into it

‘Auntie Will Never Retire’

Sheryl Lee Ralph has big plans for her post-Emmys career, so long as the younger generations keep hiring her.

Photo: JJ Geiger
Photo: JJ Geiger

When Sheryl Lee Ralph won the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for her work on Abbott Elementary, she wasn’t just accepting praise for playing Barbara Howard, the tough-but-sweet, quietly hilarious kindergarten teacher she plays in Quinta Brunson’s ABC sitcom. She was basking in decades-overdue praise for playing Brandy’s stepmother on Moesha, Lauryn Hill’s mom in Sister Act II, and of course Deena Jones, long before Beyoncé ever did, in the original Dreamgirls musical. The entire room was remembering the times she starred alongside Sidney Poitier, Robert De Niro, and Denzel Washington. In that moment, the sheer volume of applause she received drowned out any memories Ralph has of stepping onto a set run by executives who couldn’t identify her or what she’d done. Nonetheless, when she sat down with me at Vulture Festival, she came prepared to teach. Ralph is like a motivational speaker who’s also your favorite auntie and your favorite actress (who can really sing). So when she says she wants to host the next Emmys, we all just hope the Television Academy is listening. Listen to the conversation below or read on for the full transcript.

A quick heads-up: This conversation includes a reference to disordered eating.

Sheryl, I’m going to tell you what surprised me the most about your career. Before you got into TV and movies and Broadway, you did a USO tour. Tell the babies here what a USO tour is.
Okay. The USO is the United Service Organizations. Celebrities and stars go to foreign U.S. bases around the world, and you perform for the troops. This was at the beginning of my career.

How did you get that gig?
Honest to God, this is like a movie script. But back in the day, photographers would put out ads for models and you would go in. Now, most times you are an up-and-coming actor and you need headshots. Usually, you want your headshot to be with your clothes on, but this particular photographer wanted to get you in there to take your clothes off. It always starts with, “Okay, just drop your blouse.” I was like, “No, I really just wanted some headshots shot.” So I left. But I had also answered this audition for a USO tour, and I went to the office, and my God, guess who walks through the door?

That photographer.
The photographer that tried to get me to take my clothes off. And he says to me, “Oh, so you wouldn’t take your clothes off for me, but you’re going to take it off for them?” I was so hurt and embarrassed. I walk in there and I meet this woman, and they’re looking for a singer. I’m like, “I can sing, but I can’t sing with my clothes off.” She slowly raises her golden-blonde head and she said, “We already have the one with her clothes off. We need one who can sing.” I said, “Okay, where?” She said, “You’re a singer — sing.” “Just right here in your office, sing?” And she’s like, “Sing.”

What’d you sing?
I don’t know what I sang, but I sang and they hired me. So I went on my first tour of duty.

Where’d you go?
I went to the most beautiful places, but for whatever reason, I remember Turkey. But I am now the opening act for the Penthouse Pet of the Year.

Can you recall any of the opening act?
Her name was Anneka di Lorenzo. I would come out in my pin-striped suit and my big hat and I’d say, “Jeremiah was a bullfrog, was a good friend of mine.” The band would come in, and I would do three songs and then say, ” And now for what you are waiting to see. Please, Miss Anneka di Lorenzo.” And she would just float on stage.

No. But the outfit made you think it was. It was very diaphanous. It just floated in the air. And she was a wisp of a woman with the most fiery red hair. And she had a smile. This woman would walk out on stage and just float around. That was her talent. Sort of like an early Kim K.

That’s amazing.
It’s the truth. I did that for two years.

Every time I Google you, I find out more that you’ve done. I bet most of you didn’t know that Sheryl made an album, did you? And it’s really good too.
I have a Christmas album coming out. It is aptly titled Sleigh. I took a twist on every one of the songs of the holiday that I loved, and I brought it into the club and I brought it into your home, I brought it into your hip hop experience.

So you get back from your second USO tour, you’re supposed to stop in LA and then go back to New York. But you said, “I feel it in my spirit. I’m staying in L.A.” Did you have work lined up at that point?
Hell no. I had a dream lined up.

How did you get work?
Literally my acting teacher. I went to a great university called Rutgers University. My teacher was now an associate producer with Sidney Poitier, and it was his last film of a trilogy that he had done with Bill Cosby. It was called A Piece of the Action and I was cast. And that was that.

You’ve talked about this before, how on set with Sidney Poitier, on set with Robert De Niro, you’d hear the same kind of thing. They’d say, “We love you, Sheryl. You’re great. But the industry does not do you. They don’t do Black women. Good luck with that.” How often would you hear that? And what would you say when you heard it?
You know what? It’s so interesting because I heard it so often.

How does someone deliver that in a way that feels helpful? Do they really think they’re helping in that moment?
Believe it or not, what Mr. Poitier was doing for me was telling me a lot of things in a sentence, “You’re an incredible actress and I wish the industry had more to offer you, but if this is for you, you won’t stop.” What more did he have to tell me?

Was De Niro saying the same thing?
Robert De Niro said to me, “You are DGA, a damn good actress, but Hollywood is not looking for you. They are not looking for the Black girl. So you better climb that mountain, wave the red flag and let them know you are there because you deserve to be seen.” What more did he need to say to me?

Here’s what I want them to say to you because when I read it, I was like, okay, Sidney’s a big deal, De Niro’s a big deal. Let them produce a project for you. Let them make a role for you. Let them make a film for you.
See, no, the industry does not always work like that. For people to produce anything, it must be a passion because you’re going to spend an awful lot of time with your script, with your passion, with your project. Robert De Niro and I were in a perfect film together where he was one of the producers. So he was doing me a favor in that project. Mr. Poitier was doing me a favor by directing this trilogy that had a classroom full of young Black talent. It was for me to be there to get the right start.

You always have a pleasant and positive and optimistic disposition. Seems like you don’t let shit get you down despite all of the things that you have encountered in your career.
I’m happy. I’m alive. It’s like I’m the reverse Frankenstein. It’s been difficult for me in the industry. But I’m happy with my career. I stood up on stage and [singing] I won an Emmy.

Hearing you tell every story about your career, you are several things at the same time. You are open to serendipity, you are upfront about what you need. You accept help, but you never seem to get too agitated by life. There’s something that’s keeping you grounded. I want you to talk about the Sheryl Lee Ralph core that seems to not just keep you, but guide you. Because I feel it. And I think everyone who loves you on screen feels it too.
I’m telling you, life is so simple. We make everything complicated. Me? I know that it’s simple, so I live a simple life, and I simply love me. I get up in the morning. I look at myself and I say, “You go, girl.” And no matter how I look. I’m happy to say, ” I woke up like this.”

Is there a space in your career that feels the darkest? It feels like, from what I’ve read, that Dreamgirls was tough for you.
Dreamgirls was very tough.

Now we should say, for the babies, before Beyoncé and them did Dreamgirls, Miss Sheryl Lee Ralph did Dreamgirls. On Broadway. How was that experience?
Dreamgirls was a project from Tom Eyen, who we lost way too soon due to AIDS. Tom Eyen had this idea for a girl group. At first, the girl group was set in the ‘40s, ‘50s, and it was a vehicle for Nell Carter. Nell Carter was a great actress back in the day. But she started a series called Gimme a Break and she left the workshop of Project #9, which would become Dreamgirls. Then it became a vehicle for Jennifer Holliday. And it becomes this phenomenal, groundbreaking musical. Sort of like what Hamilton was when it opened. Everybody wanted to see it. Everything goes great for us. But then when they’re doing the movie, they just didn’t want to include us.

Yeah. And that was really hard because the show was built from our experiences.

And the show itself, if I recall, was hard too, because a lot of the team on the show died of AIDS during the production.
Really what happened was, once the show closed, we lost one third of our company to AIDS and … that’s a lot. It’s a lot. And nobody ever talked about that.

There were some personal issues for you during the show. You said you weren’t eating.
Your brain can do crazy things on you. As Jennifer got larger, literally and figuratively, with all of the wins and everything, I was always the second. I was always the second. You’re hearing it over and over, and then you start to believe it. I’m like, Here I am. I’m coming up second. She’s doing all of this and I can’t sing and I’m blah, blah, blah. Everybody’s telling you what to do. I figured out I will tell myself what to do, so I stopped eating. Because they couldn’t make me eat. One day I opened up the stage door and there my parents were. They dragged me right out of that show and put me into that kind of therapy to help me get it back together again.

Was that the hardest moment?
I think that’s one of them. And the fact that Jennifer Holliday was not an actress, per se, so what Michael Bennett came up with was to make her dislike me. Because that would give her the energy to do the character. You tell the brain enough things over and over, it starts to believe it. So we were cheated out of a great relationship. But she gave a good Tony Award winning performance.

Y’all talk now?
Yeah, we talk now. When you’re little girls, you do little girl things. When you’re grown ass women, you do grown ass women things.

You know better, you do better. We’ve got to talk about Abbott, right?
The best show on TV. Why do I say the best? There just doesn’t happen to be another show that pulls in the numbers that Abbott Elementary pulls in.

And here’s what’s crazy. When you look at Abbott by the numbers, it works in some incredible ways. The audience for Abbott, since its debut, has quadrupled. That does not happen. What happens, all the time is these networks think they’re doing charity by green lighting a majority-Black show.

And they’re kind of like, “Well, we’ll see what happens.”
It’s a fluke if it’s a big hit, yeah.
And what’s been even more impressive about Abbott, it’s not just a ratings hit. It’s a critical hit. And it’s not just a critical hit, it’s an internet meme hit. One of the last bright spots of Twitter, for me right now, is whenever I see a GIF of you on there.
Thank you.

What is the secret sauce of that show?
I think the secret sauce of that show is the magic of Quinta Brunson.

How did y’all come together?
I met Quinta years ago when I was doing a series called Fam. We were walking across the CBS lot and my daughter was like, “That’s Quinta Brunson, mom. She’s going to be big. You have to meet her.” And that was when we first met. Then the second time we met, I was doing Black Lady Sketch Show. And she was just looking at me like she was studying me or something.

Like she does in the show.
Exactly. Exactly. And I was like, “This is so sweet.” And then a year or two later, I get this call, “Miss Ralph, I’ve got this script.” That was what she used to call me, Miss Ralph. Now she just calls me Sheryl. So she said to me, “Miss Ralph, I know that you are at that point in your career where people offer you things and that is exactly what should happen. But if you could just meet the people connected to this project that I’m talking to you about, that would be a very good thing.” And there was something about the way she said it that said, “Just go ahead.”

Did you like the role at first?
At first, I really wanted to play Principal Ava.

Now, I’m imagining Sheryl as Ava. That’s a different dynamic.
I could see it. It would’ve been different, but once again, the magic sauce is Quinta. Quinta knew exactly what notes she needed everybody to play. Like you said, being open to new and different things, I am so glad I stayed in that lane because [singing] I have an Emmy.

Yeah, you do. Where is the Emmy in the house? Do you talk to the Emmy? Do you look at the Emmy? Do you hang out with the Emmy?
It’s right by the bed. I wake up and I look at that Emmy. I’m like, “Look at you.” I look at it and I’m like, “That happened.” When they called my name, I lost my mind.

Did you expect it?
Nope. I was really in a very grateful place. I just knew that the Emmy is one of those things where, as an actress on a network series, major category, that’s a big honor for the rest of your life. I would always be an Emmy-nominated actress, always.

And the story of it is so beautiful. It’s tragic, but beautiful. There was a 35-year gap between you winning that category as a Black woman and the previous winner. You and the previous winner have a connection. Correct?
We have a connection because we both started out on Broadway, singing.

And we’re talking about Jackée Harry. Now, in the role that she won for, 35 years before you did, if I recall correctly, you were possibly going to have that role, too?
That’s the story. I don’t remember it, but that’s the lore. I love when she tells the story because I’m like, “Thank you.”

How long do you think before the next Black woman wins that category? It seems as though you winning this award says that some things have changed, but it’d still been 35 years. How much better is it?
It’s so much better. Look, it could happen again next year.

You need one on each nightstand, Sheryl.
That would be amazing, but you know what else would be great? I loved it when you said that I actually saved the Emmys. I’d like to host the Emmys.

Now, come on now.
Next year. That’s what I’d like to do.

What’s your opening number?
[Singing] “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”

I want to ask a little bit more about your role in the show. You are performing maternal so beautifully. You have come to be known, at least in black America, as one of our TV moms — for me, most iconically in Moesha. What has performing maternal or performing mother so often throughout your career taught you about motherhood?
I don’t know if it’s taught me about motherhood so much, but I knew my whole life that I was born to be somebody’s mother, and I just happened to be mother to Etienne and Ivy. Once I’m dead and gone and they’re left behind, I know I will have done a good job. I know that I have left the world a much better place. What would make it better is if my son would just go on and get married and give me a grandchild. Now, that would be great. But my whole life, my whole career, I have chosen to live it in a way that young boys and girls can look at me and say, That was Sheryl Lee Ralph and, if she could do it, I could do it. I don’t have to do this to get ahead. I can live my truth to get ahead. I can speak my own truth to power and still make it.

So often with your roles as a mother, or a teacher on Abbott, you do this wonderful bait and switch. You’re tough at first — you’re stone faced — and then when the character on screen with you needs it the most, you are the most loving human being alive. You change the life of the kids on Abbott or Brandy on Moesha forever. Is there some kind of lesson you’re trying to teach viewers about mentorship through these roles?
My god. I think, through these roles, I have no problem saying, “My boss is half my age and I love her.” She’s actually teaching me something new. We actually work and learn together and I love that. Too many folks of older generations act like they’re going to be alive forever. You’re not going to be alive forever and it would do you wonderfully to teach them, mentor them, help them because, one, I want them to treat me real good when I get older. I want them to know that I was there for them. I want them to understand that auntie will never retire, so keep writing the roles, keep hiring me. I am actually Betty White Black.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Anneka Di Lorenzo was named Penthouse Pet of the year in 1975. Ralph played Barbara Hanley in A Piece of the Action alongside Sidney Poitier, James Earl Jones, and Bill Cosby. Tom Eyen was a Tony award winning playwright, known for Dreamgirls, who died of AIDS-related complications in 1991.
‘Auntie Will Never Retire’