With an illustrious career spanning several decades, Sheryl Lee Ralph, the Emmy-award winning actress, singer and star of ABC’s Abbott Elementary, has a long list of accolades to pair with her extraordinary talent and unshakable confidence. Though her journey to becoming one of the most versatile entertainers of our time hasn’t been without its uphill battles, the trailblazing actress has persevered, all while remaining rooted in authenticity, self-belief and raw honesty.
In a recent interview on the podcast Way Up with Angela Yee, Ralph reveals that she was sexually assaulted by a well-known television judge years prior—an incident that she did not publicly disclose at the behest of her network executives at the time. Even then, she went on to prove that her meteoric rise couldn’t be stifled.
Sheryl Lee Ralph has been a voice of empowerment for women of color, having recently released a memoir-advice book, DIVA 2.0: 12 Life Lessons From Me For You as well as a partnership with Microban 24, to educate consumers on how to keep their homes clean and protected from bacteria. We spoke with the award-winning actress about her remarkable career, the lessons that she’s passing down to her children, and how she’s navigated Hollywood as a Black woman, while staying true to herself and her values.
EBONY: You were the first to portray Deena Jones in the original Broadway musical Dreamgirls in 1981, paving the way for other Black women in Hollywood, including Beyoncé, who embodied the character in the film adaptation in 2006. Who were some of the people who paved the way for you?
Sheryl Lee Ralph: There were so many who mentored me, guided me and encouraged me too. Rosalind Cash, who I met when I was fifteen in Jamaica. She was not just an amazing actress, but a wonderful woman who gave me a place to stay when I was finding my way in Hollywood. Tony award winner “Aunt” Virginia Capers mentored and believed in me from the moment she first met me as one of Glamour Magazine’s Top Ten College Women in America. She always knew I would make it.
Who were some of your early influences in the industry?
Pearl Bailey, Lola Falana, Dihann Carroll, Diana Ross, Fanny Lou Hamer, Susan Taylor, my mother, and so many more.
This past February, you performed the Black National Anthem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing" at Super Bowl LVII. This was such a powerful moment for the culture and for America as a whole—I know your children are so proud. What lessons have you taught them about navigating the world confidently and authentically?
I was loved deeply as a child by my parents and because of that, I have been able to love my children, encourage my children, and agree to disagree with them too. I’ve done my best to live my life the best way that I could so that they can do that for themselves and their future children. I never want to hurt them in any way, but to always encourage them to make the best choices for themselves in their lives.
You recently won an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series, for the role of Barbara Howard in Abbott Elementary—becoming the first Black woman in 35 years to win. In your acceptance speech, you sang a piece from Dianne Reeves’ song, Endangered species... “I'm a woman, and I'm an artist, and I know where my voice belongs.” What was the moment in your career where you felt like you found your voice and knew exactly where you belonged?
I’ve always had a sense of belonging, even with the odds against me, but that song always felt like confirmation in my belief for me.
Did you ever experience impostor syndrome, and if so, how did you overcome it?
No, I’m too real for that.
Congratulations on the launch of your new memoir-advice book, DIVA 2.0: 12 Life Lessons From Me For You! What has been the most transformative life lesson you’ve acquired over the years?
Look in the mirror and love what [you] see. Encourage what [you] see. Respect what [you] see.
What has been your experience navigating Hollywood as a Black woman?
It has been hard navigating an industry that was quick to tell me when I started out that there was no place for me. But I persevered. I didn’t give up, and I followed the instructions given to me by Robert DeNiro, “Wave the red flag and let them know you’re there because Hollywood is not looking for the Black.” He was right, and I did…and look at me now.