Jenifer Lewis Joins a New Club

The Hollywood veteran talks about her new role in NBC's The Playboy Club, bipolar disorder and her best moments of 2011.

What a time! Kids today have no idea. I tell my daughter, “Look at a picture of Mandela and see whose shoulders you are standing on. See how fragile they are and honor that.”

TR: Do you sing in the series?

JL: Absolutely. In a few episodes.

 TR: Most people in show business either act or sing or do comedy. But you do all three. How did that happen?

JL: I was given a gift, and it’s a gift that I’ve honored all my life. I never wanted to become just one thing.

TR: What did it take to succeed?

JL: I never gave up. I never quit. I’ve been a leader all my life, from elementary school to president of my class to excelling at college. I had a dream, and my dream sustained me. I wasn’t going to let anything stand in my way. I was like a meteorite. I wanted to become a star. It’s been quite a journey.

TR: When did you know you wanted to perform?

JL: Straight out of my mother. I sang in church at 5. When I saw the reaction, I knew what I wanted to do with my life.

TR: What are some highlights of the last few years?

JL: I performed at Carnegie Hall. I sang for 60,000 people in Dodger Stadium — the applause was like a lion’s roar. I met Michelle and President Barack Obama and Oprah all at the same time.

TR: Speaking of Oprah, you opened up to her about five years ago about your being bipolar, and you have since spoken out about the illness and produced the one-woman show Bipolar, Bath and Beyond. When did you first realize you were bipolar?

JL: I have been bipolar all my life; I just didn’t know it. From childhood I experienced extreme highs and extreme lows, including anger all the time, irritability and reckless behavior. But it wasn’t until two close friends died of AIDS and I went into therapy because of my depression that I began to understand what I had been suffering from for so long.