When Jenifer Lewis enters the room, her energy immediately takes over. That voice and that smile tell everyone, you’d better hold on tight.
We’ve seen her in the Broadway musical “Eubie.” She formerly sang with The Harlettes, Bette Midler’s backup singers. She proved memorable in the Lifetime film “Jackie’s Back.” Now, Lewis can be seen weekly as the grandmother on the hit TV series “Black-ish.”
But even as a young child, Lewis felt destined to become a star as she recalls in her recently-released memoir, “The Mother of Black Hollywood.” After all, she’s always had a built-in audience that included her mother, grandmother and aunts, each of whom have consistently cheered her on.
Lewis has long exuded a sense of confidence, recognizing what she has to offer and being keenly aware of how to land a desired gig. She credits her mother for instilling in her a good work ethic. Still, deep inside, she says she sometimes heard a voice whispering to her that caused her both anxiety and doubt. But she ignored it.
“As long as there was a stage, I was ready,” said the multi-talented entertainer.
Her talent and belief in herself could not be disputed during her recent visit to the District during which Lewis promoted her autobiography and participated in an interview before a live audience at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in northwest D.C. What had been slated as a one-on-one conversation morphed into a 40-minute, one-woman performance filled with funny life stories about navigating the jungle of Hollywood, moving anecdotes about working through her bipolar disorder and heartfelt reflections about losing many friends to HIV/AIDS.
It was while filming the popular miniseries “The Temptations” that Lewis says she couldn’t take it anymore. Demons she’d battled for years and tried to nurse with alcohol could no longer be contained.
“I had had enough,” she said. “I called my therapist in Los Angeles and said, ‘I’m ready, I’m sick, please help me.’ Those were the hardest words I ever said.”
Lewis admits she often tried to ignore her disorder or manage it on her own by going to spas, drinking wheat grass or juicing — all while refusing to take her prescribed medication. She eventually realized she should not stop taking the meds because, as she admits, “I nearly lost her mind.”
Working with her therapist to face her bipolar disorder, Lewis also discovered she suffered from a rarely-discussed addiction: sex.
“If you want to get well, then do what’s necessary,” she said.
It’s part of testimony that Lewis shares with her peers and with younger entertainers when they appear be in trouble. So, with a heart filled with love for others, she says she instinctively pulls others aside and offers them her help.
“But if they ain’t ready, there is nothing you can do,” she said. “The only thing you can really do is live your best life. You’ve got to keep it moving. The fight is too big.”
When it comes to addressing mental health issues in the Black community, Lewis knows there has long been a stigma associated with confronting such problems. She acknowledges the work that some Black churches have initiated which includes hosting regular meetings and providing opportunities for counseling.
As for Jenifer Lewis, she’s keenly aware that remaining busy sits at the top of the list for ever-growing fan base. What’s next? She’ll provide her recognizable voice for a Disney animated series called “Big Hero Six” in which she’ll bring life to a character called Professor Granville.
She said she’s having a ball playing the animated figure but notes unabashedly that Black-ish stands as “the cherry on top” of her career. However, whatever Lewis takes on, the supreme diva promises to always “keep it real.”
“I don’t leave a room unless everybody is laughing,” she said. “That’s how I roll.”