapy,” she said, reflecting on her pre-lockdown days filled with near nightly comedy shows.
With therapy and medication, Perez is better at managing her stress and anxiety and is rejecting the pernicious hustle culture that plagues the male-dominated comedy scene. “I want to perform with more intention. I want to perform in spaces that I feel happy in and comfortable in, for audiences that want to see me,” Perez says. “I am not going to run myself ragged, chasing three sets a night in the shittiest parts of town, in the crappiest bars, to prove to a bunch of male comics in the back of the room that I am a ‘real comic.’”
A Los Angeles native, Perez gets irritated at New York comics who scorn LA comics for not working nearly as hard as their East Coast counterparts who perform several shows a night. She shares how she once booked a run in NY for seven days, four shows a night and it all came crashing down on the final late-night show. Perez called an Uber to go to the emergency room where she was diagnosed with pneumonia and ended up staying for three days. Perez consequently learned to push against grind culture.
“I am a comic, and I perform, and I write jokes because I am funny and I am enough.”
Perez certainly is enough, and even with her selective approach to projects, she is filling her calendar with a variety of impressive shows and gigs. She has a recurring role on the series Special on Netflix, where she plays a vivacious and outspoken member of the Crips, a social group of folks with disabilities. She has an upcoming role in a show that will stream on HBO, she is writing in a children’s television show, and she even shot a movie during quarantine. Perez plays Donna in Swipe Right, a romantic comedy starring Jodie Sweetin of Full House fame. Like many entertainers in 2020, she also embraced some fantastic Zoom roles during the lockdown, including the hilarious parody Real House Wives of Zoom Meetings.
She was also featured in the “New Faces of Comedy” showcase as part of the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival which is known for jump-starting the careers of fledgling comics including Jimmy Fallon and Ali Wong. But in reality she’s far from being a new face in the Los Angeles comedy scene where she’s been performing since August 2014.
Perez got her start in comedy when her best friend Madison Shepard convinced her to go to an open-mic. The two had seen a lack-luster comedy bit that led Perez to think “I can do that!” so she and Shepard participated in an open-mic night a few weeks later. Perez didn’t have anything prepared, but that wasn’t a problem. “We were in a dinky coffee shop in Hollywood, and I started speaking into the microphone, and I made people laugh, and I was like, I need this feeling for the rest of my life.”
Now she’s on the bill with some of the leading Los Angeles-based comics like Nicole Byer (host of Nailed It! on Netflix) who she traveled to Oregon with this July. Today, Shepard and Perez even have a comedy podcast together called Wow, Rude where they discuss pop culture with a healthy dose of humor.
Perez, who is Afro-Latina, is not only committed to thriving while continuing to prioritize self-care, she’s also intentionally working toward more representation for the disabled community and Afro-Latinxs. “I grew up not seeing people who look like me on TV. I didn’t see Latinas that weren’t maids. I didn’t see Afro-Latinos,” she says. “I kind of really got the message that acting and theater is ‘just for fun’ [that] ‘girls who look like you don’t do that.’ So it’s really amazing now to be in a position where I am disabled and fat, and I have these opportunities to act, and to be on TV, and to be in film.”
She’s hopeful that the industry is inching its way toward more inclusive and diverse staffing and roles. “I feel like we are making progress, though at a snail’s pace. We need the people at the top who are green-lighting shows to look like us so they can understand what we are giving them.”
Perez is an advocate for intersectionality and works to change the face of Hollywood as a member of the disability cohort of 5050by2020, an initiative of the TimesUp movement that is pushing against the fact that “white men make up about 1/3 of the U.S. population but they are 96 percent of the film directors.” Specifically, Perez joins storytellers, actors, and writers that are tired that “able-bodied actors play 95 percent of disabled characters.” The initiative believes that disrupting Hollywood lays the groundwork for political change.
Beyond Hollywood, Perez also uses her growing platform to advocate for issues that matter to her and makes no qualms about the risk of losing followers for it. She speaks unapologetically about mental health, abortion rights, voting rights, Black Lives Matter, and the many issues that touch her life every day. “If I can leverage any of my following to make the world better, I will do it. It feels like such a no-brainer to me.” Perez credits her friend Yenny Yang, a former labor organizer turned to stand-up comedian, for modeling what it means to be both an artist and an activist. Perez is regularly working to deliver in those dual roles while still practicing what she preaches.
“As Latinas, we are so socialized to worry about our friends, worry about our family, it’s like, no, worry about yourself. Take care of yourself. Take the time to know what you need.”