Jenifer Lewis

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Jenifer Lewis
Jenifer Lewis.jpg
Lewis in 2008
Jenifer Jeanette Lewis

(1957-01-25) January 25, 1957 (age 65)
EducationWebster University
  • Actress
  • singer
  • comedian
  • activist
Years active1979–present
Arnold Byrd
(m. 2012)

Jenifer Jeanette Lewis (born January 25, 1957)[1] is an American actress, singer, comedian and activist. She began her career appearing in Broadway musicals and worked as a back-up singer for Bette Midler before appearing in films Beaches (1988) and Sister Act (1992). Lewis is known for playing roles of mothers in the films What's Love Got to Do With It (1993), Poetic Justice (1993), The Preacher's Wife (1996), The Brothers (2001), The Cookout (2004), Think Like a Man (2012) and in the sequel Think Like a Man Too (2014), Baggage Claim (2013) and The Wedding Ringer (2015), as well as in The Temptations miniseries (1998).

Lewis is known unofficially as "The Mother of Black Hollywood" (also the name of her memoir) given her frequent matriarchal film and television roles.[2][3] She also provided the voice for Mama Odie in Disney's animated feature The Princess and the Frog (2009), and Flo in Pixar's Cars series. Additional film roles include Dead Presidents (1995), Cast Away (2000) and Hereafter (2010).

On television, Lewis starred as Lana Hawkins in the Lifetime medical drama Strong Medicine from 2000 to 2006. She also had recurring roles on sitcoms A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Girlfriends. In 2014, Lewis began starring as Ruby Johnson in the ABC comedy series Black-ish, for which she received two Critics' Choice Television Award nominations.

Early life[edit]

Lewis was born in Kinloch, Missouri, to a nurse's aide mother, Dorothy, and a factory worker father. Lewis is the youngest of seven children. She sang in her church choir at the age of five. She attended Kinloch High School and then college at Webster University in Webster Groves, Missouri. She received an honorary degree from Webster in 2015.[4] After college, Lewis moved to New York to focus on her career in performing.[citation needed]



Soon after she arrived in New York City, Lewis debuted on Broadway in a small role in Eubie (1979), the musical based on the work of Eubie Blake.[5] She next landed the role of Effie White in the workshop of the Michael Bennett-directed musical Dreamgirls, but when the show moved to Broadway, Bennett chose Jennifer Holliday for the role.[citation needed]

Lewis accepted a position as a Harlette, a back-up singer for Bette Midler which led to Lewis' first TV appearances on Midler's HBO specials. She acquired her first screen role as a result, appearing as a singer in the Otto Titsling production number in the Bette Midler vehicle Beaches (1988). At the same time, Lewis was developing her nightclub act, The Diva Is Dismissed, an autobiographical comedy and music show in New York City cabarets. She performed the show off-Broadway at the Public Theater.[6]


After Lewis relocated to Los Angeles, she began appearing in television sitcoms, including Murphy Brown, Dream On, In Living Color, Roc, Hangin' with Mr. Cooper and Friends. From 1992 to 1993, she played Dean Davenport in the sixth and final season of the NBC sitcom A Different World. She also had a recurring role as Will Smith's Aunt Helen in the NBC sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air from 1991 to 1996. As regular, Lewis starred alongside Patricia Wettig in her short-lived legal drama Courthouse in 1995, playing Judge Rosetta Reide, the first main African American lesbian character on television.[7]

In 1992, Lewis was cast as one of the back-up singers to Whoopi Goldberg in the comedy film Sister Act. The following year, Lewis played the mother of Tupac Shakur's character in the film Poetic Justice, and as Zelma Bullock, Tina Turner's mother, in the biopic What's Love Got to Do With It starring Angela Bassett. Lewis has stated she never auditioned to play Tina Turner, but would have been thrilled to play the iconic Tina Turner. Lewis is only one year older than Bassett. For her performance, she received her first NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture nomination. In 1994, she followed with other comedic supporting roles, including Mrs. Coleman the Unemployment Office lady in Renaissance Man and as Whoopi Goldberg's sister in Corrina, Corrina. In 1995, she was cast in maternal roles to Kadeem Hardison in Panther and to Larenz Tate in Dead Presidents.[citation needed]

In 1996, Lewis appeared as Theresa Randle's telephone sex line boss in the film Girl 6. Later that year, she played Whitney Houston's character's mother in the film The Preacher's Wife.[8] She received another NAACP Image Award nomination for her role in The Preacher's Wife. She also has had roles in The Mighty (1998), The Temptations miniseries (1998), Mystery Men (1999) and Blast from the Past (1999), before obtaining the leading role in the film Jackie's Back (1999).[5]


In 2000, Lewis had a supporting role in the adventure drama film Cast Away directed by Robert Zemeckis.[9] Also in 2000, she began starring as Lana Hawkins on the Lifetime television medical drama Strong Medicine. The show ended in February 2006. She also voiced Flo in the Pixar Cars movies. Lewis also performed the theme song for Strong Medicine.[10] She also had a recurring role as Veretta Childs (Toni's mother) in the UPN sitcom Girlfriends. In film, she appeared as Morris Chestnut's mother in the romantic comedy The Brothers (2001). In 2006, she had a featured role as the wedding planner in Tyler Perry's Madea's Family Reunion, and also appeared in Perry's comedy-drama Meet the Browns (2008) as Vera Brown. She also appeared in Juwanna Mann (2002), The Cookout (2004), Nora's Hair Salon (2004), Dirty Laundry (2006) and Not Easily Broken (2009).

On April 22, 2008, Lewis replaced Darlene Love as Motormouth Maybelle in Broadway's Hairspray.[11] On television, she guest starred on That's So Raven and Boston Legal. Lewis also had a number of voice acting roles, including Walt Disney Animation Studios's animated musical The Princess and the Frog (2009), for which she was nominated for the Annie Award for Voice Acting in a Feature Production.[12]


In June 2010, Lewis' told The Jazz Joy and Roy syndicated radio show: "I just did a production of 'Hello Dolly' at the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle and it had to be one of the greatest productions that I have ever done, because I got to just do a character, Dolly Levi, and it was just great."[13] In 2012 Lewis began working with Shangela on the online reality show parody, "Jenifer Lewis and Shangela," where she acts as herself alongside Shangela, a "drag queen living in her basement." She later appeared in Shangela's music video for "Werqin Girl (Professional)".[citation needed]

In 2010, Clint Eastwood cast Lewis in his fantasy film Hereafter.[14] The following year, she starred alongside Rosario Dawson and Tracee Ellis Ross in Five, for which she received another NAACP Image Award nomination. She also co-starred in the short-lived NBC series, The Playboy Club.[15] She played Terrence J's overbearing mother in box-office hit Think Like a Man (2012), and in its sequel Think Like a Man Too (2014). In 2013, she played Paula Patton's mother in the romantic comedy Baggage Claim. In 2015, she starred in the romantic comedy The Wedding Ringer.[3]

In 2014, Lewis was cast as Ruby Johnson, Anthony Anderson's character's mother in the ABC comedy series Black-ish.[16] She was upped to regular as of second season. In 2016, she received Critics' Choice Television Award for Best Guest Performer in a Comedy Series nomination for her performance.[17] She has also been featured on various TV advertising commercials.

In 2017, she published a book about her life and career, entitled The Mother of Black Hollywood in which she shared her life experiences with Whoopi Goldberg, Loretta Devine, Chris Rock, Bette Midler, Rosie O'Donnell, Liza Minnelli, Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin.[18]

Personal life[edit]

Lewis has been married to Arnold Byrd since 2012.[19][20] She has an adopted daughter named Charmaine Lewis.[21][22]

In 1990, Lewis was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.[23] She originally hid her diagnosis, as she felt ashamed, but eventually came to embrace it after 17 years of therapy and 10 years of medication. She now embraces her diagnosis, saying that "You have to look in the mirror... and say—before you can go or grow into anything—you have to say you love yourself."[24][25]



Year Title Role Notes
1988 Red Heat Judge Jenifer Lewis Uncredited
Beaches Diva
1992 Sister Act Michelle
Frozen Assets Jomisha
1993 What's Love Got to Do With It Zelma Bullock Nominated — NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture
Poetic Justice Anne
The Meteor Man Mrs. Williams
Undercover Blues Cab Driver
Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit Michelle
1994 Renaissance Man Mrs. Coleman
Corrina, Corrina Jevina Washington
1995 Panther Rita
Dead Presidents Mrs. Curtis
1996 Girl 6 Boss #1 — Lil
The Preacher's Wife Marguerite Coleman Nominated — NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture
1998 The Mighty Mrs. Addison
1999 Blast From the Past Dr. Aron
Mystery Men Lucille
Get Bruce Herself
2000 Dancing in September Judge Warner
Cast Away Becca Twig
2001 The Brothers Louise Smith
2002 Juwanna Mann Aunt Ruby
Antwone Fisher Aunt Mary Williams Uncredited
2004 Nora's Hair Salon Nora Harper
The Cookout Emma "Lady Em" Andersen
Shark Tale Motown Turtle (voice)
2006 Tyler Perry's Madea's Family Reunion Milay Jenay Lori
Cars Flo (voice)
Dirty Laundry Aunt Lettuce
The Heart Specialist Nurse Jackson
2007 Who's Your Caddy? Mrs. Hawkins
Redrum Therapist
2008 Tyler Perry's Meet the Browns Vera Brown
2009 Not Easily Broken Mary 'Mama' Clark
The Princess and the Frog Mama Odie (voice) Nominated — Annie Award for Voice Acting in a Feature Production
2010 Hereafter Candace
2011 Cars 2 Flo (voice)
2012 Think Like a Man Loretta Hanover
Zambezia Gogo (voice)
2013 Playin' for Love Alize Gates
Baggage Claim Catherine Moore Nominated — Acapulco Black Film Festival Award for Best Ensemble Cast
2014 Secrets of the Magic City Aunt Valerie
Think Like a Man Too Loretta Hanover
2015 The Wedding Ringer Doris Jenkins
2017 Cars 3 Flo (voice) Nominated — Black Reel Award for Outstanding Voice Performance
2019 The Addams Family Great Auntie Sloom (voice)
2020 Christmas on the Square Margeline
2022 Spellbound Minister Nazara Prone (voice) Voice role, in production


Year Title Role Notes
1990–91 Murphy Brown Sales Person Episodes: "Jingle Hell, Jingle Hell, Jingle All the Way" and "Uh-Oh: Pt. 2"
1990–93 A Different World Susan Clayton / Dean Dorothy Dandridge Davenport Recurring role, 9 episodes
1991 Stat Felicia Brown Episode: "Psychosomatic"
Sunday in Paris Taylor Chase Television film
1991–96 The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Aunt Helen Smith Recurring role, 8 episodes
1992 Dream On Carolyn Episode: "To the Moon, Alex!"
1993 In Living Color Various characters Recurring role, 5 episodes
Roc Charlaine Episode: "Joey the Bartender"
Moon Over Miami Aurora Tyler Episode: "If You Only Knew"
1993–95 Hangin' With Mr. Cooper Georgia Rodman Episodes: "Father Fairest", "Double Cheeseburger, Hold the Diploma" and "Here Comes the Groom"
1994 Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman Mystique Episode: "All Shook Up"
Friends Paula Episode: "The One With the Thumb"
Deconstructing Sarah Betty Television film
Shake, Rattle and Rock! Amanda
Last Days of Russell Aunt Yvette
1995 New York Undercover Medina Episode: "Private Enemy No. 1"
Living Single Delia Deveaux Episode: "Talk Showdown"
Courthouse Judge Rosetta Reide Series regular, 11 episodes
1996 Cosby Bernice Episode: "Basketball Story"
1997 Touched by an Angel Queenie Episode: "Amazing Grace: Part 1"
Promised Land Episode: "Amazing Grace: Part 2"
1997–99 Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child Black Widow Spider (voice) / Hazel (voice) Episodes: "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" and "The Bremen Town Musicians"
1998 The Parent 'Hood Linda Episode: "Hurricane Linda"
The Temptations Mama Rose Franklin Television film
An Unexpected Life Camille
1998–00 For Your Love Sylvia Ellis / Mel and Reggie's Mother Episodes: "The Brother's Day" and "Father Fixture"
1999 The Jamie Foxx Show Josie Episode: "Always Follow Your Heart"
Moesha Mrs. Biggs Episode: "A Den Is a Terrible Thing to Waste"
Grown Ups Melissa's mother Episode: "Family Circus"
Time of Your Life Joss's mother Episode: "The Time They Had Not"
Jackie's Back Jackie Washington Television film
Nominated — Black Reel Award for Best Actress
1999–01 The PJs Bebe Ho (voice) Series regular, 35 episodes
2000 Bette Inez Episode: "The Grammy Pre-Show"
Little Richard Muh Penniman Television film
Partners Detective Lancy
2000–06 Strong Medicine Receptionist Lana Hawkins Series regular, 131 episodes
Nominated – NAMIC Vision Awards for Best Performance – Drama (2006)
2001 The Ponder Heart Narcissa Wingfield Television film
2002 Family Affair Mrs. Summers Episode: "Pilot: Part 1"
2002–06 Girlfriends Veretta Childs Recurring role, 7 episodes
2003 The Proud Family Aunt Spice (voice) Episode: "Penny Potter"
2004 That's So Raven Vivian Baxter Episode: "To See or Not to See"
2007 Day Break Elizabeth Hopper Episode: "What If She's Lying?"
Shark Ellie Broussard Episode: "Backfire"
2007–08 Boston Legal Judge Isabel Fisher Episodes: "No Brains Left Behind" and "Mad About You"
2009–10 Meet the Browns Vera Brown Recurring role, 5 episodes
2011 The Cleveland Show Various (voices) Episodes: "A Short Story and a Tall Tale" and "The Way the Cookie Crumbles"
American Dad! Lessie Episode: "School Lies"
State of Georgia Patrice Episode: "Best Friends For-Never"
The Playboy Club Pearl Recurring role, 7 episodes
Five Maggie Television film
Nominated — Black Reel Award for Best Actress in a Television Miniseries or Movie
Nominated — NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actress in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special
Nominated – NAMIC Vision Awards for Best Performance – Drama
2014 The Boondocks Boss Willona / Geraldine (voice) Episodes: "Breaking Grandad" and "Early Bird Special"
2014–22 Black-ish Ruby Johnson Recurring (Season 1), Series regular (Season 2-)
Black Reel Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series (2017)
Nominated – Critics' Choice Television Award for Best Guest Performer in a Comedy Series (2016)
Nominated – Critics' Choice Television Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series (2017)
Nominated – Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series (2017-2018)
2015 The Exes Caren Dupree Episode: "Requiem for a Dream"
Instant Mom Delois Episodes: "Not Full House" and "Mysteries of Maggie"
It Had to Be You Reggie Television film
2017–21 Big Hero 6: The Series Professor Granville (voice) Main cast
2018 Young Justice Olympia Savage (voice) Episode: "Evolution"
RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars Herself; Guest Judge Episode: "All Star Super Queen Variety Show"
2019 Elena of Avalor Tornado (voice) Episodes: "Luna’s Big Leap" and "King Skylar"
2019–22 Tuca & Bertie Aunt Tallulah Toucan (voice) Episodes: "Plumage", "Yeast Week", "Nighttime Friend" and "The Pain Garden"
2020 Amphibia Mama Hasselback (voice) Episode: "The Ballad of Hopediah Planter"
Twenties Herself Episode: "Redemption Song"
2021 Star Trek: Lower Decks Bartender (voice) Episode: "An Embarrassment of Dooplers"
Rugrats Ms. Marjorie (voice) Episode: "Escape from Preschool/Mr. Chuckie"
2021–present Mickey Mouse Funhouse Wheezelene (voice) Recurring role
The Ghost and Molly McGee Patty (voice)
2022 Grown-ish Ruby Johnson Episodes: "It Was Good Until It Wasn’t" and "Empire State of Mind"
Central Park Celeste (voice) Episode: "Celeste We Forget"
I Love That for You Patricia Cochran Main cast

Video games[edit]

Year Title Role Notes
2006 Cars Flo Voice
2007 Cars Mater-National Championship
2009 Cars Race-O-Rama

Music videos[edit]

Year Title Role Notes
1996 "On & On" Erykah's Mother
2018 Forbidden Nosy neighbor "What's Going On", "Ring-a-Ling", "Apple Pie"

Theme parks[edit]

Year Title Role Notes
1989 Body Wars Ride Cue Instructional Video Announcer Disney attraction
2012 Radiator Springs Racers Flo Disney attraction


  1. ^ McCann, Bob (2009). Encyclopedia of African American Actresses in Film and Television. McFarland. p. 205.
  2. ^ Pendleton, Tonya (February 3, 2014). "Jenifer Lewis: 'They Call Me the Black Mother of Hollywood'". Black America Web. Retrieved January 25, 2016.
  3. ^ a b Stephens, Stephanie (January 14, 2015). "Mega Diva Jenifer Lewis on 'The Wedding Ringer' and Seeing Yourself". Parade. Retrieved January 25, 2016.
  4. ^ "Honorary Degrees at Webster University". Retrieved October 15, 2018.
  5. ^ a b "Jenifer Lewis". Retrieved January 25, 2016.
  6. ^ "THEATER REVIEW; A Diva in Progress Travels the Road to Fame - The New York Times". 1994-10-31. Retrieved 2022-05-09.
  7. ^ "Lesbians on series TV". Retrieved January 25, 2016.
  8. ^ Lane, Clay (January 7, 2009). "Jenifer Lewis: That's my mama!". Retrieved February 20, 2010.
  9. ^ "Cast Away". Rotten Tomatoes. December 22, 2000. Retrieved January 25, 2016.
  10. ^ "Jenifer Lewis". IMDb. Retrieved January 25, 2016.
  11. ^ The Broadway League. "Jenifer Lewis – IBDB: The official source for Broadway Information". Retrieved January 25, 2016.
  12. ^ "Annie Awards :: 37th Annie Awards". Retrieved January 25, 2016.
  13. ^ "Jenifer Lewis". Retrieved January 25, 2016.
  14. ^ "Jenifer Lewis on "Hereafter"". 19 December 2010. Retrieved January 25, 2016.
  15. ^ Williams, Brennan (22 September 2011). "Jenifer Lewis Talks: 'Playboy Club,' New Lifetime Film And Broadway Comeback". The Huffington Post. Retrieved January 25, 2016.
  16. ^ Slezak, Michael (September 30, 2014). "ABC's black-ish Casts Jenifer Lewis as Anthony Anderson's Mother". TVLine. Retrieved January 25, 2016.
  17. ^ Gray, Tim. "2016 Critics' Choice Award Nominations: Full List of Nominees – Variety". Variety. Retrieved January 25, 2016.
  18. ^ "Can We Talk About...? Divatastic Cult Classic "Jackie's Back ..." Logo TV. July 10, 2019.
  19. ^ Freeman, Dennis J. (October 22, 2010). "Jenifer Lewis Talks About Love, Happiness and the Hereafter". News4usonline. Retrieved January 25, 2016.
  20. ^ Weinraub, Bernard (July 1, 1993). "JENIFER LEWIS: FROM 'DIVA' TO 'STAR'". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved January 3, 2011.
  21. ^ Pennington, Gail (2 October 2011). "Actress Jenifer Lewis says Kinloch helped shape her". Retrieved 23 June 2020.
  22. ^ Stephens, Stephanie (April 1, 2015), "Jenifer Lewis: How a Diva Does Bipolar", bphope.
  23. ^ "Jenifer Lewis Opens Up About Battle With Bipolar Disorder". 28 January 2014. Retrieved January 25, 2016.
  24. ^ "Jenifer Lewis: "You Have To Love Yourself"". BlackDoctor. January 25, 2014. Retrieved December 8, 2016.
  25. ^ Lane, Derrick (January 25, 2014). "Jenifer Lewis Bipolar Disorder". News One. Retrieved January 25, 2016.

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