Jennifer Armstrong
September 28, 2007 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Sherri Shepherd struts onto the stage at The View, a bundle of happy fun energy, with glowy brown skin and a shimmery silver top. Her infectious giant grin only fades when the subject of teaching junior-high kids about condoms sends her into a brow-furrowing, hand-flailing rant about ”our girls” and ”self-worth” and what ”you don’t go and give men.” The cameras break for commercial, but she keeps grumbling under her breath through makeup touch-ups, until, finally, she stops and faces the studio audience. ”Yes,” she says with a laugh, ”I’m still going at it!”

Actually, she’s only just getting started. After 17 hard years of working the stand-up circuit, the 40-year-old is finally poised for her star-making turn as a funny secretary-turned-actress who quotes Bible verse but can tell a filthy joke. That is, playing nothing but her complicated Everywoman self, now that she’s officially filling the fifth chair on ABC’s daily chatfest.

”I was very scared coming here, because this wasn’t hiding behind lines,” Shepherd admits after finishing up her first official week on the job. ”I wasn’t used to the level of criticism you get. People have I-will-jump-off-a-building-if-Sherri-joins-The View blogs.” Apparently, she hasn’t yet heard there’s no surer sign that you’ve made it.

Growing up in Chicago — and later, as a teenager, in the middle-class suburb of Hoffman Estates — Shepherd never saw a showbiz career as a real possibility. But that changed when she moved to L.A. and, while working as a legal secretary, went to a comedy show featuring Andrew Dice Clay and Eddie Griffin. ”Before it started, I don’t know what I was saying, but everyone was laughing,” she remembers. ”The people around me were like, ‘You could do this.”’

Inspired, she took a six-week comedy class, then clawed her way up through the L.A. club circuit. But when her mother died from diabetes complications, Shepherd found God — something she had to reconcile with her chosen profession. ”I have these good jokes,” she says, ”where sometimes I go, ‘Lord, can’t I just use it?’ But the Lord — he sounds like Barry White when I talk to him — he’ll be like, ‘You’ve got to stop saying that.”’

With her cleaned-up act, Shepherd did eventually get signed by an agent and found modest Hollywood success with bit parts on the likes of Friends, and finally as a regular on Less Than Perfect. Unfortunately, her personal life more than lived up to her sitcom’s name: She married fellow comic Jeff Tarpley in 2001, and four years later, their son, Jeffrey, was born — nearly three months premature. In the next year Tarpley also fathered a child, Jalen, now 1, with another woman. ”I have to admit I was not happy about the baby,” says Shepherd. The couple reunited, however, and Shepherd insisted the boys be raised as stepbrothers: ”I felt it was important for him and my son to have a relationship,” she says, ”and that would only happen if I had some sense.”

Recently separated from Tarpley once again, Shepherd’s ready to concentrate on making her lasting mark at The View. The show’s producers had been courting her for months — she made a whopping 23 appearances as guest cohost — but say she nailed the job when she did a turn during Rosie O’Donnell’s fateful dustup with conservative cohost Elisabeth Hasselbeck last May. ”Sherri got laughs in the middle of the world’s most uncomfortable conversation,” exec producer Bill Geddie says. ”She makes any segment better.”

So far the ratings bear that out, with her first day garnering 3.9 million viewers, up 52 percent over the same day last year. In large part, Barbara Walters credits Shepherd’s down-to-earth quality. ”She is a mother, she’s had a difficult [separation], she’s very much a Christian, all of which she talks about,” Walters says. ”She talks all the time about how big her bosom is, and I think people can relate.” Sometimes all that talking can get her in trouble, as during a debate over her antievolution stance when she mystified viewers by saying she didn’t know whether the world was flat or round. (Which she later retracted.) ”We always wanted this to be a good-natured show where we could take serious topics and discuss them with good humor, and she reflects that,” Walters says. ”She has theories that are very different from ours and is not afraid to express them.”

And Shepherd is the first to admit she’s neither scholar nor trained pundit — she’s just a mom who doesn’t even know which political party she favors. ”I’ve been doing so much hustling and surviving and taking care of my family, and I feel like I can finally sit up and breathe and learn something,” she says. ”I think I represent a body of women who don’t know a lot. I’m the one who can sit up there and say, ‘Who is General Petraeus?’ I’m not pretending nothing.”

Smacks of Sherri
Yep, she has something to say about everyone.

On her plans to marry Michael Jackson at 17
”It was just after Thriller came out. I would take the bus out to his compound every day. I would write his mother letters. I never pictured us having sex; I just thought we’d wear matching jumpsuits.”

On former Less Than Perfect costar and current friend Andy Dick
”I think if I didn’t have God, I would be like Andy Dick. I would be pretty lost.” [Dick declined to comment.]

On Rosie O’Donnell
”She can’t deny a brawl, but she’s able to handle it. I ain’t gonna be trying to fight you. I’m the person you come to when you want prayer.”

You May Like