Jenifer Lewis Is Back on Her Grind With a New Book and ‘I Love That for You’

LOS ANGELES — Jenifer Lewis was sitting in her white Mercedes-Benz parked at her home in the Sherman Oaks neighborhood, preparing to have lunch at Petit Trois, a chic French restaurant nearby.

As she turned her car on, the 2002 Eminem hit “Lose Yourself” began to build over the speakers and Ms. Lewis started to rap along. It was mid-July, just a few days after she had received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and she was in a visibly upbeat mood.

As Eminem rapped the line “A normal life is boring/But superstardom’s/Close to post-mortem/It only grows harder,” she waved a finger at the media player to emphasize the lyrics and exhaled into a smile. She seemed to be readying a joke — Ms. Lewis is best known for her humor — but instead she simply said, “It’s not an easy life,” before backing out of the driveway.

The life she was referring to is a four-decade-long career during which she — an actress, comedian, dancer and singer — has starred on Broadway, in nearly 70 movies and hundreds of episodes of TV.

Now with a star cemented in the ground, Ms. Lewis, 65, is back on her grind with more stories to share. Only days after ending an eight-season run on “black-ish” in April, she starred in the new Showtime comedy series “I Love That for You.” And her second book, which she began writing seriously during the pandemic, was just published.

“When Covid happened, I didn’t know if I was going to die,” she said. “Even if the book wasn’t organized, I wanted to leave the stories.”

A few hours before lunch, I met her at her home for what her team had cryptically been calling a “Jenifer Lewis Hollywood Day” to learn more about what her life is like these days.

When I arrived, Ms. Lewis met me at her door wearing a white Versace robe with the fashion house’s gold logo printed on it and her face bare with a fresh glow. Her hair, usually picked out into an Afro, was instead wrapped in a red towel. When she’s home, Ms. Lewis said, she likes to be comfortable.

All the brightly colored rooms in her home — yellow in the kitchen, pastel green in the living room, lavender in the halls — have names, including Kinloch, her primary bedroom, and Butters, a space belonging to and named after her white bichon frisé, who trotted around wearing a neck cone.

Seated in a cozy living room that she calls Africa for its décor — trinkets, statues, paintings and photographs collected during her travels — she noted her preference for “happy colors.”

“No black in my house but the piano,” she said.

Ms. Lewis has approached her entertainment style with vigor ever since she sang her first solo in church at age 5. After years of memorable appearances in movies including “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” “Think Like a Man” and “The Preacher’s Wife,” as well as TV shows like “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “Strong Medicine” and “Girlfriends,” she became a fixture in Hollywood and Black culture.

“So many people are depressed, and because I know what depression feels like, why wouldn’t I want to make the world laugh, when I know it is the greatest healer?” she said. “It’s what I was born to do. I don’t even know anything else.”

Her 2017 memoir is an honest and deeply funny retelling of her life: growing up in poverty in Kinloch, Mo.; her whirlwind romances; chasing her onstage dreams in New York City and Hollywood; mobilizing for mental health and survivors of sexual assault.

Her new book, “Walking in My Joy,” is about, among other things, her life during the pandemic and her activism work, and includes short stories about her friends and travels. Most chapters are punctuated with different activism-inspired lyrics she has written, including “Take Your Knee Off My Neck,” which she recorded in response to the killing of George Floyd. In the last few years she has become known for her videos, which show her sitting at her piano urging people to vote or singing for abortion rights.

Her phone was buzzing all afternoon with congratulatory messages from friends, and, at one point during our chat, a delivery man came bearing a bouquet of flowers from the filmmaker Lee Daniels. She placed it next to more bouquets from others, including the director Lena Waithe and the actress Octavia Spencer.

She read the note from Mr. Daniels aloud before placing it on a large table: “Late but great. Congrats on your star, sexy lady.”

“Girl, it’s been endless love. Oh my God!” she said.

Sheryl Lee Ralph, the Emmy-nominated actress who stars in “Abbott Elementary,” said that she and Ms. Lewis had been friends since meeting after a Broadway audition. She recalled sharing a piece of apple pie and two glasses of water at an old theater because they were broke and trying to save money.

Ms. Lewis is a “unique and special human being,” Ms. Ralph said in an email. “If I needed a kidney she would actually think about giving it to me … maybe. I love her.”

“How wonderful it is that we have both been able to see our teenage dreams of making it big in show business come true,” she added. “I am thrilled for the both of us!”

Ms. Lewis had strongly considered retiring before landing her role on “black-ish.” The sense of stagnation and the hunt for new opportunities, especially in an industry in which Black representation is slim, had become too frustrating.

“I didn’t get a lot of shows when I auditioned and I was like, I think that’s enough,” she said. “I don’t want to be insulted anymore. I don’t want to walk in a room and people don’t know who I am after what I’ve done. I don’t want to deal with the riffraff and the politics of it.”

Although her portrayal of Ruby, the slick-mouthed grandmother on “black-ish,” earned her widespread acclaim and served for many as an introduction to her talents, she has long been beloved by Black audiences for playing matriarchal supporting roles opposite Will Smith, Tupac Shakur, Whitney Houston and Angela Bassett, to name just a few. (The title of her first book, “The Mother of Black Hollywood,” nods to her association with those types of roles.)

Given her recent accolades, I asked whether she felt like the recognition was belated.

“I meant what I said: Had I gotten the star a day earlier, I wouldn’t have been ready,” she said, referring to the speech she gave at her star-dedication ceremony on July 15. In the speech, she described how seeking help for her bipolar disorder was vital to her success.

“That means had I not done the work off camera and offstage, I wouldn’t be here.”

Still, she maintains that “everybody knows” she earned her star long ago, pointing to her performances in “What’s Love Got to Do With It” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” as examples.

“But, honey, these are my Oscars and Emmys,” Ms. Lewis said, motioning to her mantel full of memorabilia from her trips abroad. “I have traveled damn near the entire world.”

A couple of hours into our conversation, her affinity for profanity, along with her bright personality, was evident.

“I’ve been cussing since I was a little girl,” she said. “It shocks, it keeps people at a distance. It’s distancing is what it is. It’s like, don’t come too close, bitch.” It would be unnatural, it seemed, to suddenly stop cursing at this stage in her life.

But the same playfulness in her tone and bluntness in her speech creates a sense of familiarity that puts many at ease (but can be a lot for some). She said she is often approached by strangers — in person and online — who pour their life stories out to her in search of guidance. According to Ms. Lewis, it’s the thing she loves more than anything, being everyone’s “auntie.”

“I’m honest,” she said, comparing herself to the auntie who will tell you your boyfriend is no good. “I am that auntie that will tell you to sit down and have something to eat, but that ain’t gonna happen, not with me, because I don’t cook! But I’ll tell you to go cook something.”

Adding to her maternal bona fides, she has even opened her basement apartment to relatives — and relative strangers — in need. Among them are D.J. Pierce, better known as Shangela, the star of several seasons of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” who was a longtime fan of Ms. Lewis’s before they met in New York City. He described his time living with her as having a close friend and a therapist wrapped into one.

“I was gifted with the opportunity to not only learn from one of the best entertainers — especially live entertainers, I think — in the world, but also to live two levels below her,” Mr. Pierce said in a phone interview. “We are still very, very close. We talk almost every day. We talk in movie lines because that’s really all we know.”

“It’s a beautiful relationship and it’s one of the best ones in my whole life,” he continued. “And it has influenced me and my drag and my style of entertainment.”

Ms. Lewis said she couldn’t imagine Mr. Pierce, who lived in her basement apartment for roughly a decade, not being present when she received her star.

“I wouldn’t have felt whole,” she said. “He took such good care of me. He watched over me like a hawk — wouldn’t let nothing happen to me. He wasn’t here when the con artist came, or he would have clocked it.”

She was referring to a man who years ago used romance to scheme his way into her life and persuaded her and other women to invest thousands of dollars in his fake companies. Her mother had died around the same time, Ms. Lewis said, and she had “never felt that much pain” in her life.

“When you break up with somebody, there’s a part of you that is satisfied because, you know, they hurt, too,” she said. “But I knew this man was not hurt. He has no feelings — a sociopath, they don’t feel. So there I was, just left with my own pain.” (The man was eventually sentenced to eight years in federal prison for defrauding Ms. Lewis and three other women.)

These days she is still seeing other men, she said, but has no intentions of pursuing anything serious.

“I have a couple of guys I talk to, but because I am content in my life, quite frankly, at 65, I don’t want that,” she said.

“You know at my age,” she added, “you’re either a nurse or a purse.”

She started a succulent garden at the height of the pandemic that complements her luscious backyard of greenery and florals that frames her bright blue pool. She takes a great deal of time to maintain her health with Pilates, swimming and other forms of exercise — one reason she can still do her signature leg kick.

“I studied with a cancan dancer,” she said when asked where she learned the move. Instead of explaining her method further, she popped up out of her chair to demonstrate, still in her robe. With one hand on her hip, she began to kick her right leg up and down, sweeping against the floor and letting it rise higher and higher, like a swing swaying off the hinges.

“What it is, is it’s a pendulum,” she said. “It’s a muscle that has memory.”

At Petit Trois, now dressed casually in black running shoes and a white baseball cap, she settled at a curbside table and ordered a double cheeseburger with a glass of red wine.

“It’s my cheat day,” she told the server. “The month has been my cheat day, but it’s OK.”

Two men were walking down the street when one of them spotted Ms. Lewis and congratulated her on her star. “I was literally crying watching you tell people to vote,” he said. “It was so amazing and beautiful and I hope millions of people receive that.”

Looking to her future plans, Ms. Lewis said she is in talks about turning some of her songs into an album and starring in another one-woman show. Earlier in the day, she described herself as an open book, saying it’s hard for her to keep her secrets. After we finished eating, I asked her for one more for the road.

What she offered wasn’t exactly a secret, or particularly risqué, but it was personal: her own yardstick for achievement that has nothing to do with stars or awards.

“Just let it be reiterated that the smile on my face is my success.”

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