Planet Holly-wood

Pittsburgh native Holly Joy Gaines comes full circle as the actress and singer’s star orbits Hollywood and back again.



Photo by Becky Thurner Braddock

Hip, modern and decidedly dramatic, Holly Joy Gaines is a singer, songwriter and actress. The Pittsburgh native who packed up and traveled west for the hills of Hollywood is back home with her 1-year-old daughter, Hailey LaRue—and she’s as busy as ever.

What brought Gaines home? She wanted to be close to her family and help her mother, Charlotte (whom Gaines declares as her “best friend”), with her bed and breakfast, Chateau LaRue—a 12-bedroom French style inn in Lower Burrell opening this month.

Signed with the Strip District-based Talent Group agency and with a new production deal in New York City, Gaines is on the move working regionally in Ohio, New York and Canada for campaign and commercial jobs including multimedia gigs for Time Warner, Catholic Health and more.

Before coming back to Pittsburgh, Gaines vamped up the small screen from drama to comedy: acting on hit shows including NBC’s “Watching Ellie,” starring Julia Louis Dreyfuss, “ER,” “Joey,” starring Matt LeBlanc; making guest appearances on CBS’s “CSI: Miami” and getting a co-starring role with Academy Award winner Jamie Fox on Warner Brothers’ “Jamie Fox Show.” Her big-screen credits include supporting roles in hits such as First Wives Club, Ransom and Love Chronicles, starring Terrence Howard.

Gaines’ first feature-film role was in Houseguest, a movie starring Sinbad and Phil Hartman. It was based in Pittsburgh and filmed in Sewickley.

“That’s an interesting story,” says Gaines. “My friend told me it was being shot here and suggested we visit the set.” As luck would have it, Gaines was noticed in the crowd by Sinbad himself. He asked her if she’d like to be in the movie, and the next thing she knew she was an extra in Houseguest. “What started off as an extra part turned into a speaking role,” she recalls.

It seems that Gaines has always made an entrance, so to speak.

“I am a New Year’s Eve baby!” she says. “My mother called me a blessing—her Holy Joy—and being that it was the holiday season, she named me Holly Joy.”

Gaines had her first “joyful” acting moment as a seventh-grader at Trinity Christian School in Penn Hills. “I was cast in our production of The Velveteen Rabbit, and I played the role of Nanna.”

It was then that she caught the acting bug and decided on her path in life, declaring, “I am going to be an actress,” Gaines recalls. She applied to CAPA (The School for the Creative and Performing Arts) and was accepted into the musical-theater program. “I was turning Shakespeare into jive and I loved it.”

After receiving acting scholarships to Howard University in Washington, D.C. and Boston University, Gaines decided on enrolling at West Virginia State College where she received a full academic scholarship. After graduating with a double major in broadcast communications and business and knowing she wanted to take her knowledge and incorporate it in the entertainment industry, Gaines moved to New York City to fulfill her dream of becoming an actress. She ended up booking major gigs on All My Children and New York Undercover, as well as national campaigns for Chrysler, Dark & Lovely and Coors beer.

Fate intervened once again when Gaines was hanging out with a girlfriend at a Manhattan jazz club. “It was open-mic night,” she recalls, “and I did a song called 'On a Dear!' The A & R [a talent scout from the Artists and Repetoire division] from Motown who was in the audience, liked my performance and signed meto Mo Jazz Records.”

And there’s more to that story, including an ironic twist: Although Gaines was working for Motown in New York City, she never had the chance to meet Stevie Wonder, an original Motown mega-star.

“When I moved to Los Angeles—and still working for Motown—I walked into a restaurant and there was Stevie,” recalls Gaines. She introduced herself to him as ‘Motown family’ and Sarita Right’s niece, who was Stevie’s wife and one of Gaines’ mother’s best friends growing up.

“Stevie invited me to sing backup to him on many of his concerts and performances, which lead me to perform with Teena Marie and to open up for Dave Mason [Rock and Roll Hall of Fame musician from Traffic],” says Gaines.

“I have an old soul, and I’ve always liked grown folks’ music.”

Besides talent, drive and a little bit of luck, Gaines also cites her roots as an important foundation of her career. For example, her grandfather Walter Buchanan played for The Count Basie Orchestra and performed with the Ink Spots, and her grandmother is Dinah Washington—the blues and jazz icon most recognized for her 1959 hit “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes!”

Gaines says she’s been a jazz buff since she was a little kid: “I have an old soul and I’ve always liked grown folks’ music.”
In her latest project, she takes the lead as Sonya in Stick Up Kids, directed by Hawthorne James. The indie film centers on four adult friends who grew up together in Harlem and will do whatever it takes to make a life for themselves.

Her character in the film makes a decision to rebuild and reclaim her community and bring it back—by whatever means necessary.
Gaines is perfectly content with her life and says, “I’ve been blessed to do what I love and I’m never going to stop—I’m going to keep on moving.”

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