LOS ANGELES, July 12 (UPI) -- Brandee Evans stars as Mercedes, a veteran stripper in the Starz original series P-Valley. Mercedes is ready to leave the club for bigger dreams, but drama keeps her dancing for now. One of her dramas involves her mother, to which Evans can relate.
"My mom and I actually had a toxic relationship growing up just like Patrice and Mercedes in P-Valley," Evans told UPI in a recent phone interview.
Patrice (Harriett D. Foy) is Mercedes' mother, a devout churchgoer who will accept Mercedes' donations to the church while condemning the strip club that nets that money.
Evans made up with her mother by 2013 and has cared for her since 2016 when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Before that, Evans forged her own path in dance. She says her mother preferred her to pursue singing if she were to pursue the arts, and insisted she earn an English degree for financial stability.
Evans earned that English degree from the University of Memphis, which she attended on a dance scholarship. Her family could not afford tuition, so Evans could not have obtained a degree without financial aid.
"I literally danced for my life then," Evans said.
Evans taught English at Southwind High School in Memphis and Germantown Middle School in Germantown, Tenn., all while coaching dance teams around the world.
"I became the English teacher that she wanted," Evans said of her mother's wish. "I love that, but I was still able to get that dance in and help pay those medical bills."
Evans left academia to become a full-time professional dancer and dance instructor.
When P-Valley begins, Mercedes is trying to make her transition to lead a high school cheer squad to championships. She has not proven herself in Patrice's eyes the way Evans showed her mother she could make it as a dancer.
The role of Mercedes also showcases Evans' dance background. She danced for artists like Monica, Katy Perry and Snoop Dogg, but learned pole dancing specifically for P-Valley. She only uses a stunt double, named Spyda, for dangerous moves where Mercedes touches the ceiling or drops down the pole head first.
"I definitely would have probably tried it," Evans said. "I'm a daredevil."
On Starz, a premium cable network, P-Valley has the freedom to show explicit nudity. Some of Evans' co-stars disrobe fully during their strip club dances.
Evans said whether there is nudity or just suggestive dancing, P-Valley films the dancers with a female gaze. She suggests a male gaze would have the camera focus on the bare bodies and sexuality. Evans discussed with P-Valley creator Katori Hall how the show would emphasize different aspects of erotic dance.
"We want to shoot it [as] a beautiful, athletic performance," Evans said. "That's exactly what we feel and we want you to see that."
Mercedes' approach to coaching the cheer squad reflects Evans' approach to dance coaching, too. She is hard on the girls as a form of tough love.
"Listen, if you don't want to be on any type of competitive team, then you shouldn't audition," Evans said. "In order to win, you've got to have thick skin."
P-Valley also allows Evans to draw from her own lessons. She used to teach a class called Hip Hop In Heels, helping dancers to adapt to choreography while wearing high heels.
Mercedes wears high heels in her pole dances. With customers throwing dollar bills on the stage, it adds the risk of a slippery surface.
"When you throw money on the floor, it's like ice skating," Evans said.
Evans said choreography in the season finale was so intense that she broke several pairs of shoes filming it. Luckily, she had practice dancing on the balls of her feet, so she could complete the routine with the heels missing from her shoes.
"I just stayed on the balls of my toes," Evans said. "You don't really need a heel if you stay on your toes."
Evans ended her Hip Hop In Heels classes in 2016 when she began to care for her mother full time and shifted her focus to acting. She has landed roles in episodes of Lethal Weapon and Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television, and TV movies like The New Edition Story, Dear Santa, I Need a Date and The Bobby Brown Story, in which she played Bobby's sister, Tina.
Now that her acting career is taking off and she has been away from Hip Hop In Heels for four years, Evans is considering bringing it back.
"Now I miss it, if I'm honest," Evans said.
Evans still accepts dance gigs for choreographers who helped her early in her career. She choreographs dancers in Japan and has been working with them via Zoom while she's unable to travel to Japan because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Evans said she is happy she can keep her toes in the dance world while expanding her horizons as an actor.
"With dance, you're able to tell the story through movement," Evans said. "With acting, you get to tell so many more stories."
P-Valley premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. EDT on Starz.