Newcomer Ellen Cleghorne is a rising star on 'SNL'

July 23, 1992|By Orlando Sentinel

Ellen Cleghorne is one of the few performers who would welcome (let alone answer) a reporter's telephone call at the ungodly hour of 8 a.m.

As it turns out, that's the best time to catch the busy newcomer to TV's "Saturday Night Live" at her New York City apartment. Even then, you have to compete for attention with her 6-year-old daughter, Akeyla, who is getting ready for school. With questions coming at Ms. Cleghorne from two directions, the atmosphere resembles a long-distance press conference.

"Not now, Akeyla," Ms. Cleghorne says. "Mommy's doing an interview."

The way things are going, Mommy will probably be doing a lot more of them. Ms. Cleghorne's characters -- the turban-clad Afrocentric commentator Queen Shaniqua and celebrity-hounding NBC page Zoraida -- are among the most memorable from last season's "SNL." While she's not yet a household name, Ms. Cleghorne's star is on the rise.

Like Queen Shaniqua, Ms. Cleghorne speaks with a lively demeanor and doesn't mince words. Take this response to the notion that such shows as "Saturday Night Live" and "In Living Color" (on which she appeared briefly before landing her "SNL" job) approach humor from a decidedly male perspective.

"It's not a show-business thing; it's an American thing," she said. "It's hard for American women to be successful at anything. If you make it, you're a bitch; if you don't, it's because you're lazy."

Ms. Cleghorne says the entertainment industry merely reflects a society in which "women go to the movies and root for the male heroes, but men don't go to the movies and root for the women."

While she loves working with such talented cast members as Mike Myers and Dana Carvey, Ms. Cleghorne allows that competition for air time is fierce among the 16-member "SNL" ensemble.

"It's like living in projects with only one bathroom," she said. "But I'm used to crowds. I grew up in a house with seven kids and three adults, so I know how to work with people."

A product of Brooklyn's Red Hook housing project, Ms. Cleghorne developed an interest in theater as a teen-ager when she attended an acting workshop with her brother. A stint in regional theater led to a stand-up career when she heard a Rita Rudner joke and decided she could do just as well.

She's proving that on "Saturday Night Live" -- where her mouthy version of an NBC page has allowed her to initiate "in-your-face" encounters with the likes of Michael Jordan and Woody Harrelson.

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