Jenifer Lewis Is the Mother of Black Hollywood—and Has the Stories to Prove It
by YOHANA DESTA
NOVEMBER 13, 2017 11:34 AM
Jenifer Lewis speaks like someone who was raised on Broadway. Everyone is “darling!” and “honey!” She’s as easily given to singing as she is to speaking. She can regale you for days with stories about her magnificent career and off-screen adventures: doing readings with Oprah Winfrey,having heart-to-hearts with Carrie Fisher, hooking up with theater star Gregory Hines. For the last two and a half years, the actress—currently starring in Black-ish—has been channeling those stories into a scintillating, yet heartfelt memoir. It’s slated for a November 14 release, and it has a perfect title: The Mother of Black Hollywood.
“It speaks to everything that I am,” Lewis tells Vanity Fair. “People come up, ‘Oh, you remind me of my aunt, you remind me of my mom.’ I always appreciate it.”
The memoir is pure Lewis: thousands of exclamation points! Lots of cursing! Juicy anecdotes! Lewis isn’t afraid to get deeply personal, happily recounting her sexscapades and revealing that her girlfriends once nicknamed her the “dick diva.”
The actress, who came up in the New York theater scene and later became a Hollywood regular via shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and cult hit movies like Jackie’s Back! (plus, a lot of iconic mother parts, which explains the memoir’s title), spent her formative years performing on stage and partying off stage, taking inspiration from the melodramatic greats. Her love of theater kept her from delving into hard drugs, as evidenced by the first time she was ever offered cocaine at a party. She remembers asking the man who offered it to her what to do next:
“He said, ‘Well, you snort it,’” Lewis recalls. “I said, ‘And then what happens?’ He said, ‘Well, then you feel a drip down your throat.’ I was like ‘Throat?! Baby, I got a matinee tomorrow, ain’t shit goin’ on my throat.‘”
These stories shape her journey, grounding Lewis’s high-flying adventures—singing with Bette Midler, acting alongside Tupac, meeting the Obamas—in something deeply human and relatable. Lewis spoke candidly about all of it in a chat with V.F.
Vanity Fair: You’re very frank about your sexual life. Which one of those stories was the most fun to retell?
Jenifer Lewis: Oh, Gregory Hines! The Gregory Hines story. We were so young and beautiful and foolish and happy. We were working on Broadway and child, please—like I said, I was the only woman he hadn’t slept with. It was just a fun time, but also . . . I had not been diagnosed with bipolar disorder [at that time]. And my drug was sex. These men, like I say in the book, I discarded them like tissue paper, and that was an addiction.
You include a brief anecdote about seeing Robin Williams [backstage] at the Johnny Carson show; something about that convinced you to try medication. I was wondering if you could elaborate on that.
It took my therapist five years to convince me to take medication, because I didn’t want it to take my edge. My edge that made me Jenifer Lewis on the stage. Show business was breakfast, lunch, and dinner for me. And the afternoon snack. I livedfor show business.
When I saw Robin backstage, I saw something that I had never seen, which was the mania. And I saw that he couldn’t stop. There was not a pause, and we were just all kinda sitting around, so I saw myself. [She sighs.] It disturbed me. So I took note because, you know, how can you focus on your own journey if you can’t still your mind? And that is what the medication did for me. It put me at a level—I wasn’t high up in the polars, so high in the mania and so low in the depression. What the medication did for me is it put me in the middle so that I could focus, because before that I would self-sabotage, absolutely. And it held me back.
You mention being excited to meet Carrie Fisher, who was also diagnosed with bipolar disorder and became a mental-health advocate.
Oh, yes, I have so much respect for her. She used her platform. She used her artistry to help, to get the word out about mental illness . . . she was very brave, and just a beautiful actress. I was very, very sad when she passed away.
Did you two actually talk about your shared experience?
Oh, yes, we talked about it! We met when she saw me on stage at A.P.L.A.—AIDS Project Los Angeles—and she came backstage. I had done something that she just loved. I think I made a mistake or something, flubbed a word on stage, and I just threw my head back and went ‘Oh my god, I love myself!’ Well, she just thought that was the funniest thing, because it was so brave. Who runs around screaming at 10,000 people ‘I love myself, and so do you!’ [laughs] ‘You love me!’
She came backstage and we sat and talked. Later on, she came out with bipolar disorder, and I called her and we talked about it then. I followed her footsteps.
When I was finally diagnosed, it was shocking, but you have to understand I had lived that all my life. I was like, ‘Bi-what? I’m not bisexual, I’m bicoastal! What the fuck is that?’ I made a big joke out of it, but they had given it a name, and they had a treatment—and I was grateful for that.
When I think of you, I think of a million things. What are you recognized for most frequently?
It’s definitely The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. It is all over the world. I was in a clock museum in Utrecht, O.K.? And somebody came running and screaming. I said, ‘What the hell?’ I’m not walking around famous, I’m walking around as a human being. But that girl screamed.
I just got back from Tanzania; they knew me there. Black-ish screens over there. I was just in Iceland, and Black-ish is very popular there. Girl, I was recognized on Easter Island.
Everywhere Jenifer goes . . .
Everywhere. I was literally in Ngorongoro in Tanzania, and I was taking a picture of a wildebeest. I kid you not, another safari truck came by and somebody yelled out ‘Hey, Jenifer Lewis!’ I said ‘Oh my god—would ya shut up so I can get a picture of this wildebeest, please?!’
Harvey Weinstein and all the allegations that have come out in his wake are dominating the news cycle. In the book, you tell those two very brave stories about your own experiences, what happened in your apartment and what happened with your pastor. Can you talk a bit about the process of deciding to put that in the book?
Let me begin by saying how I applaud the men and women that have come forward to say that they were harassed. I certainly honor them. I had no pause or hesitation to tell those two stories. Was it difficult to relive them? Yes. Especially in the audiobook, when I had to say it out loud. It’s one thing to type it on the computer, but it’s another thing to go back there into those rooms . . . but putting those two stories in the book, I did not pause at all.
When you write a memoir, you can’t leave that kind of stuff out. That is the richness to share with the next generation. Everybody wants to talk about the good stuff, but no, you have to go into the soul.
There’s never been any shame in my game. I tell it all! ‘Yeah, I did it!’ But here’s what gave me the right to write a book: it’s because I’m healthy, and I still have a smile on my face. I came through the forest. I met all the predators and I looked ‘em dead in the eye. I found the courage because I kept putting one step in front of the other.