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Twin sisters from Tampa helping shape Fox's 'Empire' say they'd like to tell Tampa stories

JaNeika James, left, and JaSheika James are executive story editors on Fox's 'Empire.' They grew up in Tampa and attended Tampa Bay Tech High School. [Photo by Nicole Gracen via Seven Marketing + PR]
JaNeika James, left, and JaSheika James are executive story editors on Fox's 'Empire.' They grew up in Tampa and attended Tampa Bay Tech High School. [Photo by Nicole Gracen via Seven Marketing + PR]
Published Apr. 24, 2018

JaNeika and JaSheika James' television obsession was fueled by scarcity and convenience.

As self-described "military brats" living in Germany, the girls treasured the VHS tapes their grandparents shipped overseas filled with English-language Saturday morning cartoons, A Different World and the Golden Girls. As identical twin sisters, they didn't need to leave the house to find a playmate, so they would hang out with each other and watch TV.

But it was eighth or ninth grade, after their mother left the Air Force and the family had settled in Tampa, that they read an article in Jet about Yvette Lee Bowser, showrunner and creator of the sitcom Living Single.

"It was the first time we were even aware that as a black woman you could write TV," JaSheika James told the Tampa Bay Times. "We stated it right then and there, we want to do that when we get out of school. That planted a seed in us."

They got there and then some.

Now 36, JaNeika and JaSheika are writers for Fox's smash hit, nighttime soap Empire. The latest episode co-written by the James twins premieres Wednesday at 8 p.m. and it's going to be a big one, introducing Emmy-winning actress Alfre Woodard as the mother of Cookie Lyon, the female lead played by Taraji P. Henson.

It's also the first time they'll be back home in Tampa from Los Angeles to watch one of their episodes with local family, friends and their former teachers from Tampa Bay Tech. They're hosting a private watch party at the Marriott Waterside.

The women revel in helping create the tangled family and relationship drama that characterizes Empire — a soap opera addiction had them scheduling classes at the University of Florida around the Young and the Restless and General Hospital and spending spring break driving to the Dawson's Creek set because "we had to meet Pacey" — but they're also proud of helping taking Empire in new directions.

"One thing that's really cool this season is that although the majority of the Lyon family are men, we've been able to examine the role of women more," JaNeika said. "When Lucious had memory loss, Cookie had to lead as CEO, when our Becky character became head of A and R, she had to face the difficult decision of having an abortion, Tiana has to choose whether to let her love life affect her career."

"It's giving voices to women who over the seasons hadn't had them," JaSheika said."Our core audience is African American women, and they've definitely been responding."

Writing for a series watched weekly by more than five million people hasn't stifled the sisters' ambition. Their biggest future goal is to create and run their own TV show, and they want to start writing and developing their own movies.

"We'd like to be in a position to hire young men and women out of Tampa to come work in Hollywood," JaNeika said. "It can be a dark place, and we'd like to be a source of light."

They've drawn inspiration from what director Barry Jenkins did with his Oscar-winning film Moonlight, set and filmed in his home town of Miami.

"One thing we want to do eventually is shoot something here or bring some stories from Tampa into the light," JaNeika said, referring to the story of a so-called "tax fraud queen" in Tampa who was sentenced to 21 years in prison. "In a way, someone who's able to steal millions has to be really brilliant, but she was also flashing all of the money around on Instagram. So there's an example of a fascinating story from Tampa that also has this comical element."

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They visited the University of Florida on Friday to talk with students. Their biggest advice: tell everyone what it is you're trying to achieve. Not only does it hold you accountable, you never know who will hear it and be able to help.

When Janeika was in grad school, she had the opportunity to interview Yvette Lee Bowser, the creator she'd read about in Jet all those years earlier for her thesis. She told Bowser about what she wanted to do, and later got her start in TV as Bowser's intern on the UPN series Half and Half.

It also helps to have a writing partner you can be bluntly honest with. Sugarcoating wastes time.

"We have a shorthand between us. Sometimes we'll be in the writers room and disagree and people turn and look at us like, 'Is this okay?', JaNeika said. "We're like 'It's fine, we've been doing this for 30 years guys'."