Eddie Murphy had cause to crow at the press conference for Coming to America. Yes, the new film is another addition to the Murphy canon of zillion-buck grossers, but there’s a difference here. Playing an African prince who goes wife shopping in the U.S., Eddie has succeeded at his first romantic role—or, as he whooped at the press conference, “I pulled off a love story!” Of course he had a little help in the shape of model-barely-turned-actress Shari Headley, 24, who plays the bookkeeper he eventually weds. Headley’s contributions are twofold: 1) She has probably the most stunning new face seen on the screen this year; and 2) she has a pristine, innocent quality that brings out the sweet best in Murphy.
No Stanislavsky was needed for the innocence. There’s nothing low-down, let’s-get-funky about Headley. She’s a poised, principled young woman who still lives in the Queens, N.Y., home where she was born. “It might sound funny that I live at home,” concedes Shari, baby-sitting for her 3-year-old nephew during the interview. “But I’m the type who will wait until it’s the right time. I have old-fashioned ideas.”
The youngest of four children, Shari “has always been a good person, but she really didn’t stand out as a kid,” says her mother, Sarah, a school registrar. (Her father, a dental technician, died in 1982.) Headley didn’t begin to distinguish herself until she dropped out of Queens College and signed with the Ford modeling agency, doing commercials for L’Oreal, Johnson’s Baby Oil and Burger King. One of her biggest challenges was saying “Szechuan beef” for Stouffer’s Lean Cuisine. “I wanted to say something easier, like teriyaki beef.”
While Headley has played bit parts on The Cosby Show and Miami Vice, Coming to America is her only meaty acting role. Murphy handpicked her after only one reading, but he had no ulterior motives. There was no hanky-panky between them. “Everyone went their separate ways after the day’s shooting,” reports Shari.
Of course Headley is a self-described slow learner when it comes to men. “I was always shy,” she says. “I didn’t even start dating until I was 19. That’s when I got my first kiss.” She says that no one’s kissing her now on a regular basis, but she’s on the lookout for someone who’s “thoughtful, family-oriented and considerate.” And said individual must not be one of those people “who clip their nails in public or have dirt under their fingernails.” At this point, the elegant, fastidious Headley makes a small noise in her throat and begins to panic. “You’ll say I burped!” she worries. “You’ll say I belched!” Absolutely not. The lady is incapable of such failings.