She started as an actress at the Oakland Ensemble Theatre and later became a performer in the longest running cabaret show in San Francisco, “Beach Blanket Babylon.” In March 1995, Luenell Campbell‘s life changed when her mom died suddenly and then she discovered she was pregnant.
She and her daughter, Da’Nelle, relocated to Los Angeles where Luenell hoped to land more acting and theater work. Luenell’s comedy career began while living in Long Beach, Calif. with a “call girl” roommate who had a comedian “boyfriend,” who dared Luenell to try standup at a comedy room he hosted called Ms. Whiz. She did and shortly thereafter her comedy act put her on the radar of the late Robin Harris and rising comedy star D.L. Hughley, who she began opening for.
Her comedy work landed her appearances in films like “So I Married An Axe Murderer,” “The Rock,” “Never Die Alone” and on TV shows like “Nash Bridges” and “The Tracy Morgan Show.” In 2006, Luenell’s scene-stealing performance as the “hooker with a heart of gold” in Sacha Baron Cohen’s blockbuster film, “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” made her a household name.
She would go out to tour for two years with Katt Williams and co-starred in his standup comedy film, “Katt Williams’ American Hustle.” Luenell also landed rolls in films like “Spring Breakdown,” “Think Like A Man,” “All About Steve” and “Taken 2,” as well as two back-to-back films with Adam Sandler, “That’s My Boy” and “Hotel Transylvania.”
As we talked over brunch at the Avenue Grill in Washington, DC, the Oakland, Calif.-bred funny woman offered insight into her storied career, which appears to be hotter than ever. From guilty pleasures to cougar conquests and her affinity for The Kardashians, the 54-year-old comedienne was an open book for her exclusive conversation with AlwaysAList.com.
Some comics have a hot streak and then really cool off. But you seem to have a slow and steady burn. Is it better that way?
Would I rather have everything and be hot for five or seven years and then die off or would I rather just go at a slow burn and just stay really warm and ride out like Betty White? I think I prefer the latter and it feels really good now because I have been at it for so long and I’ve never stopped even though I’ve wanted to from time to time. There’s never really nothing else I could do because it is my calling in life to entertain. I think that I haven’t really changed a whole bunch of things about me. I have changed. I was much more of a wild, wildfire type of chick than I am now. I guess it comes with maturity, age and being a parent. I think the times are catching up to me now and that feels good. People are starting to get me now.
You were one of the guest judges on the season finale of Fox’s “Hell’s Kitchen.” What was that like?
I’m not sure if Gordon Ramsey is putting on for the camera or if he really is a hot-headed lunatic in real life. I tend to think he’s a hot-headed lunatic in real life. I would not want to be one of the cooks or chefs because the pressure in the kitchen. I just don’t think my nerves could handle it. For me it was fabulous because all I had to do was eat exquisite food and critique it which I can do all day.
“The Rickey Smiley Show” is back for a second season on TV One and this season you have a recurring role on the show. How’s that been?
That’s been the best thing to happen to me in years because first of all, Rickey Smiley kept his word. He always told me he was gonna have me on the show. It took a little while, but he did. Then when he did he embraced me and ideas and let me be free to improvise. Plus, I come from a theatre background so this was just sort of like second nature for me. It was like doing a play every week. I got to work with actors and actresses that I admire like Roz Ryan and J. Anthony Brown. Learning about blocking and multi-camera stuff was a wonderful learning experience for me. I enjoy working and I enjoy learning. To have a reoccurring role was fantastic and I love Rickey and respect his hustle with the radio show and “Dish Nation,” the TV show and his stand up career. I really just am having the greatest time. Ultimately I want to be a regular on somebody’s show and spin off and have my own show. I like to take the baby steps so I can observe and watch and see how to do it right. I don’t want to do it wrong; I want to do it the right way.
You are returning for the sequel of “Think Like A Man,” which is called “Think Like A Man Too.” How did it feel to be asked back?
I would be ungrateful if I said anything other than it feels fantastic. However, I’m not one of the stars; I’m just merely a little spec in the background. As much as I wish I was one of the main characters that would have been really great. I’m lucky that I’ve gotten the call to come back and reprieve my role in the sequel and I think people would be looking to see was I in the sequel even though I had a little blurry part in the first one. I’m grateful for all the gifts. I ain’t turning down nothing but my collar and I wear t-shirts.
Are you into reality TV at all?
The crack cocaine of my life is those damn Kardashians. I’m sorry! If I look at the others it’s “R&B Divas,” which is okay, but I think they plant that snarkiness because those women aren’t that snarky. It’s not “Love & Hip Hop,” even though I love watching that because it’s just ratchet. I think I watch these crazy Kardashian’s because there are so many different elements. Will Rob lose the weight? Is he gonna be a loser? Is he gonna be the suicidal Kardashian? Is Khloe gonna get a baby? What is Kris’ show all about? What’s gonna happen with Kim and Kanye? It’s like seven different stories in one show. I think that right now that’s my favorite.
Which comics inspired you to want to be a comedienne?
They’re really diverse and weird because I’ve been exposed to everything. I am not just a chick who grew up in the hood and don’t know nothing. In actuality Jackie Gleason, Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, Joan Rivers, Lawanda Page, Richard [Pryor] of course, Bill Cosby, Rudy Ray Moore and Redd Foxx. That’s quite a gumbo of people but I get a little bit of something from all of them. Lucille Ball I get the facial expressions and stuff. Carol Burnett, you get the slapstick stuff. Jackie Gleason, you get the heavy, but suave kind of gentle like what Heavy D used to have. I just get a little something from all of them I think. And how could I forget Roseanne Barr. We’ve actually been talking online lately and I really admire her a lot. I would love for us to work together on something!
In your comedy act, you talk about your affinity for young men. You like to give them Jordans.
They earn them! I just don’t randomly go around giving out Jordans. They earn those.
Of the young cats in the business right now, who would you like to make earn some Jordans?
Bruno Mars! I like him! This is going to sound a little pedophiliac but I’m crazy about Mindless Behavior. I love those boys. I don’t want to kiss them or anything, but they’re just so cute. Maybe we can to the mall. They have enough money; they can buy me some Jordan’s. All of them are cute. I want them all together, not individually, like a group bang. I do like that Justin Timberlake. He does need a good dose, because he flirted around and put a lot of sisters in his video, but he never really dated one openly. I thought that was kind of foul. You got Janet Jackson in the video and groping on Ciara but you never really dated a sista. I think he should have experienced that life and I could have been just the one to show it to him.
I have to ask you about Katt Williams. You two toured together and remain friends. We see the headlines about him, is everything okay?
Normally, I don’t discuss him but I will say whether he makes it or not is up to him and God. I have no idea, but I have all the faith in the world. He’s my friend and has been for almost 20 years. He gave me one of the biggest breaks of my life. I know the real guy. I think that mental illness in the Black community is hard to see, diagnose or discuss. When you mix a little bit of that with huge amounts of money and you throw a little ego in, anything can happen. I’m not saying that any of that is what happened but things like that can happen when you put any of that in a pot. I think he’s going to be alright in the end. I certainly hope so that he can come back and reinstate his claim which would be one of the greatest comebacks in the history of comedy.
LISTEN: Hear Luenell talk about Katt Williams, Las Vegas comedienne Rita Rudner, “Love & Hip Hop” and the Liberace movie, “Behind the Candelabra” in the audio clip below.