St. Louis' Very Own Jenifer Lewis

Up Close and Personal

July 4, 2014 

From singing in church and wowing congregations at age of 5 to debuting on Broadway two weeks after arriving in New York City at age 22, to starring in numerous television shows and feature films, Jenifer Lewis has been entertaining audiences for over 50 years.

Growing up in the impoverished Kinloch area of St. Louis, Jenifer didn’t let her surroundings prevent her from knowing she had talent and was a natural-born leader. After flourishing as cheerleading captain and class president in high school, and honing her incredible speaking and singing voice, Jenifer knew there was no other choice but to be become an entertainer. After obtaining her BA in Theater Arts from Webster University in St. Louis, Jennifer headed off to New York City. Saddened by the fact that she hadn’t made it onto Broadway after spending a whole two weeks in New York, Jenifer called her mother to tell her she was ready to come back home to St. Louis. However, the very next day she received a call telling her she had been cast in the Broadway play Eubie – so she rushed to call her mother back to inform her to pack her bags, that she was headed to New York City too!

“When you’re in your 20’s you feel like you are a Force of Nature, and you really have no fear! I knew that my dream to be on stage would sustain me,” Jenifer shared. “My aspiration to entertain the masses was ferocious ever since I saw the response of the congregation when I sang to them in church when I was 5. I knew that feeling was all I ever wanted to feel from my career and for me, there was no turning back! I had decided early on, if I ran into obstacles or if a door seemed to be locked to me, I would knock the damn door down! I knew I had the talent and I was determined to show the world what I could do – so I did.”

Jenifer’s singing abilities took her to the next phase of her career off the Broadway stage, when Bette Midler reached out to ask her to become one of her Harlette backup singers on tour. Then in 1988, Bette reached out to Jenifer again, asking her to be a part of new movie she was starring in called Beaches.

After shooting the film, Jenifer decided it was time to head back to New York City to do what she loves most, singing on stage. After one of her performances, she was approached by Eddie Murphy’s manager, who had three men he was representing at the time– Murphy, Chris Rock and Arsenio Hall, and he wanted Jenifer to come along for the ride too, promising to make her a Star! Riding the wave of stardom with these guys sounding very appealing, so of course, she did that too!

As the 80’s rolled into the early 90’s, Jenifer was enjoying living in the limelight of her success, but she also found herself becoming very depressed, as she was losing too many good friends to AIDS. Her grief and depression had become so overwhelming, that she did what any strong woman would do to get her life and career back on track. She sought help to find out if her symptoms of highs and lows that were ruining her life might be something more than grief – maybe it was Bipolar Disorder. “Reaching out to get help with this disease is one of the smartest things I have done in my life. Being able to share my own experiences and how I made the effort to find the answers to make my own life better, and knowing that through my sharing these issues I’ve given someone else the power to gain control of this disease in their own lives, is one of my crowning achievements thus far. Giving back at this point in my life is what it is all about.”

Of course, you can’t keep a good woman down for long, and Jenifer bounced back to focusing on her life and career. She was approached by many producers, directors and fellow actors to take on both television and cinematic roles from the early 90’s until now. After Debbie Allan needed her to play Dean Dorothy Dandridge Davenport in a new sitcom she was producing called A Different World, Jenifer then moved on to the role of Aunt Helen on another sitcom hit of that era, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. These early television roles lead to more opportunities, such as receptionist Lana Hawkins on Lifetime Network’s original series Strong Medicine and Vera Brown in Tyler Perry’s movie and sitcom Meet the Browns. While the television roles kept coming, so did the film roles. Jenifer has played many significant roles in films like Castaway (playing opposite Tom Hanks as his boss), Michelle in Sister Act and Sister Act 2 and voicing such memorable characters as Flo in the Walt Disney animated features Cars, Cars 2 and Mama Odie in The Princess & The Frog.

Jenifer is known as “The Black Mother of Hollywood” as many of her roles have been playing someone’s mother. When asked how one gets a name like that in the movie business, Jenifer explained, “It seems as if I have played almost everyone’s mother or mother-in-law over the years, even if I am not that much older than they are. I was only 6 years older than Whitney Houston in The Preacher’s Wife and only 1 year older than Angela Bassett in What’s Love Got To Do With It. Fact is, if I am asked to play the role of someone’s mother, I do it – One, because I am a classically-trained actress, and two, because honey, for that kind of money, I will play their Daddy if they ask me too!”

This leads us to Jenifer’s next starring role, again reprising the role of Michael’s (Terrance Jenkins) mother in her new movie Think Like a Man Too. When asked her thoughts on playing this role opposite Terrance, Regina Hall, and Kevin Hart, she was almost giddy. “I so love playing movies with ensemble casts like this – heck, I think I have played mother or mother-in-law to almost all of these actors too somewhere along the way, in different movies. I am actually excited to work with these great young actors, as they learn the ropes as I did many years ago. I always try to share some words of wisdom and encouragement with them along the way too. One of my favorite quotes to share with any young actor trying to make his or her way in this crazy business is ‘The elevator to success is broken, so you better take the stairs.’ Hard work and perseverance will pay off, once you have paid your dues and put in the time, your talent can take you anywhere! And to your readers out there too, who think that being an entertainer is who they are, and what they want to be – they need to make sure that it is in every fiber of their being to do this. The rejection can be bone crushing, and if you don’t know in your heart that you have the talent to succeed, then don’t go for it – but if you do – there should be nothing stopping you!”

And don’t think for one minute Jenifer is slowing down once the new movie hits theaters. She is presently working on writing her memoir, working on a musical stage production for Broadway to be released when she turns 60, and is also executive producing Ventura Boulevard V, plus starring opposite Kevin Hart in The Wedding Ringer due out in 2015.

Here is one more memorable quote from “the lady herself” that has resonated with this writer since we spoke: “Remember, we are all stars and life is precious – you snatch every ounce of happiness you can – because when the years behind you are greater than the years ahead of you – you do exactly what you want to do for you, always!”

And that a wrap.

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