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PROFILE | Born in Howard County, Luenell is billed as the ‘Original Bad Girl of Comedy’

Luenell is billed as the ‘Original Bad Girl of Comedy,’ but the comedian is all business when it comes to her profession. She was born in Howard County but moved to California as an infant. The rest i by Sean Clancy Arkansas Democrat-Gazette | September 3, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.
Arkansas native Luenell, billed as “The Original Bad Girl of Comedy,” performs at 7 and 10 p.m. Saturday Sept. 10 at the Ron Robinson Theater Submitted photos

It's a Monday morning in early June and comedian-actor Luenell is having breakfast at her Las Vegas home. It's a big, country repast -- scrambled eggs with cheese, avocado, sausage and bacon, rice and gravy, toast and some green onions -- because today will be busy. There's this phone interview, of course, which will take a little more than an hour, but most importantly there are things to take care of before she jets off the next morning for Oakland, Calif., where she grew up, to tape a comedy special for Netflix that is being produced by her friend Dave Chappelle and is expected to debut Sept. 26.

"We've got a lot to do here at the house to get ready before the flight to Oakland," she says.

Not that Luenell -- a publicist let us know earlier that she prefers the mononym -- is stressed; she in fact is calm and business-as-usual. Her sangfroid should come as no surprise. She's been performing for most of her life. Billed as the "Original Bad Girl of Comedy," she wields a mic and her unapologetically wicked wit while doing stand-up in clubs and theaters across the country and on comedy albums "Luenell Live! I Only Drink at Work" and "Bold, Bad & Uncut."

She has an impressive résumé of supporting roles in films including "The Rock," "That's My Boy," "Coming 2 America," "Dolemite Is My Name" (a bio-pic about Fort Smith native and comedy legend Rudy Ray Moore), "Borat" and others. On TV she's appeared on "The Middle," "Lopez," "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia," "The Clean" and "Hacks" to name just a few.

She was part of the 2023 ABC special "Soul of a Nation Presents: Blacks in Vegas," the documentary "Phat Tuesdays: The Era of Hip Hop Comedy" and her voice-over work has been featured in "Hotel Transylvania," "Ten Year Old Tom" and more. In 2015 she was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame.

Hers wasn't the smoothest journey to what is now a thriving show-business career. Luenell served time for stealing money from a bank where she worked and struggled with the demands of life as an actor and touring comedian while also raising her daughter, Da'Nelle, with help from Da'Nelle's father and his family.

"People are used to men going off to war, going off to work," she says. "But when mommy's not around to make sure the blanket is pulled up properly, or pat your back and make sure you get your medicine, those things are difficult."

Da'Nelle, now 27, has a dance career and is doing well, Luenell says. "We're very close. With God's help, I think I did OK."

William Lee is Luenell's manager and close friend. The two met 30 years ago when Lee was promoting comedy shows in Sacramento, Calif.

"She is one of the most lovely people I have ever known, but at the same time she's a shrewd businesswoman and is not to be messed with," he says. "She is a quality person and she keeps it super real."


Luenell, the youngest of eight children, was born in her grandfather's house in Tollette, a small community in Howard County. She wasn't there long. When she was about 2 months old she was sent to live with an aunt and uncle in Oakland.

While she was still in elementary school they moved to the suburb of Castro Valley.

"I went from being in predominately mixed and Black schools to predominately white schools," she recalls. "I can't say that the atmosphere was that welcoming at first. But my charming personality and wit won everyone over."

Visiting her family back in rural Arkansas over the summers also took some adjustment.

"It was definitely a culture shock, going from California to Arkansas and being in the South," she says. "I had to deal with sharing, which I didn't have to do when I was alone. It was also in the country. It was definitely different."

She attended middle school and high school in Castro Valley and fell in love with theater and performing. It was difficult to get lead roles in school productions "for obvious reasons," she says, so she started making visits back to Oakland and joined the Oakland Ensemble Theater.

After high school she earned an English degree from what was then Cal State Hayward. She honed her TV skills on the Soul Beat Television Network, a Black-owned cable access station in Oakland, hosting a music video program, a relationship show called "Love Talk" and a talk show called "Club 37."

"It's where I got all my television training," she says. "Between that and church and doing theater, I never really had stage fright or anything like that."


She was still living in the Bay area when she landed her first film role, a small part in the 1993 Mike Myers comedy "So I Married an Axe Murderer." At the time she wasn't even a member of the Screen Actor's Guild.

"I played a cop named Cathy who worked in the police station. Because I wasn't in the union they didn't have to call me back to do the voice overdubs, so a white lady's voice is coming out of my mouth. It's pretty funny."

In the early '90s she moved to Los Angeles for the first time before going back to Oakland after it was discovered that the person who supposedly owned the house she was living in was actually a squatter. Another move to L.A. with her then-husband was also cut short. The third time she moved there alone and stayed.

She worked at banks to pay the bills and was a teller at a now-closed bank in Long Beach, Calif., when frustration over the miserly pay became too much to bear.

"You got your paycheck and it was really, really low," she says. "You work for two weeks and you get maybe $250. This was in the late '80s, early '90s, so I took some money."

The total was about $50,000, which made it a felony. There had been an investigation and she admitted to the theft, but absconded back to Oakland.

"Years later when I had my daughter I applied for WIC and stuff like that. When my Social Security numbers came up that's when they came and got me."

She was sentenced to a year behind bars and was released after serving four months and 18 days in a facility in Los Angeles.

"The first two months, I didn't speak to anybody," she says. "I had already been on TV, so people knew me. They were like, what's up 'Comic Beat?'"

In one of those only-in-California twists she was incarcerated at Twin Towers Correctional Facility which, before it was opened, was used for scenes in "The Rock," the Sean Connery, Nicolas Cage thriller that was her second film.

"I'm in this jail and I'm in the movie that was filmed at that jail," she chuckles.

On the day she was released she went straight back to the stage, performing a set at the Comedy Store.

"When I got out of jail, before I went home to my new baby, I had to go onstage to purge this stuff out of myself. After that, I went home and continued my comedy career."


Comedian Hope Flood has been friends with Luenell since the '90s.

"We have fun together. We chase guys together, and thank God it works because we don't like the same kind of guys," she says with a laugh. "Lu is a lot of fun after shows."

Luenell's success has been on her own terms, Flood adds.

"We have sacrificed so much to be in this business. It will cost you. But at the end of the day she can look in the mirror and say that she didn't compromise or give up who she is."

Flood is the founder of the annual Comics Rock Convention and at this year's event on Sept. 12 will honor Luenell as Comedian of the Year.

Talking about Luenell's comedy style, Flood says: "She's more of a storyteller than a traditional stand-up. I would compare her to a Bill Cosby type. She's transparent. She tells these amazing stories about her life, all the things she's been through."

Luenell, who is a massive fan of Prince and Michael Jackson (she has tattoos related to both performers on each hand), says that her comedic influences include LaWanda Page, Redd Foxx, Flip Wilson, Carol Burnett, Richard Pryor, early Joan Rivers and Lucille Ball.

"I don't know how to explain how I got into [comedy]," she says. "Other than the fact that we were funny siblings. We still are. Being the eighth of eight children, I knew I had a voice. I feel like it's a gift. It feels natural."

She has known Chappelle, who produced her new special, for seven years.

"We met in Canada at the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival," she says. "We ran into each other again in New York when Eddie Murphy made his return to 'Saturday Night Live.'"

She was also invited by Chappelle to perform "in the corn field" in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where he spent time in his youth with his father and were he owns property.

Manager Lee is excited about having Chappelle on board as a producer, and is over the moon with Luenell's performance in the special.

"The significance of her nailing a performance that Dave Chappelle has put his stamp on is huge," he says. "The night itself was magical. She crushed it. It was the performance of a lifetime. It was that same feeling I had 30 years ago, I kid you not."


A few years back Luenell became a plus-sized ambassador and model for Savage X Fenty, the line of lingerie by pop megastar Rihanna.

"When I got a chance to meet her I told her that my daughter was a big fan of her lingerie and that I would be, too, if she made it in larger sizes."

When the singer said there were larger sizes, Luenell offered her services as a brand ambassador.

"I thought we were just playing around ... but then contracts started coming," she says.

She was soon modeling the bedroom wear in photos often taken by family members, and this eventually led to another career avenue: Content provider on the adult subscription site OnlyFans.

"After my tenure with [Savage X Fenty] I had all these extra lingerie pictures that were really pretty so I told my manager that I should put them up on OnlyFans. Then, of course, people started asking for more content ... so we did it and now I've got a new house in Las Vegas."

As for future projects, there's the next season of HBO's "Hacks," though the strike by the the Screen Actors Guild -- American Federation of Television and Radio Artists has halted work on the series. She's touring constantly and has her sights set on a job that would have her back on TV in a role she first took on in Oakland: Talk show host.

"I want to be the next Black female host in late-night television," she says. "It's such a white, male-dominated field. I feel it's time."

She returns every couple of years for a family reunion in tiny Tollette. Flood was along for one a few years ago.

"It rained and I showed up in all this mud and mosquitoes wearing sandals and shorts," Flood says with a laugh. "So her bodyguard at the time, we got into the car with him to go see [a house] and then we ended up getting stuck in the mud! He got out and was trying to push and was like, 'If y'all would get out ... ." And we were like, 'That's OK! You're going to have to figure it out yourself!' We just sat there clowning and laughing."

Luenell has performed in the state several times, including two sets in June at Ron Robinson Theater in Little Rock.

"It's like any other gig, except it's in Arkansas and it's for the people of Arkansas," she says. "I think they feel proud that they can claim me, and that I claim them. I'm proud of where I'm from."

  photo  Arkansas native Luenell, billed as "The Original Bad Girl of Comedy," performs at 7 and 10 p.m. Saturday Sept. 10 at the Ron Robinson Theater Submitted photos
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