It is challenging to succeed in the entertainment business in just one area of expertise, much less several. But that’s what Choctaw tribal member Shelley Dennis has been able to do. From modeling to stand-up comedy, acting to writing, and directing to producing, Dennis does it all.
Born at the Talihina hospital, the Pushmataha County native attended Eastern Oklahoma State College and then went on to the University of Oklahoma, where she received a degree in Drama and Dramatics/Theatre Arts in 2005.
After graduation, she moved to Milan, Italy, upon receiving an invitation from a modeling agency.
Dennis says on her website, “Life took an unexpected turn when I was scouted by a modeling agency and flown to Milan, Italy, where I made a living being tall and hungry.”
She spent over two years modeling in Italy and Germany, appearing on billboards and several publications like teen magazines and Vanity Fair.
Dennis had been invited to work in Istanbul but decided to go home to pursue acting. After sitting in on a few more classes at OU, Dennis said she was ready. She stayed with a relative in Utah for a while, who gave her some contacts in Los Angeles. After arriving in California, she got a job at a bakery cafe as a hostess and worked her way up to be a waitress, where she stayed for over eight years, saying she wanted it to be her first and last job waiting tables. She began to get copywriting and content specialist jobs where she did sales pages and website copy. She even worked as a copywriter for the Pushmataha Family Medical Center. During this time, she continued to work on her acting career.
Dennis has done stand-up comedy and has 34 acting credits, appearing in productions such as Days of Our Lives, Criminal Minds, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and Selfie Dad. She has directed and produced. She also has six writing credits for shows like The Tristen and Shelley Show, Those Who Wait and Russian Bride. Dennis also created her web series, Recovering Model, and worked as a freelance writer for Walt Disney Animation Studios.
When asked what she has been most proud of, Dennis remarked, “Not to diminish Criminal Minds and Days of Our Lives, those are awesome and were so fun to do because I watched those shows growing up, but it was the times I did stand-up and nobody saw it, the web series that I created and sort of feel like I had a workout trying to define my voice, and what I wanted to say.” Dennis explained, “When I got into stand-up, it wasn’t because I wanted to do stand-up. It’s because I was auditioning for acting roles, and I was debilitatingly nervous. My hands were shaking. I couldn’t do what I could do in my living room when I would go to the auditions, so I was like, this is an issue, and I will never work if I don’t nip this in the bud. So, I started going to open mics and telling jokes on stage because that was the most terrifying thing I could think of. I hated it. I hated it so bad, I would cry in the car. I would go to the next one and cry in the car.” Dennis noted, “I was really bad. I was terrible. And then something happened. It wasn’t meant to be anything more than a tool to break my nerves, but I started to find my voice and process.”
Dennis recently completed the Native American Showrunner Program for 2020. She was one of four fellows nominated (along with Choctaw comedian, writer and actress Siena East) to participate in the program designed to allow experienced Native American writers to grow in the television writing industry. She says she is very grateful to everyone at LA Skins, including fellow Choctaw Ian Skorodin (Barcid Production and Barcid Foundation), saying, “The doors have opened since I have participated in the programs they have created for us.”
Dennis is currently writing for Spirit Rangers, an upcoming NETFLIX animated series for children ages 6-8. The show follows a Native American trio in a National Park who can transform into their own animal spirits. The show is executive produced by Chris Nee, creator of the children’s shows Doc McStuffins and Vampirina.
Dennis, along with other Native American writers and freelance writers, make up the all-Native writers’ room where Dennis is the only Choctaw. The first season will have 40 episodes. Writing for the season will wrap up in May.
The show’s creator is Karissa Valencia from the Chumash tribe, whom Dennis was recommended to through the LA Skins project.
Dennis said, “What is great about working with Karissa is that she keeps saying, bring in Choctaw stories, Choctaw characters, so I’ve already in previous episodes that I’ve written been able to do that, and it’s just really cool. I’m very excited to share certain characters and legends from the Choctaw tribe specifically. I want kids to be able to enjoy that and get excited about their culture in that way.” She said, “I feel super grateful. I really think the show is going to be special, not only to all kids, but Choctaw kids in general.”
Dennis says this is a first in creating an all-Native show for children and putting it into mainstream television. “I just don’t think that’s been done before,” she said.
“Because this is not an educational series and is fictitious, there are certain things that are very traditional, that they’ve gotten permission from the Chumash and Cowlitz tribes to use the characters as tribal members of those tribes, but the stories themselves are kind of a mish-mash of certain myths and legends, and using characters from different tribes, so it’s not an authentic start to finish story from any tribe usually. There are a couple of exceptions in that, for example I will use characters in pitched stories based on certain animals that are very prevalent from the Choctaw Nation and any bit of stories, little nuggets that we can expand on and create a fictitious story of our own to combine with different tribes and legends.”
Dennis explained, “We are not exclusive to our personal tribes, we want to include our knowledge, and what we’ve been taught growing up, we want to include that, but we also do research and incorporate different animals, and myths and legends from all kinds of different tribes.”
Karissa Valencia, Spirit Rangers creator, said, “I hope Spirit Rangers will help our Native youth celebrate being Native. Whether that’s learning about tribal traditions or just going on magical adventures, I hope they see themselves in the modern-day Skycedar family. Working with an all-Native Writers Room is like taking the American History Class of my dreams. I feel like the luckiest person in the world to be surrounded by such amazing Native talent, like Shelley. Our shared experiences bring us together in the room, but what really strengthens our stories is getting to learn from one another. Every Native experience is different and I’m grateful our writers room provides us a space to learn from each other.”
Dennis says she is a proud Choctaw and Choctaw Registered Artist. She says she keeps up with what is going on in the Choctaw Nation and hopes to be able to give back to the tribe, as she credits it with giving her the foundation to be able to achieve her dreams.
“I want to be involved in the community even though I’m in L.A. My hope is, I can give back to the Choctaw Nation and the tribal members, because I have received so much,” said Dennis.
For more on Shelley Dennis, visit her website at www.shelleydennis.com. To become a Choctaw registered artist, visit www.choctawnation.com/history-culture/artist-registry.