By DeoVonte “Deo” Means
…And immediately, I feel as if I’m in the presence of a strong and provocative diva; much like the great Leontyne Price. I gasp at the alluring power of this woman, yet, after hello, I begin to feel an overwhelming sense of warmth, wisdom and compassion take over my conscious…
Known as the “Black Mother of Hollywood,” Jenifer Lewis is a versatile entertainer whom the New York Times hailed as a “Mega Diva.” Jenifer’s versatility is at the heart of her long and diverse career. Jenifer Lewis was born and raised in Kinloch, Missouri and holds a bachelor’s degree in theatre arts from Webster University. This past April, Jenifer brought down the house at Carnegie Hall when she performed with the New York Pops orchestra. With over 200 appearances in film and television, she is one of Hollywood’s most familiar faces. Most recently, she co-starred in Baggage Claim (Fox Searchlight) and Kevin Harts’ Think Like A Man Too (Sony Pictures). Ms. Lewis delivered legendary performances as Tina Turner’s (Angela Bassett), mother in What’s Love Got to Do With It and also in The Preachers Wife as the mother of Whitney Houston. She portrayed the distraught mother, “Candace”, opposite Matt Damon in Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter and for director Tyler Perry, Jenifer created unforgettable characters in Madea’s Family Reunion and Meet the Browns. In the movie Castaway, Jenifer portrayed Tom Hanks’ boss. Jenifer’s TV roles have ranged from regular appearances as “Aunt Helen” on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to guest star roles on Friends, Boston Legal and Girlfriends. For six seasons, Jenifer portrayed “Lana Hawkins” on Lifetime’s hit series Strong Medicine. In animated films, Jenifer’s uniquely recognizable voice is adored by Disney fans worldwide in roles such as “Flo” in Cars and as “Mama Odie” in The Princess and the Frog.
Jenifer has enjoyed a wide-ranging and varied career in music and theatre for more than 30 years. In 2013, Jenifer won a Bistro Award for her show titled Black Don’t Crack, which drew standing room only crowds to 54 Below cabaret in New York City. Over the years, she has graced the Broadway stage in multiple shows. Most recently in the hit show Hairspray as “Motormouth Maybelle.” Jenifer also enjoyed critical acclaim co-starring opposite Meryl Streep in the Shakespeare in the Park production of Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children. In Seattle, Jenifer wowed audiences as “Dolly Levi” in the venerable 5th Avenue Theater’s production of Hello Dolly. With more than 200 concerts, 49 states and four continents under her belt she is a certified legend, briefly touring as “Harlette” with Bette Midler.
Jenifer’s philanthropic footprint is just as extensive as her career. Her calendar is often booked six nights a week as the headliner for multiple charitable organizations and events. Her appearance in Chicago on June 26th as the headliner for Step Up Get Tested, Live With Jenifer Lewis interview and performance is one of the highlights of this year’s social season. The free event reached RSVP capacity within hours of announcing the event. Jenifer is committed to community issues. As a longtime supporter of youth, Jenifer became involved with Big Brothers/Big Sisters and ultimately adopted her daughter, Charmaine through this program. Jenifer is also a major supporter of the LGBT community. In recent years Jenifer has presented four one-woman shows to raise much needed funds for youth housing at the L.A Gay and Lesbian Center. Jenifer is a forceful proponent for HIV/AIDS education and treatment and has performed at more than 15 AIDS walks across the country. Jenifer also advocates on behalf of mental health issues. In 2007, Jenifer chose The Oprah Winfrey Show as a platform to reveal that she has bipolar disorder. She continues to speak nationally for the eradication of stigma against people with mental illness.
This legend, connected with me promptly on a Saturday morning while sipping coffee, reclining in her bed and enjoying a single day off…. “DaVontae Dahlin!!!!!!”….and here we go…..
Using 5 adjectives, describe the real Jenifer Lewis
Energetic, compassionate, generous, fab, powerful, resilient
You are known as the Black Mother of Hollywood. How do you feel about black LGBT portrayals in mainstream films?
Listen, like any minority struggling for acceptance, they had to break the glass by playing the white man’s stereotype. Bois had to put on dresses and over effeminate themselves to get their foot in the door because that’s how mainstream media execs saw them. But the door is now wide open and real strides have been made. Gay men in media are coming into their own and showing diverse representations of the true gay man. It’s a movement and we as a society are beginning to honor gay history and culture. Real issues are now being addressed within the LGBT community so those entertainers that came before had to buy into the stereotype in order to gain a platform to highlight and discuss the real stuff. We as a society are evolving and the LGBT cause is the issue of our day.
Being an outspoken advocate for the LGBT community, what has been the biggest backlash you’ve received from mainstream society?
There hasn’t been one. I wish a muthafuka would!!!! Honey, let me tell you. When I make a decision to do something or cause to support, I do that for Jenifer and I wish anybody would come and question or give me backlash for MY decision…especially if it’s the RIGHT decision!!!
You have an impressive Resume’ and worked with a diverse selection of actors/actresses. Of all your previous co-stars, which one had the most profound impact on your life?
Tom Hanks, Whoopi Goldberg, Meryl Streep, Diahann Carrol, Gregory Hines and Bette Midler
Of all your roles, which role did you most closely relate to and why?
Not Easily Broken with Morris Chestnut and Taraji P. Henson. It was an internal struggle of the woman I played. She was trapped in rage and anger and it was such a powerful role.
Throughout the diverse entities of your acclaimed career, the LGBT community has been major supporters. What do you feel sparks this adoring connection?
My honesty. They are connected to me because like them, I am vulnerable and not afraid to admit it. Of course my fabulousness is in the mix but also my talent and I don’t patronage them. I come directly to the people. It may come off harsh to some but the under current is always the truth and the truth should always be one’s guiding light…Isn’t that what you call reading lol
The 2012 web-series entitled Jenifer Lewis & Shangela went EPIC VIRAL within our community. It was fun, fresh and professional. What was your secret of success with that project?
It was great writers, editors, directors and producers. Our team was amazing. It was also the organic warmth and love I have for DJ (Shangela). They had been asking me to do it for a while and I finally said let’s do it and have fun but it had to be organic or nothing at all. I was impressed and happy with the finished product.
You’ve done movies, Broadway, television and music. Which entity is your favorite and why?
Theatre without a question. You can hear, see and feel it. Your five senses are stimulated at the same time. The audience feedback and interaction helps to increase your performance. There is nothing like the theatre and performing in front of a live audience. Nothing!
If you could bring back one star from the past to work with, which would it be and why?
Very easy. Cary Grant, Sammy Davis Jr., and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. The drama and talent in their performances was amazing. I love the dramatic and what you’ve seen of me so far is only a fraction of what I have and what I’m about to do. I haven’t even started in my dramatic talent. The part has not been written yet! Everything y’all seen was nothing but a rehearsal, I’ve just come alive, I have just awakened. Stay tuned.
In 2007, you chose The Oprah Winfrey Show as a platform to reveal you struggle with bipolar disorder. Mental illness is a major issue that runs rampant in the LGBT community but it’s hidden and not treated. What message would you have for those who may suffer from these issues?
Seek help! Honey just take your friends or family by the hand and take them to get some help. The help they need. In fact, take yourself. Don’t be ashamed. We aint gotta sit in all that pain and sorrow; it’s not your fault there’s a biological chemical imbalance. Get the help you need to live your life to the fullest and free of pain and guilt. The community and churches need to get it together because resources are out there and this should be more heavily addressed. It’s not a death sentence or stigma. Once you get the treatment you need, your life increases 10 fold and you begin to live within the beauty that you’ve always desired.
What have been the top characteristics of the LGBT community that you have adopted and made you a success?
Consistency in their activism! Honey y’all don’t stop! Y’all care about your own. Y’all are relentless and effective in your activism, so it’s a wagon I wanna be on because you are giving back and creating a path. You survived the AIDS epidemic of the 80’s and 90’s and within a generation you have completely evolved the customs and norms of our society for justice. Gay marriage is spreading across the country like a wildfire and civil liberty issues are being addressed. That’s admirable.
Let’s have some fun…How do you describe FAB, FLYY, Sophisticated!!
Only two words…that’s Jenifer Lewis….
If you could come back as a gay man, name 5 traits you would want to possess?
I wanna come back as straight cuz I’ve already lived as a gay man…and it was FABOULOUS…look at me!!!
You’ve performed at Carnegie hall and brought the house down. Tell me, emotionally what was that like
It really is up there with the top most incredible moments of my life. Like the first time I saw the pyramids of Giza…there are some moments that just take your breath away and it was one of them.. It was a childhood dream of mines to perform at Carnegie. Early in my career I would walk past and point up and say “one day you will be there.” To realize that dream came true was beyond words.
Describe what you call a serene and peaceful day in the life of Jenifer Lewis?
Sleep till 9am … garden…jump into the pool naked…lunch at the beach with friends…read a script or two… recline at night and watch Veep with Julia Louis Dreyfus…It’s AMAZING
How do you define success?
Freedom. Living in my own skin and knowing who I am. Success is when you can be in your own skin and know who you are and feel great. Going to work with a smile on your face. Now that’s success.
How was it working as the matriarch alongside legends like Angela Bassett and & Whitney Houston?
When you’re on set, you become a family and everything that goes on in a family is what goes on on the set. Initially, I was a fan too, but I quickly shed that and connected with them as vulnerable humans that are trying to find their way like the rest of us. Sitting there in that scene from The Preachers Wife when I was on the front pew and Whitney was at the pulpit and began singing and hearing that voice, it was a profound moment. I knew this voice is the 8th wonder of the world. It was divinely touched and was an awe to behold. I will forever cherish that experience.
Chicago!!! What are your thoughts on the city and what’s your favorite destination here?
One of my favorites, if not my favorite city!! I love riding my bike all down the lake front. I love being down there on the ocean y’all call a lake, that’s a big bitch!! That aint no lake, that’s a gawd damn ocean!!! I love the shopping on the Mag Mile; Chicago has one of the most admired shopping districts in the country. I love walking thru Millennium Park and the restaurants are purely to die to for!! Chicago is an all-around beautiful city and second to none.
If it was one message that you would like to send to your fans, what would it be?
Take care of yourselves and do what you love to do. Find your passion and do what you are called to do. There are no shortcuts to greatness. The elevator to success is broken so take the stairs. It will make you resilient and authentic. Also I would like to say thank you. Thank you so very much for being so supportive and loving of my career and art. I remember speaking to Michelle at an event for Barack early in his campaign. She whispered to me, “we love you, you make us laugh but with an integrity that’s relatable.” I told her Black people don’t like me, they love me and I would be honored to campaign on your husband’s behalf. I campaigned my ass off for Obama everywhere I went. I am honored to be a vested part of the movement that elected our first Africana American president. That type of support and feedback is humbling and I’m thankful and appreactive.
If it was one message that you could send to those new in the industry and following in your foot -steps what would it be?
People used to ask me, “Jenifer how did you become a star?” Well honestly, I never knew I wasn’t one. I walked into a room at 13 years old and took over the mother fucker. I never doubted I was star. I had a dream. The elevator to success is broken, take the stairs. It will make you resilient and authentic. I am repeating this statement because it is true. I took the stairs and that’s why I’ve sustained. You aint heard no shit about me. All I want to do is give back. You have to realize you can’t help nobody. The greatest hour of my life-was when I realized I could not save anyone. We all have to walk this shit by ourselves. The only thing you can do for anybody on this planet is live your best life. We are not here to change and save. Be kind to each other. It’s a very rare word that means so much but kindness is an important key to success. I’ve come through the fire in my life and I strive to be kind, forthcoming and organic in everything I do.
As someone who has just started my tedious journey towards success and upward mobility, what is one piece of advice that you would have for me?
Honey, we are animals and it’s our instinct to smell and sense bullshit. You are entitled to making your mistakes in life because that is called growth, but become in-tuned with your senses and grow from your experiences. When you smell bullshit, don’t keep scratching at that door trying to get in. Learn to trust yourself, move forward and keep it moving. So many of our people are stuck in a life of misery and repetitive experiences because they have not learned to discipline themselves and avoid the same mistakes they have made for the past 20 years. Live your life to fullest but be aware of the mistakes and pitfalls you’ve made in the past. Choices is the key to life and making choices that will propel you to the next level while avoiding mistakes of the past. That will take you far. You’re smart. Use your brain and instincts. God didn’t give us a big ass head with brains in it for decoration.
In a cyber-age, where we are connected to millions of people and exposed to millions of ideas; it’s rare to meet someone that can profoundly touch your life through a thirty minute conversation. My experience with Jenifer did just that. I am more than excited about next week’s event featuring Jenifer, because as it was explained to me, this will not be a “show” per se—It’s more of a “getting to know Jenifer” opportunity comprised mostly of interviews and interaction with the audience—and of course, an opportunity for Jenifer to demonstrate her support for the Step Up, Get Tested initiative. I am more than confident that the audience will find her equally stimulating, provocative, insightful and entertaining. Jenifer’s recipe to success is to remain organic. I can assure you, witnessing the organic Jenifer will be a life-changing and delightful event. Be prepared to be mentally engaged, entertained and hear the truth! ….see you there…Cheers…Deo