The little girl who once gazed in wonder at the puppets on her television is now the voice behind them. Megan Piphus Peace recently made history as the first Black woman puppeteer on Sesame Street. And it is her goal for children regardless of race or gender, to see themselves reflected on screen.
After attending a weeklong puppetry conference at 10 years old, despite Megan’s shy personality, she soon blossomed into a passionate performer. Teaching herself puppetry and ventriloquism by watching VHS tapes that her mother accrued from the public library, Megan gained attention as a rising star. By the time she graduated from Vanderbilt University, Megan had already appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and received yes's from all four judges on America’s Got Talent.
Despite initially pursuing a career in real estate finance, closing over $2.4 billion worth of commercial real estate, Megan’s purpose of inspiring children through puppetry couldn’t evade her. After training for a year to learn Muppet-style puppetry with the cast of Sesame Street, Megan became the first Black woman puppeteer to perform on Sesame Street in September of 2021. And, with two Emmys under her belt, Megan Piphus Peace has no plans on slowing down.
Her Agenda recently spoke with Megan about the significance of hearing ‘no,’ transitioning from real estate into Sesame Street and making history.
Her Agenda: I read that you worked in real estate prior to Sesame Street. Can you please share when you knew it was time to transition and what pivoting from two completely different industries was like for you?
Megan Piphus Peace: For two years, I had been balancing working with Sesame Street doing voice-over and in-person puppeteering for Gabrielle and various background characters. It was a hard balance having a full-time job in real estate and also starting a career at Sesame Street. I have a family and two young children. But, in the summer of 2022, I just felt God nudging me and I heard different confirmations, from people I didn’t know, about pursuing the gifts that God has given you.
The circumstances of all of the confirmation that I was getting from the world around me, really let me know that the timing was right. I just needed to take a leap of faith to move into the television industry and puppetry full-time. I took the leap, [without] a whole bunch lined up, and within a couple of weeks of leaving my career in real estate, the news broke about me being the first Black woman puppeteer on Sesame Street. I had to take a leap of faith and believe that I was capable of [achieving] my dreams.
Her Agenda: You are the first Black woman puppeteer on Sesame Street. What was your reaction to making history?
Megan Piphus Peace: I had no idea that I was the first Black woman puppeteer on Sesame Street. In walking around the studio and seeing pictures from the past 53 years on the wall, I saw pictures of all the puppeteers and I didn't see any Black women. I emailed one of the producers and said, ‘Hey, am I the first Black woman puppeteer on Sesame Street?’ And, she said ‘Yes, you are. I’m so proud.’ At that moment, I was back in Nashville at my day job, and I just started crying at my desk. I realized that I made history and I had broken barriers for other people.
Her Agenda: I think media representation is so important, so when children see you on their screen what do you want them to take away?
Megan Piphus Peace: I want young children seeing themselves represented on television to be filled with confidence and to know they are special. [I want the children to know] they have a unique story that can be shared and represented in any community. I’m glad that our community [at] Sesame Street values representation and we are able to tell different stories through our art. My boys watch Sesame Street [and] they’re really excited when they’re able to see characters like Gabrielle and Tamir, that have skin and hair like theirs, interact with Elmo. They wholeheartedly believe that all of the characters are real. It gives them a lot of confidence to know that someone who looks like them can be on Sesame Street and sing songs with Cookie Monster.
Her Agenda: On the show, your puppet is Gabrielle, who is a Black humanoid character. Do you have any input into the character's style or her hairstyles?
Megan Piphus Peace: We have an awesome team of muppet wranglers that dress the muppets and make clothes for them. And, an art department that thinks very thoughtfully about what the characters look like and what they wear. But, we do have an episode coming up in Season 53, that focuses on Gabrielle's hair. I was able to participate in the styling of her hair. I have a small part, but it’s really the team that thinks through what they want to represent on the screen.
Her Agenda: I remember speaking with Kay Wilson Stallings a few months ago and she said that her favorite show as a kid was Sesame Street. Can you speak about your favorite childhood shows and what impact they had on you?
Megan Piphus Peace: I loved watching children's television when I was little, so I don’t particularly have a favorite since [there were] so many. But, looking back, all of my favorite shows had puppets - Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Barney & Friends, [and] Sesame Street. I ate those all up and I didn't realize until I was older that they were puppets because I really believed in the magic that they created with the characters.
Her Agenda: I want to discuss manifestation because you have been working towards this since you were a kid. What do you think the key to manifesting something is?
Megan Piphus Peace: I think the key to manifesting is faith. Faith in believing that it can happen. I’m a Christian [and] am very spiritual. I oftentimes believe that God wants us to just have the faith of a mustard seed [and] believe that something will happen. Even as a young, ten-year-old, [I felt] it was my purpose to share love with the world through puppetry and ventriloquism. And, I really had a gift of teaching that to young children. [Also] envision what you want to happen. I make a vision board each year and I really visualize what I want my year and my life to look like.
On my vision board years ago, I pinned Sesame Street, not knowing that I would ever become a cast member. But, I was saying to myself that, someday, I want to become as good as the puppeteers on Sesame Street. And, now I’m on the cast. I pinned an Emmy [award] because I dreamed of creating work that is high quality and recognized in the arts community as good work. I ended up winning two Emmys for a children’s financial literacy program in 2021. All of that manifestation has been a result of me dreaming and believing that I’m capable of the biggest dreams coming true.
Her Agenda: I read that when you were eliminated from America's Got Talent, Judge Howard Stern told you that failure is not a no. I think most of us hate hearing the word ‘No’ but what role do you think ‘No’ plays in success?
Megan Piphus Peace: ‘No’ has been a large part of my success because it has pushed me to strive for excellence and to get better. That's one of the things that makes Sesame Street incredible - their ability to change, evolve, and get better. A lot of the puppeteers that I’ve studied with have critiqued my work and said ‘There is no perfect performance. There is always something that you can make better.’ Being eliminated from America's Got Talent was a huge growing point for me. Our failures are teaching moments and can be stepping stones to the next place we are meant to [be]. [Though] at the moment I felt like I had failed, I had really progressed in my career by taking the risk of being on that stage.
Her Agenda: I can assume that you don’t always have that much time for yourself, but is there anything that you do daily or weekly to give yourself some self-care?
Megan Piphus Peace: Yes, I am very strategic about balancing self-care [while] being a mom of two. I very carefully plan when I’m going to take my personal time or else I just won’t get it. I get up before my boys, they wake up around 7 am, so I make sure that I'm up at least an hour or two before them. I exercise three times a week for at least 20 minutes and do all my skincare before they wake up. I’m also very strategic about resting. Make no excuses about taking care of yourself. You have to put on your own mask first before helping someone else. It’s hard to perform your best when you don’t have any gas left in the tank.
Her Agenda: You’ve won two Emmys, you were on The Oprah Winfrey Show at 15, you were once crowned Miss Black Tennessee, and you’ve made history! Despite all of that, what is the ultimate legacy that you want to leave behind?
Megan Piphus Peace: I would like to leave a legacy of teaching children to see the best versions of themselves and for them to be able to envision themselves achieving anything. I ended up in a career that is extremely unique that I never thought I would end up in. I had people in my life that were encouraging me and telling me that I could. So, I want to leave a legacy of building up children [so] that they can achieve anything.