Sheryl Underwood has made her name as a funny woman. She’s a popular comedian and also a host on CBS’s The Talk, a position that she’s occupied since 2011. Viewers have gotten to know her pretty well over the past few years. But even those who love her sense of humor might not realize just how hard she had to struggle to get where she is. Indeed, Underwood’s story is a complicated and painful one.
Underwood broke into comedy at a time when it was hard for a woman to do so – and even harder for a black woman. “For me, how my career progressed was that if you’re not going to hire me, I’m going to do comedy anywhere I can, until everybody is talking about that girl Sheryl Underwood,” she told the LA Times in a July 2017 interview.
And she did. In college, she participated in a “Funniest Woman in Fresno” competition. After graduating, she joined the military, a decision that provided material for her later work. In 1989 she became the first female finalist on the Miller Lite Comedy Search, which brought her to the public’s attention. Further success followed in the ensuing years.
“I wanted to be Milton Berle… and everybody in the Rat Pack. I wanted to be the guy with the tuxedo on with a cigarette with the drink in his hand just talking,” Underwood told the LA Times. “When you’re talking about total ability, [I looked at] Richard Pryor’s ability to bare his soul to the audience even though his life was heartbreaking.”
Moreover, Underwood could relate to Pryor’s heartbreaking life story. She, too, had a very troubled past. In fact, her difficulties had started right from the moment of her birth. She and her twin sister were born prematurely and, though doctors tried to save them both, her sister passed away. Underwood has kept her sister’s birth certificate with her ever since.
And her childhood was also marred by domestic abuse. Her mother tried to turn the young Underwood against her father by claiming that he was to blame for the death of her sister and even tried to stab him on one occasion. “A lot of people have domestic violence in their families, a lot of people witness a lot of things,” she said on The Talk in September 2013. “So to get through that, I started to engage my sister, my twin, as my guardian angel.”
Sexual abuse also occurred in the Underwood family home. In 2016 Underwood spoke about it publicly for the first time – and revealed that her mother had blamed Underwood, not her attackers, for what had happened. It was obviously an incredibly difficult period of her life to look back on, but her fellow The Talk hosts applauded her for having the courage to speak out.
In 2017 she mentioned that trauma again, when The Talk covered the story of a woman who’d killed her abusive mother. “The feelings of the abuse that was happening to me every day, I did have thoughts about killing people, because I wanted to end it. I wanted to be free,” Underwood said on the show. “But I always knew the Bible said, ‘Vengeance is mine, says the Lord.’”
Underwood’s has said that her religious faith is one of the things that kept her going. Indeed, she’s described herself as “God-fearing” on The Talk. But she has every reason to be angry as well. During her time in the military, Underwood was also raped. While traveling to an Illinois military base, a man forced himself on her, but the assailant was never apprehended.
On a March 2017 episode of The Talk, Underwood spoke about the incident. “I start talking to the guy and I said, ‘Don’t do this this way. Whatever you’re going to do, finish what you’re doing — don’t kill me,’” she recalled tearfully.
Those ordeals alone seem like more than enough for one lifetime. But in 2011 – just as she got started on The Talk – Underwood made another sad revelation. It was interspersed with jokes, but it would probably still have been upsetting for many viewers to hear. She had once been married to a man called Michael, but a few years after their wedding, he had killed himself.
After the 2014 suicide of actor Robin Williams, Underwood discussed the issue with her The Talk co-presenters. “Most people don’t know that my husband attempted to kill himself and I found him, and I thought I was nursing him back to health,” she said. “I believe he had a chemical imbalance… He jumped off a building. It was very painful for me, so much that I had to get therapy.”
She recalled what her therapist said to her. “‘You gotta wait on the Lord.’ And that’s what really helped me,” Underwood said. “And that’s one of the reasons I use my platform of fame to help other people.” An example of the latter came when Underwood went on Celebrity Family Feud in 2016 and won $25,000 for her old sorority’s National Education Fund.
Underwood has also tried to raise awareness about a health condition that she suffers from. During the commercial break of the 66th Emmy Awards in 2016, she appeared on an ad for Depend, an absorbent underwear company, to talk about why she wore their products. “I had bladder leakage after having a hysterectomy, and I’m going to have to live like this for the rest of my life,” she said.
It was part of an “underwareness” campaign from the company. “There’s no name on this. There’s no face on this,” Underwood said during the commercial. “Anyone can suffer from bladder leakage, but if there’s somebody like me that comes out and says, ‘Hey, I’m going through this, you don’t have to do this alone,’ that’s what underawareness is all about.”
Helping people has apparently always been part of Underwood’s life. Ever since she was a child, she has reportedly been a carer for her sister Frankie, who is cognitively disabled and has had no brain development since she was an infant. She and her brother Michael appeared on The Talk in September 2016 to discuss their roles as carers.
“Mentally, she’s less than 18 months [old],” Underwood said of her sister. “She cannot read, write or talk. She’s a baby in an adult woman’s body at 60-some years old. So that’s why we have to take care of her the way we take care of her.” As a result, Underwood had had to take on adult responsibilities when she was just a child, she explained. But, Underwood added, “It became my joy, my duty.”
Her desire to provide a good life for her sister, she said, was one of the reasons why she worked so hard to excel in her career. Frankie would need 24-hour care for the rest of her life, and it wasn’t cheap. “That’s why I’m working so hard,” Underwood said. “It’s not for the vanity, it’s not for the notoriety. It’s to protect my sister.”
It would seem easy for some people to feel sorry for Underwood in view of all the pain that she’s been through in her 54 years. But her colleagues claim that she wouldn’t want anybody to. “Sheryl is someone who chooses to live life as a survivor instead of a victim,” her The Talk co-host Julie Chen told People in 2016. “She is truly someone to be admired, and I do admire her with the deepest respect and love.”
“Everything I went through made me stronger,” Underwood told the same publication. “You may never forget it, but in remembering it you should make it better for the next person.” And she seems to have done that. “I wouldn’t change anything in my life, because I have learned so much about myself.” Hopefully, her future will be less painful.