You’ve watched them on TV, you sure as hell have seen them on your social media feeds, and there’s a pretty good chance you’ve heard their Webby Award-winning podcast, Dead Ass.
Khadeen and Devale Ellis have emerged as one of the internet’s favorite couples through a generous helping of authenticity, transparency, and a refusal to abide by the status quo. And while their unbreakable bond has all the trappings of a Hallmark card or a whimsical fairytale, trust and believe that a tremendous amount of sacrifice and adversity helped forge their interpretation of unrepentant Black love.
In an interview with The Root, the powerhouse couple discussed the consequences of being so candid with their personal lives, how self-sufficiency has allowed their careers to flourish, and what’s inspired the continued evolution of their creative journey.
“When I started to get into TV and film, I was constantly being booked for the criminal or the bad guy or the ex-con role,” Devale explained. “I thought, ‘OK. I wanna do something different. I don’t wanna be the Black guy on the screen with the tattoos and the muscles who got on an orange jumpsuit.’ And we were watching Power and this was my first time on Power. My son saw me in the scene with an orange jumpsuit. And he said, ‘Daddy, you always got that on.’ I was like, ‘Damn, I really need to do something different.”
That something different was ingenuity—the impetus for the couple’s social media superpowers.
“So we started doing the Instagram videos because I wanted to do a sitcom,” Devale continued. “I said, ‘I’m not going to wait for somebody to put me in a sitcom. I’m going to create a sitcom about Black millennial fatherhood.’ [...] I started doing the skits and stuff, but then people started to have debates underneath the videos.”
As the videos became increasingly popular—including one in particular that argued in favor of the Sistas star being a better father when he has sex regularly—the couple realized they were onto something.
“That video had like 17,000 comments,” Devale said. “The funny thing is it was a joke. It was in jest. But there’s truth.”
The parents of three weren’t the only ones taking note of their rapid ascent either. Soon production company’s like Stitcher came sniffing around, looking to capitalize off of the couple’s skyrocketing popularity.
“They reached out to us and said, ‘You guys doing this content, you should have a podcast because y’all are constantly talking about issues that aren’t discussed in millennial marriage. Maybe having a podcast could be good for you guys,’” Devale said. “Khadeen always aspired to have her own daytime talk show. So I was like, ‘Here’s a platform for you, as a young Black woman, to use your voice and talk about things that matter to you.’”
That podcast would become the mega-popular Dead Ass, which prides itself on exploring love, sex, marriage, and everything in between.
“It also took us out of the context of the goofy parents who were raising three kids. There’s a little bit more to the Ellises. There’s some substance here,” Khadeen said. “In addition to the funny videos, this is a way for us to also talk about really in-depth topics that typically are taboo. In addition to relationship stuff—the love, the marriage, the sex, and all that—we talk about other things to help our community out. Like financial literacy, parenting and so many other things.”
“Race relations, politics,” Devale chimed in. “We discuss everything.”
But after three seasons of success, the onset of an unprecedented global pandemic meant it was time to change things up.
“In season four, we just could not be tone-deaf to what was happening in the world around us,” Khadeen said. “The pandemic, racial injustice. All of these different things that were piled on. We felt like season four was super heavy for us in general. But we would have been remiss if we didn’t address those particular topics.”
“it’s been an adjustment,” Devale said. “But I feel like during the pandemic you’ve seen a lot of creators either like really, really thrive or really, really fall because people’s attention spans have gotten a lot shorter. There’s been so much more content put out.”
And to sidestep the fate of many of their peers, the Ellises have made it a point to remain true to who they are while also holding themselves unaccountable to their values.
“For us, it’s about being transparent and not telling people they’re wrong, but just telling people what we’ve done wrong,” Devale said. “When you’re telling people what you’ve done wrong, you’re not blaming anybody. You’re showing accountability. And when people can see transparency and accountability, the people that are watching or listening are like, ‘I don’t feel guilty watching them because they don’t make me feel like I’m a bad person. They just make me realize that I’m not alone in the decisions I make because they made the same decisions.’”
“We’re the first to admit that we don’t have this thing figured out at all,” Khadeen said. “We don’t have life figured out. We don’t have ourselves figured out or each other figured out. So there’s comfort in that because we don’t have to keep up a facade. This is just who we are.”
That vulnerability is crucial to their brand, though some might wonder if being so candid has had a negative impact on their family or marriage.
“Me being a former professional athlete, I’m used to scrutiny,” Devale explained. “When you play in the NFL, they’re going to tear apart every mistake you make, even in victories. So you get used to scrutiny. My wife was not used to that. She was a former pageant girl. So in her mind, everything has to be perfect in order for it to be presentable. So doing this at first created a strain between the two of us because Khadeen wasn’t used to the scrutiny. And me, as a former professional athlete, I don’t care what people say. But then I had to realize that if something has taken a toll on my wife, it ultimately is going to take a toll on us.”
“It’s difficult when you put yourself out there, but I’ve had to learn personally how to develop a thick skin,” Khadeen said. “We create the content. We put it out there. We know that it’s subjective and then people can take what they want from it. We try to make a conscious effort to show people that we’re not perfect. And in those imperfections, we’re able to coexist and be happy in our marriage.”
In making the decision to be so transparent, the Elises are grateful for the amazing opportunities that doing so has created, as well as the audiences who identify with their trials and triumphs.
“Please, just continue to support us. We thank you,” Devale said. “I’m going to be 1,000 percent transparent in this moment. I never in a million years thought that when we started Dead Ass that we’d be a Webby Award-winning, iHeart Radio podcast. I didn’t even know what a podcast was. So we’re just extremely grateful and thankful and we just want to empower people to live in truth; to be unafraid to share who you are with people and laugh because it’s all entertainment. We want you to smile. We want you to think. We want you to love each other.”
“We appreciate that people entrust us and we don’t take it lightly,” Khadeen added. “We just know that we want to be of service to everyone out there listening to our podcast. We’re always open to suggestions, new topics, all that good stuff so that we can keep it going. Season five is underway, then season six and beyond.”
Dead Ass with Khadeen and Devale Ellis is available on your podcast platform of choice.