Shari Belafonte is surely her own woman. Actor, producer, host, moderator, and voice-over artist with many stage, screen, and network, public, and cable television credits; model; singer; photographer, and advocate – she has done it all!
When FVM met Shari and her husband of 34 years, actor and photographer Sam Behrens, on a perfect day at Sue Wong’s Malibu Arthaus, she cooked for us a repast fit for royalty, so small wonder when we asked what was her favorite aspect of her multi-faceted career, she replied: “Cooking!” Such light-heartedness was to permeate her recollections of her career, and she proved to be quite the raconteur in her revelations.
Shari is the daughter of the late legendary entertainer Harry Belafonte, who separated from her mother, psychologist Marguerite Byrd, during her mother’s pregnancy with her. Shari graduated from the prestigious Carnegie-Mellon University with a BFA and early on pursued a career in production at public television station WETA in Washington, D.C. Her first job as a production assistant had her “staking out the territory” for various shoots, a task requiring her to beat out rival TV stations for a key position, as she gleefully recalls.
Anticipating that her career would be in production, Shari became a model quite by accident. A friend who was an actor asked Shari to come on set and photograph her, and while on set Shari was noticed by a make-up artist who thought she was an extra and told her with her beauty she could become a model and make a fortune. This eventually led to an interview with top agent Nina Blanchard. The naive Shari, using her married name at the time, Shari Harper, appeared at the interview without a “book,” initially drawing the ire of the raspy voiced Blanchard, who shouted at her: “Where’s your book?” Describing Shari disparagingly as “not tall, not short, not SAG, not AFTRA,” Blanchard still thought Shari could work, if she got a book of photographs. The make-up artist for the book spent two hours on Shari, further adding to her discouragement because she didn’t think she looked that bad. When Shari saw the result, she was incredulous, and the inner and outer beauty she emanated launched a modeling career that was to encompass an astounding 350 magazine covers and a vast multitude of commercial shoots. Shari was shot no less than five times for Vogue by the legendary photographer Richard Avedon. Notably, on some of her many covers, she was the first woman of color ever. Nina Blanchard did not even realize for 1 1/2 years that she was working with Shari Belafonte. But Shari was a Belafonte in both name and principle, turning down a lucrative contract for an ad campaign in South Africa during apartheid.
Shari’s entrance onto the acting scene was as equally unlikely as her modeling beginnings. Attending an audition, she was unaware it was for a part as a roller skater and told her inquisitors at the audition she had never skated, which aroused attention, much to her befuddlement. Called back, again to her amazement, she was told to procure some skates and come back. At the callback, she repeatedly fell while skating and felt humiliated, only to learn she had booked the role as “stunt skater” because, unbeknownst to her, they were looking for an actor who convincingly could not skate! Such are the mysteries of Hollywood!
Shari was to experience the highs and lows of the profession. She was not selected for Charlie’s Angels, even though a role had theoretically been written specifically for her. Backward and thoughtless executives had determined that the world was not ready for a black Angel. However, her talent was later recognized by no less than Bette Davis, who told executives to hire Shari for a show she was in, after watching Shari’s work. This led to a starring role in the network series Hotel, which ran for five seasons on ABC.
And so it was in her career that Shari was recognized by two legends, Nina Blanchard and Bette Davis, which led to success as both a model and an actor. Although the path was never easy, Shari made it happen, appearing on stage, television, movies, and even recording two albums over the next decades. Through it all, she has been actively involved in children’s, animal, and environmental causes.
Continuing in the entertainment industry, Shari Belafonte saw projects she had pitched stolen by studios and experienced work droughts, but she persisted and is as busy today as she ever was, with a recurring role in drama series The Morning Show and roles in various Tyler Perry projects. She is also creating a foundation to benefit actors of color and has embarked on numerous photography projects with her husband Sam, whom she met on a movie they both refuse to reveal.
Too short to be a model, coming up neither black nor white in a time of ignorance and prejudice in the entertainment world, Shari Belafonte overcame all odds with her talent, indomitable spirit, and breath-taking beauty to become an extraordinary model and actor. Ever passionate and always true to her principles and ideals, she is an ongoing force!