Wanda Sykes is known as one of America’s brashest, bawdiest, best-loved comics. Off-stage, however, she’s a shy working mother who isn’t very good at small talk.
“If I have to go to a big fancy party or something and there’s a bunch of big stars there, I get shy. I have a hard time starting a conversation,” says Sykes, who holds court 8 p.m. Saturday at the Olympia Theater at Gusman Center in downtown Miami. “I was at this pre-Oscars party the other night. It’s a cool party. I like that —you don’t have to get all dressed up and everything. I’m there and I love [actor-director] Jon Favreau. We made eye contact and he smiled at me. I met him before, but it’s been years. We walked over, started talking and he goes, ‘This is probably one of the worst conversations in the history of conversations.’ I said, ‘You know what? I agree with you.’ That’s just who I am. I get shy and I clam up. Then we started laughing and we talked about that.”
Sykes, who turns 51 on March 7, says she’s much better interacting with fans following a concert.
“A meet-and-greet with people, that’s easier because it’s just extending my show. It’s still somewhat of a performance,” Sykes says. “But when I’m in a setting where I’m not performing and it’s just a bunch of people —and they don’t have to be celebrities, they could be anyone — if I’m just there and not for the purpose of doing a show, it’s just Wanda in a room, if I have to go to one of my wife’s parties for her job, then I’m very awkward and not comfortable.”
An Emmy-winner who’s been honored for both her comedy and LGBT activism, Sykes says her most serious role is raising 6-year-old twins, Olivia and Lucas, with wife Alex Niedbalski.
Sykes is very protective of her family.
“Usually, when people come up to me when I’m with my kids, I’ll say ‘I’m sorry, I’m just Mom right now with my kids.’ Or if someone asks me for a picture and I’m with my kids, I usually say ‘I’m sorry, not now with my family.’ So far, everyone has been very respectful.”
The twins, who are becoming aware of Mom’s public persona, have begun teasing her. “Every now and then they’ll go through a thing and keep saying ‘Wanda Sykes, Wanda Sykes!’ They’re awful!”
On Wednesday, Sykes took Olivia for a routine medical check-up. “The nurse kept saying, ‘You look like Wanda Sykes! You look just like Wanda Sykes!’ I wasn’t saying anything. Then she looks at the form and goes, ‘You’re Wanda Sykes!’ She jumped up and gave me a hug and my daughter is just looking at her like, ‘Hey, I’m the one that’s supposed to be getting all the attention over here.’”
Sykes came out publicly in 2008, during the Proposition 8 campaign to ban gay marriage in California, where she and Niedbalski had wed. Since then, Sykes has become an LGBT comedy icon, along with her good friend, Ellen DeGeneres.
“Did I help move it along?’ Sykes says of the same-sex marriage movement. “I don’t know about that. I’ll put it this way: By having some recognition, I sparked some conversations. Initiated some dialog. That’s what it was all about, just getting people to talk. And maybe if you don’t know someone who’s gay or lesbian, which I find hard to believe these days, but at least there was a face. There was someone they could go, ‘Hey do you know Wanda Sykes? She’s a lesbian and now her marriage is in jeopardy.’ Because of Prop 8, I was a victim of that law that tried to destroy my marriage.”
Along with fame comes responsibility, especially to young LGBT people.
“I do know that if I screw up that a lot of people will be affected. I do know that. Especially young kids,” Sykes says. “From that ad that I did, ‘That’s so gay, don’t say that,’ I get a lot of kids who come up to me and thank me for that. And I know they do, they do look up. If Ellen and I ever went on some wild meth rage and crashed our car into a Denny’s or something, I know, yes, people would be crushed. Progress we’ve made will be snatched back.”