Michiel Perry is Southern through and through—even though she was born in the Philippines, where her father was stationed for military service.
Her name, pronounced “Michelle,” got its unusual spelling from the physician who filled out her birth certificate, an incident that she likes to tease her mother about. “Michelle isn’t a common name there, and the doctor didn’t know how to spell it,” she says.”My poor mom had been in labor for hours and wasn’t paying attention.”
When Perry was one, her family returned to the South, and she has spent her life there; today she lives in Charleston, South Carolina with her husband. Perry created Black Southern Belle in tribute to her Southern roots: she wanted to provide lifestyle inspiration for African American women in the South. The site features home design and entertaining ideas, fashion tips, travel stories, career advice, and profiles of Black Southern Belles. Perry, 28, is animated and full of energy, and she talks at a breakneck pace. We caught up with her one day recently to talk about why she started Black Southern Belle; her audience, clients and partners; and how she spends her free time.
What inspired you to start Black Southern Belle?
In 2015 I was planning my wedding and decorating my first house, and I was looking for lifestyle inspiration that combined both African American culture and Southern themes. There were plenty of examples of African American lifestyle and Southern lifestyle, but I couldn’t find anything that combined the two.
I’ve always loved everything Southern: front porches, magnolia, sweet tea. And I love Southern African American culture, too: Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Creole culture, Gullah culture, African American churches. And, of course, the food.
When I couldn’t find anyone combining both cultures, I decided to do it myself. I searched for the domain name, “Black Southern Belle,” and it wasn’t taken, which really surprised me. And it’s just grown from there.
What need do you see the site filling?
When I created the site I wanted to reach women who were African American and Southern, or who, if they aren’t living in the South, have Southern influence. But to my surprise it’s gone way beyond that. I have followers who are Southern but don’t have Southern roots, and followers who don’t know anything about the South but who want to learn about it. I have many followers who aren’t African American or Southern-—about 20 to 30 percent of our followers fit that category. I have many readers in New England, for example. I personally love learning about other cultures and it turns out a lot of other people do, too.
So it is a niche site, but it appeals to a broad audience
What qualities make someone a Black Southern Belle?
To me those qualities include being hospitable, valuing family, being connected to your roots, taking care of those around you— whether it’s your husband and kids or your friends, your parents, your nieces and nephews, or your community.
To me being a Black Southern Belle means entertaining at home, and showing people who you are through your home. It is showcasing your individual style, the many versions of Southern style. And there are many versions. In Texas, for example, you may have a cowhide rug on the floor and horns on the wall. The style is completely different in Charleston, South Carolina. I am more of a traditional Black Southern Belle, but you can be a cowboy, or a bohemian — there are so many ways to be a Black Southern Belle.
Doesn’t the term “Southern Belle” have negative associations for African American people? I’m not very familiar with the South, but to me the term conjures images of plantation life in the pre-Civil War South.
The idea of the Black Southern Belle embodies some of the central aspects of African American culture. Many African American people have deep roots in the South, even if they live in the North—they still love Southern food, and they send their kids back home to visit every summer. People who move North often send their kids back to the South for college, and move back themselves when they retire. They want to retire back home. Those roots and traditions are very strong. If you go to Los Angeles or New York and you want to have African American food, you go to a Southern restaurant.
I want the site to be a place where African American people can embrace Southern culture, the aspects of it that they like and feel very much a part of. Don’t forget that “belle” is the French word for beauty. I want the site to be beautiful, and to showcase beautiful aspects of black Southern culture.
Black Southern Belle is about people embracing their Southern heritage. I have had people say, “I didn’t know how Southern I was until I came to your site, and saw so many familiar aspects of Southern life.” I also have followers who live in Brooklyn, and they refer to themselves as Black Southern Belles. When I ask them about it they’ll say,”‘My mom was from the South, and it was a big part of how she raised us.” When people come to the site, they feel like they are coming home.
How do you reach your audience?
A lot of people find us through Facebook and Instagram. We have 45,000 Facebook followers, and it grows by about 1000 a week. I promote our work on social media, but it’s really my followers who spread the word. When I started writing articles and distributing them on social media, people would tag 10 to 15 friends. Sometimes people share 100 pictures in a row. People also hear about us through our events. And word of mouth, which is a very Southern way to spread the word. I’ve been really happy to see people take ownership of the concept and spread the word about the brand.
I’ve been surprised by how it has taken off. When I decided to start Black Southern Belle, I quit my job because I wanted to give it my full attention. I told my husband, “I need to do this full-time and see if works. If, after the first month, it’s just my friend’s reading it, I will go back to my old job.” But it started growing right away. And there is no generation gap on Black Southern Belle —our followers are millennials, moms, grandmas.
Can you talk about how you work with clients?
I work with clients in a variety of ways. I’ve done lifestyle campaigns and events, including front porch parties and influencer events. I also do some outreach and styling, providing tips on how to be a Southern hostess, and how to entertain at home. I’ve received some recognition as a design blogger. We also do some native ads on the site.
I try to get the word out about the work of small Southern businesses through our Black Southern Belle Collective. The Collective is a network of small business vendors who are interested in our brand and our followers. Many of these businesses are minority-owned, but about a third are not. The Collective includes chefs, creative directors, wedding planners, interior designers, event planners, bloggers, and fashion stylists. I love these entrepreneurs’ work!
What is the Black Southern Belle Ambassador Program?
Our Ambassadors are contributors who write original articles on all different themes related to Southern African American lifestyle. In the beginning I recruited Ambassadors by reaching out to my network. Now I get a couple of emails a week from people who want to be Ambassadors. We promote their articles, and they get to attend our events. They are a really talented group and they come from different backgrounds and different regions of the South, which has helped us broaden the definition of Black Southern Belle.
This interview is going to be the first in our new “Women of Influence,” series. Can you talk about your influence as the creator of Black Southern Belle?
Through everything I do with Black Southern Belle, I am trying to help empower and influence the next generation of women. At Black Southern Belle, we are always seeking new people to feature, and giving them the opportunity to tell not just their professional stories, but their personal stories as well. To build and nurture that community and to create even more connection, I launched the Black Southern Belle Collective, which gives women—from big names to up-and- comers—speaking opportunities and exposure to large brands. My overall goal for Black Southern Belle is to help women in the South feel proud of where they are from, and to give them access to large city resources in their southern hometowns.
We’ve talked a lot about your work—what do you do in your spare time?
I like to cook but I don’t like to cook every day; I like to make it more of an occasion. I am known for having a dinner party every six weeks or so. And I am always redecorating my home. My house was built in 1890 and it is very quirky; it has three front doors, for example. It has very small closets, and everything is hard wood. I live about two blocks from a bunch of antique stores, and I am such a regular that they text me when something they think I’ll like comes in. That’s my addiction; I particularly like buying flatware and chairs. I also like to visit small towns, and we try to find a new town to visit at least once a month. My husband is from New England, so I’m introducing him to the South. I love going to museums and on historic tours. I love documentaries and could watch them all day long.
It can be difficult to balance work and life when you run a site that’s essentially about the life you live. I try to not work 24/7, but it’s hard. I am having so much fun with Black Southern Belle and it is so close to my heart that it is hard for me to decipher if I am doing something for me or for my work. I am still a newlywed, and I want to enjoy my husband. I’m getting better at drawing boundaries and saying, “That’s work, but this is a family thing, just my husband and me. That’s work, but this is my life.”