Black and Gay Like Me
BY Ari Karpel
February 02 2009 1:00 AM ET
Sykes’s penchant for running off at the mouth started early. As she was growing up in Gambrills, Md., little Wanda was shuttled off to her grandmother’s any time company was coming over, for fear of what she’d say. “If I knew someone owed my parents money and they’d come over to the house with something new on,” she says, “I’d be like, ‘Are those new shoes? You owe my dad $50. What are you doing wearing new shoes?’?” Sykes says she was just voicing things she knew her parents wanted to say but couldn’t.
It’s the same role she’s taken on as a comedian. But Sykes was 28 years old before she found the career for which she’d been born. “When you’re in the Maryland-D.C. area, you end up working for the government,” she says. Her father was an Army colonel who worked at the Pentagon, and her mother was a banker. So, after college (Sykes studied marketing at Hampton University, a historically black college in Virginia), she did just that: She spent five years as a contracting specialist for the National Security Agency, an intelligence branch of the Defense Department. The young woman with the big mouth was stuck doing paperwork, and she was bored. “I still had the same personality -- I was funny at work -- but it got to the point of, like, I’m just wasting my time here.”
Inspired by an ad for a local talent competition, Sykes finally got up onstage in 1987, told some jokes, and was hooked. She lost the contest but continued doing stand-up on nights and weekends. In 1992 she quit her day job and moved to New York City, where, after a few years on the comedy circuit, she got a gig opening for Chris Rock at Carolines. That led to a writing-performing stint on HBO’s The Chris Rock Show, a position as commentator on that network’s Inside the NFL, and a string of roles in movies including Pootie Tang.
Just before moving to New York, Sykes married record producer David Hall. “I actually made the choice to be straight as a kid,” she says. “Early on I knew [being gay] wasn’t gonna fly. No way. And from the teachers and church and all it was, This is wrong! What’s wrong with me? And you pray and ask God to take it away, and you bury it and bury it, and you shut that part of yourself off. Then you try to live the life that you’re supposed to live.”
She and Hall divorced in 1998, but Sykes is careful to clarify that her marriage didn’t end because of her sexual orientation. “It had nothing to do with that. My marriage was fine. I think it was just…I don’t want to get too much into that.” She hesitates, and then continues, “It’s just that when you bury a part of yourself, you can take those relationships only so far because you can’t be totally open. Once we were divorced there was a defining, liberating moment of, OK, I’m free of this marriage, now what? It’s kind of like giving yourself permission. I guess that’s when I started actively dating women.”
In 2006, Sykes went on a weeklong, end-of-summer vacation with friends to Cherry Grove, one of two predominantly gay communities on New York’s Fire Island. (“I’m not making that Pines money,” she says of the neighboring, ritzier enclave, Fire Island Pines. “But it’s so nice over at the Pines. Nice coffee shops, gourmet foods, and all that crap over there.”) It was a nasty, rainy day, but on the ferry ride to the island Sykes spotted an intriguing woman. “She had on this black trench coat and was carrying a computer bag,” she says. “I was like, We’re going to Fire Island -- what the hell is she doing with her laptop?”
It wasn’t so much the trench coat or the laptop, though, that sparked Sykes’s attention. “She just caught my eye,” she says. And that’s when something happened that she’d never experienced before. “It was like a voice inside me saying, See? That’s what you need, Wanda. That’s what you need.” Sykes’s eyes well up with tears as she tells the story. “She’s beautiful, but there was just this aura about her. We’ve been inseparable since.” Inseparable and protective: Sykes, walking a tightrope, will not say what her wife does for a living. In fact, she tells the whole story of their meeting without once uttering her wife’s name. Later Sykes decided to give us her first name, Alexandra, for the article. “She’s not in show business. I want her to have as much of her private life as she can.”
Two years later, emboldened by the California supreme court’s ruling in favor of marriage equality, she and Alexandra decided to make it official. “This was it,” Sykes explains. “We’re in love and we want to spend the rest of our lives together. That’s why you get married.” So they rented a small hotel in Palm Springs and were married in a simple ceremony before about 40 friends and family members. “We had an amazing weekend. I don’t like to talk about it. It was a very special moment for us, for our friends. I like to keep that.” Sykes is happy—and obviously sentimental: “Even looking at the pictures, I just go back to that moment and get all teary-eyed.”