Shari Belafonte: Actress, Photographer, Singer

SHARI BELAFONTE has been described as a Renaissance woman. In the entertainment world she has been credited asan actress, model, writer, singer and spokesperson. She is well known for her role as Julie Gillette on the prime time television series “Hotel” which was broadcast from 1983 to 1988. She has starred in several motion pictures and television programs. She co-hosted the syndicated series “Lifestyles with Robin Leach and Shari Belafonte” and a travel show called “Travels in Mexico and the Caribbean with Shari Belafonte” She is the international spokesperson for the Starlight Children’s Foundation and was also named one of the top ten celebrity endorsers by the Wall Street Journal. There’s more…Shari Belafonte is also an avid photographer. Her collections include “Postcards from Cuba” and most recently an acclaimed collection entitled “Italia” of photographs she took in Italy. She is also a recording artist with two albums to her credit: Eyes of Night in 1987 and her sophomore release “Shari” in 1989. . It’s no wonder why she has been called a Renaissance woman.

What do you think Shari Belafonte’s greatest talent is?

Ladies and gentlemen, our next guest has been described as a renaissance woman. It’s with great pleasure we welcome Shari Belafonte.

How are you doing?

I’m doing just great. It’s an honor to have you on the line.  My first question. Who is Shari Belafonte?

(Laughs) I’ve been trying to ask myself that question for the last 56 years (laughs). Right now, she is the keeper of all dogs. I have six pups. They’re my life. My husband and my six dogs pretty much are what I do. I don’t call myself the second ‘dog whisperer’. I’m a dog wrangler (laughs). But, um, I also, uh work with the Lili Claire foundation which is for children with neurogenetic birth conditions like autism and Williams syndrome and Down syndrome. We just had a huge event in Las Vegas. Let’s see – I have the photo show. I also want to be a director. I’ve written a script. I dance. I read. I watch television. I cry at The Proposal and I’ve seen it 15 times (laughs). So I’m, I think I’m your average, ordinary insane person.

Well, I don’t know about ‘average’. That’s a lot of accomplishments. I think most stories are best from the beginning. What was life like growing up?

Let me see if I can remember that far back. I grew up in New York City, or I should say I was born in New York City – Manhattan. I went to private day school and then when I was 12, I went to boarding school, which was actually my choice. I skipped a couple of grades and went to, went to Mountain School, which no longer exists, but then transferred to the Buxton School in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Then went to Hampshire College. Then I went to Carnegie-Mellon University and got a BFA in Production, in Drama. And really not in front of the camera – I was never supposed to be in front of the camera. I was always supposed to be behind the camera. Uh, when I was four years old my grandmother gave me my first box Brownie camera (laughs) so I’m going way back. You know the ones – it has the little flash bulbs that would blow up and look like a big wad of snot (laughs). Then I got my first Instamatic camera when I was I think 11 and I always wanted to be behind the camera. I spent my entire sophomore, junior and senior year in the darkroom pretty much. Then, as I said, went in to production at Carnegie and when I graduated from Carnegie, about four days later, I married my college sweetheart. We moved to Washington, DC. Then I worked for a bank part-time and then I worked for Public Television, again behind the camera. I was an Assistant Director and Production Assistant and go-fer. Then after two years of being in DC, my husband and I moved out to California to pursue our production dreams and I got discovered. A friend of mine was doing a movie called, uh, I think it was called Hollywood Nights. It was Tony Danza’s first movie. And while I was on the set visiting her, the makeup artist on the set said to me that she thought I was pretty enough that I should be doing commercials and modeling. And I sort of went ‘Phwww’ you know? ‘What are you kidding? I’m a go-fer. I’m a production techie hound.’ And she said ‘You can make a lot of money.’ (Laughs) That was the key word for me. That’s pretty much it. And then I did send out pictures to about 10 different agents. Nina Blanchard was the one that called me right away. I sent them out as my married name – at that time was ‘Harper’ – so she didn’t know that I was Harry Belafonte’s daughter and she signed me up, saying ‘Good Lord, you’re short. You’re old. You’re not black. You’re not white.’ I was 24 at the time so that was pretty old in modeling terms. Uh, she said ‘But I’d like to see if we can get something going.’ The rest is kind of history. I did some go-see’s and got a couple of commercials and Richard Avedon met with me and I, we uh, did a couple of Vogue covers – actually, I think I did four or five Vogue covers with Richard – but he also put me on camera. Way back when, Brooke Shields had the Calvin Klein ads and after she had done them for a couple of years they needed a few of us to take her place, so it was me and Martha Plimpton and Andie MacDowell and a couple of other actresses who – uh, a couple of other models – who did the next wave of Calvin Klein commercials. And from there I was discovered for television. Uh, the producers of Hotel, Aaron Spelling’s producers, saw me in the commercial and had me come in and read for Hotel and then, I guess the rest is history.

I’m going to go out on a limb here. Do you consider yourself an extrovert?

(Laughs) Because I had a non-stop answer to that first question (laughs)?
No, no, that’s not what I meant. I just meant so many things that you’ve done throughout your life have been in the public eye. And sometimes when you people that you would think would be really, really extroverted, they end up not being so much.
I don’t consider myself an extrovert. I would think I’m more introverted but – more of anintrovert – but you know, there’s moments. I think it depends on where the moon is in the sky at that time and how the planets are lining up ‘cause there are moments when I’m off the wall insane and quite vocal about it, and there’s other days where I just want to sort of hide in the cave with the puppies and my husband and not come out for a few days (laughs). I’d have to say I’m right in the middle.

Now, you studied Drama. Do you think that that experience –

I studied Production.
Yeah. Because I don’t want to say I studied Drama because that indicates that I was always focused on being an actress, which I never was. I studied behind the scenes – design and lighting design and set design and construction and writing and producing. That was what I was studying. I took acting classes only because I felt, as a producer, it made sense to understand how all the elements fit together to get the perfect play or the perfect movie. I took a couple of acting classes primarily to understand what actors do, not to become another actor.

When you were becoming a bit more of a public person, out of curiosity, how did your father – and for everyone out there that’s listening, your father the famous singer – how did he feel about you pursuing print work, commercials all those different things?

I think Harry and Marguerite, my mom Marguerite, were both a bit concerned. Harry knew all the pitfalls and the downside of not being chosen, and how rough and how harsh it can be, so I think there was more of an angst on both of their behalves of my probably not making it. Mom was a little more supportive of it and Dad really tried to steer me away from it but, ultimately, I let them know that I understood the entertainment industry, especially having grown up and around it. You know, my parents divorced when I was two. Uh, Harry actually separated from my mom when she was pregnant with me but they divorced when I was two. But every summer, you know, I was on vacation with him and usually he was on tour so I was backstage and, you know, I certainly was – almost the same thing as you saw with little John-John under the desk of John Kennedy in that famous picture – I was sort of lurking in the background, listening, and overhearing all the harsh realities of what the entertainment business certainly had to offer, especially for minorities back then, and I think I was a little bit better prepared for it than they may have wanted to give me credit for. But Mom accepted it right away. As soon as she saw that first magazine cover she was (laughs) you know, taking it all around Washington, DC showing everybody that I was on it. I later came to find out from some friends of my dad that he did the same thing. He didn’t let me know that right away but other people said ‘Are you kidding? Your father carried that Self magazine cover around for weeks (laughs) showing it to everybody.’ And, you know, in a kind of quiet, subtle way he was very proud as well but was, youknow, a little more reluctant to show it because he didn’t want to give me the impression that everything was going to be OK for the rest of my life.

You had a music career as well. There is a 1987 release. You can still get it on vinyl. I got my copy from Germany.

(Laughs) That’s the only place you can get it from, I think.

It’s interesting because I did some digging around on the internet and, apparently, you have a fan base of that album in Germany (Shari laughs). But just tell us a little bit about you taking that leap into music.

It’s funny, I always liked music and I never thought of myself as a singer. I mean, Whitney Houston, now that’s a singer. You know, Natalie Cole – all those people. Those are singers. I’m kind of a stylist. I know that I’m, I am into pitch. I’m all about being pitch-perfect and I’ve always loved music. But I actually was offered this music career because of my popularity on Hotel. Hotel was a very popular show over in Germany. The producers from Metronome, which was the label that my two records are on, contacted me through my agent saying that, you know, if I could carry a note (laughs), carry a tune, they would very much like to do a couple of albums. And it’s funny. I, I was out the same time that David Hasselhoff was releasing his (laughs), launching his big music career. So, um, I loved the idea of doing an album, especially over in Germany because then, if it really was atrocious nobody would hear about it here (laughs). Plus, you had the opportunity of singing and having that little life without me being compared to Harry. Or even if I was compared at least I didn’t understand because I don’t speak German (laughs). So whether or not, uh, they were comparing me and saying ‘Oh my god. She’s certainly nothing like Harry.’ Or if they were like – I’m sure there’s probably a few people out there that liked it. It was fun. It was a lot of fun to go over and have that sort of separate career and not think in terms of having a recording career here in the United States. I actually never thought of that because I knew how difficult it was to have a recording career here. You know, you had to go on – back then, it’s obviously even more difficult nowadays – but back then you had, uh, to go on tour for months to promote an album so that you could increase record sales. I never had anticipated that I would do that kind of thing here, whereas over in Europe at the time, you didn’t have to go on tour. You could do a half-dozen of these shows, sing, you know, on the shows and then, uh, that would do well for record sales there. That’s the way they sold records then. I loved Germany. I went over quite a few times, to either promote the album or to record, and I’ve been in love with the country ever since. It’s a lot of fun. They weren’t my choices of songs – that was the only thing. It’s funny. I had the producers of the second album come along and they had written a song, they had just brought it out of the studio and – you know, just with the rough vocals on it of somebody else’s studio there– and they handed it me and they said ‘What do you think of this song? Do you think you would like to sing this?’ And I listened to the song and I went ‘Oh my god, yes! Absolutely. That’s our first single. I definitely want that on the album. It has to be on the album. That’ll be a great song. That’ll be really, really good.’ And when we submitted it to the producers in Germany they said ‘No, no, no. We don’t see that that’ll ever do any business so we’re not going to let you do that song.’ And I went ‘Wait a second! No, no, I – it’s going to be a big hit. I know it is.’ And they said ‘No. Nope. Sorry.’ So they took it off the album, uh, and it was (sings) Sometimes the sun comes down in June (laughs). So, needless to say, a couple of years later Vanessa Williams got it and made it a huge hit so I was (laughs), I was always a little bummed about that. Another song that I had picked that, uh, had just come out of a – Bernie Taupin had written it – and, uh, I heard it first and wanted it for my album and, of course, I didn’t get that one either. And that was We Built this City on Rock and Roll. I know I can pick songs. I just don’t get to always have them (laughs).

Do you enjoy the process of making a record, of going into the studio – all that stuff?

I really do. I really do enjoy it quite a lot. It’s funny because I, I guess I didn’t do it enough. I still have these moments of thinking ‘Yeah, I’d like to get back in the studio.’ I’m putting together a huge project which will take forever to get done. My sister and family and friends have been saying to me for years, you know ‘You gotta, you gotta finish this. This is like such a cool thing.’ It’s a science fiction story that I started writing and part of it is my voice. I did go into the studio with a, with a friend of mine from years ago and laid down all the tracks but it’s, it’s all voice-over and it’s all story-telling and it was weird, weird music. Nobody really had heard it. A couple of people have heard it and they’ve all gone ‘That’s all your voices?’ (Laughs) It actually scared my husband to hear that I had those many voices coming out of my head, ‘cause you know, I’ve done cartoons so every once in a while you have to come up with these wacky voices. I do love that process. I do remember one moment in the studio in Germany because, as I said before, I’m all about being pitch-perfect, and it was this one day that, uh, I was in the studio and I couldn’t hit a note to save me. I couldn’t understand. I was very frustrated, too, because here I was in Germany and it was, I think it was the third song I was working on and I just couldn’t hit a note to save me and I was starting to cry. And the producer got on my headset and he said (imitates German accent) ‘Shari’ and I went ‘Yes?’ and he said (imitates German accent) ‘I think maybe we should call it a day.’ And I went ‘Oh, no, no, no, no, no! No, no. I can get this. I promise, I can get this.’ And I was just getting very frustrated. And he said (imitates German accent) ‘I have to ask you a very personal question.’ And I said ‘OK.’ And he said (imitates German accent) ‘Are we having our period?’(Laughs) I was blown – I was, oh my god! That’s like – it was such an embarrassing question to have my producer ask me! And I went ‘Well, yes but when …’ and then I started getting a little – you know, you get that PMS thing. You get a little mad, like a little angry, like ‘How dare you think that may be the reason!’ And he went (imitates German accent) ‘Well, thendefinitely we call it a day.’ And I went ‘Now, wait a second. I know I can do this.’ And he said (imitates German accent) ‘No, no, no, no. It is just that there’s a hormonal thing that happens and every once in a while – just the first or second day.’ He said (imitates German accent) ‘I work with many, many, many musical stars.’ And he started listing a list of people, all very quite well-known singers. And he said (imitates German accent) ‘It’s just these two days that sometimes it happens to the best of you.’ He said ‘Trust me. On Wednesday’ – because this was a Monday – he said (imitates German accent) ‘On Wednesday you’ll be fine.’ And sure enough, two days later I was back in the studio and I was fine (laughs). And from that moment on, I’ve always, like, told other people, especially young singers that are starting out. We had a talent contest at this event that I was doing in Las Vegas and there were a couple of girls that just were really off key and at one point I had asked the mothers, you know, ‘Could ‘this’ be happening?’ And they went ‘Well, yes. How did you know?’ (Laughs) I said ‘Well, let me just tell you an important thing to remember.’ So, every once in a while when I’m watching, like, American Idol or you watch some of these things, and the girls are just slightly off key, I’m thinking to myself ‘OK, well I know what time of the month is it for them.’ (laughs)

You know, you have these various photography undertakings that you do. You did the Postcards from Cuba. You also have the one, Italia. Did you get kind of like the idea to do destination places based on the TV show you did, the Travels in Mexico and the Caribbean? How did that happen?

You know, it’s funny because I actually did the Italia show – those are all pictures that I shot on my honeymoon with Sam 20 years ago. Because I had been on camera for a while, I hadn’t picked up my camera in a couple of years. And when Sam and I got married, Sam gave me a brand new camera and he said – ‘cause he knew – he said ‘You know, I’ve seen these pictures all around the place that you’ve shot over the years. How come you don’t shoot anymore?’ And I said ‘You know, who’s had the time?’ So we were getting ready to go on our honeymoon and he said ‘Well here’s a, you know, a little, another little wedding present.’ I had actually – I was talking to Richard Avedon and said, you know ‘I’m getting ready to go off’ and, you know, ‘I haven’t shot in a long time and I’m not a big fan of color. I really like doing black-and-white.’ And Richard was the one that said to me ‘Well, because you’re shooting 35mm’ he said ‘you know there’s a film that Kodak puts out. It’s called recording film.’ He said ‘What’s cool about this film is that you can set the AFA to anything that you want, as opposed to, you know, if you get T-max and it’s 400 or 1600.’ You know, all the films usually have their own ISO or AFA rating on them. He said ‘This one is really kind of cool because, you know, you can set it whatever you want. Just remember to write on the canister when you take it out, you know, what you shot it at so you’ll know what to process it at.’ So I bought quite a few rolls of this film and, oddly enough, it wasn’t a particularly popular film and I’m sure it’s because it was quite pricey. It was about $12.00 a roll back then and you know, when film was $3.00 a roll or $4.00 a roll and this was three times the price. So I used to say either idiots or professionals use this film (laughs) and I think I just was a lucky idiot because I shot a lot of this and, of course, you don’t know what it will look like until you process it. You know, unlike today, everything’s digital so you can look at the back of the camera and see right way if you’ve got a picture or not. And you know, I shot quite a few rolls of these and then I had them all printed into contact sheets. And there were just a few that I had printed up because, again, I got busy with my life. And so now, 20 years later, while I was looking in my attic for some other things, I actually found these negatives. And I was surprised to see that they were still in decent shape because, you know, they weren’t refrigerated, they were up in the, in a plastic drawer in their plastic sleeves. I took them to the one last guy here in L.A. – it’s a photo shop that I use – that really does prints, you know, as opposed to just constantly digitizing everything. I asked him if he could just print up a few of these so I could see what they looked like. And I was really quite surprised and quite excited at how cool they looked ‘cause they looked like old Italian pictures. When I was talking to John and David, who own the Chair and the Maiden Gallery which is where I’ve had a couple of shows now, uh, and they were discussing what my next show was going to be because I had done one of the Mythostories, which is that science fiction thing that I was talking about before. And then, I had gone to Cuba with Dad. Dad actually asked me to come videotape him, to do some home-movie stuff for him that’s going into his movie – he’s doing a documentary about himself right now. So he wanted, because of the fact that it’s, you know, there was a time constraint and budget constraint, he called me on a Thursday and said, you know ‘Bring your video camera and shoot me in Cuba.’ So the pictures that I shot in Cuba were really just – I shot those in a day, the stills, because I was so busy with the video camera shooting Dad that I didn’t really have a lot of time to go around Cuba and shoot. Those two things were part and parcel not really because of the travel series. It was because of other extenuating circumstances. And while I was on the travel series, I did carry my 50-pound camera bag everywhere I went. You’ll see me half the time climbing up … with this backpack on the , schlepping up all of this camera gear because I just always loved taking pictures. But, uh, we used a lot of photos I did for the travel show for the packaging. But I’ve shot head shots for people. I’ve shot bugs and, like, microscopic things. And I’ve shot pictures of the moon and, uh, I’ve got pictures of sun spots. I just love taking pictures. I think I was – as a child, I just remember plopping myself in front of the television and being fascinated by that whole theory of a picture being worth a thousand words. ‘Til this day, I’ve always – I’ve been in love with that moment that’s frozen in time. So even though there’s a lot of stuff that’s around travelling, you know, because everybody shoots nowadays, you know what I mean? It’s kind of easy to shoot great pictures with the digital cameras that we have. You know, it used to be a real art form because you had to shoot a roll and you had to just hope for the best at the end of the processing that you had one or two pictures. But now, you know these digi-cards can take 500, you can get a thousand pictures on a card (laughs) so chances are you’re going to get at least one or two good ones out of the thousand pictures that you’ve taken. Even if they’re not any good you can always erase them and start again. But, you know, back then it was, it was truly anart form. I like to think that I managed to capture some good moments. John and David, like I said who own the gallery, have been real nice and real supportive of my work and, obviously, they’ve given me a couple of shows. I also had a show at the Carnegie Hall Museum. And, uh, my marketing manager is looking to put up a couple of shows here in California, which I have not done yet. I just feel very blessed and very lucky that my grandmother was the one that put that camera in my hands and said ‘OK, now’ you know ‘stop bouncing off the walls and drawing pictures all over the walls and go shoot some pictures.’ (Laughs)

Any chance that you’ll bring the exhibit to Atlanta, Georgia at some point?

I would like to, actually, maybe find out about that. That would be kind of a cool thing. If you want to talk to Raji – you know, who I think you spoke to earlier – tell her where we can take it. I would love to have a photo show there, too. Like I said, there’s so many good photographers out there now, you know. It’s tough to compete in this business. If you think there’s interest there, I would certainly love to find out how, when, where, what, and why – and why not (laughs)?

Let me work on it. Is there anything else on the horizons?

Um, there’s, you know it’s funny, there’s always stuff. My husband has been editing and doing special effects for this movie that we shot. It’s a short that he shot, that he directed. I was actually the camera – the second “B” camera. The first camera operator was Danny Motor, who is also our – he was the DP and camera operator and, uh, I was his B camera. And, uh, it’s a movie that Sam’s been working on for a little time, a little bit of time now so, hopefully, we’ll get that together and be able to take that out to the festivals. I wrote a script about Mary Fields, who was the first black stagecoach driver, that now is just being presented to a couple of people. So, hopefully, you know, somebody will jump on that and say ‘Oooh, yeah, that sounds like a good idea. Let’s, let’s shoot that. Let’s, let’s get that one up and running.’ And I’m about to start writing another screenplay, so – and screenplays can take anywhere from a couple of months to a couple of years (laughs). So that’s pretty much what’s on my plate for now but I’ll always be taking pictures and, hopefully, I’ll always have a door at the Chair and the Maiden Gallery on 19 Christopher Street in New York to display them that. Like I said, John and David have been really kind and I think the show is doing well. People are – seem to be taking to it. They love the images. Even if I never sell another piece, it’s the idea of being able to show them and have people like them. I think that’s, that’s the game plan for me. That and raising my puppies (laughs).

My last question. This broadcast goes out all over the world. What would you like to say to the people listening in?

I think they should all go to Jon Stewart’s Back to Sanity (laughs) march in Washington, DC on October 30th. Unfortunately, I can’t be there but we’re living in some interesting times right now. I think, politically, it’s such a mishegoss and that you want to, you know, reach out and slap some people around (laughs) and say ‘Come on. Get serious. Get it together.’ But I think everybody needs to have faith and just know that things are going to get a lot better. Things, I think, are already starting to get better although it’s hard to believe, sometimes, the way some people talk. My faith is in this president and I’m, I’m hoping that everybody else really sits back – stands back – and takes a good hard look at what we’ve accomplished in this country, and all the wonderful things that we can continue to accomplish. And be honest. Be truthful as opposed to telling some of the bare, bald-faced lies that are out there. I think it’s more important to be honest with ourselves than it is to just try to get ahead for power or for, you know – so I would like that wish for everyone, I think, more than anything else. I think that’s it. Oh – that and to be nice to animals! That’s a big thing for me, too (laughs).

Well spoken. I appreciate the optimism. Thank you so much for doing this interview.

Thank you. Now, your voice sounds a little bit better than it did the last time, right? (Laughs) Uh, Raji told me that you caught my cold, right?
Yeah! You know, I thought about that. You, uh, you had a cold and then I had a cold but I’m glad we had the chance to do this.
Yeah, you called and I sounded more like Harry than I did me (laughs).
You did. You really did.
And then I was – yeah, and then I was waiting for your call and then , uh, Raji called and she said ‘Oh my god! He sounded almost as bad as you did.’ (Laughs). I figured you can just blame everybody – you can blame me your cold, for catching that cold.

 It’s been a great pleasure talking to you. I hope you make it to Atlanta at some point. That’d be great.
That would be great for me, too.
Alright. Well, have a wonderful day.
Thanks. And everybody out there, have a wonderful life.