Sheryl Lee Ralph (33620)

Actress Sheryl Lee Ralph will be the celebrity spokesperson for the 2013 West Coast Expo.

Television fans know Ralph from many popular roles, from wisecracking Ginger St. James in the 1980s sitcom “It’s A Living,” to scheming diva Etienne Toussaint-Bouvier on “Designing Women,” or the high school principal and stepmother of “Moesha.”

Her film credits are highlighted by her starring role in the 1988 Disney movie “Oliver & Company,” and, in a breakthrough part, portraying Denzel Washington’s wife in “The Mighty Quinn” (1989).

Children will recognize her voice from her role as the super-villainous Cheetah on the “Justice League” cartoon series in 2001. This year she can be seen on the NBC series “Smash,” portraying the mother of Jennifer Hudson’s character, as well as the Showtime drama “Ray Donovan.” Next month, Ralph can be seen in the new Nickelodeon show “Instant Man.”

“I couldn’t be more pleased that the multi-talented Ms. Ralph, who has been such a force in assisting women with HIV/AIDS, has become a vital part of the West Coast Expo,” says Natalie Cole, CEO of the Expo. “She has made and continues to make the most meaningful impact in communities of color. I’m thoroughly pleased that she has agreed to partner with the Expo as our celebrity host, as co-host of the “Lights, Runway, Camera” Celebrity Fashion Show, as an exhibitor, and as a participant in our AIDS/HIV education and testing segment.”

Ralph, a native of Waterbury, Conn., began pursuing an acting career in 1972 in Uniontown, N.Y., where she debuted in her high school’s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” She portrayed the character Ado Annie.

While in high school, she was crowned Miss Black Teenage New York and, just a year or so later, became the youngest woman to graduate from Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Ralph initially wanted to study medicine, but the acting bug demanded her good looks and bubbly personality be presented to the world.

She was nominated in 1982 for a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Deena Jones in “Dreamgirls.”

In 1984, she released her only album, “In the Evening,” and the title track reached No. 6 on the Billboard charts.

She once portrayed the post-operative transsexual, Claire, on the popular Showtime comedy “Barbershop,” and has been seen in “ER,” the MTV movie “My Super Sweet 16,” BET’s “Baldwin Hills” and in an episode of the on the Style Network’s “Clean House” that also featured her two children, Etienne and Ivy-Victoria.

She received an Independent Spirit Award for her performance with Danny Glover in “To Sleep With Anger” (1990).

Recipient of an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss., Ralph is equally known as a social activist because of her support of causes such as assisting women infected and affected by HIV/AIDS, as well as being an advocate for African American youth development.

She received a similar honor from Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas, in recognition of her AIDS activism. “I think my [activism] comes from the generations of women that came before me,” she once said during an interview with a Detroit newspaper.

“Their lives let me know that you’re not just put here for nothing. You’re put here to do something.” As a producer, Ralph created the critically acclaimed “Divas Simply Singing!,” an annual evening of song and entertainment that has become one of the entertainment industry’s most successful AIDS benefits. This year the ensemble of singers will perform Saturday, Oct. 12, at Club Nokia at L.A. Live.

Ralph is also founding creator of the Jamerican Film and Music Festival, which has resulted in five Showtime Filmmaker finalists. (Jamerican is a contraction of the words Jamaican and American. Ralph has roots in Jamaica; her mother is Jamaican and the actress spent some of her childhood on the Caribbean island.)

Ralph is equally adept before and behind the camera. She wrote and directed the critically acclaimed 2013 film short “Secrets,” featuring an all-star cast (Alfre Woodard, Robin Givens, and La Tanya Richardson). The film was a finalist in the HBO Film Short competition and garnered recognition from the Showtime Filmmakers Series, the Acapulco Black Film Festival, the Hollywood Film Festival and the Pan African Film Festival.

In possibly her most successful project to date, Ralph wrote and directs her one-woman show “Sometimes I Cry” to pay homage to the lives, loves and losses of women infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. Performed around the world, “Sometimes I Cry” is said to leave audiences deeply moved and encouraged to know their HIV status.

Her 2012 book, “Redefining DIVA: Life Lessons from the Original Dreamgirl,” reveals her take on supposed celebrity feuds she’s had with Diana Ross, Jennifer Holliday, on auditioning for Sidney Poitier or why, reportedly, she abruptly left the TV show “Moesha.”

In the book, Ralph describes a “diva” as a person of strength, character and “beauty” that radiates from within. As an AIDS activist, Ralph is founding director of Divinely Inspired Victoriously Aware (DIVA), created in 1990 as a living memorial to the many friends she has lost to HIV/AIDS during her years on Broadway, as well as out of her concern for the threat of the disease and its effect on women and children of color. The foundation disseminates information and provides advocacy and mobilization in the fight against the disease.

DIVA Foundation has grown over the years. Today, it conducts town hall meetings, prevention seminars, free HIV testing, HIV/AIDS counseling, distributes free healthcare materials and presents its yearly benefit concert. Ralph has recorded a series of HIV awareness public service announcements for grassroots organizations seeking national assistance.

DIVA Foundation has also developed a home fragrance collection composed of scented, hand-made candles. “These days,” Ralph remarked during an August interview, “any time a woman swings her pocketbook she hits a diva. That word is terribly overused. My book was written to clarify and explain just what the word diva means.. It’s not merely celebrity and fame.”

She explained her work with West Coast Expo as “an opportunity to contribute to a community event that provides outreach and valuable information to an audience whose concerns are not always addressed by politicians, social activists or celebrities in general.” “When I heard from Natalie, it was a natural fit, because this event gives back to the community in a big way,” Ralph said. “Today, ‘help is the new wealth’ because of dwindling resources, the bad economy. People sometimes don’t appreciate [prosperity] until they don’t have it anymore. This is a wonderful opportunity to work within the community to provide assistance to others . . . particularly the communities of color . . . which don’t always have an advocate to discuss and bring to light issues that they face daily.”

For decades, it is has not been uncommon for celebrities to lend their collective voices to causes and issues which, ultimately, affect the present and future generation. From actors such as Martin Sheen and Ed Begley Jr., to musicians Stevie Wonder and Jackson Browne, sometimes the celebrity status can motivate the public to get involved in causes that benefit the welfare of the community. In this circumstance, sometimes people will see a famous personality and inquire about their presence . . . whether it be farm worker’s rights, green technology, civil rights or the lack of music arts in public schools. So it was with Ralph, who said she was drawn to the West Coast Expo because “ . . . it’s the right thing to do.”

She said the entertainment industry has provided a unique insight into national issues because of the sheer volume of contact and interaction with people around the world whose lives can be changed for the better by focusing a spotlight on their needs. “In some ways, [activism] began with ‘Dreamgirls,’” Ralph explained. “That musical was about hopes and dreams and what is possible with perseverance, courage and, above all, faith. People originally criticized me saying, ‘what are you doing representing this, or why or you speaking on this behalf’? It is because we must assist one another-no matter what station in life-to communicate with one another and to make our world a better place.” Ralph is married to Pennsylvania state Senator Vincent James Hughes. Their children attend college on the East Coast.