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With a New Song and TV Series, Sheryl Lee Ralph Is a Dreamgirl with the Moxie to Make It

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Long Island breeds princesses the way Wisconsin produces milkmaids. Maybe it’s the endless expanse of malls or perhaps an excess of cardigan-clad dads humming Thank Heaven for Little Girls. Somehow though, an awful lot of girls from Long Island come out bright, beautiful, sassy and convinced the world is theirs—with or without their parents’ credit cards. There are Jewish princesses who sip Tab with lemon and WASP princesses who cluster at tennis tourneys, and there is Sheryl Lee Ralph of Hempstead, Long Island, a black princess and dreamgirl supreme.

Of course Ralph would probably pooh-pooh all this talk. But the facts remain: She’s an English lit graduate of Rutgers and she’s smart. She is beautiful; one look will suffice. And, at 29, she is pistol hot. In 1982 she nabbed a Tony nomination for her Broadway performance in Dreamgirls, in which she portrayed the Diana Ross-like lead to perfection. Now her mellifluous three-octave soprano fills cabarets and night clubs around the country, while her single, You’re So Romantic, slinks up the black singles charts. Ralph also co-stars with Joanna Cassidy and Robin Johnson in an NBC mid-season replacement series, Code-name: Foxfire, a sort of Charlie’s Angels with passports. Three dames who have shady pasts thwart international bad guys. Says Ralph of her character, Maggie Bryan, “She gets to be young, hot, exciting, sexy, sassy, bold, aggressive. I mean it is just fun! It is just great! It’s the good role on the show. When I saw the pilot I thought, ‘I’m blessed!’ ”

But even her fairy godmother sometimes goes off duty. Cheryl didn’t win the Miss Black Teenage America crown but came in first runner-up. She lost out to her Dreamgirls’ understudy Phylicia Ayers-Allen, 37ish, for the role of Bill Cosby’s wife on his hit show. At the audition, Cosby took one look at Ralph and moaned, “You’re too young. Do you want the National Enquirer to give me a bad name?” And she lost a TV show when the producers decided she wasn’t black enough. “I think maybe that translated into I wasn’t ‘street’ enough for them. What does that mean? I’ve been black all my life.” For the most part, however, Ralph has achieved professional success without breaking a single, perfectly manicured, nail in the process.

And she’s done it on her own. From the beginning Ralph has served as her own manager. “I’ll continue to do so,” she says, “until someone as good or better comes along.” The prospect is doubtful. After graduation from Rutgers in 1975, she was an immediate hit in commercial modeling. Of course there was the Penthouse incident, allegedly a singing audition. “I was so naive,” says Sheryl. “I didn’t know what Penthouse was. So I get all dressed up in my little skirt and jacket. I’m all of 19 years old and I’m trying to look like Vogue. I get upstairs and I slowly go into shock. I’m seeing body parts you only see in the bathroom. I am really upset. I say, ‘I can sing, but only with my clothes on.’ ”

She won her point by landing a job traveling and warbling, fully clothed, with the Penthouse Pet of the Year on a tour of military bases sponsored by the Defense Department. “I played like a singing bodyguard.” After the 1977 tour Ralph worked off-Broadway with the Negro Ensemble Company and did guest shots on The Jeffersons, Good Times and Wonder Woman. While in Dreamgirls, she also won a semiregular role as Mac on the soap Search for Tomorrow. But the real breakthrough was Dreamgirls.

During this time Ralph proved to be as standoffish with men as she was with managers. “I’m so particular,” she says. A lawyer or doctor might do, or maybe a governor or businessman. Or, she jokes, “a much younger man who would devote himself entirely to me.” Never again, vows Ralph, recalling a failed romance, will she fall for an actor. “There was just no way,” she sighs. “He always wanted to be No. 1.”

The person of that rank in Sheryl’s eyes is her father, a college administrator who retired at 50 to teach voice and lead a church choir in Hempstead. (Eddie Murphy is a choir alumnus.) The eldest child and only girl in a family with four children, Ralph attributes much of her success to her happy relationship with her parents, and especially her father. “My father always believed in me,” she says. But he is not anxious to march her down any aisle. “Deep in his heart,” she jokes, “he’s probably hoping I never get married because no one would be good enough.”

Sheryl is more than Daddy’s princess—she is an authentic island girl. Her voice slips easily into the lilting Caribbean steel drum cadences of her mother’s Jamaican heritage. Although during the school year Ralph lived on Long Island, she spent her vacations with her mother, a fashion designer whose company is based in Jamaica. Her parents have remained married but have long lived apart for professional reasons. A designing mother has been a big help, says Ralph. “When she does her real avant-garde numbers, I end up in them. She did a black lace dress I wore in a photo session recently. It is totally see-through. You’d never believe that a mother designed it for her daughter!”

You would for this daughter. Underneath the glamour and the habit of calling everybody ‘Baby,’ lurks a talented woman with a hunger for fame. On a recent junk food expedition a group of teens recognized her. “It just blew me away,” she says. “One kid knew all three of my names.” Baby, this is no drab method actress. This is a star.