Brandy Norwood Sheryl Lee Ralph Abbott Elementary
Everett Collection/Getty Images/ABC
Icons Only

Abbott Elementary’s Sheryl Lee Ralph Has a Life Lesson You Need to Hear

The Emmy-nominated actor—who stars as kindergarten teacher Barbara Howard on the hit ABC sitcom—is living her best life. And she's more than happy to share her wisdom.

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 that 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.

Patrice Casanova, Glamour, September 1975
Patrice Casanova, Glamour, September 1975

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 onstage 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.”

Wow. You know what's so interesting…with all of the interviews and things going around the Emmy nomination, I've been exactly who I am. Of course I've grown. Of course I've changed, but that is exactly who I am. And I was a kid. I was just doing something where I was saying find your joy. Because once you find your joy, you'll never work. You'll be happy forever. I mean, I've been saying that since I was 17.

I’ve heard that you were reading the Glamour College Women of the Year list the year before, and you wanted to be a part of it one day so you submitted yourself. Correct?

That is all true. Quite literally what happened, Erlene Berry was the winner—the Black female winner college student—the year before. When I looked at her picture, I said, “I want to be there. I want to be on those pages.” So I submitted to be on the pages, and the next year there I was. She and I were in contact with each other for a very long time until she passed away. 

Sheryl Lee Ralph (honoree in 1975), Martha Stewart (also a Glamour CWOTY honoree, in 1961), and former Glamour editor in chief Cindi Leive in 2007 at a celebration for the 50th anniversary of the Top 10 College Women of the Year. 

L. Busacca/WireImage for Glamour Magazine

Do you remember when you first saw yourself in the magazine?

I just thought, Oh my God, I'm making it. I'm going to make it. That was a great time. My parents were ecstatic. It was like a marker because it made it look like, “Wow, I can do this.”

Where did that confidence come from?

My parents. My parents loved me into my own personal confidence. I was a funny-looking little girl. They used to call me Ug Mo. 

Wait a minute. They called you Ug Mo?

They wouldn't call you ugly. They just called me Ug Mo. And then they would call me Liver Lips because I had full lips, and now Kardashians paid money for lips like this. It was very interesting, and being a child in the ’60s when they throw the N-word around and it wasn't with a golden record. It was just something to hurt you. My parents, especially my mother, as an immigrant, was always encouraging me that I was beautiful. She said, “Don't worry about people and their ignorance because you are smart and you can rise above it.” They would tell me these things consistently and constantly, and I believed them. 

It's so interesting because when I got the Glamour honor, my dream was to become an actress. At that time I met the woman who won the Tony Award for the musical Raisin, Virginia Capers. And she stayed with me through my whole life and career. She was a major mentor. She got me my first apartment when I came out to California and helped me find the right car to drive. She was always there to help me with auditions. It was a lifelong relationship. I have been so supported by other women, and because of that I've been able to have a career that allows me to support others and be an example of excellence. 

Dreamgirls cast Sheryl Lee Ralph, Deborah Burrell, and Loretta Devine circa 1981 in New York City

Robin Platzer/IMAGES/Getty Images

What were your nerves like when you made your Dreamgirls debut? Were you feeling that confidence your parents instilled in you or were you scared out of your mind?

I was positive I was in the wrong place in the audition. I was surrounded by all of these incredible singers, and I was literally walking in the footsteps of Loretta Devine because she was in front of me going into the building. I heard other people sing, and I was like, “What the hell am I doing here?” So when I was called, I was shocked. I was like, “Why me?” The director told me, “Because you're exactly what I need.” He was like, “I have one that sings like this. I have another one that sings like this. And then there's you who sings like this just the way I wrote it.” I was like, “Okay, I'll take that as a compliment.”

What did you learn from that experience overall?

I always want to show up and show out, meaning, do my best always. Because you just never know. Sometimes people figure, “Oh, I'm not going to get it, so I don't need to do my best.” Yeah, you need to do your best every time because sometimes you're not going to get that one. But if you get the next one, it could be better than the one you didn't get. It was so weird how I came to Abbott Elementary because I was actually doing something else for ABC. Then COVID happened, so that other show didn't happen. Then I was offered another ensemble show, but I would've been number five on the call sheet. So I was just like, “Oh.”

Then Quinta Brunson called me. She said, “Ms. Ralph, I know that you are at that point in your career where you get offered jobs. But if you would consider…I think it's going to be great for everybody.”

I actually approached her about reading for the role of Ava [now played by fellow Emmy nominee Janelle James] because I said, “Oh, it would be great to just break away from everything that people think about me and place something so very different.” She said, “Absolutely not. We need a queen for Barbara Howard, and you are that queen.” I was like, “Well, how do you say no to that?”

So you hadn’t even read a script yet when Quinta called.

No, I hadn't read it yet. She wanted to see if I was willing to do that role because she's so focused. She knows about these characters. She knows about this show. Quinta can tell you where this show is going five years from now. She wanted me to be down with the fact that everybody's going to be coming from the same place and, “If you would be willing to just work with us, it would be good.” She was right.

ABC's Abbott Elementary stars Tyler James Williams as Gregory, Janelle James as Ava, Quinta Brunson as Janine, Sheryl Lee Ralph as Barbara, Chris Perfetti as Jacob, and Lisa Ann Walter as Melissa.

 Pamela Littky/ABC via Getty Images

Did you have any input in Barbara’s look? Because her style is so different from yours in real life.

I had absolutely no input whatsoever. This was one of those first times in my career I just was like, “You know what? Let's just go with this because she is so focused…she sees it.” I am so happy because look at the gift I got. Quinta was right. 

What was so strange was I have never been on a show where the cast was so eager to see each other again after the summer hiatus. I mean, it was strange. We were all looking forward to the first day back to school for season two. All of us. It was like being a child again when you can't wait to see your friends. It was great.

Your reactions as Barbara are just priceless. I watch, and I’ll think, Does Sheryl practice this in the mirror? 

No, it literally just happens. I have learned that side eye is my love language. [Laughs.]

What has Abbott done for you professionally and personally that hadn’t happened yet in your career?

It has just amplified everything that I was very happy with. Somebody told me, “You know what? You've had a great life. But things are going to change.” And I was like, “Wow, I never thought about that.” People now, they look at you differently. They really do. It's weird.

I was in coach flying on the plane and somebody said, “What are you doing back here?” And I was just like, “I'm flying.” She was like, “No, go up there.” I was like, “Oh my God.” It's people's expectations for you and of you are now different with the whole Emmy-nomination thing. I'm the same actor that I've been, but something about it now is just different. I love it. I'm not going to say I don't love it. I do love it. But now I'm just experiencing so many different levels of the industry, and it's good.

What are some of your favorite perks? 

I'm going to buy a car, and I'm just going to buy the car that I like.

What car do you like? 

Oh, girl. Okay. So this is a car called the Lucid, and it's fabulous. It's electric, because I want an electric car. Then Cadillac has the Lyriq, and I'm just like, “Oh my God, when are these cars coming out?” In the meantime, I'm in my little Chrysler 200 waiting for the car that I really love. [Laughs.

I love the perks, like when you come to work and sometimes there are flowers there for you. I love the fact that they fill up your refrigerator with all of your favorite stuff and ask, “What do you like?” I love the fact that other producers call you and ask, “What are you interested in doing next?” I love the fact that I get to just enjoy life absolutely on my own terms.

Have you also learned to set new boundaries? 

I'm learning that. My manager is always saying, “Remember you need time for yourself. Remember you cannot say yes to everything. Remember rest is important.” So I've made a better commitment to myself in terms of working out and taking great care of myself. People always say, “You look great,” but taking care of myself is such a luxury. It is a luxury to think enough about yourself that you work out and that you eat better, that you actually make an appointment to get the checkup with the doctor. Those are such great luxuries, and to take advantage of them has been good and needed. But I'm still learning. My dad used to always say, “Be a lifelong learner. Never stop learning. Never stop being curious.” I wish that I had paid attention earlier, but I'm glad I'm doing it now.

Speaking of making time for what’s important, I read that years ago you wore a string around your ring finger to remind you to make time to date and find the person you wanted to spend your life with. One, that’s amazing, but would you still do it if you were single now?

Oh, absolutely. I was so focused on my career, which was thriving. It was all working out. I had famous friends. I had all of this, but there was nobody there to love me. There was nobody there to share all of this success with me. When I tied that string on my finger, I said, “I am committing myself to getting a ring on the finger. This string will be replaced, and I'm going to work at it the way I work at my job.” And that's what I did.

So what did you start doing differently in your life?

I stopped going to all the places I used to go. I traveled further. I went to different places. I did different things. I changed the circle of people that I was around. I eventually got married, and I had two amazing children. The relationship did not [last]…

But now I need to know how you met your first husband.

I had a film in Cannes in 1990. It was called To Sleep With Anger, a Charles Burnett film. I had won the Independent Spirit Award, so I was on another professional high. They took the film to Cannes, and the first or second night I was there, one of the lawyers/producers on the show said, “Meet my friend.” I said, “Okay, hello. Well, who's sitting there?” And he said, “You are.” That was that. We were married six months later.

How soon did you tell him about the string on your finger?

He knew about the string because I was wearing it when we met. He asked me what it was, and I told him, “It's because it's going to be replaced one day with a better ring.” And it was.

Speaking of the wedding, Jet magazine wrote in 1990, “[Ralph] is planning a massive wedding somewhere in the Caribbean that she hopes to keep private.” And you said, “I'm going to have 2,000 balloons, 5,000 imported flowers, four trumpets, a string quartet, a Calypso band, a steel band, a regular band, and a disc jockey.” Did that actually happen?

Yes. I got married in Jamaica. The reception was at the residence of the then prime minister. It was massive. I arrived in a donkey cart because Charles and Diana had arrived in this beautiful carriage. So I said, “Well, I'm doing my island version of it.” The city turned out for my wedding. You would've thought I was Princess Di. It was crazy fabulous. And yes, we had a string quartet. We had the DJ. We had the regular band. We had the Calypso band. Oh, it was just massive. I had a ball. A great wedding.

Were you able to keep it private or did people find out?

Everybody found out. First of all, Denzel Washington attended the wedding, so there you have it. There was no keeping that a secret. His son, John David, was my ring bearer who refused to walk down the aisle. [Laughs.] He's a big star now, so it's all great. But he was maybe, what, five years old and just so cute. John David looked at me and said, “Sheryl Ralph, you look brand-new.” I'll never forget it.

After you got divorced, did you wear another string on your finger? 

No, because I wasn't looking to get married. I did it. It was amazing, and I have these two great kids. But I was like, “Now I've got to work.” I was a single mother. I need to concentrate and focus once again on just doing my life. And then my friend, Ci Ci Holloway, who at the time was the head of diversity at Paramount Studios, said, “You got to meet my friend, the senator.” I was like, “Yeah, right. Your friend, the senator.” And it didn't happen. Then, two years later because she was persistent, we met. And that was that. [Pennsylvania State Senator Vincent Hughes] is the sweetest, kindest man. We've been together 20 years and just celebrated 17 years of marriage, which in Hollywood years is like 100 years.

That’s a true milestone. Congratulations.

Seventeen good years. It's interesting because everybody talks about marriage, like marriage is this, marriage is that. I'm like, “Marriage is work. You work at being married. You work at staying married. You work at having a living, loving, trusting relationship with somebody.” It is absolutely work. The only thing I can say is, “I hope you picked the right person that you want to work with.” There's nothing worse than having to work with somebody you don't necessarily like. I'm very blessed to have chosen—the second time around—the right person. It works.

The wedding of Sheryl Lee Ralph and Senator Vincent Hughes

Malcolm Ali/WireImage

What advice do you share with your kids about marriage, other than you need to work at it? 

I say different things to them. To my son, I say, “Please just marry the woman that I pick out for you because you have had the worst taste. If you listen to your mother, you will be very happy.” To my daughter, I say, “You must find somebody of equal yoke because you are a dynamic woman. You have to find a man who is strong enough to shine in your light. And you must be strong enough to share the light with him. If you can do those things, go on and get married to that man.”

If you find a man that can be comfortable in himself with you, it doesn't matter how much money he makes. Because if you all truly love each other, it'll all be good. But we put all these impediments in front of us, like, he's too short, he's too this, he's too that. Does he love you? Does he care for you? Does he understand that whatever you bring to the table, he must bring something to the table as well? Are you able to try and understand that with him?

I was at a low in my career right before my second marriage, and I thought maybe it wasn't going to happen for me. Maybe I'm just going to move to Philadelphia, do a little local show, and that will be my life. My husband looked at me and said, “Do you know who you are?” It was the encouragement I needed to carry on, be myself, and not be afraid to try again. He's a politician, he has his career. He's secure in what he does. He respects what I do. And I do what I do. We commute, which has been great for us because we don't share a bathroom, a mortgage, and we've raised our own children. I don't know if I would say to everybody that's the way to do it. But we've grown and have our own lives, and it's worked out well for us.

Did you know right away that you wanted to be with Senator Hughes when you had that blind date?

I knew that I wanted something with this man. I don't know if I was thinking about marriage per se, but I knew there could be a relationship. He was smart. He was kind. He was willing to travel to New York and come see me. And it was fun. We only could see each other every two weeks because of his schedule and mine. It's been like that for years. We just see either every two weeks or when we can. It works out.

Speaking of your schedule, you did something pretty remarkable in the late ’90s when you cowrote, codirected, and coproduced a beauty and instructional half-hour video cassette designed to meet the needs of contemporary Black women. 

I am nothing if not having been ahead of my time on so many things. After doing Dreamgirls so many people would say, “I love the way your skin looks and your makeup is always so beautiful. How you do it?” I just said, “My God, where is the video for this group of people?” VHS tapes were hot, so I thought, I should create one. I had a friend, Andrea, a producer, and I said, “Let's do this.” I just put everything that I'd learned about beauty and living life. At that time, Bobbi Brown was coming out with her line about basics. I said, “Well, there'll be her basics and there'll be my basics.” I put it all together. It did well. Of course, if it were doing it now, it'd be a whole other thing.

It was the right thing to do at the time. But a lot of the women of color did not have credit back then. They didn't have credit cards. They couldn't get on a system to buy the videos and things and keep up with product. Now things have changed.

Sheryl Lee Ralph in 1985

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Finally, is there anything you wish you could go back and tell yourself at age 20 or even age 40?

I would tell young Sheryl Lee, “Go find that Glamour magazine. Look at that first article and read what you said. You had it then. You have it now. The only thing you ever need to do is carry on through your own personal storms. Because when you have those rough times, it helps you appreciate the good times even more. And you will have a lot of good times.”

Jessica Radloff is the Glamour senior West Coast editor and author of the upcoming book The Big Bang Theory: The Definitive, Inside Story of the Epic Hit Series (October 11, 2022). You can follow her on Instagram @jessicaradloff14.

Research credit: Deirdre McCabe Nolan, senior librarian, Condé Nast