Beloved as an around-the-way girl who becomes a princess in the urban classic Coming to America, Shari Headley brings an edge and attitude to her guest-starring role as District Attorney Jennifer Sallison on “The Haves and Have Nots,” produced by Tyler Perry for the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). But she’s most proud of her roles at home and in the community, where she tries to save our daughters.
By Yanick Rice Lamb
Sometimes it’s good to be bad, Shari Headley says. Beloved as an around-the-way girl who becomes a princess in the urban classic Coming to America, Headley brings an edge and attitude to her guest-starring role as a district attorney on “The Haves and Have Nots,” produced by Tyler Perry for the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN).
“I never get to play the bitch,” Headley says. “I really like it. A lot of actors play the complete opposite of who they are. I’m crazy and funny, and I’m always laughing.”
However, many of her characters have been serious (TV dramas), the girl next door (music videos) and, of course, the woman of princely dreams.
“I really embrace this role; this has been my new favorite,” Headley says of her character, Jennifer Sallison, who has history in the courtroom — and possibly the bedroom — with Judge James Cryer (John Schneider), one of the “haves” that everyone loves to hate on the Tuesday night cable series that’s as popular with some viewers as “Scandal.” (See video below.)
Another added bonus of the part is the company she keeps. “I’ve got Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey as bosses,” she notes. “How cool is that?”
Now, whether her character will live to keep nailing Cryer any chance she gets or becomes another line on Headley’s list of acting credits is one of those mysteries of scriptwriting. “I have to wait and see just like everybody else,” she explains. “It keeps it really interesting. In real life, you wouldn’t know what to expect.”
Although Headley savors portraying Sallison on “The Haves and Have Nots” and is forever grateful for the enduring praise she receives for her turn as Lisa McDowell and the Princess of Zamunda in Coming to America, she shines most in her roles at home and in the community, saving our daughters.
A Good Balance
“I have a pretty good balance,” says Headley, who cares for her 88-year-old mother and reared her son as a single mom. “I’m so proud of my son.” Now 20 with his mom’s positive outlook and giving personality, Skyler is into inventions and animation.
When it comes to discussing her two-year marriage to Chris Martin, formerly of Kid ’n Play, she focuses on what her mama said about saying nice things or nothing at all.
“I’m very blessed that the union produced my beautiful son,” she states diplomatically in a measured tone. “That’s all I can really say. I’m happy with that. I haven’t seen or heard from him in a very long time.”
“It is what it is,” she admits. “I made the choice to get divorced.”
Nurturing children on one end and caring for elders on the other are challenges to which any woman in the sandwich generation can attest — especially when flying solo and especially when working in an industry known for turbulence.
While keeping the main thing, the main thing, Headley has done whatever she needed to take care of her family and make it as an actor.
“It can be feast or famine,” says Headley, who has rolled her mother in a wheelchair or pushed her son in a stroller to auditions.
“At one point, I lived in my car,” she reveals. “I’ve put God first, and that’s been what’s kept me thriving. He’s going to always take care of me.”
Plus, her mom and her friends have had her back. “I’ve had a lot of supportive people around me,” she adds, including the first family of comedy. “I have to credit the Wayans. They kept me employed. They’ve all been very supportive. They’re like family.”
Headley uses life’s lessons to help young people. In 2013, she received the President’s Volunteer Service Award under Barack Obama. “That was yet another proud moment,” she says.
Curtis Benjamin, co-founder with his wife, Debbie, of Saving Our Daughters, calls Headley “a godsend.”
“She’s definitely a blessing,” says Benjamin, whose organization addresses bullying, domestic violence, dating abuse, homelessness and other issues affecting girls and young women between the ages of 10 and 20. “She’s what celebrities need to be. She’s great!”
Unlike some stars, Headley doesn’t do drive-by charity or come with a list of diva demands. Benjamin praises her level of commitment and willingness to use her own resources to drive wherever, whenever.
“It’s just hard to find celebrities like that nowadays,” he says. “Some celebrities, after they do their community work, they’re done.”
The Benjamins’ nonprofit is dedicated to their youngest daughter, Iliss, who was a source of inspiration as she battled a brain tumor. The 10-year-old died in 2011.
“When my daughter died of cancer, Shari was always a great friend and listener — just being there for anything,” Benjamin recalls.
During the 1990s, Headley reached out to schools on her own to speak to students. She delved deeper after diffusing some drama between rival girl gangs. While visiting a Brooklyn middle school to speak at an assembly, the principal pulled her aside and told her about excessive gang fights.
The actress asked to speak to the ringleaders. One gave her the silent treatment and side eye with crossed arms and lots of attitude. “She was completely shut down,” Headley recalls. “She didn’t answer me, she didn’t talk to me and she wasn’t listening.”
After going on for about 20 minutes and sensing the girl’s “heavy energy,” sadness and the toll of life experiences far beyond her early teenage years, Headley prayed for guidance.
“I can see that nothing I’m saying is getting through to you, but I want to ask you for just one thing.”
“What?” the girl responded gruffly.
“Can I just hug you?”
“At first, she was just rigid, and then she just broke down.” Tears flowed over fresh and old scratches on the girl’s face.
“It just made me so sad,” Headley says, her eyes watering as she reminisces. “It taught me in that moment that there are so many kids out there who don’t have that kind of human contact where somebody takes the time to give them a hug, to tell them it’s going to be OK or what have you.”
“That moment in time changed that young girl’s life.”
Headley returned to the middle school to help build students’ self-esteem. She’d bring donated clothing or whatever was missing in the teens’ lives.
“I came back and I came back and I came back until we got to the point where these girls graduated and they went to high school,” Headley says. “I think it’s so important. We have to take the time to talk to young people. A lot of them don’t have any direction.”
Art Imitates Life
Headley’s work and roots in the community are a bit of life imitating art and art imitating life. “It wasn’t just Lisa McDowell talking about the children,” she says with a laugh. “It’s me, too!” And when Eddie Murphy’s character Prince Akeem came to Queens, N.Y., in search of a queen, he found the real deal. Headley actually grew up in Queens, but in St. Albans not in Jamaica Estates, home to the fictitious McDowell family.
Her father, Godfrey Headley, emigrated from Trinidad to the United States when he was 16 years old. He met a Brooklyn beauty named Sarah on the beach at Coney Island. He tried to impress her by swimming farther and farther out into the ocean. Then she rose from her sandy spot and left. He refused to give up until he impressed her enough to walk down the aisle.
The Headleys had one boy and three girls. The baby of the family, Shari, enjoyed being the center of attention. A natural-born ham, she sang into her hairbrush at home and starred in plays at school. She was fascinated by medicine and had considered becoming a physician until she saw an autopsy. “I had the intelligence to pursue it, but I didn’t have the stomach.”
After winning a modeling competition, she landed a contract with the Ford agency and appeared in ads for major companies such as L’Oreal. “They made me move in with Eileen Ford,” Headley says. “That was a big deal.” The Fords’ maid snitched that she had been eating a cupcake, just one of many signs that modeling wasn’t really the right fit. It was acting, and her first role was on the “The Cosby Show.”
“It’s amazing to work when you’re an actor,” Headley says excitedly. “It’s a true blessing!”
Although she’s been able to live out her dream, real life is still what matters most to Headley, not the figments of someone’s imagination.
“The career is just the cherry on top.”
Yanick Rice Lamb, who teaches journalism at Howard University, is co-founder and publisher of FierceforBlackWomen.com.
@shariheadley Good to see you. You haven’t aged! #HAHN #tylerperry #own
— m smith (@phavor1991) June 11, 2014
How Headley Keeps That Glow
Lots of people say that Shari Headley hasn’t changed much over the years. One reason is that she works from the inside out. “It’s important to let your beauty shine,” she says. “You have to start with your inner beauty.”
That includes “being happy for others,” surrounding yourself with positive people and not letting drama queens rule your life. “If you’re an ugly person inside, I don’t want to have anything to do with you.”
So, what about the outside? Here are Headley’s hints for looking forever fabulous:
“The No. 1 thing is drinking a lot of water,” she says, pointing out the effects on your skin, hair and bodily functions. “I drink tons of water, because water really flushes your system. … If you’re not moving it, it’s not a good thing, and it really shows up in your skin.”
After showering, she blots off with a damp wash cloth instead of using a dry towel to keep her skin dewy moist.
“I use a lot of oil,” she adds, from coconut oil to cocoa butter.
She always removes makeup and cleanses her face before turning in at night.
“I’m physically active. I love to walk. I love nature.” She’s also considering joining some friends in bouncing on a trampoline.
“I try to eat well,” says Headley, a vegetarian for 30 years. She also takes supplements like Biotin and Vitamins B6 and B12.
District Attorney Jennifer Sallison turns up the heat on Jim Cryer’s son, Wyatt.