Mo’Nique’s high-stakes moves

Demanding more money got her shunned in showbiz and earned her a “difficult” reputation. But the Queen of Comedy stands by her truth at all costs.
Video by Ashleigh Joplin

Hold up, are we racing? Where’s the finish line? Is Mo’Nique there already? Wait, is it over? She definitely won.

It’s unclear who said the word “go,” but that was definitely a race, and Mo’Nique, the Oscar winner and Queen of Comedy, wastes no time figuring out the pesky details. She’s gone — sprinting ahead like a woman who still has something to prove.

That’s how the 51-year-old comedian — hair in a regal bun spiraled with gray, makeup-free caramel skin and Nike sneakers — ended up dashing past sports cars in the parking lot of the SLS Hotel on a crisp Vegas afternoon. Her opening act, road manager and bodyguard were left in her dust.

“Listen, don’t challenge Mo’Nique to anything,” offered a member of the entourage pulling up the rear as the group ventured out onto the Strip for Mo’Nique’s daily workout. Lest you find yourself suddenly dead last in an impromptu casino-parking-lot footrace, or in a tipsy dance-off at a stop light (she will battle anyone), or huffing up flights of stairs during a four-mile walk down Las Vegas Boulevard (she won’t take the elevator). Mo’Nique will keep it moving and everyone else just has to catch up.

Back out on the Strip, Mo’Nique is screaming at her finish line. Really, it’s more like a squeal, but calling it that diminishes the sound. This is full-blown, grown-woman joy.

Seconds into her victory lap, Mo’Nique spots her name in lights above the SLS, a 50-foot billboard featuring the comedian mid-laugh in a glittery gown pouring over her hard-won curves.

Mo’Nique inside the SLS Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, where she just started a residency — and became the first black female comedian to do so. The actress and comedian recently called for a boycott of Netflix, but her issues with the Hollywood firmament go back years. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

She is the first black female comedian to have her own residency in Sin City. Yes, the first. Yet there’s been little fanfare for the notable moment. No hashtags or virtual high-fives from Hollywood friends — of whom she has precious few. There’s just the comedian and her tight team hitting the ground, doing local press, turning up three nights a week for her shows and promoting it all themselves.

She snaps a photo in front of the billboard — “Mo’Nique Does Vegas” — and then heads left down the Strip, a wholly unwalkable thoroughfare in this unholy city, but she won’t stop until she gets all her steps in.

Another thing Mo’Nique won’t stop doing? Calling folks out. She’s been doing that since her moment thanking the Academy for honoring “the performance and not the politics.” Since her claim that director Lee Daniels, and producers Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey blackballed her in Hollywood for refusing “to play the game” during the promotional tour for “Precious,” the brutal film that won her that Oscar. Since asking her “loves” to stand with her and “boycott Netflix for gender bias and color bias” after the streaming giant offered her $500,000 for a comedy special — a fraction of what other marquee comedians such as Amy Schumer, Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock received for their hours.

She’s been calling it like she sees it since way back, when she starred in “The Parkers,” the 1999 UPN hit sitcom that gave her a platform on television. Back then, a UPN exec asked her to shave her legs, and she said no thank you.

“That was me keeping my truth, because if I shaved my legs, then you’re going to tell me, ‘Well, listen, we really don’t like how you talk,’ ” she said later at the Sayers Club, where she’s opening her Vegas residency. “And if I change the way I talk, ‘Well, now we don’t like the way you dress.’ Well damn, now I’m looking in the mirror, and I don’t know this b—-, because I’ve changed her all up to satisfy what you think I should be.”

Because here is one thing to know: Mo’Nique is not changing. No matter what it costs.

Mo’Nique with her husband, Sidney Hicks, at the Golden Globes in 2010. Hicks is instrumental to her business negotiations. (Matt Sayles/AP)

So, challenge Mo’Nique if you want to — just know she won’t back down, even when it means she’s gotten less work with the Oscar than before it. Or that she’s received more criticism for decrying the same pay inequity that Viola Davis and Patricia Arquette condemn. She has been unequivocally branded “difficult” by the Hollywood powers that be. But does she care?

“I can’t waste my energy worrying about if you like me. Respect me,” Mo’Nique said. “And then when you say to somebody, ‘Well, why don’t you like her?’ ‘Well, it’s just something about her.’ ‘Well, b—-, what is it?!’ ”

No really, what is it?

Perhaps the better question is: Who is it? Hollywood can’t mention Mo’Nique without also mentioning her husband, manager and business partner, Sidney Hicks. It’s Sidney’s voice you hear (on phone recordings the couple released) pressing Tyler Perry to admit that Mo’Nique’s reputation was unfairly damaged after she declined to do international press for the film “Precious” unless more money was involved. Sidney is even-keeled and unapologetic, direct and yet polite. He’s an unwavering advocate for his wife. Mo’Nique described the pair, who met cracking jokes in the back of class at Randallstown High School, 30 minutes north of Baltimore, as an enigma.

“It’s puzzling because we’ve never seen it — to see this black man stand with his black wife and say, ‘I’m not budging,’ ” she said. But where Mo’Nique sees empowerment, others see entitlement or greed.

When asked about Mo’Nique and her Netflix boycott in a GQ profile last spring, fellow comedian Tiffany Haddish had this to say: “My business run different than her business. I don’t live her life. I don’t have that husband of hers.” Haddish also said that Netflix had opened doors. But Mo’Nique is far past the simply-being-grateful-for-the-opportunity phase of her career.

Take the most recent round of bombs Mo’Nique detonated in the center of Hollywood’s status quo. When an interviewer for Vulture asked about Whoopi Goldberg, who during an appearance on “The View” last year told Mo’Nique that she could’ve “schooled” the “Precious” actress on “what was expected” in the film industry, Mo’Nique responded by calling Goldberg “the help” . . . “and I say that humbly.” Later, Mo’Nique clarified her stance, telling E! that Goldberg simply wasn’t the type of black performer who looked out for other black performers. Unlike Mo’Nique, who is apparently always looking out, and simply cannot stop talking about those who don’t.

Acting alongside Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’Nique played an abusive mother in “Precious,” for which she won an Oscar. (Lionsgate)

“Hattie McDaniel took an ass-whooping for me. Eartha Kitt took an ass-whooping for me. Louise Beavers took an ass-whooping for me. These women took ass-whoopings so that I would not have to. So as I called their names out, it would be an honor for me if a little girl who’s not here yet was able to say, ‘Mo’Nique took an ass-whooping for me.’ ”

Back on the Strip, Mo’Nique is looking straight ahead. She’s not thinking about Hollywood.

“Who are these babies?” asked the comedian after spotting a group of ragtag-looking kids ranging in age from maybe 5 to 15. They’re wandering aimlessly down the sidewalk in front of her, the Little Rascals reincarnated.

“Y’all all right?” she asked. “You sure?” she coaxed. Where is your mother? She wanted to know. Who is in charge? A small one points to a bigger one. “Y’all got money? Are y’all hungry?” One little girl is eating straight from a jar of Nutella — the sugary hazelnut spread. “Now that’s gonna be your last spoonful!” commanded Mo’Nique.

The kids show no signs of knowing who the lady in black stretchy pants is. That she’s famous and has been for decades. Before moving on, she confirmed for perhaps the third time that they were all right, and that “little mama” would stop inhaling the Nutella.

“All right my babies, y’all be good. Y’all hold onto each other, okay?” When the group moves past earshot, Mo’Nique leaned into her bodyguard to deliver the perfect line: “That little one looked like he could’ve [messed] somebody up.”

Maybe the kids reminded the mother of three of her own or, more likely, of “the little girl” she keeps in the back of her mind always. The nameless, faceless girl whom Mo’Nique conjures up when asked about regrets.

Mo’Nique has appeared in just five movies since “Precious.” If she could, would she just hop in a time machine and head back to Cannes to promote the film internationally and campaign for the Oscar, like everyone wanted her to? Would she have chosen not to be “difficult”?

“I got to think about the little girl on the Greyhound bus coming to a place called Hollywood with no idea what she’s coming into,” Mo’Nique said. “For me, that little girl who’s not here yet, she means everything to me. That’s why I won’t back down or back up.”

She sees herself as a trailblazer, even if no one else does. Hanging in her closet at home is a picture of McDaniel, the first black woman to win an Oscar. Mo’Nique imagines that the actress’s smile changes from time to time, reaching back across the decades to give her a wink and a nod. Mo’Nique believes that the life of McDaniels, whose career never again reached the height of “Gone with the Wind” and was continually cast as a maid, provides a lesson to be learned: The game is rigged, so why play?

So, no, she doesn’t regret taking the big names to task and she won’t stop doing it in interviews and onstage. She wants them to say “uncle” even as she admits they probably never will. But she can’t not say something. Everything.

Honesty is not like Spanx to Mo’Nique. It isn’t something you squeeze into to look better and then yank off at night to breathe. She needs it. She couldn’t breathe without it.

You can hear Mo’Nique’s great exhale in her Vegas stage show. There isn’t a subject she won’t touch, from her “sister” Roseanne’s recent missteps to homophobia in the black community to how good sex will save not just a marriage, but the world. Yes, she goes there, in six-inch stilettos and a strapless cocktail dress.

With the Oscar for best supporting actress, for “Precious,” in 2010. Mo’Nique became involved in a feud with the movie’s director and producers that she says hurt her career. (Matt Sayles/AP)

On the walk back toward the hotel there’s an — apropos of nothing, really — debate between Mo’Nique and her opening act, comedian Correy Bell, about whether the devil is, in fact, a lie, or if he does, as they say, stay busy. Bell is in the anti-devil camp. Mo’Nique is playing his advocate.

“What if,” Mo’Nique began, “he’s wondering why he got a bad rap. Maybe he was just trying to tell the truth.”

Ask her what she’s afraid of, and Mo’Nique won’t hesitate to answer.

“Not being truthful. That’s it. I would hate to be imprisoned with a lie. That’s the worst kind of prison to be in. I just have to be honest even if it don’t make me look good. I do not want to be the Wizard of Oz. I know too many of them,” she said.

The Great Oz was never so palpable. Up and down the Strip fans recognize the “Bessie” actress, shouting “Mo’Niiiiiiique!” from cheesy souvenir shops, car windows and outdoor escalators. She speaks to everyone, never refuses a photo and does a little jig on a flight of stairs, to the delight of a group of fans that will probably be in the front row of her show in just a short few hours.

Wait. No, they are not “fans” to Mo’Nique. She is big on word choice. Fans is short for fanatics (which can have a disapproving connotation), she explained, and she’ll have none of that. The people who come to see her shows, which are packed, might be holding off on paying the light bill to buy a ticket to see her, and those are not fans.

“I got family members. I’ve seen these people before,” she said. “I’ve seen them in my dreams. I’ve seen them in the bathroom mirror.”

That might explain why she calls everyone “auntie,” “sweet sister,” “sis” or “brother,” or why she pulls strangers into hugs. It explains how she made one reporter (not this one) cry after championing her positive energy and demanding that she always know her worth.

Before long, Mo’Nique will have you reevaluating everything about your life. Are you living your truth? Are you pleasing your partner right, are you spending enough time with your kid, do you know how to bake a cake? Most of these things you thought you had down before sitting across from Mo’Nique for half an hour and realizing: No, you do not.

It’s as if Mo’Nique is in a constant state of uplifting — everyone — whether they want it or not. She’s giving crash courses in radical self-love, empowerment, taking no crap and how to be grown. Being grown in Hollywood might mean being difficult, leaving some money on the table or not getting the jobs — even if you have the Oscar.

“I’ve always been this,” she said. “If it didn’t make sense, you had to make it make sense to me. So, they think I’m new, but the people that know me? They’re just like, ‘Man, she been that.’ ”

Before heading back to the SLS to get ready for her Saturday night show, Mo’Nique passed an alfresco party scene near the Palazzo. She spotted a woman on top of a table in a body-con dress doing deep body rolls for no other reason than Vegas.

“Is she challenging me?” Mo’Nique asked no one in particular as she surveyed the scene. “Because I would hate to go up there.”

Somehow, we doubt that.

Performing at the BET Awards in 2007. “I can’t waste my energy worrying about if you like me,” Mo’Nique says now. “Respect me.” (Kevork Djansezian/AP)
Credits: By Helena Andrews-Dyer. Video by Ashleigh Joplin and Drea Cornejo. Designed by Eddie Alvarez. Photo Editing by May-Ying Lam.