Jenifer Lewis — whose decades-long career spans TV, Hollywood, theater, and music — used her passion for performing to fuel her fight for mental health.
Lewis has met life’s challenges head-on. Known as the “Mother of Black Hollywood,” she’s been the star of countless Broadway hits, films, and TV shows; a tireless activist; and a woman huge A-list stars call “auntie.” However, her biggest challenge had nothing to do with acting or activism.
“Being diagnosed with bipolar disorder was my biggest challenge,” Lewis said. “When I was on stage and had all of that bravado and delusions of grandeur, I was in heaven! Everybody said, ‘she’s fabulous’ — and I was fabulous. I had no idea I was manic.”
The triple threat
Lewis has always been driven. Coming from humble beginnings, Lewis saw fame and fortune as a means of able to give back to those less fortunate.
“I would see those PSAs of the starving children in Africa. I sat in front of the television one day, and I saw that the flies on their noses and faces and eyes,” Lewis explained. “I said, ‘If I can be famous, then I’ll be rich, and if I’m rich, I can give them some food.’ This is how I thought. This is how it really started.”
It took work. Lewis took inspiration from the best, watching legends like Bette Davis, Dorothy Dandridge, Sammy Davis, and Moms Mabley on TV, and she knew she needed to do it all.
“They were alphas,” said Lewis. “They were triple threats. Back in those days, they would only market you as a singer or a comedian or a dancer — you had to do one thing. Well, I didn’t adhere to it; I didn’t stoop to it. I was not going to repress my talent. I had to do it all.”
Initially, her undiagnosed bipolar disorder was an asset.
“When I walked into a room to audition, I knew they needed the triple threat,” said Lewis.T”hat grandiosity came from my bipolar disorder, the mania that comes with that. I was a locomotive with talent! So much talent. I used to say it out loud: ‘Not even me can stop me.’”
Shining her light
It took Lewis a long time to realize that the very thing that gave her that edge, that made people think she was fabulous, came at a cost.
“I came out of 30 years of depression before I was diagnosed,” she said. “I slept under the covers in dark rooms.” Lewis has been in treatment for 20 years now, but it took five years of persistence for her therapist to convince her to take medication.
“I was afraid that the edge would go away,” she said. “That’s why it took my therapist five years to get me on medication, because I was afraid that my edge would go away.”
It was her passion for performing that got her through.
“You want to talk about the importance of mental health, emotional and physical? I’ll give it to you: Lead with love as much as you possibly can — and find your passion. That’s what you need. That’s the thing that will get you up and get you going.”
Today, Lewis is focusing on her activism, traveling the world to address racism, economic inequality, and climate change.
“It’s time for us to pay more attention to the younger generations,” she said. “I just left Antarctica in November 2019. I’ve seen the ice melting with my own eyes. The captain of the ship said, ‘Ms. Lewis, I know you are a celebrity, but my crew tells me that you are also an activist. I want to ask you to go back to your country and tell whoever will listen thar we are, in fact, in trouble. The Arctic is melting at the speed of light.’”
Lewis also advocates for those suffering from mental health issues.
“Leave the curtains open,” she advised. “Let the sun come into the room. If you need help getting out of the bed — because so many people are depressed, and suicide is going at a rate that is unimaginable — call on the ancestors. Call on the people that you know got up when they didn’t have to, call on the people that you know did well in life. Call on the greats who didn’t take any shortcuts. Call on me. You just have to get up.”