You may know Sheryl Lee Ralph (now, Ralph-Hughes) from late-1990s the hit UPN television show “Moesha,” but she’s actually an accomplished actress and philanthropist in her own right. The youngest female to graduate from Rutgers University, Ralph originally planned to study medicine before switching gears and becoming an actress. Today she’s married to Pennsylvania State Senator Vincent Hughes and splits her time between Philadelphia and her hometown of Los Angeles where she produces the musical “Mighty Real” and promotes The Diva Foundation, a charity that raises awareness for HIV/AIDS.
What made you switch from studying medicine to professional acting?
Believe it or not it was organic chemistry. It really just turned me off. I’ll never forget walking into that class with this huge hare laying on my table, ready to be dissected and this shiny scalpel they gave me. That was it.
You were living in Los Angeles when you married your husband. How did you meet?
When I met him I was actually on Broadway in New York doing a musical called “Thoroughly Modern Millie” about 14 or 15 years ago. We were set up on a blind date. Two years before that, a friend of mine who was the Vice President of Diversity at Paramount said to me, “you have to meet my friend the senator, he’s one of the greatest guys ever.” But we just never crossed paths. Later on, he comes to New York for a big meeting about post 9/11. Finally, he and I met and that was that. I still didn’t want to meet him, the fact that my kids were in LA, I wasn’t in the state to meet anybody, but my girlfriend was just so adamant about my meeting him, she said “he has 5 restaurants picked, pick one, do not block your blessing.” And that’s how it all happened.
When we got engaged, he gave me a light blue box with a white ribbon with an almanac for the state inside. The note read, “so that you will know more about all the things I really love.” That to me spoke volumes; he is a man who truly loves Philly and the state of Pennsylvania.
You commute between Los Angeles and Philadelphia? When you are in Pennsylvania, where do you settle in?
Yes, I’m the commuter [in the relationship], I do all the commuting. Everyone watches where the Senator is, so I’m the one that travels. Plus, He does a radio show in Philly so he has to be there to do his show. Home is West Philadelphia (I tell Vincent he is the real Fresh Prince), he is Philly born and bred. The only time I cross over to the other side is when I’m in Saks Fifth Avenue or Lord and Taylor because everyone knows me by my name and I just love that they care so much.
What is your first stop/favorite thing to do in Philadelphia?
I love California Pizza Kitchen because I remember when it was only in California, so it’s a nice to be in Philly and have one. I also love Honeygrow. I like to experiment there, I like my noodles my way and I always switch it up. On a late Friday or Saturday night, I love Sid Booker’s Shrimp Corner. It’s a hole in the wall, but they have the best fried shrimp ever; it’s just delicious. Downtown, the Oyster House is perfect in the summer after doing hot yoga at Bikram Yoga. Plus, I really want to get a handle on brunch. There are so many great places and I love Sabrina’s Café but the lines are so long. I did go on an off day once and it led to the best decision of my whole career to do my current musical, “Mighty Real,” so I thank Sabrina’s for having a short line that day.
When you’re not in Pennsylvania, what do you miss the most about it (besides your husband!)?
I think that Philly—and the whole state of Pennsylvania—is a microcosm of America. You get a little bit of all of America and how the real country feels. A lot of people say that Philly is stuck in the shadow of NY and DC and that’s not the case at all; Philly is just booming with possibility all the time. There’s a vibrancy about the people that is just wow. You don’t see that in a lot of other places.
I love that Philly is such an artistic city, its one of the few places you can drive down the street and see an incredible piece of art painted on a wall. Its amazing that there is sound of Philly and people know that sound—its amazing that you can see that art in film and that Rocky can be reborn in creed and people have a new interest in Philadelphia. I just love that.
What is like to be married to a political figure?
For me, as an actress and entertainer, its very schizophrenic. There are outfits in California that I might wear as a celebrity, but as a politician's wife. I don’t find it difficult to go between the two. I’m very aware of who I am in Pennsylvania and am aware that there is a difference, so I just work on that. It seems to work well for the two of us and I don’t feel any real constraints.
You’ve done everything from television and movies to Broadway and singing. What do you find yourself gravitating more towards recently?
That’s a hard one. I love making movies. I love producing live entertainment and I love doing TV. I was just hired to do the last two episodes of Criminal Minds. They are the nicest people—my storyline is with Joe Montana and I couldn’t find a nicer guy, so I’m thrilled about that.
Mighty Real is your latest project. Tell us about it.
It’s all about Disco. It was versed by the disco queen, an incredible man by the name of Sylvester. He was taken away from us all too soon by AIDS but in this show he asks the great queen in the sky to give him one more chance to come alive and light the world on fire under the great disco ball. He comes back for his return concert and it is “mighty real.” Every time we do this show people end up dancing in the aisles and I feel so good to be a part of the production team. We did a small workshop at the Painted Bride and it was so great, we’re looking to bring it back to Philly soon.
The Diva Foundation is something you created to bring awareness to HIV/AIDS. Is the foundation based in philly? or semi-locally? what kind of joy does it bring you? what do you hope to accomplish?
We are based in Los Angeles, but we have small chapters of women in Philadelphia, Houston, and up and down California; they call themselves DIVAS. This morning, I woke up and had a letter from a young woman who was in Cameroon, which we visited as an organization. She thanked me for inspiring her in her young life and I thought to myself 'wow, just when you think it doesn’t really matter, somebody says thank you.'
I just brought my daughter on board so I’m really hoping that someday she and my son will take it over because I believe that men and women have to be involved in the conversation moving forward and have to be able to talk about health, well-being and sex with their children.
Your accomplishments include multiple film credits, a book, a radio talk show and non-profit organizations. You often promote self-growth, so tell us, where will Sheryl Lee Ralph grow next?
I just think about living the happiest content most fulfilled life that I can. I would really love to see and develop some projects that help young people in Philadelphia really grasp the idea that they can move beyond poverty. I’m tired of seeing poverty at such levels in Philadelphia and I really believe that sometimes its about letting them know it can be more than this.
When it comes to my art, I’m looking for another series. I’m looking for more film and the musicals that will come after “Mighty Real” because I see that making it’s way. I want my kids to grow up healthy and my husband to be happy.