By Sally E. Smith
Quiet murmuring becomes raucous laughter as the "warm-up" comedian revs up the 200-member studio audience, here for this Tuesday night's taping of UPN's The Parkers. After going through his riffs, it's showtime for this sitcom - a spin-off of Moesha - that revolves around the antics of Nikki and her daughter, Kim, as they both attend Santa Monica Junior College. One by one, the cast members bound out to center stage to take their bows. Mo'Nique, shimmering in silver, joins Countess Vaughn (daughter Kim Parker), Dorien Wilson (Professor Oglevee) and Mari Morrow (who plays neighbor Desiree) in receiving cheers and adulation from their fans.
Mo'Nique and her co-stars quickly clear the stage to prepare for their first scene while the audience watches and howls at yesterday's pre-taped footage of a scene where Mo'Nique's character, Nikki Parker, is preparing to attend her high school reunion. Meanwhile, crew members are bustling around, putting everything into place for the long evening ahead. The caterers are setting up food service trays for the cast's dinner break. One of the prop mistresses surveys the two tiny black purses hanging on a rack between a red hat adorned with feathers and a gray shrug and declares, "This bag's not big enough for Nikki," and is off to find a substitute.
It's not surprising that Nikki Parker would need a bigger bag, as she's a character who defines the term "larger than life." As does Mo'Nique, a stunningly beautiful woman with flashing eyes and a mischievous smile who freely admits that the personality of the character she portrays is very much like her own. "They just changed the name to Nikki Parker," she says. "Because that's Mo'Nique."
Like her vibrant character, Mo'Nique exudes self-confidence. And when she relates the story of how she came to star in her own sitcom, it's clear that Mo'Nique is a woman who, through sheer force of will, can make things happen.
A Star is Born
Mo'Nique's journey to the spotlight began with a dare. Her brother, Steve, did a comedic turn at an open mic night at a comedy club in Baltimore. "He did so bad that he was booed," Mo'Nique recalls with a laugh. "They turned the lights off and they turned the mic off. I teased him so bad that he dared me to do it." The next week, it was Mo'Nique up there on stage, receiving a standing ovation.
When she was offered $25 to emcee a hair show the following week, Steve negotiated the price up to $30. "So, he became manager, I was client, and we were off on that big road to stardom," Mo'Nique says, relishing the memory.
Although Mo'Nique had done plus-size runway modeling for Jessup Plus in Baltimore, she says comedy was the bigger payoff. "When I found out what I could make doing standup, I thought I'd just mix it all together - I'd wear my lovely fashions onstage while I was doing standup."
While garnering accolades as a standup comic, one day Mo'Nique's agent sat her down and told her that her career had reached its pinnacle in the Baltimore area, and that it was time to make a decision about going to Hollywood. "I went home and told my husband," Mo'Nique recalls, "and he said, 'What time do we have to leave?'"
The support of her husband, Mark, was crucial to Mo'Nique's subsequent success. "I have a wonderful husband," she says with a grin. "He's a barber, and had been cutting hair for 15 years and had a huge clientele. But he said, whatever you need to do, I'll do it."
They left Baltimore on New Year's Eve in 1997 with their two children, Mark Jr. and Shalon, now 13 and 9 respectively. Four days later, they hit the West Coast. "We stepped out on faith," Mo'Nique confides. "It was just like whatever happens, happens."
The family pooled all their nickels and dimes and went to a coin redemption machine at Food 4 Less. Mo'Nique says she was praying, "'God, I just have to feed my babies.' I don't want to call home because everybody's going to say, 'She made a mistake.'" Their cash totaled $77, with which they bought "tuna fish, Oodles of Noodles and Kool-Aid. And I just said, 'God, I know you're going to make a way.'"
Within three months, Mo'Nique says, snapping her fingers, "everything just went boom-boom-boom."
Initially, the comedian tried for a talk show deal, and had three possibilities in the works, two with Disney and one with Fox. Although she shot the pilot and the suits at the networks liked it, Queen Latifah came on the scene with her own talk show and the deal fell through.
But two weeks later, Mo'Nique was back out, pitching the talk show to Larry Little, president of Big Ticket Television. "I put the tape in, he sees it, and he says, 'You're a sitcom star, you're not a talk show host. If you can act, you have your own show." By 5:00 that evening, the deal for The Parkers was sealed, and within a month, Mo'Nique was shooting the pilot.
Brave New World
Just because Mo'Nique swept into television stardom, it doesn't mean she's bought into the Hollywood mentality. Indeed, the comedian become intense, even fierce, when talking about The Industry. "This is not my world," Mo'Nique emphasizes. "This is my first job. I found that, in Hollywood, people are treated 'less than.' And I can't deal with that. I don't think, 'I'm the star.' And I don't think, 'You're the janitor.' You get on just like I do."
Passionate about fairness, Mo'Nique explains that there is a hierarchy on a television show, and the stars get special treatment when it comes to things like the food service on the set. "Even (on The Parkers), there are signs that say 'No extras,'" meaning that the food is for the regular cast only. "No!" she exclaims. "They've been on that set just like me, for ten hours. Damn it, if there's a plate and a fork, go fix you something to eat!"
A spiritual light bulb went on when Christofferson saw Star Wars. "When they talked about the Force binding us all together, I thought, that's what God is-not an old man with a long beard on a throne. God is everything. It's the awareness we all have as a Wholeness."
During an interview in her dressing room, Mo'Nique clearly enjoys the perks that her position brings, but her feet are planted firmly on the ground. "All of this will go away one day," she says, gesturing to her surroundings. "I don't like people saying, 'Mo'Nique, are you okay?' I'm fine," she says with exuberance. "How are you doing?"
Indeed, Mo'Nique walks the talk, as evidenced during a recent taping of The Parkers. In the VIP section near the studio audience, a monitor sits atop a table, around which this writer has to peer in order to see a particular scene being shot. Mo'Nique has just flubbed her lines and is between takes. She glances over and mouths, "Can you see?" genuinely more concerned with this writer's comfort than with her own worries. And just a few moments later, Mo'Nique is back "on," playing with the studio audience, saying, "We're going to do it again, and you're gonna laugh, damn it, like you just heard it (for the first time)."
At first glance, her humility - in the truest sense of the word - is seemingly at odds with her rollicking personality. Yet in utmost seriousness, Mo'Nique says, "I tell people we (actors) should be lowest on the totem pole, because we do the least to make (the show) happen. I get to go in and say, 'Hey, how you doin'? I'm Nikki Parker and I'm beautiful and fabulous" and I walk away. But you have writers who are here for 23 hours. You have sound people. You have so many other people that make The Parkers happen other than Mo'Nique, Countess and Dorien. But nobody knows that."
Mo'Nique's down-to-earth nature means that she'd much prefer spending her time off with her family than attending Hollywood functions. While she says, "I'm always willing to make the show grow, and I will go out and scream from the mountaintop, 'Watch The Parkers,' once I've done that, it's goodnight and I'll see y'all later."
Her feelings about the glitterati come in part from her experience with nightlife as a standup comic. "Every party is the same party," she proclaims. "I don't care what party you go to, it's the same party." Instead, Mo'Nique would rather spend time with her family. Indeed, she says, "When I leave this world, I have a whole other world. And I don't put the two together - at all. When I leave (the studio), the phone is cut off, the cell phone is cut off.... Whatever you need me for, it can wait until tomorrow morning."
While Mo'Nique is currently the family ping-pong champ, she, Mark and their sons also bowl, and play football and basketball. She and Mark Jr. delight in skating and playing tennis. When the spotlights dim, she says, her family "will always be right there. So I have to really make sure I'm aware of my family time."
Mo'Nique attributes her family values to her clinical psychologist father, Steve, and her mother Alice, who is retired from working at Westinghouse. "They've been married for 40 years and I adore them," she exclaims. "My mom taught me how to be a woman and how to be a mommy. My father gave me all of my strength."
Mo'Nique's body image and her resulting self-confidence were also shaped by her father. The youngest of four children, Mo'Nique says, "My dad told me from the time I could understand words, 'You're the prettiest girl in the world.' And even now, after 31 years, he still says, 'You're the prettiest girl in the world.'"
"I never went through that phase in my life where I felt like something was wrong with me," Mo'Nique continues. "My father wouldn't allow it." As evidence of her comfort with her size, Mo'Nique proclaims, "When I walk into a room, I could walk in with Naomi, Tyra or Beverly Johnson and feel that 'Y'all don't have anything on this size 22!"
Large and In Charge
Mo'Nique doesn't hesitate when she says, "It's okay for you to say I'm fat. Yes, I am." But, she adds, "I've never been looked at as a 'fat girl.' Named "Most Popular" and "Best Dressed" in high school, Mo'Nique's advice to plus-size women is that "We need to put ourselves in the space where we can say, 'Yes, I am gorgeous.' And you have to have that attitude. Because once you have it, other people won't know how to look at you any other way."
Without a trace of arrogance, Mo'Nique declares, "I'm very sexy and I love being glamorous." With a wicked gleam in her eye, she describes her beauty routine as consisting of "Lots of sex." After a pause, she adds Neutrogena soap and cocoa butter and water to the list, but she's made her point. Her fitness routine? "Lots of sex," she says playfully, then adds that she takes Tae Bo classes from time to time and walks for fitness.
After years of traipsing through plus-size stores in search of a certain look, Mo'Nique says "I was still feeling like, 'You know, you're still giving us the fat girl clothes. There's nothing here that's sexy. I want to be sexy.'" To solve the problem, Mo'Nique began to design her own clothes. And now, she says, "God has blessed me and put me in a position where" she can share her designs with the rest of us. Mo'Nique says that her designs - which she characterizes as "what a size 5 would wear that a size 22 could wear and still be very tasteful" - will encompass careerwear, casual, eveningwear and lingerie. Her plans are to distribute a catalog in May 2000, as well as to sell her clothing via her website.
Mo'Nique's passion about living fully as a plus-woman naturally spills over into her feelings about show business. Four years ago, when she did some commuting between Baltimore and Los Angeles, Mo'Nique recalls, "This one agent I had says to me, 'You'll never be the lead. You'll always be the neighbor or the funny cousin.' I said, 'You know what? Watch me do my thing. Because it's time. It's time for a big girl to be the lead.'"
And this big girl is going for it. As for what the future may bring, Mo'Nique is philosophical. "Where God will have me, that's where I'll be. Yes, I would love to do big screen. Yes, I would love to do motivational speaking. I would love to publish lots and lots of books. I want to do it all, but I have no control over that. If God says, 'You're gonna be here,' I'll be right here, saying, 'Hey, baby, how ya doing?'"
And that, as they say in the business, is a wrap.
BBW Q&A with Mo'Nique
What's the most fun, funky item in your closet right now, and when was the last time you wore it?
A sheer leopard teddy, which I wore last night.
If you were chief of the fashion police, what would you outlaw?
If you had a magic wand and could change one thing in this world, what would it be?
To make it so everyone could have self-assurance.
Which historical figure do you most admire?
Madame C.J. Walker, the first African-American female millionaire.
Which living person would you most like the opportunity to meet?
If you were to design one article of clothing that most truly reflected your personality, what would it look like?
A swing coat with a mini skirt or dress.
What's your most treasured childhood possession that you still have?
A play I wrote when I was seven years old entitled "The Blue Hair."
When was the last time you had a good belly laugh, and what caused you to laugh?
When I saw comedian J.B. Smooth
If you could go back in time, which comedic movie or television role would you have jumped at the chance to play?
Etta May in the movie Ghost (played by Whoopi Goldberg).
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