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HSMTMTS Star Dara Reneé Talks Overcoming Anxiety, Writing Music, And More

You might not know it yet, but we’re entering the Era of Dara Reneé.

The 21-year-old Los Angeles native, best known for her role as Kourtney in High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, is stepping into the spotlight with a variety of new projects sure to catapult her career into its next phase of superstardom.

Even so, she’s humbly embracing every moment and excitedly anticipating what’s to come.

In the past four years alone, Reneé has graced television screens across the globe. Her biggest projects beyond HSMTMTS include her co-hosting role on Disney’s Magic Bakeoff, portraying the wickedly-talented villain Savannah in Disney Channel’s 2018 remake of Freaky Friday and guest roles on Grey’s Anatomy and Blackish

And that’s not even all that she’ll have added to her resume by the end of the coming year.

During Disney’s D23 Expo on September 10th, it was announced that Reneé will join Disney Channel alums China Anne Mcclain and Kylie Cantrall in a starring role in Descendants 4. It’s a continuation of the popular trilogy led by Dove Cameron, Sofia Carson, Cameron Boyce and Booboo Stewart.

Despite her success, anxiety is a struggle that Reneé has been open about.

Reneé expressed that therapy was a critical aspect of addressing her own anxiety and that normalizing conversations about the resource on the show was a major priority.

“It was really something that I had to put a name to, because initially, I was just like, ‘Oh, I just get nervous.’ And then once I started having panic attacks and anxiety attacks, I was like, ‘Okay, maybe I should talk to someone and see if this is okay,’” she said in conversation with Blavity. “It was still a struggle, you know, now that I was in the public eye, it came down even harder on me, the pressure of trying to be the perfect representation.”

In season three of HSMTMTS, Reneé’s character Kourtney confronts a struggle with anxiety.

It’s intensified by her leading role as Elsa in the Camp Shallow Lake production of Frozen: The Musical for Disney+. In the midst of the intensely meta, hyper-dramatized season of fun and summer adventure, her character’s story arc is one that expounds on the real-life struggles of teenagers in 2022. Most importantly, for Reneé, the plot intimately navigates the story of a young Black girl finding her place in a world that wasn’t necessarily built to fit her mold.

In the final episode of the season, Reneé’s character Kourtney joins in a conversation about addressing panic attacks with Alex, portrayed by Aria Brooks. The two speak about the benefits of therapy, grounding itself in the undercurrent recognition that many members of the Black community face greater challenges in accessing safe spaces to discuss mental health and finding resources to address their struggles.

“It’s the best, everyone should have a therapist,” Brooks’ character says. “You never really get over anxiety, you just kind of learn to live with it,” Brooks’ character says. “I think what you’re feeling right now is what it’s like before you do something brave.”

Reneé’s personal experiences also serve as an inspiration for her first original song, “Here I Come,” an emotional power ballad featured in the seventh episode of the HSMTMTS’ third season, serving as a centerpiece for an episode highlighting characters’ finding confidence in their sexuality, their bodies, and, in Kourtney’s case, confronting her anxiety.

Credit: Disney/Anne Marie Fox

“I remember that Tim said, what is something that you feel like Kourtney constantly says to herself to get through these moments, and I looked back and I was like, ‘What is something that I constantly say about myself?’ and a big thing was that I wasn’t alone,” said Reneé, detailing the background for the prayer-oriented mantra driving the song. “I grew up in the church and Gospel has always been a big thing for me, so it was a gift to bring that into the song and to have my amazing talented cast members. Julia, Sofia, and Saylor sing the words I wrote.”

Reneé credits her theatre and musical inspiration to her mom, Kimberly Brooks.

She joins the HSMTMTS cast in seasons two and three as Kourtney’s mom. Before Reneé started working professionally, she spent many weekends by her mother’s side teaching at the Encouraging Youth To Dream Arts Studio in Baltimore, Maryland, learning the ropes of what it meant to be a professional actor and serve as an inspiration for the young actors that would follow her.

“My mom was on set every day and she was like, ‘dude, this is good, you’re good, don’t worry,’ because I’m a perfectionist and I like to worry” Reneé joked. “Those conversations that I had in the show are very real to what conversations me and my mom have and used to have when I was in high school. So, being able to act with her, because I literally learned everything that I do from her, is so dope.”

Reflecting on her three years as a part of the HSMTMTS ensemble, Reneé detailed that her relationships with her cast members and the show’s creative team have been critical players in helping her break out of her shell and find confidence in her creative abilities.

Watch “Here I Come” from High School Musical: The Musical: The Series below.

Tamia Fowlkes is a graduate student at Columbia Journalism School pursuing her M.S. in Journalism. She currently serves as the National Association of Black Journalists Student Representative and her work has been featured in POLITICO, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Isthmus, Gen-Zine and ​​The Wisconsin State Journal.  

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