Actress, singer, diva and the Mother of Black Hollywood, Jenifer Lewis is a force to be reckoned with. She’s played on stages with some of greats and has honestly played everyone’s momma, from Tupac’s character in Poetic Justice and Tina Turner’s mother, Zelma Bullock, in What’s Love Got to Do With It to Ruby on ABC’s, black-ish.
When Lewis released her memoir, The Mother of Black Hollywood, we couldn’t wait to get our hands on a copy to see what the actress had to say. Here are a few things we learned.
She hails from the Show Me State.
Jenifer Jeanette Lewis was born and raised in the small town of Kinloch, Missouri that bordered St. Louis and Ferguson, MO. As the baby of a seven-sibling family, Lewis described herself as being overlooked by her siblings, who coupled themselves off into groups of three, thus leaving her out. Although her family struggled to make ends meet, it never stifled her dream to make it big. As a child and into her high school days, Lewis shined and was a natural leader. She was class president for six years straight, a cheerleader and voted “Most Likely to Succeed.”
Fun fact: Lewis isn’t the first notable to come from that small town in the Show Me State. Congresswoman Maxine Waters and comedian, Dick Gregory both hail from Kinloch.
She's open about her mental illness.
Growing up and well into her adult life, Lewis would suffer from maniac behaviors like feeling pressure to talk more than usual, distractibility, increased goal-directed activity, excessive involvement in pleasurable activities that have high potential for painful consequences and other symptoms of bi-polar disorder. Like many African Americans, Lewis believed she acted the way because that’s how she’s always had been. It wasn’t until her adult life when she was in therapy and her therapist that she was diagnosed as bi-polar disorder.
Sexual freedom is not something she's shy about.
If you follow @jeniferlewisforreal on Instagram, then you’ve seen her “For the D Challenge” video and know that she has “always loved a big D." Throughout her memoir, she is very open and even descriptive in some instances about her sexual freedom. Although some of her sexual appetite may have been fueled by her bi-polar disorder, it didn’t stop her sexual experiences with men from across the country as she toured in various shows. Her little black book even includes Gregory Hines and Jon Voight (Angelina Jolie’s father) but we’ll let her give you that tea.
A star is born... in New York City.
Having moved to New York City after graduating from Webster University, Lewis wasted no time pounding the pavement and landed a role in the show, Eubie. She soon began making a name for herself and after Eubie ended she created her own one woman show at a NYC cabaret club. As her show became more and more popular amongst tourist and other actors in New York, Lewis got a call one night to join Bette Midler’s background singers, The Staggering Harlettes. Initially, Lewis declined stating she had her own and couldn’t make it to Los Angeles on the day they needed her. The same night the great Bette Midler called Jenifer personally to ask her to join the Harlettes and the rest was history.
Dreamgirls was a success with or without her.
When Lewis hit the New York theater scene, she was greeted with tons of prospect. One opportunity was Dreamgirls. Although the play was still being developed, Lewis was cast as Effie White. Lewis spent time evolving Effie’s character from attitude to wardrobe and more. In the end, as we all know, the part was re-cast to Jennifer Holliday, who went on to be forever remembered in the role, even after Jennifer Hudson’s stellar performance in the movie. The gag is even though the part was recast, Lewis still got paid throughout the entire run of Dreamgirls for her part in developing the character of Effie. In the words of Auntie Jenifer, “Merry Christmas!”