Sherry Lansing Leadership Award

Oscar-winner Halle Berry benefited from a lifelong mentor

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When Halle Berry was 17, she decided to take a stand.

Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, she was raised by a single mother who had been abandoned by her abusive husband and was now coping with two small children. Preternaturally beautiful and fiercely determined, Berry had been elected prom queen at her local high school.

But now the authorities were turning against her.

"The school sort of revolted," Berry recalls. "They accused me of stuffing the ballot box, because they couldn't figure out how this little black girl could win something like this. They sent me a clear message that I wasn't worthy, and I wasn't enough."

That was 1983 and the district, racially at least, was going through a transition: Berry was the first black prom queen in the school's history and there was much skepticism on the part of the white student body. But Berry wouldn't let the matter drop: she fought back and successfully defended her title -- the first big achievement in a string of them, that would take her to the pinnacle of the entertainment industry and see her become the first black woman to win a best actress Oscar.

Today, looking back, Berry is in a very different place. An actress who can command millions of dollars for any movie, she is also the mother of an 18-month-old daughter, Nala (her father is model Gabriel Aubry) -- and she admits she is more focused on her child than her career. "My career is being a mother," she says, "and it is the best career I have ever had."

One shouldn't overlook her other career. Berry proved that a black actress could be beautiful and intelligent, be a boxoffice draw -- and play roles that didn't have to be defined by race.

That, combined with her private endeavors to support women less privileged than herself, has led The Hollywood Reporter to name her the recipient of this year's Sherry Lansing Leadership Award, previously given to such luminaries as Barbara Walters, Jodie Foster, Glenn Close and Meryl Streep.

Berry would be the first person to admit her achievement did not come in a vacuum. Way back in those stressful high school days, when she was not only the prom queen but also president of her senior class, head cheerleader and editor of the school newspaper, she found a mentor.

Yvonne Sims, then 25 years old, was black like Berry; unlike her, she had found her mission in life, a mission she still continues as a guidance counselor at Bedford High School.

Berry met Sims, now 58, when she was in fourth grade, and then Sims became her full-time fifth-grade teacher. As the young girl moved on to high school, Sims moved there too. The two bonded over a ritual they called "cookie talk" that would become a mainstay in Berry's life: Sims would invite the young girl to her home to bake cookies, which in fact meant baking, bonding and blunt talking.

"She didn't always feel she was on the right path," Sims says. "But she was very careful in the choices she made in life. She was a thinker; she internalizes things a lot. And she is extremely bright -- I don't think she gets enough credit for that. There is nothing that she does superficially."

Sims would step into the breach when Berry would be taunted on occasion, usually after her white mother, Judith Ann, had shown up at the school for events.

"How could I have a blond, blue-eyed mother and be as dark-skinned as I was?" Berry reflects. "In the kids' minds, it didn't make sense. So it was like: 'Poor thing. She's adopted and doesn't know it. The joke is on her. Ha, ha, ha!' "

At times like this, Sims gave advice that was practical and filled with tough love.

"All of this was very hurtful to Halle," she says. " I told her, 'You have got to have a tough skin, and a tough skin means you do not let people get to you and you do not let people know they are getting to you. You go about it with your chin up.' "

Sims' help was crucial at a turning point, when Berry's mother was working double shifts in the psych ward at the V.A. Hospital. That help may have made all the difference.

"My sister went the way of my father," Berry explains. "Her story is very different than mine. Why I chose to go another way is the million-dollar question. I think it's because I had the love and support of Mrs. Sims."

Whether on a field trip or at home, Sims helped Berry focus on her goals.

"Mrs. Sims held me accountable for everything," Berry says. "She did a lot of mothering while my mother was busy working. She would say, 'You are going to sit down and I am going to ask you some tough questions and I'm going to force you to answer them and to set goals for yourself and not just skate through life.' And we had these talks a lot! I believe, at a really early age, something was instilled inside me, through her."

It must have been, because Berry would go on to become Miss Teen All-America in 1985, then first-runner-up for Miss USA in 1986, before becoming famous for such work as Spike Lee's "Jungle Fever," the TV movie "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge" and her Oscar-winning "Monster's Ball."

What's most striking, speaking to Sims, is how many other things Berry could have done.

"She was always interested in new things," Sims says. "And she was invested academically in maintaining good grades. We spent a lot of time together because of the person she was -- trying to maintain academics, extra-curricular activities and being popular. (She needed) someone to help her balance all of it. That is what I did. She became like a member of the family."

She adds, "We are good friends and to this day we help each other."

Now Berry is helping others, too. Very quietly, she has devoted herself to a nonprofit group, Jenesse Center, which helps victims of domestic violence, offering counseling, housing and vocational training.

"They are battered and scared and they don't have anywhere to go," Berry says. "I give the children baths or put them to sleep. Or I go down and paint one of the new shelters or try to get furniture, or get people to donate legal services to help these women (obtain) restraining orders."

She continues, "I saw my mother battered at a young age and I saw the effects it had on our family, so I feel when I go down there I have something of value to offer them. I come from where they come from. I've seen it. I've experienced what they are living through. My life lessons make a difference in their lives."