Sheryl Lee Ralph on Her History-Making Super Bowl Performance, Her First Impression of 'Abbott Elementary' & More

sheryl lee ralph universal 1
Getty Images/ Digital Art by Nakeisha Campbell

Some know Sheryl Lee Ralph as the iconic Deena Jones from the Broadway production of Dreamgirls. Others remember her as Moesha's no-nonsense stepmom, Dee Mitchell, on the '90s sitcom Moesha. But now, the 66-year-old actress is making waves as veteran teacher Barbara Howard on ABC's hit show, Abbott Elementary—a role that earned her a well-deserved Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series.

With the critically-acclaimed series in its second season, Barbara is getting even more screen time and scene-stealing lines. And if you're wondering how she manages to bring such a powerful character to life, it's all thanks to the educators in her family.

“My father was a lifelong learner," she told PureWow. "He started out as a teacher and ended his career as a college professor, and he loved his journey as an educator to this day. I still hear from so many of his students who want me to know the impact that he made on their lives.”

The star also drew inspiration from one of her aunts, who shares several qualities with the beloved character. She said, “My auntie Carolyn is another lifelong educator, who dared to expect and worked for the best that could be gotten for her students. She was an educator who ended her career as a highly honored principal. Parts of Barbara Howard come from my auntie Carolyn.”

Ralph, who's currently partnering with Microban 24, knew from the beginning that Abbott Elementary—which follows the lives of teachers who work at an underfunded public school—would resonate with viewers. In fact, she was sold from the moment she received the pilot script.

abbott elementary promo
Warner Bros. Television

"When I read it, I knew it was something very special," she told PureWow. "The idea that we would be shining the light on dedicated teachers who don’t get the attention and support that they deserve very often in urban schools. Shining the light on education. The fact that all too often, a child’s zip code will determine the quality of education that they will receive, or lack of quality that they will receive. The fact that we were talking about very serious subjects with edgy comedy [and] a bit of drama, yet still uplifting.”

sheryl quote 1

As for the show's renewal, it doesn't come as a big surprise to Ralph. “Season one was so good. I knew there would be more seasons to come.”

Created by Quinta Brunson, the sitcom expertly tackles some of the biggest issues facing the U.S. education system while amplifying the voices of underpaid teachers. But it does so with a dose of smart comedy, creating a space for thought-provoking discussions while also encouraging unity. According to Ralph, that's what makes the show so special.

She said, “The response from audiences around the country and even in different parts of the world has been amazing. It’s sometimes overwhelming. People want to talk so much about how divided we are in the country, in the world, but there are some subjects that we all feel the same about and it’s been wonderful to be a part of a unifying conversation around education, friendship and family.”

Ralph added, "It always makes me feel good when I hear people say, 'My family and I get together to watch Abbott Elementary every Wednesday night.' I love that."

Aside from winning fans over with her stellar acting chops, the multi-talented star has also been known to sport some serious pipes. So, naturally, Ralph was chosen to perform the Black national anthem at this year's Super Bowl—and any fan who tuned in will tell you that she stole the show.

“I was dumbfounded when I received the request to sing at the Super Bowl," she said. "Especially to have the honor of being the first artist to sing ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ inside the stadium as part of the opening ceremonies to the Super Bowl.”

sheryl quote 2

As expected, Ralph's stirring rendition of the song was met with praise from countless fans. She said, "It is a dream come true, it is something I’ll never forget. The experience was better than anyone can imagine."

You'll recall that Rihanna also delivered a memorable performance for the Halftime show. Ralph, who appeared in Rihanna's Savage X Fenty Show Vol 4 last year, revealed that she'd be more than happy to work with the "Lift Me Up" singer on new music. “If I were ever offered the opportunity to do a musical collaboration with the wonderful Rihanna, you know what my answer would be: a resounding 'Yes girl, yes!'”

dreamgirls sheryl lee ralph
Robin Platzer/Getty Images

We're sure fans would love nothing more than to see these two vocal powerhouses join forces on a track. But until that time comes, fans can enjoy listening to Ralph's albums (including In the Evening and her most recent release, Sleigh) and, of course, revisit her epic performance from Dreamgirls.

In the original Broadway musical, Ralph starred as Deena, and it turns out the iconic role was one of her favorites to play. She said, "I will always have a great love for Deena Jones in the groundbreaking Broadway musical, Dreamgirls. Loretta Devine and I were a part of the project from day one, and we had hands in creating our roles, and I learned so much from the years I spent developing Dreamgirls and performing it on Broadway."

In addition to her acting and music experience, Ralph has also dabbled in writing. Her new memoir, called Diva 2.0 12 Life Lessons From Me For You, will explore some of the biggest lessons she learned throughout her decades-long career and encourage readers to channel their inner "DIVA" (or rather, their Divinely Inspired, Victoriously Awesome self). Fans can expect the book to hit shelves on March 14.

As for how the talented performer continues to juggle so many projects with ease, she told us, “I have only been able to do all the things that I have done as a mother, a wife, an actor, a writer, an activist and a performer because I had outstanding family support.”

Another key to maintaining her success? Balance.

Ralph said, “Balance is everything. When one thing starts to take over and things get out of balance, or out of whack, that’s when problems happen. In order to do all of these things it must be a very delicate balance. And in all of these things, the one person that you really must pay attention to is yourself. Be good to yourself, respect yourself, love on yourself. Because the better you’re able to do that, the better you’ll be able to do it for everybody else.”

Spoken like a true queen.

Want more exclusive interviews sent to your email inbox? Be sure to subscribe here.

nakeisha campbell bio
Nakeisha Campbell

Associate Editor, News and Entertainment

Nakeisha has been interviewing celebrities and covering all things entertainment for over 8 years, but she has also written on a wide range of topics, like career...
read full bio