Kelley, Elijah

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Elijah Kelley


Actor, singer, dancer

Actor Elijah Kelley was born into a family grounded in both religion and music. His performing career, which started at the age of three when he joined a family gospel group, has grown and developed quickly. Only a few years after arriving in Los Angeles looking for work as an entertainer, Kelley made his mark in Hollywood with a role in the 2007 hit film Hairspray. His talent, versatility, and unaffected good sense contribute to the likelihood that Kelley's rapid climb marks the beginning of a memorable career.

Kelley was born on August 1, 1986, in LaGrange, Georgia, a small town not far from the Alabama state line in the northwestern part of the state. His family had a deep interest in gospel music, a type of Christian music characterized by powerful vocals and complex harmonies. Gospel music is heavily influenced by African-American spirituals, which in turn owe a debt to the rhythms and shouts of African music. Gospel is frequently also a family tradition, with many singing groups made up of members of the same family. Elijah Kelley joined his family's gospel quartet, the Leonard Family, when he was only three years old.

Performed in Commercials, Television During Childhood

By the time he was seven years old, Kelley knew that he wanted to be a performer, not only a singer but also an actor. His mother, Evalene Flournoy, encouraged and supported her son's ambition. When Kelley was eleven, she took him to the nearby city of Atlanta to answer a newspaper advertisement seeking talented youth. An agent gave Kelley a piece of chewing gum and challenged him to create a commercial for it on the spot. His original improvisation led to a contract with a theatrical agent, his first paid acting jobs in soft drink commercials, and roles in two made-for-television films. In 1998 he played Young Willie in the 1998 movie Mama Flora's Family, directed by Peter Werner and based on an Alex Haley novel about several generations in a postslavery African-American family. The following year he took the role of Clarence in Joseph Sargent's 1999 film A Lesson Before Dying, a sensitive look at the effects of racism in the American South during the 1940s. He made his film debut in the Betty Thomas film 28 Days (2000), starring Sandra Bullock. Kelley played the role of Darnell in the film, which chronicles a celebrity's experience in a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program.

Though Kelley was well on his way to a successful acting career before he had finished middle school, he also began to display qualities of forethought and responsibility. At the age of fourteen, he backed away from a professional performing career in favor of finishing high school at LaGrange's Troop County High School. After his graduation in 2004, he decided to move to the entertainment industry center of Los Angeles, California, to continue developing his acting career. To help their youngest child and ensure that he had family support and love surrounding him during his search for success, his parents decided to move to California with him.

Kelley's many talents and engaging personality began to win him roles almost as soon as he arrived in Los Angeles. In 2005 and 2006 he was hired to appear in several episodes of the cable police drama The Shield, the CW network situation comedy Everybody Hates Chris, and the CBS criminal investigation series Numb3rs. Showing a persistent energy and drive, he also managed to perform in three different films in 2006: the Charles T. Kanganis update of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, titled Rome and Jewel; Liz Friedlander's story of ballroom dance in the inner city, Take the Lead; and Heavens Fall, a dramatization of a true story of racism and the justice system, directed by Terry Green.

Besides his rapidly rising acting career, Kelley also began to cultivate a career as a singer, songwriter, and record producer. He performed as a singer in Las Vegas, Nevada, wrote and produced songs for such well-known singers as Omarion and Diana Ross, and began planning his own rhythm and blues album.

Gained Recognition for Role in Hairspray

Kelley's breakout role came when he was cast to play Seaweed J. Stubbs in the 2007 film Hairspray, directed by Adam Shankman. A musical version of the 1988 John Waters film, Hairspray is a zany satire about racism, prejudice, and forbidden love in 1960s Baltimore. Kelley's audition so impressed the filmmakers that they gave him the part even before they had cast the lead role. After opening in thousands of theaters across the United States during the summer of 2007, Hairspray received positive reviews and went on to become one of the most financially successful musicals in movie history. Many critics noted the standout performance of a relative newcomer in the role of Seaweed J. Stubbs, a fast-talking, hot-dancing, black high school student who falls for a white girl in his class. Though Kelley's role is not a starring one, he captured the attention of audiences and critics alike with his show-stopping number "Run and Tell That."

Kelley was delighted to be part of the Hairspray cast, working with such veteran performers as John Travolta and Queen Latifah. As much as he enjoyed the chance to demonstrate his skill as a singer and dancer, he also appreciated the film's joyful message of self-acceptance, tolerance, and celebration of diversity. As an African American, he had, of course, felt the effects of prejudice and racism, and, in preparing for his role, he spent time talking to his parents and grandparents about their experiences during the 1960s.

Kelley's role in Hairspray pushed his career from success to stardom. Having shown he could captivate a movie audience, he began receiving offers for leading roles in other films, such as a production for New Line Cinema titled Party Up. From the beginning of his show business career, Kelley has aspired to be an old-style entertainer, versatile, classy, and committed to his craft, in the tradition of such legends as Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, and Marvin Gaye.

Even during this early phase of his career, Kelley was committed to sharing his success with others. In 2007 he joined the advisory board of Variety magazine's Power of Youth, a charitable organization founded by the entertainment journal.

At a Glance …

Born Elijah Kelley on August 1, 1986, in LaGrange, GA; son of Evalene Flournoy.

Career: Actor, 1998—; dancer, 2005—; singer, 2007—.

Memberships: Variety's Power of Youth, advisory board, 2007.

Awards: Hollywood Film Awards, Ensemble of the Year, to the cast of Hairspray, 2007.

Addresses: LaGrange, GA.

Selected works


Mama Flora's Family, 1998.

A Lesson Before Dying, 1999.

28 Days, 2000.

Heavens Fall, 2006.

Rome and Jewel, 2006.

Take the Lead, 2006.

Hairspray, 2007.



Daily Variety, August 21, 2007, pp. 4-6.

Los Angeles Times, July 14, 2007.

Time, July 30, 2007, p. 56.

USA Today, July 23, 2007.


"Amanda Bynes, Elijah Kelley Interview, Hairspray," Movies Online, (accessed December 28, 2007).

Barnes, Brad, "LaGrange to Honor Local ‘Hairspray’ Star," Ledger-Enquirer, (accessed December 28, 2007).

Boyd, Betsy, "Up Next: Elijah Kelley," Variety, (accessed December 28, 2007).

"Elijah Kelley," My Space, (accessed December 28, 2007).

Philadelphia, Desa, "Elijah Kelley Has the Total Package," USA Weekend, (accessed December 28, 2007).

—Tina Gianoulis