Editor’s note: Jenifer Lewis’s memoir, THE MOTHER OF BLACK HOLLYWOOD, is hitting shelves and we thought it the perfect time to revisit this steadfast AIDS advocate.
Wired for Change
Actress and Black AIDS Institute Honoree Jenifer Lewis serves up her bawdy humor and sharp wit with A&U’s Dann Dulin and gets down to brass tacks about personal loss, fighting the pandemic, and giving hell to politicians
Photographed by Jordan Ancel
Jenifer Lewis is a diva’s diva. Sure, so the word “diva” has been way overused in our culture and is almost a cliché, but Lewis has really earned her diva status. With her fiery, no-holds-barred persona, you might think that she would overwhelm, but Lewis exudes enough warmth and goodwill to win over even the most timid soul. She’s skillfully applied her abundant talents as a singer, dancer, actor, songwriter, and comedienne to wow audiences. You probably know Lewis from her current role as receptionist Lana Hawkins on Lifetime’s Strong Medicine. Her other TV credits include Girlfriends and A Different World, and on the big screen she’s appeared in The Cookout, What’s Love Got To Do With It, and Sister Act. On Broadway, she costarred in Eubie and Dreamgirls, and she has toured in her one woman show, The Diva is Dismissed. (In the early eighties, she was even one of Bette Midler’s Harlettes). Jenifer wears another hat, as well. She is a committed AIDS activist. In fact, last year, she was honored by the Black AIDS Institute at their annual gala event as one of their “Heroes in the Struggle”—African-Americans who have been on the frontlines of AIDS.
Lewis has lost nearly two hundred friends to the disease. Ironically, just one week prior to the Black AIDS Institute event, Jenifer’s beloved cousin, Ronald Stewart (“Ronnie”), forty-one, succumbed to the disease. She was shocked, as she never knew that he was HIV-positive. Ronnie and Jenifer were raised together, and, for the past ten years, he had lived with her. Stewart was a hair stylist whose salon, Situations, had such celebrity clients as Angela Bassett and the members of Boyz II Men. “He was my first Pip to my Gladys,” Jenifer reminisces sullenly from her suburban home at the foot of the hills that enclose the San Fernando Valley. “Ronnie was always a caretaker. I brought him out here from St. Louis to help me raise my daughter.”
She glances out the kitchen’s bay window at the luscious swimming pool nestled in the well-manicured backyard. Moments before, this vivacious, ribald entertainer had been animated, energetic, and playfully talking like a truck driver. Now she strikes a serious pose. “What was so horrible about it was that Ronnie never told anyone. He stayed in denial. He never got treated,” she says. He kept his condition completely to himself. And since he didn’t physically deteriorate, like many people living with AIDS do, his secret was kept till the very end.
Jenifer, forty-eight, sits at the table of her sunny yellow kitchen clad in a fire-engine-red silk poncho, blue jeans, and short black boots. The ensemble is topped off with tiny gold earrings. It’s a simple yet elegant look. Her hair is pulled back tightly into a bun, which frames her youthful face. Lewis is candid, headstrong, and feisty, with a devious, delightful wit.
As Lewis remembers her cousin, her toy poodle, Cashew, starts to bark. “Who are these fuckin’ people?!” she asks jokingly, as she peers out the window. “Oh, it’s the gardeners. Hi, Juan,” she yells, as he revs up the leaf blower. The sound is deafening. We contemplate moving to another room but instead, Juan moves to a different area of the yard. Jenifer begins again, but then the phone rings. She answers. “Honey, I’m in the middle of an interview. I haven’t time for the bullshit. What is it?!” she pleads. It’s her writing partner, Mark Alton Brown. They’re presently working on a satire of Sunset Boulevard (a photograph from the movie prominently hangs in Lewis’s living room) called Ventura Boulevard. Several years ago, Lewis starred in Lifetime’s mockumentary, Jackie’s Back, written by Brown and Dee LaDuke. Brown apparently asks Jenifer who is interviewing her and she replies, “It’s A&U, the AIIIDS divas. Uh? Far from dress extras and carhops. They’re fabulous people and they’re gorgeous, too. I like pretty people in my house. I’m so glad these mothafuckers ain’t ugly ’cause I wouldn’t tell ’em shit.” For a couple of minutes Lewis listens to the monologue he’s just written for the project. She’s excited and intense.
After she hangs up the phone, Jenifer is calm. “See how I’ve changed…because it is so brilliant.” She sighs deeply. “It’s beyond.” This is one of her favorite phrases. She returns to the matter at hand. “I’ve known many people who have fallen to AIDS: pianists, makeup artists, backup singers, choreographers, wardrobe crew, and people who raised me [in the theater]: Michael Bennett, Michael Peters, Tom Eyen, everybody in the Eubie chorus, everybody in the Dreamgirls chorus. They’re gone! They’re gone.” Her voice breaks.
“I’ve literally performed in every state, except Montana,” Lewis points out. “Every Black History Month, in February, I would hire these African-American hair stylists and makeup artists. I’d go back the next year, call them, and there’d be a silence over the phone. Oh, god, that silence,” she says with dread. “I can’t tell you how many times I heard that silence.” These individuals had died from AIDS. One time when Jenifer returned from Egypt, she discovered that four friends had died, and two on that same day. “That fucked me up!” she laments, nodding. “I didn’t quite know what to do with losing that many people. I didn’t want to call my shrink, didn’t want to call my mother, and didn’t want to call a friend. So I called my acting teacher, Janet Alhanti. She’s a brilliant woman who is in touch with the inner stuff; she goes to the core of capturing a character. I said, ‘Janet, what do you do with that information?’ And without hesitation she said, ‘You live it,’” whispers Jenifer, who pulls back some tears.
Several moments pass until she breaks the silence. “And that’s what I did. I lived it. You feel it; you sit with it; you run with it. Ronnie was here every day for ten years. He was the first person I lost that I was extremely close to. Ronnie was my friend, my brother—the son I never had.” She leans forward, pensively. “I used to call for him in the house, ‘Ronn-eee,’” she hollers in her high spirited voice. “And he’d answer, ‘Yeah-ah.’” After he died, I’d yell for him just out of habit, and his fuckin’ answer was missing. So I’d answer for him. Then I said, ‘Now, bitch, don’t go crazy. Don’t start hearing things.’ But it helped me see him and feel him. His death was the most painful thing I had ever experienced.” Then she says in a low murmur, “That precious, precious boy leaving this planet; leaving all the people who loved him.”
Stewart’s funeral was held at a church in Lewis’s hometown of St. Louis. She admits that she went raving mad and screamed like a lunatic. “I couldn’t believe I did that. I didn’t fall over the casket but I kid you not, I’ve never known pain like that in my life. I thought I’d never sing again I howled so loud. It was almost animal,” she says. That’s not unusual, I add, a primal scream. “Yes! And it was beyond anything that I ever imagined I could do after fifteen years of therapy.
“You see, Ronnie did everyone’s hair. We were fucked when he was gone. I don’t know if people at the funeral were crying for him or for the loss of their hair stylist!” Jenifer’s words remind me how close comedy is to tragedy. After the funeral, Lewis reflected on her behavior. It surprised her so much, she wanted to explore it. “Actually, I discovered that I wasn’t just mourning Ronnie, I was mourning my childhood—the innocence, the purity that he represented.” Even yesterday, prepping for this interview she said she had the urge to call Ronnie and have him assist with her clothes and makeup. “I just stood by the closet door and broke down. I hadn’t cried in a long time. Grieving comes in waves, you know that. You accept it and go on.”
Though she still grieves, Jenifer believes that she will see Ronnie again. “I believe that we are forever,” she notes confidently, fixing her poncho which has draped below her shoulder. “That’s why we should slow down. We have forever to get this shit right.” Lewis has soul-searched her whole life. She’s investigated channeling, past life regression, and even the Ouija board. What conclusions has she drawn from her spiritual journey? “What happens is just like Dorothy [in The Wizard of Oz], you come right back home.”
Lewis always knew that she wanted to be a star. As the youngest of seven children, she fought hard to gain attention. “Early on, I wanted to be a gymnast because I found out how flexible I was. But that lasted about an hour; besides, my tits were too big,” says Jenifer, cackling in Phyllis Diller style. Her first public appearance was at the age of five when she sang “Oh Lord, You Brought Me a Mighty Long Way” at a church. She sings a few bars in her deep, rich voice. She loves an audience! Lewis had only one job outside of show business, which was during her first year at Webster University. She toasted buns at McDonald’s. Later, she wrote a song about the job for her one-woman show. She sings it for me.
So won’t ya fan my buns they’re burnin’,
Fan my buns they’re hot.
So you’re gonna fan my buns I’m yearnin’,
That’s what I like a lot.
’Cause brother they’re hot, hot, hot.
Oh, brother, they’re hot.
[A sexy exhale] Buns.
It’s early morning, McBreakfast time
Step up, please, you’re next in line
It’s lunch time sir, what is your wish
Yes, we have hot Filet O’Fish
You’re back again, that wasn’t enough?
You want to try my Egg McMuff?
After the song, Jenifer snaps, “Oh, it was disgusting. I’m brilliant!” She throws her head back in classic diva style. “Anything that was going on in my life came out in my show. It’s been great therapy. That’s what saved me until I got regulated with medication.” She was diagnosed as bipolar in 1997, and is presently in psychotherapy (“It continues to be a great asset in my life”). For added therapy she pieces together jigsaw puzzles (two presently lie on the table) and she paints with ink pen and markers. In fact, she’s presently writing a show about all of this, which she’s one-hundred-percent convinced will open on Broadway—this woman has a great positive attitude! With a nod to writer Lorraine Hansberry, the working title is To Be Middle-Aged, Bipolar, and Black.
When Jenifer announces the title, she is quite strident and dramatic. As Lewis’s voice rises, Claudia, Jenifer’s cousin and assistant, peeks into the kitchen with a startled look. Jenifer reassures her: “The white people are fine, Claudia.” Claudia exits quietly. Lewis tenderly says to me, “Now, that’s my ‘Birdie’ [Margo Channing’s assistant in All About Eve]. How cute is that? I scream every morning; I wake up screaming like this so I don’t know why I frightened her.”
Another important person in Lewis’s life is her seventeen-year-old adopted daughter, Charmaine, whom she met through the Big Sister program over twelve years ago. As we walk into the den, Jenifer is elated to show me some photos from her albums. We sit close to one another on a comfy sofa and the proud mom pages through pictures (framed pictures of Charmaine are plentiful throughout the home, too). Has she and her daughter talked about HIV prevention? “Well, she has a gorgeous boyfriend now, but I don’t think she’ll ever have sex because she’s so frightened of it. She’s been inundated with Jenifer Lewis,” she declares. “I have scared the shit outta her!” Sitting nearby is Ms. Lewis’s publicist, Arnold Preston who interjects: “Let me tell you what kind of mother she is. There are times when I want her to attend a premiere and she’ll say, ‘No, Charmaine’s got a soccer game.’ She passes up so many things that are important for her career.” Like magic, Charmaine enters, having just returned from school. Anyone can see that there is a definite bond between them, and Jenifer just beams as she introduces me.
Before our time together ends, Jenifer wants to show her gratitude by singing an original ballad, as she accompanies herself on the piano. She plays the piano, too?! Is there anything this girl can’t conquer? After the song, I inquire about her AIDS activism. “Being an activist just means being alive and being aware. It doesn’t take much. It’s very simple. We’re fighting a silent war. It came the fuck outta nowhere and killed my friends.
“America has disappointed me,” confesses Lewis. “The one thing America let me do was dream the American Dream, and I succeeded. When Reagan did nothing about AIDS, I thought well, they are gonna fix this. We were naïve. When they didn’t fix it, that made me angry. The biggest problem right now is that we don’t have a leader,” she states in a quiet straightforward manner, leaning against the black baby grand piano. “We all have to realize that it takes baby steps—step by step by step, by day by day, by inch by inch—to make a difference. One person can make such a difference. We need more people to participate, and we need to educate more. People don’t think AIDS is going to touch them. Like the Bushes,” she screams in disgust, and her thundering, intense voice steadily ascends with each subsequent sentence. “Do you think this is not going to come into your own backyard?! It will come to the front door. It’s at the front door now of every home in the world. What can you say? Fuck ‘talking’ about it. Do something!” Beware….Jenifer Lewis has just laid some strong medicine on you.
Dann Dulin is a Senior Editor at A&U.