In her everyday life, Sheryl Lee Ralph barely resembles Barbara Howard, the formidable, no-nonsense kindergarten teacher she plays on the Emmy-nominated sitcom Abbott Elementary. Her typical long hair, hoop earrings, and bold prints are a far cry from Howard’s cardigans. But when the Emmy-nominated actor sits down to Zoom from her dressing room on set, she is dressed in character, with scissors in hand and a large hat. For a moment, she looks so much like the kindergarten teacher that I wonder if I’ve somehow interrupted a scene.
“No, my husband and I went to Napa this weekend and I saw this hat and said, ‘Oh my God, that’s me!’ and just had to have it,” she says, her eyes lighting up. “But it’s got a tiny little band on it, and I’m like, ‘Oh no, I’m going to put this satin ribbon on because it’s so pretty.’ So that’s what I’m doing with the scissors.”
Putting her own spin on things has been Ralph’s style for decades. And now, with Abbott as the critical darling of the Emmys and the torchbearer for network sitcoms typically put out to pasture in today’s streaming age, more people than ever are paying attention. As for Ralph, she says she’s still very much the same teenager who—get this—Glamour featured in 1975 as a College Women of the Year, despite this new generation of fans. After all, at 65, she’s been a successful actor for four decades with a career that includes a Tony nomination (for 1981’s Dreamgirls), nearly 30 film credits, and TV roles on everything from Designing Women to Moesha to Ray Donovan.
Still, Barbara Howard is being described as a “breakthrough” role and has scored Ralph her first Emmy nomination and newfound recognition. Called “divine” by the Los Angeles Times and a “fabulous” Hollywood icon by The Cut, Ralph is relishing the moment. She’s been working long enough to appreciate these new perks, but not hardened to the point where she wonders why it took so long for everyone else to notice. Quite simply, she’s grateful.
That’s why Ralph came ready with the wisdom for Glamour‘s latest Icons Only as she shares her thoughts on finding your purpose, making love a priority, and embracing the rough times.
Glamour: Look what I printed off, Sheryl.
Sheryl Lee Ralph: Oh my God. Look at me. Oh my God.
This is the most epic, movie star-looking portrait.
I wanted to create drama. I wanted it to look like I was right there in the mirror doing my thing. I’m a kid there too. I think this was my sophomore year, so I was probably 17 or 18.
And you weren’t going by Sheryl Lee Ralph. It was just Sheryl Ralph. When did you add the Lee?
I added the Lee for Dreamgirls because I felt I needed a more lyrical name. Sheryl Ralph just seemed too…Sheryl Lee Ralph sounded better. I even tried hyphenating the Sheryl and the Lee, and then that fell away.
Do you like people calling you Sheryl or Sheryl Lee?
I like them calling me anything except the B word. So it’s great.
Do you remember what you said in Glamour back then?
I have not the slightest idea.
You said, “It is best to decide what you want to do right after your freshman year. You can switch majors, but if you wait too long, you may have to carry extra hours or go to summer school. I just knew I was going to be Dr. Ralph when I went to college, but after my first semester, I decided that I did not like dissecting frogs and rabbits. Then I got the lead role in a school production, and it was goodbye, biology, chemistry and calculus, and hello, Hughes, Ibsen, and Shakespeare. My parents were disappointed, but I convinced them that I was happiest when I was on stage and that acting was the thing I felt I could do best. Follow your instincts about what you enjoy doing rather than majoring in something just because your parents or a counselor recommended it.”