Should Gabrielle Union ever blank on just how far she's come, she has a tangible reminder to look back on.
Two decades after the Omaha native burst into the public consciousness with back-to-back roles in such beloved fare as She's All That, 10 Things I Hate About You, Love & Basketball and, of course, Bring It On, she still maintains her annual practice of crafting a vision board. (Included on her first ever: a hair care line, Kenya and a positive pregnancy test.)
"As goals manifest, I've been able to look at my boards and say, 'Damn, I put in a lot of work and deserve it.' That's helped me to stop feeling suspicious of joy," she explained to Redbook last year. "To not sabotage something before I've had a chance to do it because I assume I'll be rejected."
Because, generally speaking, when she sets out to make something happen...it does. See: Flawless by Gabrielle Union, the hair care brand that's a relatively recent addition to an empire that also includes fashion, endorsement gigs, a wine line, a production company, her wildly popular memoir, a new role as judge on America's Got Talent and, of course, a steady stream of acting work.
"The only things that have not come to pass are a cosmetics line, Machu Picchu, and a baby," she admitted in the March 2018 issue. "I've had the positive stick, but also a number of miscarriages, so maybe I just have to go more specific and show a woman with a human being traveling through her orifices. I'll put those things back on this year's board and see what happens."
Spoiler alert: There was a happy ending.
Good things come to those that persist and Union closed out 2018 with her most desired dream wrapped tightly in her arms, she and husband of five years, Dwyane Wade, 37, welcoming daughter Kaavia James Union Wade Nov. 7. So we'd imagine celebrating her first birthday today feels especially sweet. (And anxiously await the Insta of the little one digging into her birthday cake.)
Having suffered numerous miscarriages and rounds of ultimately unsuccessful IVF, due to her recently diagnosed adenomyosis, a condition that causes the uterine lining to grow into the wall of the uterus, the 47-year-old held her breath through most of her gestational surrogate's pregnancy. But when doctors at the L.A.-area hospital pronounced the newborn healthy, "I felt such relief," she told Parents while posing with her newborn for their May cover. "To hear her breathing and crying was a dream. We didn't really allow ourselves to believe it until then."
Now, well, consider her the ultimate believer.
Having prayed for this addition to her and Wade's already sizable blended family—his sons Zaire, 17, Zion, 12, and Xavier, 5, plus nephew Dahveon, 17—for five emotionally grueling years, the actress had no intention of keeping her daughter's smirking adorableness to herself. The ridiculously photogenic tot, known for her #shadybaby stares and hilariously dry wit (though we'll give credit there to Mom and Dad), already boasts nearly one million followers to her @kaaviajames Instagram handle. And you're damn right she was here to model a series of costumes for her first Halloween.
"Kaavia really is the personification of hope for a lot of people like us, who maybe didn't have a lot to be hopeful about," Union explained to Parents of the account. "She represents that maybe there is a light at the end. And when you take people on the low points of your journey, it's cool to let them be part of the joy. Plus, she's really cute. And has an uncanny ability for making steely eye contact!"
There's no denying Union has suffered some heartbreakingly low nadirs, many of which are detailed in her best-selling tome, We're Going to Need More Wine. Well before she began piecing together an acting career in her early twenties with guest spots on sitcoms such as Saved by the Bell: The New Class, Sister, Sister and 7th Heaven, she was a 19-year-old enjoying a low-pressure, part-time job working at a Pleasanton, Calif. Payless with a bunch of friends.
At the time, she felt it was a dream gig, a chance to goof off with pals and pocket extra cash.
"Someone was robbing Payless stores that summer, but we didn't know a thing about it," she wrote in her memoir. "He was a former employee, black. The management and police had identified him because he'd robbed the store where he'd worked. They had a description, even his driver's license information. Mind you, Payless sent a storewide alert to tell you how to display new sandals, so they definitely had the ability to warn us about this guy. And yet: They didn't."
When he entered her particular outpost, "I was straightening a display of fake Timberlands. He came up behind me and asked about the boots. I took one look at him and wanted to run, but I didn't. I was aware of how my coworkers and the people in our mostly white community viewed black people, so my racial solidarity and 'good home training' as a 'polite' woman kicked in."
Nor did she attempt to escape when she heard her fellow employee scream from the front of the store, the man having pulled a gun and demanded she empty the register. Irritated that his haul was only a couple hundred dollars, he pushed them both into a tiny bathroom and ordered them to undress.
"He threw me to the ground and was suddenly on me, spreading my legs as he kept the gun on my head," she recalled. "As he raped me, I began to hover over myself. I could see the whole room. I looked at that poor crying girl and thought, Things like this happen to bad people. Things like this don't happen to people like me."
The aftermath was undeniably brutal, with the teen deferring a semester of her sophomore year at UCLA to testify in front of a grand jury. Back in Los Angeles, "I started group therapy, where I was the only one who had gone through the criminal justice system and the only one who had been raped by a stranger," she wrote. "The rest of the students had been raped by acquaintances or family members. You want to know something weird? I felt grateful not to know my rapist. It felt like a luxury; there was no gray area, no question of 'Who are they going to believe, him or me?'"
Surrounded by peers, she maneuvered a slow route toward healing. "My life became like that cartoon where someone is walking along and magically a new plank is placed before them with each new step. It felt like there was nothing beneath me, but then each visit, each story, each memory was like another plank. I had no idea where the path were taking me, but I hoped healing was on the other side."
Though such traumas never really go away—she's been open about her ensuing struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder—she constructed an existence that appeared pretty perfect from the outside. Graduating with honors from UCLA, sociology degree in hand, she made moves toward law school, until a modeling agency intervened. A successful first audition for Saved by the Bell followed and soon she was a must-cast in pretty much every piece of teen fare being churned out at the turn of the millennium.
Her love life seemed pretty sorted as well thanks to a 2001 marriage to NFL running back Chris Howard. But, behind the scenes, she claimed in her book, he was unfaithful for much of their five-year union. "When I was in my twenties, I was all about getting the ring. Cut to: I'm divorced," she shared with TV Guide in 2014. "Some of us put more work into choosing the right therapist than choosing the right guy. Nobody talks about the work—the really hard work—that goes into marriage."
That started with being choosy. And so when she crossed paths with NBA standout Wade at a 2007 Super Bowl party, or at least shared a space, Union later telling Essence, "I stayed on one side of the room with my people. We like to party and he doesn't drink at all. He was on the other side of the room holding bible study," she couldn't have been less interested.
Just 25-years-old, he was an integral piece of the Miami Heat, the league's newly minted champions, and in the process of legally untangling himself from his first wife, high school sweetheart Siohvaughn Funches.
"His 'resume' looked like crap: athlete, going through a divorce, nine years younger than me," she bluntly surmised to Glamour. "None of that screamed, 'Let's have a lasting relationship.'"
But after dismissing Wade, something happened: She got her heart broken. Again.
"After I had a heart-crushing breakup with yet another immature jerk, I thought, 'It can't be any worse if I date a fetus," she explained. "Let's just see what happens."
Union was left pleasantly surprised. "Turned out he'd been on his own since he was 15," she said. "He had wisdom that comes with facing an insane amount of adversity. He's sweet, funny, honest about his shortcomings." The lesson in all of this, she explained, "When I put my preconceived notions to the side, I found someone cool."
She also unearthed a mountain of drama. By the time the duo quietly started dating in 2009 (they were snapped together at basketball pro Alonzo Mourning's four-day charity event that June), it was clear that Wade's divorce would be of the acrimonious variety. Funches accused him of abandoning his children, cheating and infecting her with an STD. He, in turn, sued her for defamation. And at one point during the drawn-out financial portion of the divorce, she sat outside the Chicago courthouse with a cardboard sign that read, "NBA Miami Heat star, mother of his children on the streets." (She was later awarded their six-bedroom Chicago mansion, four cars and $5 million.)
When Wade filed for sole custody of their sons Zaire and Zion in 2010, alleging Funches couldn't "be considered a fit and proper person" to raise them, she went on the offensive.
Two months later, she named Union in a lawsuit filed on behalf of their sons. Along with claiming the couple didn't properly supervise the boys, she alleged the actress "engaged in sexual foreplay" with Wade in front of them and that her actions had caused their eldest so much stress and anxiety that he was forced to seek medical treatment.
Union's rep labeled the claims, allegations that were later dismissed by a judge, as false. And amid all that mess, in the ultimate power move, the pair make their red carpet debut at the same charity event they were snapped attending one year earlier.
By March 2011, a judge handed over sole "care, custody and control" of the boys to Wade, scolding Funches for embarking "on an unstoppable and relentless pattern of conduct for over two years to alienate the children from their father." Wade's response: "A huge weight is off my back."
Through it all Union remained silent, even as she was labeled a mistress. But in April 2012—two months after she and Wade posed together for the cover of Essence—she had the opportunity to clear her name. "I think people mistook me taking the high road as an admission of guilt," she noted to Jet, but she and Wade "made a decision very early to not react to the negativity." Instead, they quietly submitted proof to the courts refuting Funches' claims, "So, it was like, obviously you're not telling the truth."
And while being publicly branded as a cheater wasn't the best, she insisted she had no regrets about their pairing. "This kind of love is a gift," she said. "It's so consistent. There's no way that I would trade it for people who refuse to simply acknowledge the truth."
But getting to their happily ever after still required scaling one more roadblock. She would later blame their brief 2013 separation to "distance and scheduling," telling Glamour having to move straight from shooting her BET series Being Mary Jane to heading off to Las Vegas for Think Like a Man Too played a significant role: "I couldn't take time off, and I missed some quality togetherness we desperately needed."
No matter, by the summer they were back to full-strength and that December, the athlete was down on one knee holding out an 8.5-carat cushion-cut diamond as his boys stood behind him with signs asking, "Will you marry us?" They feted their new relationship status with dinner at Red Lobster.
Soon they discovered more reason to celebrate. Though Union initially assumed she would skip the whole kid thing—"I saw motherhood and parenthood with very realistic eyes," she explained on the December OWN special Oprah at Home with Gabrielle Union, Dwyane Wade & Their New Baby. "It looked hard. I wanted a life of flitting around the country and lack of responsibility and all that,"—her views changed instantly when Wade was awarded full custody of his sons. "I signed up for the boys quicker than I signed up for him."
So when they learned a round of IVF had resulted in a viable embryo, "It was the best few days I've ever had in life," she told Oprah Winfrey, "and then you go back in for additional testing, and they're gone."
The news was perhaps made more painful by the fact that fans were still grappling with the discovery that Wade had fathered a child with longtime pal Aja Metoyer during their split. But for Union it was a non-issue. One of the tenets of their relationship, she told Glamour, is honesty: "I believe in full disclosure. No weird secrets. Let the chips fall where they may."
Still, it seemed that none were landing in Union's bucket. Though she enjoyed the wedding of her man's dreams in June 2014 ("He really Kanye'd himself and really doubled down, and it's his princess day and I'm just along for the ride," she joked to Us Weekly, admitting she would have put together something akin to a frat party had he not intervened) and has likened her husband to "a Nicholas Sparks book exploded into an NBA player" there was one element missing from their rom-com.
Each one of the eight or nine miscarriages she suffered left her shattered, she shared in a December Instagram video: "It just feels like a lot of shame. Just years of shame and humiliation and betrayal of your body."
And yet she found herself unable to stop trying. "I could not let go of this idea of creating this life within me that I could feel, that tied me to him, and that the world could be a part of," she reasoned on their OWN special. "I'm not letting myself and all these people down. I need to be pregnant for everybody, including myself."
But as Wade took in her emotional wreckage, her pain, the way each round of IVF left her with intense bloating, he began to worry about her health. "I didn't want something to happen to her, and it was getting dangerous. She was trying so many things and methods. I had to step in and say, 'Baby, it's me and you. I want to grow old with you. I want our miracle baby, but I want you,'" he shared. "Once we got to that point, and I think she heard me, we started to look at other possibilities to bring our baby into the world. That's when we got introduced to surrogacy."
The pivot was still a struggle for Union who always imagined herself being able to carry her child, that she would get that nine or 10 months of intrinsic bonding. Plus she feared she would have to contend with a certain type of mom shaming unique to public figures.
"People want to see the bump, hear that you got hemorrhoids—they want to know you're like them," she explained to Women's Health this past March of her worries. "I was like, 'This is going to seem like the most Hollywood s--t ever. Will I be embraced as a mom?' It's terrifying."
But when Kaavia arrived, she felt certain it had happened at just the right time. "Any earlier and the FOMO would have greatly influenced how I parented," she continued. "I've seen it. I've done it. I've done it well. I've gotten all the T-shirts. Now I'm in the right mindset and mental space, and I'm open to being the best mom I can be."
Not that it has been easy, per se. There was that period where her newborn became apparently allergic to napping. "I was like, 'When do I shower or pee or live?' So I had to get a little comfortable with her crying, which I had not been," she told Parents. "And then I took the quickest shower of all time!"
And she also faced the myriad of garden-variety challenges familiar to any parent.
"I suck at swaddling," she admitted. "I don't know whether to use glass or plastic bottles. I never knew there were so many types of nipples. And installing a car seat is like taking the SATs! I don't have all the answers, which feels terrifying."
Still, that's the closest you'll catch her to complaining. And at 47, with years of parenting experience thanks to her boys, she's already mastered the most important lesson: that it's okay to cut yourself so slack. "I give myself permission to be human," she said. "When I need a minute to return emails or cry or mindlessly scroll social media, I'll take it. I'm not trying to be a perfect parent."
And, of course, she's just so damn grateful to have reached this place. "This has been the divine coming to fruition," she told Parents. "Kaavia has allowed us to dream bigger and wider than we ever have before."