‘I don’t regret anything,’ she insists, as she films with Fonda and writes her own story
Three years ago Belinda Ali changed her first name to Khalilah, meaning “companion of Allah.” But her surname continues to identify her as a former wife of Muhammad Ali. Married in 1967 to the ex-heavyweight champ when she was only 17, and divorced nine years later, Khalilah has been struggling to put together a life outside Ali’s shadow. Now she appears to be succeeding. Khalilah will soon make her screen acting debut in China Syndrome, a movie starring Jane Fonda.
A statuesque beauty at 5’11” and 157 pounds, Khalilah met Fonda at a Hollywood benefit in 1976 while still married to Ali. Jane was bowled over. “Anyone with her looks and dynamism had to have talent,” she says. “I also thought that as the wife of someone like Ali, she probably needed her own space and place.” Fonda asked her to help promote the premiere of Julia and later offered her the China Syndrome role as stage manager of a TV news team. Fonda plays a crusading reporter.
“She got the part because she has talent, not because of me,” insists Fonda. But Khalilah is less sure. “Jane put me in the film,” she says. “Anyone could have done that part, but she loved me as a real person. I didn’t even have to read for it.”
Khalilah, 28, the mother of four children by Ali, is still bitter about their divorce. “Women had nothing to do with it—no way,” she says. “I left him because he wasn’t what he said he was, because of his lack of morals and disrespect to the family. I don’t think he deserves the name Muhammad Ali, and I’m going to call him Cassius Clay from now on.” She recalls that her parents were opposed to her marrying Ali. “Anybody can have a son,” she continues. “But it takes a man to be a father. He wasn’t there even when we were together. He’s supposed to be a man, but did he prove it? He did with his fists and tongue, but not with his other actions. I wanted there to be a oneness—I didn’t want to be a half—but he couldn’t understand that. So it was time to go.” A divorce settlement, perhaps as much as $6 million, apparently did little to soften the blow. “I can see how egotism can destroy you,” she says of Ali’s well-known bluster. “I almost let it get to me, too.”
Khalilah was born Belinda Boyd and raised in Chicago and suburbs, where she attended Islamic schools. She follows strict Muslim rules that forbid smoking, drinking or swearing, and she is careful to keep her legs covered in public. Her religion, she says, is her strength. “If everything was perfect every day, there would be no reason to live; there would be no challenge, no struggle. I don’t regret anything.”
Now living in a one-bedroom Hollywood apartment, Khalilah misses her son and three daughters, ages 6 to 9. They have been staying with relatives in Chicago since last year. “I needed to get away from the children and regroup,” she explains, but now she plans to move them as well as her mother and sister to California. Friends like Nancy Wilson and her minister husband Wiley Burton, and Barry and Glodean White have been supportive. She has a variety of causes: educational projects for the young, films about Muslim women and her autobiography. As for any social life, she is lying low. “I can’t let my body control my mind,” she says, “or I’d be going out with everybody. Right now I’m still half a person.”