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Entertainment is My Life
Ethel Waters v. Jonelle Monae
Ethel Waters in a photo studio, 1930,      photo by Gilles Petard
Janelle Monáe, 2020, photo by Dana Scruggs
The first African American woman to integrate Broadway and to star in her own television show was the legendary singer and actress Ethel WatersWaters is a trailblazer for queer black female entertainers such as Janelle Monáe. Notably, Waters and Monáe had humble beginnings and both were raised by mother-figures who worked as maids.

Officers of the Negro Actors Guild of America, Ethel Waters pictured upper left, 1938
Waters was a co-founder of the Negro Actors Guild of America and rallied against racist depictions of black people in film and television and Monáe is a veteran Black Lives Matter activist who seeks roles in films such as Moonlight (2016), Hidden Figures (2016), and The Glorias (2020) which tell lesser known African American stories. 

Young Ethel Waters, c. 1910s
Ethel Waters got an early start in showbiz. At her seventeenth birthday, she was persuaded by friends to perform two songs at a nightclub on Juniper Street in Philadelphia. Stunning the crowd, she was offered a job performing at the Lincoln Theatre in Baltimore where she earned $10 per week. Afterwards, she began touring on the black vaudeville circuit with a schedule that took her from what she described as “nine ‘til unconscious.” [1]  

Ethel Waters’ first hit song, “Dinah,” released by Columbia Records, 1925
In 1919, Waters moved to Harlem where she performed in vaudeville shows, singing the blues. In 1921, she became the fifth black woman to make a record and she recorded with Black Swan from 1921 until 1923 and was the highest paid black recording artist at the time. In 1925, accompanied by “Her Plantation Orchestra," she recorded her first hit, “Dinah,” with Columbia Records.” 

Ethel Waters performing "Heat Wave Hits New York" from As Thousands Cheer, 1933
In 1933, with her performance in As Thousands Cheer, Waters became the first African American woman to integrate a Broadway production. The composer Irving Berlin wrote one song specifically for Waters to perform, “Suppertime.” As Thousands Cheer was a massive success, running on Broadway until 1934 for 390 performances. [2] 

Advertisement for Africana starring Ethel Waters, 1927
Before As Thousands Cheer, Ethel Waters made her Broadway debut in 1927 in Africana, an all-black revue which Waters toured across the United States. In 1933, Waters appeared alongside Sammy Davis Jr. in the all-black film Rufus Jones for President. In 1936, she became a founding member of the Negro Actors Guild of America, along with Paul Robeson, Lee Whipper, Dick Campbell and others. Waters’ transition from singing to serious acting came in 1939 when she starred in Mamba’s Daughters, written by Dorothy and Du Böse Heyard. After that, she starred in Cabin in the Sky in 1940, an all-black musical, and Laugh Time in 1943, both of which ran on Broadway. 

On the set of NBC’s The Ethel Waters Show, featuring Ethel Waters in a headscarf, 1939
The Ethel Waters Show made history on June 14, 1939 as a one-hour variety show on NBC. Waters also starred in the show Beulah, a weekly series aired on ABC television in 1951, but quit due to the show’s racist portrayal of African Americans. She was replaced by Louise Beavers and Hattie McDaniels in subsequent seasons. 

Ethel Waters, c. 1950s, photo by Wallace Seawell
In 1951, Ethel Waters wrote her first autobiography, His Eye is on the Sparrow.

Ethel Waters in a suit, c. 1920s      
Janelle Monáe in a suit, 2020
Although Ethel Waters was married (and divorced) to Merritt "Buddy" Purnsley when she was thirteen (the marriage lasted less than four years), Clyde Edwards Matthews, and Edward Mallory (both marriages lasted less than 7 years), her most significant relationship was with a dancer named Ethel Williams. The couple was given the nickname "the two Ethels." [3] They lived together in Harlem and although they attempted to conceal their romantic relationship, they ruled the Harlem nightclub scene along with Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Lucille Bogan, and Gladys Bentley. In the touring revue Oh! Joy!, the two Ethels performed a skit about being “partners.” Fellow entertainer, Mabel Hampton, who recalled spending time with the Two Ethels and a group of lesbian blues singers stated in an oral history interview, “They were all in the life. I wouldn’t have been meeting them if they hadn’t [been]!”  [4]

Ethel Waters passed away on September 1, 1977 at 80 years of age. Her legacy lives on through her music, her accomplishments, and the impact her life and work.  
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[1] "Waters, Ethel". Current Biography. H. W. Wilson: 899–900. 1941. Retrieved March 8, 2021.
[2] “Many Reasons to Applaud `As Thousands Cheer’ - Chicago Tribune,” accessed March 12, 2021, https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-2001-05-01-0105010002-story.html.
[3] Stephen Bourne, Ethel Waters: Stormy Weather (Scarecrow Press, 2007).
[4] "Ethel Waters Residence,” NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, accessed March 10, 2021, https://www.nyclgbtsites.org/site/ethel-waters-residence/.