The Women to Watch series has highlighted many outstanding women who have impacted their industries and paved the way for other women to be successful. These trailblazing innovators continue to inspire women all over the world. This month, we’re shining the spotlight on Sheryl Lee Ralph.
Recently, Ralph became the second Black actress to win the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for her role on the sitcom Abbott Elementary. While her journey has been anything but easy, it has given her more than a few lessons to share.
Sheryl Lee Ralph Beginnings
Sheryl Lee Ralph was born in Waterbury, Connecticut. Her mother was Ivy Ralph O.D., a Jamaican fashion designer known for creating the Kariba suit. She split her time growing up between Mandeville, Jamaica and Long Island. Ralph first got into acting when she starred in her high school production of Oklahoma!
Ralph then went on to be the youngest woman to ever graduate from Rutgers University.Originally, Ralph planned on going into medicine, but after seeing cadavers and winning a scholarship from the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival, she shifted gears to performing arts. During her time in college, she received the Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship awarded by the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival.
Becoming a Dreamgirl Was Far from the Dream Life
Ralph starred in the 1977 American crime comedy film A Piece of the Action directed by Sidney Poitier. Following this, she appeared in several shows, including Good Times, Wonder Woman, and The Jeffersons.
In 1980, Ralph made her Broadway debut in Reggae. A year later, Ralph portrayed Deena Jones in the original Broadway productions of Dreamgirls. This role earned her a nomination for Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical at the 1982 Tony Awards.
However, her time in Dreamgirls was underscored by struggle. The relentless pressure and pace took a toll on Ralph and eventually led to an eating disorder.
“And I think what happens when you develop things like anorexia, which we did not know anything about at that time, it’s because you feel out of control,” said Ralph. “You feel you cannot control it and what’s going on around you, but you can control yourself. And what I could control was my body and what I ate — and so I didn’t eat.”
Along with her personal struggles, she also dealt with the loss of many of her friends in the theater community during the AIDS crisis. This drove Ralph to found the D.I.V.A Foundation in 1990 as a memorial for those she lost.
After working in Dreamgirls, she took on more roles in TV projects. One of her more significant projects was Moesha, for which she earned five nominations for the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series.
Top of The Class in Abbott Elementary
In 2021, Ralph joined Abbott Elementary as Barbara Howard, a 30-year wise, veteran elementary school teacher. This role won her the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series. She was the first Black actress to win the award in 35 years.
“To anyone who has ever, ever had a dream and thought your dream wasn’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t come true, I am here to tell you that this is what believing looks like,” she said. “This is what striving looks like, and don’t you ever, ever give up on you.”
A few months following her Emmy win, Ralph received the Order of Jamaica, an honor granted to “Jamaican citizens of outstanding distinction or upon any distinguished citizen of a country other than Jamaica.”
Ralph was also recognized for her thirty years of AIDS activism at the Elizabeth Taylor Ball to End AIDS.
“Great evangelists and Christians were OK with getting on TV and saying the most awful things about human beings ever just because,” said Ralph. “And to me, it was an assault to my humanity. And that’s why I got involved in simply daring to care. And I was shocked that I was literally being challenged about caring for other human beings.”
More Women To Watch
Sheryl Lee Ralph continues to combat toxic Hollywood culture, shatter the glass ceiling and break new ground for African American women – all while providing trailblazing performances.
But she’s not alone. Don’t miss our other Women to Watch, such as directors Greta Gerwig and Ava DuVernay.
Plus, check out Hope Smith — the devoted mother, wife, former model, and Founder and CEO of luxury skincare brand MUTHA.™ Hope works alongside numerous organizations for the betterment of women, infants, and children worldwide. She has made giving back to the community a core focus of her life and is passionately committed to supporting the most vulnerable among us.