Sexy, stunning, sultry are just a few words to describe the polarizing actress, former model, and pageant queen known as Halle Berry. To date, she is the only black woman to win an Oscar for Best Actress. Her non-conventional looks have helped to redefine American beauty standards, and continues to drive the dialogue about what it means to be a black woman in Hollywood. Although she’s undeniably gorgeous, Halle Berry has proven that her beauty goes beyond the surface, by speaking out against domestic violence, and having a voice in “Black Lives Matter”. Let’s learn more about the ageless bombshell that has sizzled the silver screen for over two and a half decades.
Born as Maria Halle Berry on August 14, 1966 in Cleveland Ohio, her name was legally changed to Halle Maria Berry at the age of five. Her parents selected her middle name from Halle’s Department Store, which was a local landmark in Cleveland. She was the youngest daughter born to Jerome and Judith Berry, an interracial couple. Her older sister is Heidi Berry.
Her mother Judith was a psychiatric nurse from Liverpool, England and is of German ancestry. Judith first met Halle’s father Jerome Jesse Berry, an African American, when he was stationed in England as a serviceman in the US Air Force. Jerome worked first as an Air Force veteran, a bus driver, then a hospital attendant while he was alive. Judith subsequently moved to America to marry him and they settled in Cleveland.
Initially, Halle and her older sister Heidi, spent the first few years of their childhood living in an all black neighborhood. Her father was an alcoholic, and was very abusive to her mother. In interviews, Halle recalled witnessing her mother being beaten daily, kicked down the stairs, and hit in the head with a wine bottle. In the early 1970s, her parents divorced when she was 4 years old, after which her mother moved her family to the predominantly white Cleveland suburb of Bedford.
Halle attended a nearly all-white public school. Throughout her childhood she experienced difficulties with her biracial background, constantly being torn between both extremes of her ethnicity. “When we lived in the black neighborhood, we weren’t liked because my mother was white. In the white neighborhood they didn’t like me because I was black,” she told Lesley O’Toole in the Evening Standard. “That was the beginning of me trying to be what I thought people wanted me to be,” she recalled. “If they wanted me to be the clown, I’d be the clown. If they wanted me to get straight A’s, I’d get straight A’s,” Berry stated.
Her early encounters with racism greatly influenced her desire to excel. Throughout high school, the determined teen was involved in a broad array of extracurricular activities ranging from newspaper editor, class president, to head cheerleader. At age 17, she won the Miss Teen All-American Pageant, representing the state of Ohio in 1985. The following year, she became the first runner-up in the Miss U.S.A. Pageant.
In 1989, Halle moved to New York City to pursue her acting career. During her time there, she ran out of money and had to live briefly in a homeless shelter. Later that year, her situation improved and she was cast in the short-lived television series Living Dolls, which was a spin-off of the hit series Who’s the Boss?. During the taping of Living Dolls, she passed out for a week and was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. After Living Dolls was cancelled, she moved to Los Angeles where she landed a recurring role on the long-running series Knots Landing.
In 1991, Halle broke onto the big screen when she was cast as Samuel L. Jackson’s drug addicted girlfriend in the hit movie Jungle Fever directed by Spike Lee. Her commitment to the role was notable in the fact that she stayed in character throughout the filming of the movie. She even refused to shower for days so that she could actually feel the desperation and hopelessness that the character required.
She went on to star in multiple films throughout the 90s which expanded well into the new millennium. These movies include:
- Strictly Business
- The Last Boy Scout
- The Flintstones
- Losing Isaiah
- Executive Decision
- Race the Sun
- The Rich Man’s Wife
- Why Do Fools Fall In Love
- Monster’s Ball
- Die Another Day
- X-Men: The Last Stand
- Their Eyes Were Watching God
- The Things We Lost in the Fire
- Frankie & Alice
- New Year’s Eve
- Dark Tide
- Cloud Atlas
- Movie 43
- The Call
- The Wolverine
- X-Men Days of Future Past
In 2002, she was the first African-American woman to win an Academy Award for Best Actress, which she received for her role in Monster’s Ball. This role generated controversy due to the graphic nude love scene with a racist character played by co-star Billy Bob Thornton was the subject of much media chatter and discussion among African Americans. In her very tearful and joyous acceptance speech she declared “This moment is so much bigger than me. It’s for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.”
In an interesting coincidence she became the first woman of color to win the Academy Award for Best Actress (earlier in her career, she portrayed Dorothy Dandridge, the first African American to be nominated for Best Actress, and who was born at the same hospital as Berry, in Cleveland, Ohio.
Now looking back on her win, following the controversy surrounding the 2015 Oscars, and the lack of progress since 2002, Halle recently told Teen Vogue that what first felt like a major milestone now feels almost meaningless. “It’s troubling to say the least,” she began, adding that the 2015 Oscar race, in which no actors of color were nominated for major awards, “was probably one of my lowest professional moments.” That feeling, she said, left her “profoundly hurt” and “saddened.” But she also admitted that it has inspired her to get involved in other ways, which is why she wants to start directing. “I want to start being a part of making more opportunities for people of color.”
With a multi-decade acting career under her belt, Halle is focused on using her voice and her platform to speak out about the issues that really matter to her. Halle continues to drive dialogue around being a mom to a black son in the age of Black Lives Matter, and the strides necessary to diversify Hollywood. Halle states, “we have to start getting people to be change agents and walk the talk, not just talk the talk.”
Halle has also used her platform to speak out against domestic violence, stating that it is one of her life’s purposes “to help others, especially women” after her experiences with domestic abuse. In 2015, she attended the”Imagine” VIP cocktail party, where proceeds benefit the Jenesse Center, a national domestic violence prevention and intervention organization that provides services and outreach efforts to afflicted families and helps move them from crisis to self-sufficiency, she opened up about her experience. “I saw my mother battered and beaten many years of my life and I felt helpless. And that’s what connects me to this organization. I have an understanding, a knowing. I feel like I have something that I can impart to these women. It seems like I’ve overcome it, but I really haven’t. In the quiet of my mind, I still struggle. So while I’m helping these women, I’m helping myself through it, too. And that’s largely why I’m here.”
Halle is one of the most highly paid actresses in Hollywood to date and is also considered to be one of the most beautiful. She has frequently been included on “Most Beautiful People” lists compiled by magazines such as People, Esquire and FHM. In 2007, she was awarded her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She has been married three times and has two children. She is currently 50 years old and lives in Los Angeles, California.
“I always had to prove myself through my actions. Be a cheerleader. Be class president. Be the editor of the newspaper.” –Halle Berry
“I’ve always liked to go down a different path. Being a woman of color, I never followed a cookie cutter way.” –Halle Berry
“The worst thing a man can ever do is kiss me on the first date.” — Halle Berry
“I am my best self when I have super-short hair. That’s when I feel most like me and most confident.” — Halle Berry
“Being thought of as “a beautiful woman” has spared me nothing in life. No heartache, no trouble. Beauty is essentially meaningless.” –Halle Berry
“I’ve pretty much learned I can let that [being black] hinder me if I want to … or I can fight for different kinds of roles.” — Halle Berry
“The first step is clearly defining what it is you’re after, because without knowing that, you’ll never get it.” — Halle Berry
“I also have been called that terrible “N” word straight to my face and not known what to do about it because it was just in like 1993 that someone called me that.” — Halle Berry
Photography Credit: M Photography