Meet The WNBA’s Newest Media Star
By Jacqueline LeBlanc
She hosts the Instagram Live talk show and podcast Dish with Pepper, as well as a short-form, interview-style podcast “She Got Next with Pepper Persley,” through The Next, an online women’s basketball newsroom. She’s also a contributor for The Next and NetsRepublic. She’s interviewed stars like Diana Taurasi, Natasha Cloud, and Elena Delle Donne, and has covered topics of social justice, Black Lives Matter, and how WNBA players’ activism affects young fans.
At nine years old, Pepper took the 2020 WNBA season by storm, a bright spot in an unconventional shortened season played in a single-site location. She covers the entire league and is well-known in the WNBA bubble for asking thought-provoking, genuine, and insightful questions. When Pepper conducts an interview, it’s clear that she’s done careful research.
Pepper is more than just a nine-year-old journalist. She loves reading, playing the violin, and practicing taekwondo and soccer. She loves listening to music while she does her hair in the morning, and she choreographs dances to perform for her parents.
“I’m a biracial Angel. I take that very seriously. It’s very important to me, but I love to read if I’m not doing journalism work or playing the violin or playing basketball or doing taekwondo,” Pepper said in an interview with GoodSport. “I’m a very happy person,” Pepper said. “If I had to choose one word to describe myself, I’d say happy, along with all the other thousands of words I could pick.”
Pepper’s love of basketball goes back to her first WNBA game when she was three years old – a New York Liberty home game. While she remembers being more interested in the music than the game at first, she had a chance to visit the Liberty locker room after the game. She’s been inspired by the women in the WNBA ever since.
Shortly after her first WNBA game, Pepper started playing basketball. She’s a defensive-minded point guard with aspirations of playing in the WNBA.
“I think seeing those women playing definitely had an influence on me … I really love the game and I love to play and I feel like if you have a passion or a love or a goal for whatever it is, and if you keep striving to achieve it, then you’re probably going to just keep working hard,” Pepper said. “That’s kind of my motive that I can get to that level. I have so many role models that I can look up to and see how hard they worked to be on that level of play, to have that platform … I just really fell in love with the game probably now that I think about it after being exposed to the WNBA.”
When Pepper was six years old, she interviewed then-Liberty guard, Sugar Rodgers, her first official WNBA interview. Pepper had always been curious, and she had questions she wanted answered. Her father, Christopher Persley, helped set up the opportunity with the Liberty.
“She had all these questions, and so I reached out to the Liberty to see if maybe she could come in and ask them those questions, and they really came up with the idea of turning it into an official interview to put up on their website and social media, and stuff like that,” Persley said. “Everything has always come from (Pepper’s) desire to learn and want to kind of expand her knowledge.”
From her first interview in 2017 through creating her talk show Dish With Pepper this past spring, Pepper has continued to interview players in the league. First, she spread awareness of a league that brought her so much joy, and then she led an anti-bullying campaign after being bullied in school.
“In 2019, I was bullied and I wanted to create something to make sure that other kids didn’t feel the way I felt when I was bullied and to try to prevent bullying,” Pepper said. “So I spoke with several players about their bullying stories and what advice they had for kids who are being bullied. And so I talked to them and I created an anti-bullying video.”
When the global pandemic brought everything to a halt in early 2020, Pepper launched her talk show, Dish with Pepper.
“The internet was a big part of how people were staying active and happy, and so I wanted to do something using the internet, specifically Instagram and IG live. So I created an IG live talk show,” Pepper said. “But my main reason was I wanted to bring a smile to people’s faces because I knew that quarantine was tough and challenging.”
After Pepper would finish with virtual school, she prepared interview questions and reached out to guests for her show. She also had a special segment of her show called, “Fun Awesome Questions,” which featured fun rapid-fire questions like a player’s favorite color or pair of sneakers. But after George Floyd was murdered by police officers in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020, Pepper shifted her attention to a different subject.
“I started to find out about all the injustices, specifically in our country, so I wanted to make my show more about activism and more about helping people be aware and active and be inspired by what’s going on,” Pepper said. “So I started talking to people like Ari (Chambers) and talking to people like Natasha Cloud about what is going on in the world, and how their platforms can kind of help and how my platform can help as well.”
The WNBA dedicated the 2020 season to social justice with initiatives to support Black Lives Matter, Breonna Taylor, and the Say Her Name campaign, as well as the creation of a player-led social justice council.
Prominent players like Washington Mystics guard, Natasha Cloud and Atlanta Dream guard, Renee Montgomery decided to opt-out of playing this season in order to focus entirely on fighting social and racial injustices. While they’re using their platforms to implement change, Pepper is using her’s to spread their message and highlight the other great work that the WNBA is doing. She wants to change the narrative for people who don’t believe that athletes or women should speak out about social issues.
“I just look at people like Natasha Cloud and Renee Montgomery, who are professional athletes, they’re really good. And they’re sitting out the season because they believe in social justice. They believe that Black Lives Matter, they believe that voting is important, and for so many other reasons,” Pepper said. “I feel like whenever there are always these people telling the women in the WNBA or journalists to go and cook in the kitchen, or shut up and dribble. What if our version of dribbling is talking about social justice? What if that’s me dribbling, and what if I believe in something, you can’t tell me to not believe in that. You can’t tell me to not write about that.”
Pepper’s journalism career began because she wanted to help promote the league and also spread advice from WNBA players for young children like herself. She continues to inspire many who have observed her work — players, coaches, media, fans, parents, and her community and while she is usually the one seeking advice in her interviews, she also has a plethora of wisdom to share with kids her age.
“When I was talking about being bullied, one of the things that were in a letter that was given to me was that I was too athletic. And I really feel like that could be taken as a compliment because that could mean that I’m really good at playing sports, but I mean at that point I was really hurt,” Pepper said. “I thought that those kids were my friends, and I feel like for kids who are told that they’re not supposed to be playing sports and are being called tomboys or, too sporty, or that they need to wear dresses and like princesses. There’s no such thing as, I guess, a perfect girl. A girl who loves princesses and dresses and singing and dancing … There is no such thing as a perfect boy or perfect girl. You just be who you are, so you’re the perfect you.”
Photo Credit: Pexels (header); article photos courtesy of Pepper Persley