Sheryl Lee Ralph: The Trailblazing Actress and Activist Making a Difference in Hollywood and Beyond

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The name Sheryl Lee Ralph has been on everyone’s lips as of late thanks to her stellar performance in Abbott Elementary. But when she burst into song during her Emmy Award acceptance speech, it was clear that she’s not just an actress — she’s a powerhouse. Meet the trailblazing actress and activist making a difference in Hollywood and the world.

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Sheryl Lee Ralph Has Always Worked Hard

Sheryl Lee Ralph was born on December 30, 1956, in Waterbury, Connecticut. Her father was a college professor, and her mother was a fashion designer. Ralph started acting in high school and played Ado Addie in Oklahoma!. She was crowned beauty queen in 1972, winning the Miss Black Teen-age New York title.

After graduating high school that same year, Ralph attended Rutgers University as a pre-med student. She graduated from Rutgers by the age of 19, becoming the youngest person to ever do so. Her combination of beauty and brains, and talent onstage, then earned her an Irene Ryan Acting scholarship from the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. The scholarship, her love of acting, and her dislike of working with cadavers helped her decide to switch career paths.

She Was Nominated for a Tony Award for the Broadway Musical Dreamgirls

Sheryl Lee Ralph made her film debut in 1977 as Barbara Hanley in A Piece of the Action. The next five years were spent primarily in one-off TV show episodes (including Wonder Woman) and two TV movies. Her breakthrough role came onstage rather than onscreen. She starred as Deena Jones in the Broadway musical Dreamgirls in 1981. Her performance garnered a nomination for a Tony Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical. She was also nominated for a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actress in a Musical.

From 1983 to 1984, Ralph had a recurring role as Laura McCarthy in the daytime soap opera Search for Tomorrow. In 1985, she starred as Maggie Bryan in the TV series Code Name: Foxfire. She starred alongside Denzel Washington in the 1989 film The Mighty Quinn. The role led to an NAACP Image Award nomination for Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture. The following year, Ralph played Linda in To Sleep with Anger starring Danny Glover. The role won her an Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Actress.

Sheryl Lee Ralph Won an Emmy for Abbott Elementary

Roles came easy for Sheryl Lee Ralph. She undeniably stunned audiences whether on or off the stage, whether singing or not. Her earliest notable performance in a comedy was as Dee Mitchell in the popular TV series Moesha. The role landed her NAACP Image Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress four years in a row. But despite all the work she’s put into her craft, or perhaps because of it, the bulk of Ralph’s recognition as an exquisite actress didn’t come until last year. Her role as Barbara Howard in Quinta Brunson’s Abbott Elementary has made her a legend. She’s already landed a Primetime Emmy, a Critics’ Choice Award, a Screen Actors Guild Award, and a Golden Globe nomination.

While many might be content to just sit in a room full of their glorious trophies, Sheryl Lee Ralph has had bigger plans. In 1990, she established the DIVA Foundation and an annual DIVAs Simply Singing! event. Both aim to raise awareness for AIDS and reduce the stigma surrounding it.

After 30 years of advocating for people with HIV and AIDS, Sheryl Lee Ralph received two prestigious awards for her work. She’d just received her Emmy for Abbott Elementary days earlier on September 12, 2022. Anyone watching the ceremony probably remembers Ralph’s acceptance speech. She teared up and then gorgeously belted out a soulful rendition of Dianne Reeves’ “Endangered Species”:

“I am an endangered species

But I sing no victim’s song

I am a woman I am an artist

And I know where my voice belongs.”

The Award-Winning Actress Is Also an Award-Winning Activist for Her Work With AIDS Causes

Just the day before, the actress and activist had a chance to practice her two-punch song and acceptance speech. She was honored with the Creative Coalition’s TV Humanitarian Award for her work in AIDS activism. Ralph opened her speech with Reeves’ song and ended up getting a standing ovation.

On September 15th, Ralph was also awarded the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation’s Commitment to End AIDS Award. She began by singing “Endangered Species” once again and what she said after will let you know exactly why.

“December 20th, 1981, I made my Broadway debut. Actually, that is a lie. But it sounds much better than talking about the flop I made my debut with,” Ralph said during her acceptance speech (via The Hollywood Reporter). “Dreamgirls. That was the best and the worst time in my entire life. The best, of course, was being the belle of the ball on Broadway. The worst was when you would see your friends/cast members drop dead of a mysterious disease. They got sick, and they died. They got sick. There was no dying process. They got sick, and they died. Some of them developed those strange purple marks on their bodies. They died.”

Sheryl Lee Ralph continued to give a powerful speech recalling the heartbreaking work she’s done over the past 3 decades.

“It was an ugly time in America just 40 years ago. If you happen to be somebody in the LGBTQIA and plus community, I want you to know that somebody, 40 years ago, died for your rights today,” said Ralph. “For a trans person living in your truth, I want you to remember what it took for you to even be seen as a human being because in the fight. You were shut out because you made it less than worthy just being who you are,” Ralph explained. “The truths are not easy. And 40 years later, people want to act like it didn’t happen, but it did happen. It was horrible. It was ugly, and it was America. It spread to the rest of the world.

When you use your voice to speak up, people wanted to tell you, ‘You need to shut up. Nobody wants to hear about that.’ Even those who were infected told you, ‘This is not your fight. Stop it. You will make it worse for us.’ Because some people did not use their voice, did not speak up, were silent, it has become and still is horrible for all of us. Because no matter what you think, some woman in the South, in America is fighting AIDS right now. Some woman is living with HIV right now. Quiet as it’s kept, people still die of AIDS in America.

AIDS in America is still here. Raise your voice. Do the work,” Ralph echoed later in her closing speech at the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS event. “Decriminalize it and open up your heart and your minds to people who do not look like you,” she said. “It’s Sheryl Lee Ralph, president, CEO, founder of the DIVA, Divinely Inspired Victoriously AIDS Aware Foundation. For thirty years, we have made a way when there was no way for us. But we lit it. We are using our voice because I’m an endangered species, and I know where my voice belongs.

From Sheryl Lee Ralph’s Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation Acceptance Speech

Ralph Also Serves as Vice President of the LA Local SAG-AFTRA

Sheryl Lee Ralph is also doing work to empower young people in becoming familiar with the Hollywood industry. She’s the Los Angeles local Vice President of SAG-AFTRA, a position she doesn’t take for granted.

“I take my service seriously, you know,” Ralph told Entertainment Tonight shortly before winning her Emmy. “I take all of that seriously and I want people to get involved in our industry — don’t just think it’s all about shining in front of the camera, there’s so much work and so many details that take place behind the camera that truly affect how it is to survive or thrive in this industry. And right now, I’m thriving.”

Sheryl Lee Ralph looked stunning that evening, with her hair adorned in Swarovski diamonds. She said her daughter, Ivy-Victoria (born 1995), did her hair for the event. Ralph also has a son, Etienne (born 1992). Both children are from her previous marriage to French entrepreneur Eric Maurice. Ralph and Maurice tied the knot in 1990 and divorce in 2001. She remarried to Senator Vincent Hughes of Philadelphia in 2005.

“I have a great friend and a great partner; somebody that I absolutely trust,” Ralph told Essence in 2020 (via Romper). “I believe that if something awful was to happen to me, that I could trust my husband to do the best for my family and my kids… He’d be strong enough to carry on.”

Read More: The Rise of Quinta Brunson: The Comedian Taking the Entertainment Industry by Storm

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