Anika Noni Rose On Married Life, Ripping The Runway For Heart Health

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Anika Noni Rose‘s heart is full. The actress and singer recently tied the knot, marrying actor Jason Dirden in October. “I’m just grateful that we found each other, that we were good friends, respecting each other as people and as artists,” the talented star tells ESSENCE. “I’m just thankful for that.”

But it’s the heart of others that’s on her mind these days, especially on this particular day. Ringing in American Heart Month, Rose is one of the stars who will be taking part in the American Heart Association’s Red Dress Collection Concert in New York City. Taking place at the Jazz at Lincoln Center on Wednesday (February 1), she joins the likes of comedian Phoebe Robinson, singer Rita Ora and more to walk the runway, share heart health stories and make a difference.

“It’s always fun!” she says emphatically, noting the sense of camaraderie among the women taking part makes it all the more of a good time. “It’s about something much bigger than us. It’s always exciting and positive and you know you’re always doing something for a really good reason.”

We talked to the Tony Award winner about what draws her to the cause of fighting against heart disease, which is the number one killer of women in the U.S. In addition to that, she opens up about how she takes care of her own heart, and the joys of sharing her heart, and her life, with her new husband.

ESSENCE: What’s the connection you have to heart health that made you want to take part in the Red Dress Collection Concert?

Anika Noni Rose: African Americans have higher rates of a lot of these incidents than many, if not most, other people, particularly women. Women’s heart issues often go unnoticed or undetected either because we don’t know what we’re looking for, we’re not thinking about it, maybe we don’t regularly get checked up for that, or negligence. Medical negligence.

I have a girlfriend whose mother passed away suddenly of a heart attack. Nobody had any idea that this was going to be the case. She wasn’t even 50. I’ll never forget that or the hole it left for my girlfriend and the whole family. It’s something I feel is important to bring attention to. If we don’t pay attention, we miss out. We can’t always count on other people to pay attention for us.

How do you take care of your own heart health?

I wasn’t very good about taking care of much of anything during the intensity that was COVID. I did walk, but I certainly wasn’t going to a gym. I just want to bring myself back, as the boxers say, to my fighting weight. But it’s less about weight and more about just being healthy. Cardiovascular health is so important. I don’t ever want to get to a place where I have to walk up stairs and I lose my breath. And I’m asthmatic so it’s really important for me to keep my lungs healthy and strong. All of those things are connected. That’s just one thing I do. I try to be very active. I’m a serious walker. That’s also a mental health treat for me. I love bike riding. I like to swim. And as a Broadway performer, I need to be ready if I’m going to be back on stage. I can’t be like, “Wait, give me two months to get my heart and lungs together.” I have to be ready. So those are the activities that don’t feel like, “Oh my God! Gotta go work out.”

And how does what you consume line up with your efforts to have good heart health?

Well, listen, I love a French fry [laughs]. But I don’t eat fried foods very often. I’m somebody who, naturally, my blood pressure is pretty low. So I don’t worry about salt but I don’t go overboard. I don’t think I really do anything to excess and I’m just aware of what too much fried foods and too much beef — and I’m a New Englander who loves beef — does to your body. But I don’t eat beef as much as I would have if I still lived in Connecticut or as much as I did when I was a kid. I’ve cut back significantly and I do more lean meats: fish, chicken turkey. It doesn’t hurt to do that. If I want a burger I’m going to have a burger. But I don’t have that as often as I would want to and I’m very aware of that. As women, we often need iron differently than men, so sometimes you need some beef. But that’s something I’m very aware of. I try to keep it to lean meats and the exception might be, ok, I’m going to go out and have a fancy dinner or a celebration and every now and then I will have something that I know if I had it on a regular basis would be detrimental. But keeping it to a moderate space really is what matters.

So you know I have to ask you about your recent nuptials. How are you feeling about being married?

I feel great. It feels right and it feels good and I think that it’s not a decision that I took lightly. I’m really glad that it was something that the both of us took our time and let it be a thing that was right. We were really good friends before any thoughts of anything like this. I just wasn’t someone who grew up dreaming of being married. Not that I was against it, I just wasn’t like “Ooooh! When I grow up I’m going to be in a castle!” That just wasn’t me. So when the decision [to get married] came, it felt like a conclusion or something that was just the next step in a road. Something that completely made sense and I think that’s what it should feel like. It should make sense. It should feel right. It shouldn’t be, “Oh I don’t know.” If you feel that way, just hold on and wait. You might be with the right person and it might not be the right time. Or you might be with the wrong person and your body and spirit are trying to tell you that.

Valentine’s Day is right around the corner. Do you guys have any plans?

No [laughs]. Not that I’m aware of anyway. Valentine’s Day is cute. We might give each other cards, but I don’t know if he has anything planned. I don’t have anything planned. Well, I did find a gift that’s connected to the wedding in some way and how I want our life to progress — how we both want our lives to progress together. But I don’t need a box of chocolates. I’m not into it. I do like flowers, but I can have flowers on a Sunday. I don’t need a day for that.

So I don’t know if he planned anything but I’m not one of those people who’s like, “Excuse me, do you know it’s the 14th?!” Not really my thing, but I’m grateful if something comes from it. But it’s hard to give a gift that beats a wedding. We just got married. What you about to do? [laughs]

With all that said, how are you both going to work together as you build a life together in this next chapter, to watch out for one another’s heart health?

I think that we, and particularly because of COVID, we started spending a lot more time cooking. I think that when you make your own food, you can be very aware of how you fix it to be healthier than when you’re at a restaurant and something could be scrumptious but you don’t exactly know what is in it. Could you use a quarter stick of butter instead of the whole stick of butter? Those are things we’re aware of. And I think cooking together really makes for a healthier home if you have the time or can make the time. And if not, and you need to order out, you should know what restaurants are around you that you really like so you can plan ahead and be like, “I’m starving, but let’s not go to Shake Shack today because there’s something better down the street.” Or if we want to order Chinese food, instead of ordering the orange chicken, which is fried and glazed and delicious and fabulous, you might want to order something with the brown rice and the vegetables. Sometimes things that are delicious are terrible for you, but things can also be delicious and good for you. I think as an adult it’s about finding that balance. We can have some stuff that’s delicious but we can also be healthy, so let’s make that choice in the moment.

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