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Sir Lenny Henry’s life story: The day Disney put me on ‘the company diet’ | Books | Entertainment


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sitting comfortably: Sir Lenny Henry looks back on his career and life in his new memoir

sitting comfortably: Sir Lenny Henry looks back on his career and life in his new memoir (Image: UKTV/Mark Johnson)

My weight had fluctuated from the minute I entered showbusiness. It was almost like paying the M toll master: “Oh, you want to sail across the River of Success, do you? For that, you must gain 30 pounds.” Weight control would be a recurring motif. I’d do whatever I could: diet, SlimFast, shakes, mostly veg, mostly protein.

I even went to that doctor – the guy who prescribes a green pill and a pink pill and a white pill, and then, the next thing you know, you look like a stick insect with an afro and you can’t sleep at night.

I looked great, but my brain was mush a lot of the time.

I had all the rationalisations for my weight: “Yeah, it’s cool, my family are Caribbean; we’re all big. We eat big food, we wear big clothes and we’re proud of our appetites.”

Food was important to me, especially if it was home food.

I’d drive the hundred or so miles to be at my mum’s house the minute the mutton soup with dumplings and yam was cooked, simmered and ready to serve.

I didn’t know it at the time but most of my family have an issue with diabetes.

My weight was yo-yoing not just because I was a greedy pig. I had been hard-wired by the gods to have this sugar intolerance.

There’s also that guilty feeling when you arrive for fittings and your measurements have changed. Costume designers and producers don’t mean to, but they can be a bit judgemental – “Ooh, put a bit of weight on, have we? We’ll have to take that all the way out.” Or, “Bloody hell – size of that a**e”.

I was very self-critical and this was embarrassing, although I pretended it didn’t matter. I hadn’t been diagnosed with diabetes at this time, that would come in 2013, but clearly there were things happening with my blood sugar that should have been caught much earlier.

Lenny Henry and former wife Dawn French

she had my back : With former wife Dawn French (Image: Getty)

This was going to be a lifelong battle for me – and other members of my family – but it would come to the fore during my experiences in Hollywood.

I had been spotted by a movie executive who had seen my 1989 stand-up movie Live And Unleashed and called his bosses at Disney/Touchstone. He wanted to put my hat in the ring for a movie from which Eddie Murphy had just walked away. He thought I could step in and fill Eddie’s shoes.

This was it, everything I’d been working for! I was stunned, then gobsmacked, then thrilled, then genuinely frightened.

There was no question of me turning it down: I’d wanted to be in a movie since I was four years old in Dudley, a little black kid pretending to be James Bond or Simon Templar off the telly.

The first of what would be a three-picture deal – True Identity – was based on an original Saturday Night Live sketch about Eddie using make-up to transform himself into a white person and observing how white people behave when they think black people aren’t around.

I thought to myself: “This is going to be extraordinary. This is going to be the bomb!” Well, I was half right… use of the word “bomb” is a big clue. Before flying out in the spring of ’89, I had been rigorous with personal training and nutrition – and managed to get down to 15 and a half stone. I felt good about my size and shape and was ready for anything.

So imagine my face during our first “meet and greet” when one of the executive producers carelessly said: “You’re quite a bit bigger than we all expected, so we’ll have to fix that. We’ll have the Disney nutritionist work on that with the company diet. You stick to that, you’ll lose a ton of weight in no time.”

Oh God! To them, I was a heffalump in a suit. This plunged me into not only a maelstrom of low self-esteem but also perhaps the toughest regimen of physical exercise I’ve ever undertaken.

Although Disney were paying me decently and had sorted out luxurious hotels and per diems (a daily stipend in cash in a brown envelope), things were wrong with our relationship. The writing and rewriting of the script unravelled at speed and it soon became clear that, although there was a good idea in there somewhere, it wasn’t quite coming together.

By the time we began shooting, my head was in a bad place.

Day after day, I was doing my best to represent myself in a decently funny way. I was way out of my depth. Thank god my then wife Dawn French had my back.

In my mind, I felt myself careening downhill towards a large wall in a car with no brakes. My Hollywood travails were teaching me every day that you’re nothing if you don’t have control.

The experience would inform the later launch of my production company, Crucial Films, named in honour of my character Delbert Wilkins.

Once True Identity was completed, there were premieres to attend and some promotional duties, but my heart wasn’t really in it. I was excited for everyone to see what we’d managed to achieve, but I knew that it wasn’t the real marinara sauce. Dawn and I flew home from LA, and the VHS of True Identity was in the bargain video pile at the corner shop up the road before we’d even touched down.

Needless to say, I never made the two other films.

Rising To The Surface by Lenny Henry (Faber, £20)

Rising To The Surface by Lenny Henry (Faber, £20) (Image: )

At the same time, Dawn and I were in the process of adopting a child.

We’d experienced a number of unsuccessful rounds of IVF but were determined to expand our family. We’d been talking about adoption for some time and decided to go for it. We weren’t going to let the misery of our time in LA dominate our future; we wanted our lives to be full of kids and fun and laughter.

So the adoption process began, and then we had to wait. One year later, our daughter Billie arrived. Happiness burst out and times were good.

I was fortunate to be asked to take part in the Nelson Mandela tribute concert at Wembley Stadium: Mandela at 70!

I found myself reading up about what he had sacrificed and why. And then, before we knew it, the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute was upon us.

I co-hosted with Whoopi Goldberg and we were part of the amazing running order: Sting, George Michael, Richard Gere, the Eurythmics and many more. I spent quite a lot of time getting into full white-face make-up, sculpted nose, tight pants, shiny shoes and sparkly gloves – the full gear. When the compère announced, “And now… MICHAEL JACKSON…” the crowd went crazy. And then there was the sound of 72,000 people going, “Oh, for f***’s sake, it’s Lenny!” under their breath. I’ve never heard such unanimous disappointment in my life.

A couple of years later, after Mandela was released, they did it again. The concert would again take place at Wembley. Mandela began the show with a 45-minute speech, eight minutes of which involved a standing ovation.

This time I co-hosted with Denzel Washington. Afterwards, we all got to meet the great man. I was introduced as the “doofus who did Michael Jackson in the first concert”.

Nelson smiled and ushered me over to have our picture taken. That photograph hung over my daughter Billie’s bed.

We had her convinced it was a picture of “Dad and his grandad”.

She believed us for ages.

  • Extracted by Matt Nixson from Rising To The Surface by Lenny Henry (Faber, £20). To order for £18 with free UK P&P, visit expressbookshop.com or call 20 3176 3832

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Finding my mum and then losing her

From 1991 onwards, my Winifred began to fall to illness; whether it was shortness of breath, deteriorating eyesight her heart condition, she seemed to be fighting for her health every day.

She would say things like: “I’ll speak you soon, if the Lord sees fit to keep me alive.”

“She really did think was being tested during this time, she became a born-again Christian.

Having fallen off the heavenly wagon when she first arrived in the UK, her conversion came as a big shock – the mum who’d raised me at Victoria Terrace and Douglas Road, Dudley, did not feel like your typical Christian. She cursed and drank and smoked. She hit me with the buckle end of the belt, also in my face with a cooking pot.

But as I got older, I’d ponder on what Mum had sacrificed to raise all of us; how difficult it had been for her being separated from the rest of the family in Jamaica.

I visited on Sundays and a long time about the past: we’d never really discussed – how often and how hard she would beat me when I was a child.

I asked, “Was it because you didn’t love me or something?”

And she told me it was about trying to protect me. She was trying to give me a shield to deal with the outside world. Suddenly, Mum and I were able to discuss grown-up matters on a level playing field. There was mutual respect, empathy and kindness as we chatted about how difficult her life had been, raising us in England in such a hostile environment.

When I talked about my own struggle to keep the plates spinning in my career, she told me: “Stop the noise. Look at you earnin’ all that money and complainin’ about yu big house and everyting. You are blessed. Never forget that.”

In between trips to the hospital for various treatments, Mum was becoming a very capable advocate for her church. She’d go out collecting donations at local pubs and clubs with fellow parishioners.

Even after she lost both her legs, she would go out in her wheelchair and give testimony, visit sick pensioners, do what she felt had to be done.

She was ordained as a lay preacher, and the photographs of her on that momentous day are joyous. She’s got a big smile on her face and is wearing her church crown – we were all very proud.

Mum still questioned God about her various aches and pains, but eventually, she just accepted her lot in life, losing first one leg, then the other, and finally having a stroke which robbed her (and us) of her speech.

But she was eventually at peace.

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