Calyann Barnett can’t help but tell it how she sees it.
That’s true whether the NBA fashion stylist and entrepreneur is discussing the resurgence of the prairie dress (not a fan), her part-time employer, the Utah Jazz (huge fan) or her beliefs as a convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Barnett, who said she always had faith in something greater than herself, discovered the Utah-based church through a co-worker. In June 2019, the same colleague baptized her at a ceremony where — upon her request — all attendees wore white. NBA legend Dwyane Wade, a friend and client of hers, gave the closing prayer.
Last year, when the mother of two attended the temple for a symbolic ceremony known as the endowment (a key ordinance for faithful Latter-day Saints), she described her decision this way to her more than 43,000 Instagram followers: “If God invited you to an exclusive members-only house party at his crib with the sickest swag bags … would you go? The thing is, God has invited everyone to his house.”
We sat down with the Florida-based founder and creative director of the fashion venue The Shop Miami to talk to her more about her experience and views as a Latter-day Saint convert and fashion influencer.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Did you grow up with a faith background?
I was baptized Catholic and then went to a nondenominational church until I was 17. I was youth group president and went to all the youth group retreats and really had a strong faith in Jesus and, I would say, in right living more than anything. My mom is super spiritual. My dad is not. Having those two sides gave me the opportunity to think for myself.
I fell away from believing in Jesus when I reached my 18th birthday. I realized that Jesus has been used to justify all these horrible things throughout history. Also, if I believed in God and Jesus, then I couldn’t justify any of my actions, like going out partying and living what I called my best worst life. So I was like, “I don’t want to believe in this guy.” But I did always believe in a higher power, the universe.
What did you find most compelling about the Latter-day Saint faith?
The funny thing is I started reading the Book of Mormon to argue with my friend Clarke [Miyasaki]. I was like, “I’m going to argue with you and prove you wrong and then we’re going to go party.” And I’m reading [the Book of Mormon] and there is all this racist language in there like the curse of the skin of blackness. And I was doing research on the history of the church and the fact that Black men couldn’t hold the priesthood until 1978.
The beauty of Clarke was he never told me why I should believe, just what it had done for him and his family. Then I read 2 Nephi 26:33, where it says God loves everybody and was like, “OK, I’ve got no argument there.” And I woke up the next morning and I thought, “I get it.” Religion is not about control. It’s about what you do with your idle time. It’s what you choose to do with [your faith]. Are you using it to do good or as a crutch and an excuse? And the people I had met had been using religion to do service.
That was my heart opening and the next day, when Clarke just happened to send me a study guide for Chapter 27 [in the Book of Mormon], it took me out. I was crying. There was a voice in my head that said, “You can be a skeptic or you can believe.” I’m freaking out, like, “Clarke, what did you do to me? What is this hocus-pocus?” It sounds crazy when I tell the story now but…as I’m texting him, a peace came over me and I felt it. Jesus was real. It was as real as touching something. It was just like “I got you. I’m here.” You can deny the Book of Mormon and say this reads like “Star Wars,” but how you feel? That you can’t deny and that’s when I was like, “OK, so this is happening.”
How has your experience in the church been different than what you maybe expected on your baptism day? How has your faith evolved since then?
There is nothing like baptism. Nothing like it. That renewed feeling, that spiritual high, the next day receiving the Holy Ghost. There’s nothing that comes close to it. I wish you could get baptized every day.
When I got my first [church] calling, I was like, “This is another job.” [But] the fact that people show up for others, that is … integral.
I travel so much for work and one of the things I like to do is to go to wards [Latter-day Saint congregations] in all these different places. I went to a service in Ghana and that was one of the most spiritual services I’ve ever been to because of their understanding of scripture. I hadn’t even felt that in Salt Lake.
I did a destination endowment in Hawaii and I think that’s what keeps the Spirit strong with me. I don’t take these things lightly. Everything we do, every decision that we make that invites the Spirit should be celebrated. Don’t get me wrong. There are moments where I’ve missed church three weeks in a row and it’s a conscious decision to remember every single day to do these things.
You already mentioned that the church has a complicated history when it comes to race. How have you wrestled with that, and is there anything you wish church leaders could understand about your experience?
You know, it’s always complicated because people are like, “This church is racist; how are you a part of it?” And I’m like, “This country is racist, and I’m still a part of it.” I try to avoid the “church speak,” where it’s like the church is good, but the people are bad. We say this, but ultimately we don’t have to be. As we move forward, we have to be open and honest and not only say [racist policies] happened, but that they were wrong.
I truly believe [that is the only way] for the church to thrive and survive, to be in a place where it’s strong enough to send missionaries out and unite the world. Don’t say, “Oh, you know we don’t know why we did it.” No, we know why they did it. [Previous leaders] lived in a racist society. And we know why it was repealed, because blatant racism wasn’t tolerated anymore. For the church to grow, Black men had to hold the priesthood because most of the world is Black and brown.
Soon after the George Floyd murder, we were on Zoom church, and it was testimony meeting. I said I’m grateful for church and home-centered learning. I’m the only one in my family who is a member. And one of the members came on and said, “Sister Barnett, I love and I appreciate you and I appreciate you are grateful for all these things, but you need to tell the truth about what it means to have two Black sons growing up in America and what you have to say to them. We need to be honest.”
And that hit hard for me because I pride myself in being an honest person. And here I was giving a fluff testimony in this moment of mourning over America’s racism [that] was on front street. That was like, “Oh crap, OK absolutely. Next time I have an opportunity, I will talk about it.” I [received negative comments on social media]. Someone, a member [of the church], was like, “Oh, spoken like a true liberal.”
We talk about combating racism and loving thy neighbor but my son, I don’t make him go to church anymore. It was like after every single service, [I had to explain that] “Yes, Jesus was real but also Jesus isn’t white.” So I was telling him to listen but also don’t believe all these pictures. It got hard for me to have this conversation with a 6-year-old. How different the world would be if we depicted Jesus more accurately because so much has been done against Black and brown people under the guise of religion and this picture of Jesus as a hot surfer dude. I wish we could better address these things, to have these honest conversations because ultimately we know that Jesus is truth and light.
Do you feel like you’ve found yourself in conflict with stereotypes about what a devout Latter-day Saint woman looks like and how she behaves? Or have you felt like the faith and the community have generally empowered you to be yourself?
I have been openly accepted as me. I really have not had any situation where someone has made me feel not welcomed. On the contrary. I have received so many messages and outpouring from members who are like, “We need more people like you who aren’t afraid to be themselves and you can look and have any job and career and still love Jesus.” Jesus is not looking at the color of your hair or the tattoos or if you are dancing on a tabletop and doing splits at a party. He is looking at your heart.
I’ve encountered people who are like, “I wish I could be more like you,” and I’m like, “You can.” But I also understand there are so many layers of church culture people have to shake. The message is love, and people sometimes lose that in judgment. I speak to a lot of members who have left [the church]. … It’s our responsibility to make everyone who doesn’t feel welcomed, feel welcome.
After the Supreme Court’s ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, you opened up about why as a person of faith and a Latter-day Saint you are pro-choice. I saw you received some pushback. How did that affect you and did you also find support?
I’ve had an abortion. It’s not a decision you take lightly. You live with that for the rest of your life so to make it worse by somebody alienating you… it’s very, very shocking because we talk about love and we talk about loving your neighbor and I think on both sides, even for people who are pro-choice, it almost becomes nasty. You know what? Let’s just love and respect personal choice. God gave us the ability to choose.
How has your Latter-day Saint faith shaped, if at all, your views on fashion, both in terms of the industry as a whole and the personal choices we make about how we show up in the world?
The fashion industry is a very superficial industry, in case you were wondering. But the things that used to matter to me don’t matter as much now. My family is the most important thing. All these accolades and needing to be in these places and saying I was there or a part of it started losing its luster and appeal. I can 100% say, as I’ve become a member, that I’m only in the places I want to be in and that bring me true joy.
And then, in terms of fashion choices, as an endowed member who wears garments, I can’t wear short shorts anymore. But I’m a Trinidadian woman and there’s Carnival and, yes, I absolutely will wear my Carnival costume because God knows I love to dance in the streets. I wrestle with how much of these [teachings on modesty] are Protestant beliefs versus what is the word of God. Because God made us naked. We only realized we were naked when we ate the fruit. In heaven, are we going to be just naked? So I do have those struggles.
Finally, a lot of our readers are Jazz fans, and I know you’ve worked with a few team members and former team members and I’m curious — who is the most fun to style for?
It’s a real toss-up. I’ve worked with Dwyane [Wade] for 15 years and literally he’s my Barbie. We have done everything there is to try, and he’s been so open and receptive. We literally changed the industry and I’ve traveled the world because of my work with Dwyane.
You also work for the Utah Jazz organization. What have you been doing for them?
I’m the creative director for Counterpoint, which is the private label apparel brand for the Jazz. As the fan base changes, not everyone wants the typical Jazz jersey plastered on them. [This label will be] more fashion-forward. …It’s a way to get that Jazz note [logo] out there [in ways that aren’t] just attached to sports apparel. We’re launching Feb. 6, and my hope is that it entices other brands to want to come to Utah.