Wanda Sykes Gets the Last Laugh
by tonya pendleton
It’s not that Wanda Sykes always gives the same interview. It’s more that when you are a black, female, lesbian cancer survivor in an interracial relationship and you have white kids, you might as well have your talking points down. Or it could just be that the former National Security Agency employee knows how and when to parcel out parts of herself to the public. After all, it’s hard to represent all those different identities without losing yourself.
“I never want to be the spokesperson for a group,” Sykes says. “I will speak for me, and if other people perceive that as me making a statement for someone else, then that’s on them. But rarely do I say, ‘For a black woman blah blah blah,’ because usually it’s coming from me and it’s personal. Yeah, I’m a black woman. I’m a lesbian. But I don’t feel like I’m in a box. I’m just doin’ me.”
For Sykes, doing her has included being the lone voice of wisdom on shows—like Curb Your Enthusiasm and The New Adventures of Old Christine—with neurotic lead characters, and in her pretentiousness-free standup routines in which she skewers just about everyone. The 48-year-old comedian and actress says that in her life and in her standup, she is pretty much the same person; with Sykes, what you see is what you get. And the full Wanda will be on display throughout 2012 on her upcoming tour, with local stops at the Borgata in Atlantic City in late June. She is also voicing Granny in the animated feature Ice Age 4: Continental Drift, opening July 13.
For Sykes, born to a military father and a banker mother and raised in Maryland, her formative years gave little indication of what was to come. Except, perhaps, for the nasally whine that gives her one-liners such impact. Little Wanda was often disciplined for her too-honest observations and was sometimes even sent over to her grandmother’s house when company was due. “Sometimes I would get laughs, sometimes I would get punished,” she remembers. Sounds like great preparation for a future as a comedian, but Sykes did not make the connection until well after graduating from Hampton University, at first working at the NSA and becoming a “disgruntled” government worker.
But after a few forays into the local comedy scene, Sykes was headed in a new direction. It took her to New York City and a fortuitous meeting with Chris Rock, who hired her as a writer and cast member for his groundbreaking, self-titled HBO show. The exposure led Sykes to the career she enjoys today, as a four-time Emmy winner with two HBO standup shows, Wanda Sykes: Sick and Tired and I’ma Be Me, under her belt.
But even Sykes found it hard to laugh in 2011 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. After seeking a breast reduction, the comedian was told she had ductal carcinoma in situ, which is considered Stage 0 breast cancer. Sykes announced on The Ellen DeGeneres Show that she had decided on a bilateral mastectomy, having both breasts removed. Given her family history of breast cancer, she says the decision to have surgery was the best one for her, although the aftermath was sobering.
“It didn’t hit me until after the surgery and I took off the bandage, and I had all these drainage tubes coming out of me, and you just look in the mirror and you’re like, What did I do? I’ve got Frankenstein boobs now. You’re just staring at it, and emotionally, it does hit you. But today I’m very happy with the decision I made. It’s so nice to have perky titties. I can even go without a bra. They just stand up. At 48 you get new titties and are cancer-free? I won on this one.”
In November 2008, Sykes outed herself in Las Vegas at a Proposition 8 rally sponsored by the LGBT Center of Southern Nevada. She and her French-born wife, Alex, had just been married the month before, and now gay marriage was again illegal in California. She was outraged. “I felt like I was personally attacked,” Sykes told a cheering crowd. “I felt like our community was attacked.... We shouldn’t have to be standing out here demanding something we should automatically have as citizens of this country.”
By the time she got back to her hotel, as Sykes later recounted to The Advocate, it was all over the news. But it was far harder to break her sexuality to her parents—a moment she satirizes in her standup show, replacing the word “gay” with “black” and mimicking her family’s stunned response. Sykes says that despite an early marriage to her former husband, she knew she was gay from the time she was in third grade. “In the sense of what are you attracted to, I was attracted to girls. As you get older, you have relationships with guys, but those relationships only go so far. You can only go so deep emotionally, and it was because I just wasn’t feeling it.”
Sykes and Alex have three-year-old twins, Olivia Lou and Lucas Claude. If their relationship wasn’t already challenging enough to explain to the neighbors in nearby Media, where the couple resides part-time (Alex was living in the Philadelphia area when the couple met), there is also the fact that their children are white.
“She gave birth to the kids, but we went with a white donor. A lot of people ask. We’re two women; we ain’t fooling nobody. They know we didn’t do it,” says Sykes, laughing. “Since she was carrying the kids, I wanted them to look like her. If they were biracial, the kids would look more like me and she would be the odd man out. Less questions, you know.” Well, maybe, but Sykes already has a plan for any unenlightened suburbanites who make her children feel uncomfortable about their family dynamic. “I know one day I’ll have to go to school and slap the shit out of somebody. And it’s okay—I’m working out because I know they’ll be younger than me.”
Future fisticuffs aside, Sykes likes the Philadelphia area. When she’s not working, she spends a good deal of time taking in the sights and scenes of the city. You might find her hanging in Rittenhouse Square with the wife and kids or, in the rare times when she and Alex can get away together, enjoying a little couple privacy at swanky hotels like the Ritz-Carlton.
“We love all of Mark Vetri’s restaurants, and we love Jose Garces,” says Sykes, whom friends call a great cook. “We love Zahav by the Ritz Five, so we’ll go to the movies and then there. I like bowling, so sometimes we go to Lucky Strike and then to El Vez and get some margaritas. I like that area. I guess that’s the gay district,” she jokes.
Sykes’s career has enjoyed a steady rise over the past few years, culminating in her controversial experience as the first openly gay comic and first African-American female featured at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. She says the gig was her most intimidating experience (in clips from the event, the usually unflappable comic does seem initially ill at ease), but she wasn’t going to change her routine. Her jokes about conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh predictably became Fox News fodder, something that Sykes shrugs off.
“I didn’t want to go in and change my act and be all sophisticated and everything. They invited me, so I’m going to show up and do what I do and we’ll see what happens. And luckily, everybody was laughing,” she explains. “That’s what cracks me up about that gig. The whole room was falling out laughing. The Fox News team, they were laughing. I found out that there was some flack about the comment I made about Rush Limbaugh. I saw this guy laughing, so what the hell is he talking about?”
Because of the diversity of her experiences, Sykes has enjoyed mainstream success that many other African-American female comics do not: Sommore, Mo’Nique, Kym Whitley, and others all have mined popular African-American themes in their comedy, but haven’t had the success of Sykes and her broader repertoire. In a sense, Sykes has found a league of her own.
“Wanda is like a mutt,” says Whitley, a good friend. “I think she stands on her own. Wanda is an enigma. She is not Moms Mabley. She is Marsha Warfield-ish in her sense of boldness, but then she’s Seinfeld. She’s smart and she’s clever, and what I like about her is she can do both. Whether you put Wanda in Compton or the White House or an old folk’s home, she can do it all. That is talent.”
photography by brian bowen smith; Makeup by Patrick De Fontbrune for soloartists.com/smashbox; Hair by Larry Sims for Exclusive Artists/ Got2Be Cosmetics Stylist for Tod Hallman for thpfashion.com