Alan Carter
December 04, 1992 AT 05:00 AM EST

Actress-shopaholic Sheryl Lee Ralph can’t pass a clothing store with the word sale in the window. But if she buys any new duds, she says, she has to sneak them into her L.A. house by telling her husband, art importer Eric Maurice, ”Oh, this isn’t new, you just haven’t seen it before.” And she’s not fibbing: ”I put them in the trunk and then bring them into the house after a while,” she explains, laughing. ”So see, they’re not really new. I’m always honest.”

With that talent for scheming — and passion for fashion — it’s no wonder she snagged the bouquet once held by Jackee, joining Designing Women this season as the bride of Anthony (Meshach Taylor). At an L.A. fund-raiser she threw for Bill Clinton last June, Ralph says, she confronted Clinton pal and DW co-exec producer Harry Thomason and told him ”it was a damn shame there were no black women on a show that’s set in Atlanta.” Impressed by her bravado, Thomason and his wife/partner, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, met with her to ”find out if I was nice” and signed her up as the ”kinda blunt but perfect” Vegas singer Etienne (named after her 11-month-old son).

Ralph, a 1982 Tony nominee for her Diana Ross-ish role in Broadway’s Dreamgirls, stars as Eddie Murphy’s sidekick grifter in The Distinguished Gentleman, premiering this week. She bristles when recalling that a producer once told her she couldn’t be paired romantically with white actors — a contention disproved by her acclaimed performance last fall as Robert De Niro’s brash girlfriend in Mistress. ”Racism is like that pimple on your behind,” she says. ”You can act like it’s not there, but it’s not going away until you pluck that hair out of it.” To that end, Jamaican-born Ralph has formed a production company, Island Girl Productions, so that she won’t have to wait for someone else to give her work. Maybe she should have called it Tweezers.

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