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Actress Sheryl Lee Ralph Talks Hollywood Diversity, Barack Obama & HIV/AIDS

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By Jawn Murray

Sheryl Lee Ralph is a real renaissance woman!

She’s an actress, singer, producer, dancer, humanitarian and political activist.

The 51-year-old original ‘Dreamgirl’ has carved out quite a niche for herself in Hollywood, having played a range of characters on shows like ‘E.R.,’ ‘Barbershop,’ ‘7th Heaven,’ ‘Whoopi,’ ‘The Proud Family’ and ‘The District.’

Ralph became one of television’s most beloved moms when she starred on the UPN sitcom, ‘Moesha.’ Though the show aired for six seasons, Ralph left the show after its fifth season because of creative differences with the show’s storyline.

Her work on ‘Moesha’ earned her five NAACP Image Award nominations.

While maintaining her career as an actress, the Tony nominated talent has been a champion of raising awareness for HIV/AIDS.

She’s a celebrity spokesperson for National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day; launched a one woman show called ‘Sometimes I Cry’ about real women who battle the disease; and annually hosts the ‘Divas Simply Singing’ benefit concert for her Diva Foundation to raise funds for research and awareness programs about HIV/AIDS.

A mother of two and the wife of Pennsylvania Senator Vincent Hughes, Ralph is a vocal supporter of Senator Barack Obama for president.

I was recently a guest at Ralph’s home, where she invited me to participate in a shoot for her forthcoming documentary, ‘The Greatest Love Scenes in Black Movies’ alongside the likes of Paula Jai Parker, Ernie Hudson, KiKi Shephard, Gary Sturgis, Terri J. Vaughn, Vanessa Bell Calloway and others.

My interview with the Independent Spirit Award winner took place just before she was set to leave on a goodwill mission with more than 25 women to Cape Town, South Africa.

During our chat, she spoke candidly about Hollywood child stars, her philanthropic initiatives and the lack of diversity in the entertainment business.

You’ve worked with some very interesting child stars over the years, haven’t you?

I have worked with some of the best children ever. Some of them go a little wayward, some of the were a little hard headed and some of them took you through it a little bit, but for the most part when I look at all of them, they have made great success and I’m really proud of them.

Why do you think some child stars take the route of Gary Coleman and Lindsay Lohan?

This is nothing new. Elvis Presley was a young man when he started and look how he ended up. That man in Las Vegas , Wayne Newton, he was a young man when he started. He will tell you some of the things that he went through. This is an old story. Once you get into the field and you are a young, immature person and you have so many people around you who tell you, “I love you, you’re fabulous, drop your drawers a little lower, now shake it, how much can we get for that” that’s how it works and that’s how it happens. There’s nothing new about it. The quicker that we can take down people who are up on a pedestal, we love that.

But then there are success stories like Raven. But she doesn’t get the same attention as the ones who wear no panties with mini-skirts.

I love Raven! Once again, we love to see the bomb explode and the bodies splatter. That’s who we are as human beings. We do not care when people do good. I have learned from my experience that people do not care about charity. They do not care about looking out for others. I’ve had people tell me to my face, “You really spend too much time doing good. You need to get yourself a scandal or gain some weight.” I’m telling you the truth and you know I do not lie. I might embellish, but I don’t lie.

Now Ray J was your step-son on ‘Moesha’ and now his claim to fame is a sex tape. What would you do as a mother if your real son Etienne ended up doing a sex tape?

If my son came home and said that he had a sex tape I would know that he had been set up or that he really lost his mind. Do I think that sex is an entry into Hollywood ? For some people, but it depends on what shade you are. Color is breaking barriers, but it’s still an issue. They may look at one woman or one man’s sex tape as art and the other one who is a little darker as trash. They accept and expect that from some of “us” and that’s why we have to be careful when we forget that there is definitely a double standard.

As a black actress in Hollywood, does the lack of diversity in roles and opportunities in general frustrate you?

Finally, we’re speaking up and out honestly to show the facts that diversity is lacking. Why is it that a magazine like Elle or Vanity Fair can come out every year and do a party and not invite us and think its okay? How can it be that Vanity Fair put the Black girl on the fold on the inside? Come on! How many times do you thumb through the magazine and you don’t see yourself? We see it and now hopefully with the change that’s coming out that is resonating with the image of Barack out there that people will refocus.

Tell me why you are so passionate about your work with HIV/AIDS.

That is probably one of the most difficult things that I have ever done. In this fight for me, it has gone in cycles. I have been in this fight long enough for people to tell me I’m crazy, to shut up, that it’s not my fight. They ask me why I’m talking about “those” people. That’s got nothing to do with you. I’ve been in this fight long enough for people to say to me: “You’re gonna go to hell for talking about this. God will not bless you!” I’ve been in this fight long enough for people to tell me that my career will go nowhere. On the flipside, people have told me that God will bless me and “thank God you haven’t stopped.” When I look at it and it was just gay men, gay men deserve to be cared about because they were my friends at that time. Tell me how I’m supposed to hate my friends. My brain doesn’t work that way. The silence and stigma that was over gay men is now over Black women. So you could hate on gay men, be silent about Black women, I’m not getting it. You know when the real pain comes? When people start burying their children, but it didn’t have to get to this point. My father told me that people don’t pay any attention until it absolutely has something to do with them. It’s hard. It is very hard.

And so your event ‘Divas Simply Singing’ is a huge concert for you that is used to raise awareness and revenue for HIV/AIDS.

‘Divas Simply Singing,’ which I’ve been producing for 18 years, we are Black and we are also the longest consecutive running musical AIDS fundraiser in America. They won’t tell you that. It’s not even like they help us a whole lot and give us money. We have to work for every bit that we get just for doing good. It’s been a long fight. It has been a long struggle.

You are on the campaign trail for Barack Obama. Why are you an avid supporter of his?

I’m a big supporter of Barack Obama and I always tell people that you better listen to what Barack is saying. He is telling you up front, “I am inspiring you because we’ve got a lot of work to do.” If you put him in there for four years, you better be ready for eight years because that’s the haul we need for the kind of change that we need. Every 50 years I believe that the model has to be broken whether the model is an automobile company, an airline or the way a country runs, you have to break that mold in order to make it efficient and grow. We have tried to stay in the same way for too long and now we have kids in who can’t read or write. We have got to develop new English because we can’t even spell our own language. That’s frightening. We have kids in who can not even compete scientifically because they can’t. No child left behind, come on. Healthcare? Wake up people. It’s not free. Someone’s got to pay for it some kind of way. He’s putting together these plans for our education and community and national service. Not only is that great, but it is needed to put the help we need back into our own country and revitalize our own country. It’s not free. You have to give back. You want that $4,000? You have to earn that.

SOURCE: Black Voices


2 Responses

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  1. Love you Sheryl!!
    Love you Obama!!


    August 28, 2008 at 10:16 pm

  2. I am very very proud that I “turned-on” a friend of mine to you. Ms. Ralph, you are amazing. So beautiful and talented and real. Saw Dreamgirls, the original play, so yeah I’m of a certain age, tho I don’t recall whether you were in it when I saw it. When I was trying to tell my friend who you were I didn’t even think to say “the mother in Moesha”, partly because the image of you burned in my minds eye forever is you in “The Mighty Quinn.” Toward the end of the movie when Denzel comes to your door, standing there in the rain, you open the door and you look like an absolute goddess… Oh my god, that scene is breathtaking. Anyway, back to reality, I hope to join you on Sept 27th in D.C. I want to support your HIV AIDS philantropy…

    Richard Henderson

    September 1, 2008 at 8:03 am

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