When it comes to celebrities aligning themselves with a cause, American actress, singer, author, and activist Sheryl Lee Ralph’s efforts far exceed just making appearances at cocktail galas. I mean, I’m sure she gets her fair share of invites to those events too. However, as for the actual mission of working in humanity’s best interest and making a difference globally, Ralph puts in the work.
Beginning on World AIDS Day – Tuesday, December 1, the star of theater, television, and film will kick off the 30th annual fundraiser for DIVAS Health Awareness Week. The virtual event features wellness discussions, celebrity guest appearances, honorees and performances, to raise money for HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention.
As a long-time Sheryl Lee Ralph fan, I was elated to have the opportunity to interview her. To me, she is Black Hollywood royalty. My memories of first seeing her on television go back to 1981 in the television commercials for the massive hit Broadway musical, “Dreamgirls.” She was in the original stellar cast with Jennifer Holiday and Loretta Divine, years before her success in hit movies like The Mighty Quinn and television’s Moesha.
In a bittersweet irony, Sheryl’s experience with Dreamgirls would become the catalyst for her forming The DIVA Foundation – a nonprofit 501c (3) charitable organization. She founded the charity in 1990 as a memorial to the many friends she lost to HIV/AIDS while in the original Broadway company of Dreamgirls:
Here is an excerpt from our very poignant, emotional, and celebratory discussion:
CA: First off, thank you, Sheryl Lee Ralph, for spending some time chatting with me tonight. This is a wonderful moment for me, and if I didn’t tell you that my mama loves The Mighty Quinn, she would totally disown me. So we’re going to start with that!
SLR (laughs) Corey, you know what’s so interesting about the Mighty Quinn? It’s is not a holiday movie at all, but every year during Christmas, for some reason, that’s when everybody’s watching it.
CA: Yes. You nailed it. That’s a Christmas movie in my house. The Color Purple and Mighty Quinn. You, and back to back, Whoopi. Lol …anyway, I could go on forever about that. But Divas Simply Singing is an amazing organization that you began yourself as a foundation, thirty years ago?
SLR: I sure did. Forty years ago, Dreamgirls opened on Broadway, or 39 years, something like that. I remember, oh my God, we were the belles of the ball on Broadway. Everybody wanted to come and see us and experience this show. It was just one of the greatest times of my life. Then, just like that, it just turned into a very ugly time when people up and down Broadway, men, were just dropping dead. You know, you’d be singing and dancing with somebody and then you’d hear they were gone and nobody wanted to talk about what happened. It was sad to see, and people could not have been more horrible to other human beings when all they needed was love and support in the time of their greatest need.
CA: That sounds devastating.
SLR: It was, but the little church girl in me said, “We can do better than this.” As time went on, I lost friend after friend, and I just couldn’t do it anymore. So I left the show, and I came to California. I just said we have to do something. Then I had a dream that dream was Divas Simply Singing, and that’s how it all happened.
CA: It was around 1990 when you began the organization, which utilized creative arts to help generate resources, coordinate activities, and create awareness to combat HIV/AIDS. This time was close to the 80s onslaught of AIDS, and there was still the negative stigma of the “gay disease.” Celebrities could risk their careers for championing this cause. Did you experience any such pushback?
SLR: Did I ever. It was very interesting because sometimes I wondered why people continued to do difficult things. Fighting for raising awareness, fighting for the memory of my friends, fighting for those who had yet to fight the fight. It was hard. There were people who were actually infected telling me, “You just need to shut up and stop talking about it. You know, it’s not going to help us. It’s not going to help you!” I could never understand that.
I received a letter from a woman in the church who told me that God would find no favor in me because I spend too much time trying to help “those people.” And I was like, oh my God, I thought of my son when he was a baby. I held him, and I said no matter what, if my child was gay or if my child was straight. I’m going to love my child.
CA: You’ve done a lot and raised so much money for resources to help people battling HIV/AIDS. I think the negative stereotype is not as strong as it once was – that idea of a “gay disease,” and companies like Gilead (Truvada)– one of Divas Simply Singing’s sponsors, they’ve done some wonderful things.
SLR: Yes, I was talking to a man yesterday, and he said, “Gilead is actually keeping me alive.” I was like, wow, that’s a big statement.
CA: Yes, it is, and it’s very true. You’re also working with two recipient beneficiary organizations this year; one is Project Angel Food, which I had no idea was formed by Marianne Williamson.
SLR: That’s right. She formed the organization at a time in her life when she was seeing her friends die, and there were no loving arms. There was no care for them, and we used to work out of the basement of a church in Los Angeles. That’s how I got connected to Project Angel Food, watching these people every day coming in and out of this church with food, and I was like, what’s going on? I found out that what they actually do is give food.
CA: Yes, they give food, food services, and they cook for people who are too sick to do it for themselves
SLR: They do, and they cover other life-threatening diseases just like the Diva Foundation. We have expanded to cover other life-threatening diseases, including all cancers too.
CA: That is amazing! And then there’s also Better Brother Los Angeles; tell me more about that organization, because when I read about them, I was like, wait, we could use one of those in every city!
SLR: Okaaay! Yes. So, Scott Hamilton used to work with me back in the day. I mean, we toured when I wrote my one-woman show, and sometimes I cried about women’s stories, real stories about women affected by HIV and AIDS. He would assist me in different projects, and we were just working and working. Then one day, he was like, “I have an idea. We need a place for the black LGBTQIA community, someplace where they can be supported for their good work because we’re not seeing enough of the good that this community is doing – all while being black!” And I was like, yeah…Yep!
CA: Absolutely, because we have a few strikes against us with limited resources, to begin with, usually in those communities. We just don’t have the funds, so our best and brightest get overlooked very easily.
SLR: Yes! And we’re partnering raising money for scholarships to help young black and of people of color in the LGBTQIA community be able to complete their education. It’s in my parents’ names. They never wanted to miss a Diva Simply Singing event, and my dad was an educator, a real bison graduate of Howard University. Everybody in my family graduated from Howard – except me, lol. But this was just something that we just had to do, and Scott and Vincent have been so good about bringing it to life.
CA: In 2005, you were recognized by the United Nations for all your HIV/AIDS advocacy, and you received the Red Ribbon of Leadership – on World AIDS Day! That’s a great testament to your work having a global impact as well. SheryI, I know you have a busy schedule today, so lastly, I’d like to discuss the list of performers at Divas Simply Singing – which is a week-long event.
CA: From December 1st – which is Mom’s birthday, by the way,
SLR: Oh! Happy Birthday, Mom!
CA: Thank you! I’ll let her know! So December 1st through the 6th – virtually online and on the radio as well – live. So what can we expect throughout the week in the show?
SLR: It’s raising that red flag of awareness. This week is all about bringing the message to the people from trusted messengers. This is about allowing people to get the help and information that they still need. We’re going to have panels and discussions. We’ve got some outstanding people. I cannot thank our sponsors enough AARP, Cadillac, Gilead, and Compass, for supporting these panels and this information. Then on Thursday, December 5th, the show Divas simply singing will air live, so you can go to Divassimplysinging.com, find us at Divassimplysinging on Facebook. Or, Sheryl Lee Ralph on Facebook – with the blue check, and watch the show.
If you’re in Los Angeles, you can watch it on TV – 7:00 till 9. Oh, wow. Okay, and everywhere else, you can stream it worldwide. We have incredible artists, just amazing talent who have donated their time: Stephanie Mills, Jody Watley, Anthony Hamilton, Leslie Odom, Janae Bridges from the Metropolitan Opera, The Clark Sisters – yes, an incredible group of people. We’re honoring Patti LaBelle. We’re honoring Sharon Stone. It’s a concert and Telethon.
So, get ready to donate, no matter how small it is. From the mini to the magnum, we don’t mind. So come on and make that donation. Be there for us. Like we are going to be there for you.
CA: I love it. What an inspiration. I’m going to donate, and I’m going to make sure that our readers at Instinct magazine know all about it as well.
SLR: Absolutely, oh, and make sure you tell your audience about my book: Redefining Diva 2.0. Some people may say, “But I read the book.” Yeah, baby, but you haven’t heard the book as read by me. Okay?! I have cleared up some things and added some new things, so, yes, download Redefining Diva 2.0 – available now on Audible, and it’s a good audible experience. I listen to it sometimes, and I’m like, “Girl, that was good!”
CA: Lol we have to be our own cheerleaders sometime, you know, make sure we pat ourselves on the back!
SLR: Yes! Look in the mirror and love what you see to encourage it. You’ve got to raise it up. You’ve got to be like Jennifer Lewis and me. Honey, look in that mirror and say “Oh bitch.. I love you!” I mean because we have to do it for ourselves before anybody else. I know that sounds cliche right, but it’s so true. Like the great RuPaul says, if you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?
CA: Wow. LOL! Sheryl Lee Ralph. Thank you so much for your time tonight.
SLR: Oh, thank you
The 30th Annual DIVAS Simply Singing! & DIVAS Health Awareness Week powered by Gilead is made possible by the generous support of our proud sponsors: AHF (AIDS Healthcare Foundation), AARP, Cadillac, Gilead Compass Initiative (Gold Sponsors); Merck (Silver Sponsor); Morgan Stanley Sports & Entertainment (Bronze Sponsor).