A Sherri Shepherd hug is an event. She pulls you into her pillowy décolletage, squeezing exuberantly and for a few seconds longer than a good friend might. Make no mistake: She’s very, very pleased to see you. “I love hugging the guests, and I love touching people in the audience. I could not exist without being that kind of person,” says Shepherd, co-host of ABC’s The View and now the star of Sherri, her own Lifetime sitcom, in which she essentially plays herself. At a taping for the show, the audience is filled with middle-aged women, all of them calling and responding with near religious zeal. During a scene in which Shepherd’s alter ego visits a doctor’s office, the crowd simultaneously oooohs when Sherri kisses her doctor beau, then screams, “Oh no!” when her ex (played by Malcolm-Jamal Warner) and his pregnant mistress walk in the door. After the director yells “Cut,” Shepherd flashes her bright smile and waves happily to her fans. “Sherri! Sherri!” the crowd chants.
Two years ago, Shepherd was a former legal secretary turned struggling stand-up comic who played a lot of “black best friends and secretaries” in sitcoms. Since joining The View (co-hosted with Barbara Walters, Joy Behar, Whoopi Goldberg, and Elisabeth Hasselbeck), the 42-year-old former Jehovah’s Witness has become an upbeat preacher of positivity and endurance with a growing number of pulpits. She has a just-released self-help book, Permission Slips; a supporting role in the film Precious; and she continues to appear on NBC’s 30 Rock as Angie, Tracy Morgan’s wife. This in addition to The View, which could just as easily have ended her career, given her epic and humiliating debut in September 2007. “We were discussing creationism versus evolution, and Barbara asked if I thought the Earth was round or flat,” says Shepherd. “It was just everything coming at me at once, like I was hearing things underwater, and I said, ‘I don’t know, I’m just trying to take care of my son!’ At the end of the show, Barbara goes, ‘Sherri, dear, the Earth is round.’ I knew that!” By that evening, Shepherd says she was the second most Googled person in the country. “People hated me. It was on Perez Hilton that I should be fired.”
Soon, though, she “started getting e-mails from women saying, ‘We don’t care if the Earth is round or flat, either—we’re just trying to take care of our kids, too.’ ” Shepherd, who replaced Star Jones after she left in a huff, had discovered her niche. “I think people expected me to be another Star, a brainiac with forceful opinions, but that’s not what I brought,” says Shepherd. “When Joy said ‘bi-partisan’ for the first time, I was like, What the heck is that? Is that a French word? I didn’t know anything about politics, and I wasn’t afraid to say I was just learning. I think people like that I’m real.” More important, says Walters, who vigorously supported Shepherd in those first tumultuous weeks, she brought “a sweetness to the show. People love hearing about her life. She brings her son Jeffrey to the set and he calls me ‘Baba,’ which seems appropriate.” Shepherd now comfortably inhabits the role of den mother, handling the goofier segments, like on-air bikini waxes, and smiling politely at guests after the other co-hosts have turned on them.
For Shepherd, fame is a therapist’s couch. Her painful divorce from actor Jeff Tarpley in 2006, for example, has been fodder for The View, her sitcom, and the book (in which she wrote that Tarpley cheated on her with a white woman, who then became pregnant, while Shepherd was pregnant with Jeffrey). Taking a page from the Oprah handbook, she heals through talk. “Every week on Sherri, I have to look at the actress who plays the woman my husband got pregnant, and say, ‘I wanted a family, and you messed it up, but I gotta learn to get over it,’ ” says Shepherd. “I can’t keep hating that woman, because that doesn’t do anybody any good.”
On 30 Rock, Shepherd also plays an aggrieved wife, though instead of a feckless cheater, she’s dealing with Tracy Morgan, playing Tracy Jordan, a version of himself, though the percentage of reality versus fantasy is unclear. “Tina [Fey] had seen me doing a bit on Ellen about breast-feeding,” says Shepherd. “She was pumping at the time, and liked it, and offered me the part of Tracy’s wife. The first episode I did was for Valentine’s Day, and they told me I’d be playing sex games with Tracy, and he’s going to rip my clothes off. And I said, ‘What!? You know I’m a big girl, right?’ I had about twelve White Castle burgers before the scene, I was so nervous, and when I finally met Tracy, I’m standing there in my corset and he goes, ‘All right! You’re a big girl, we’re going to have fun! I like big girls!’ ”
The association didn’t end with the show. In a bizarre coincidence that would fit nicely into a 30 Rock episode, Shepherd and Morgan ended up living in the same Upper West Side building. “I haven’t seen him since he moved out after his apartment burned up. The light from his piranha tank fell and started a fire. Who owns a piranha tank nowadays?” Shepherd asks with a laugh. “Water started streaming into my apartment, so I grabbed Jeffrey and some of my wigs and we got out of there. Tracy still owes me dinner for the time I was displaced.”
At a recent taping of The View, Shepherd, wearing her signature tight, short skirt and high, high heels, teeters out into the crowd to give hugs during a break. A woman sitting behind me whispers to her friend, “Oh, girl, Sherri is looking good!” (Shepherd recently lost a lot of weight, which naturally became part of The View.) In the next segment, she’s supportive of Kirk Cameron putting out a pro-creationism ad, and is forgiving of Chynna Phillips for capitalizing on her sister Mackenzie’s shocking announcement about their father. “Oh, Sherri, you’re so sweet and naïve,” says Walters. A throwaway remark that gets to the heart of Shepherd’s appeal. “On my profile for Twitter, I say, ‘I’m Jeffrey’s mother, I’m a co-host of The View, I’m a Jesus groupie, I’m a karaoke lover, and I’m an all-around sweet person,’ ” Shepherd tells me after the show. “I own sweetness, and I like it.” Then it’s time for another hug.