Sheryl Lee Ralph: Original 'Dreamgirl' redefines diva in new memoir

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If you are looking for inspirational reading material, you might want to check out actress Sheryl Lee Ralph’s new memoir, Redefining Diva: Life Lessons from the Original Dreamgirl.

The book chronicles Ralph’s life as she maneuvers her way through the good, the bad and sometimes ugly, showbiz industry. It also tells the story of a young girl, raised in a loving home, who was determined to pursue her dreams without compromising her integrity.

In highly personal reflections, Ralph sheds lights on her early years as “just another struggling actress pounding the pavement,” in the 1970s, when “solid” roles for young black women were few and far between.

By 1981, though, she won the coveted role of Deena Jones in what would become the hit Broadway musical, Dreamgirls. Cast alongside Jennifer Holliday in a Supremes-like tale of a trio of African-American female singers who make it big in the 1960s, the production was an overnight sensation.

Ralph’s performance, for which she earned comparisons to Diana Ross, landed her a Tony nomination in 1982 for Best Actress in a Musical.

Dreamgirls was revolutionary,” Ralph writes, “Finally there was a stage full of beautifully black women. They weren’t stereotypes or background characters, they were the show itself.”

Actress and singer Ralph went on to star in movies with Denzel Washington and Robert De Niro and capture America’s heart as television’s favorite mom, Dee, in the #1 rated series Moesha.

She writes, nonetheless, that her career has had its ups and downs. One casting agent told her words that haunted her for years: “You’re obviously beautiful and talented, but what do I do with you? Team you up with Tom Cruise? Do you kiss him? And who comes to see this movie?”

Ralph explains that her time in Dreamgirls was overshadowed by the emergence of a strange illness (initially called GRID or Gay Related Immune Deficiency) that was killing many of her showbiz friends, including Dreamgirls director-choreographer Michael Bennett and the show’s playwright-lyricist Tom Eyen.

I was witness to such an ugly time in America,” Ralph said in an interview with theGrio. “People found it easy to turn their backs on people dying from a mysterious disease because they were gay.”

By 1990, however, Ralph founded the DIVA Foundation, a non-profit organization which raises awareness about HIV/AIDS. Each year, the foundation presents an evening of song with DIVAS Simply Singing. Proceeds from the fundraiser benefit organizations in Los Angeles and around the world.

Her autobiography reveals Ralph’s tempestuous relationship with Michael Bennett, her take on her supposed feuds with Diana Ross and Jennifer Holliday and on why she abruptly left the TV series Moesha. “Because [Moesha] was toxic,” she says.

She uses her life story to illustrate that a true Diva is not just “big hair and big attitude” but a strong women with inner beauty.

Part memoir, part self-help, one of the underlying themes of Redefining Diva is that we all have the power of choice. Ralph says, “If it’s not about choice then what’s it about?” She adds, “People make things very difficult for themselves by trying to blame someone else in life.”

One of the biggest life-lessons Ralph has learned is that you’re got to have faith and hold onto that faith, she says. “I have known so many people who have been so close to their greatness but gave up just as it was about to happen.”

Throughout her career Ralph has been determined not take on a parts she couldn’t be proud of. When theGrio asked her about her take on the controversial movie, The Help, she admits it was hard to watch and she still finds it difficult for black actresses to be nominated for their roles as maids.

She concedes, nevertheless, “There is no way you couldn’t deny the talent of Viola and Octavia” and “I honestly thought Viola was going to win and was disappointed she missed out on the best actress award at the Oscars.”

Even today, despite progress in the film and television industry, “There still needs to be more powerful, interesting and diverse roles for black actresses,” says Ralph.

She’s glad the Dreamgirls movie was made and “for obvious reasons the film Sparkle is going to be big hit” because “people will want to see Whitney’s last performance.”

“Whitney was an incredible talent,” says Ralph. “The first time I saw her was when she was 19-years-old performing in a little club called Sweet Waters.” Even back then she knew Whitney would be an international star.

Redefining Diva: Life Lessons from the Original Dreamgirl will be published on March 13, 2012

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