How Do You Become a Leading Woman?

Cicely Tyson’s advice is to take the time to define yourself.

Posted: 03/20/2012 10:02 AM EDT
Sidney Poitier, Leading Women Defined, Debra Lee, Harry Belafonte, Cicely Tyson

Emmy Award-winning actress Cicely Tyson is as fearless as the many characters she has portrayed in films that have left audiences both mesmerized and inspired. In a candid, sometimes bawdy conversation with author and philanthropist Susan Fales-Hill at the Leading Women Defined summit Monday evening, Tyson told a roomful of other leading ladies how she got her start and urged all to take the time to develop into the person they’re meant to be.

 

Tyson, who didn’t set out to become a model or an actress, had an epiphany while working in the secretarial pool at the American Red Cross. The woman who sat next to her was retiring after decades of toil at the organization and was being sent off with a watch.

 

“I took one look at this poor old woman, who had given 35 or 40 years of her life, and to repay her for her service, they gave her a watch,” Tyson recalled. “I simply said to myself, 'I will buy my own watch.' So, I pushed myself away from the desk… I was sure that God hadn’t put me on the face of this earth to bang on a typewriter for the rest of my life.”

 

Tyson didn’t know what fate awaited her, but was confident she’d find it. And as fate would have it, her hairdresser put her in a hair show that led to a modeling career and ultimately acting, the latter of which she initially felt ambivalent about. But after some prodding, she went on an audition and experienced another defining moment.

 

“I realized that I was an extremely shy woman who could speak to other people. That’s what got me. I was an observer of life. I listened and said very little. I took everything in,” she said, and after studying “the characters” she met in real life, she realized that she could talk to them.

 

Tyson also recalled the glamour of the sixties, when she and her gal pals would run in to “Sidney” [Poitier] and “Harry” [Belafonte] “once in a while,” bemoaning that “young people today have no fun." That’s in part, she said, because they rush into careers and relationships without ever taking the time they need to develop emotionally and intellectually.

 

“You need time exploring the world to know what’s out there and whether you need it or want it. You need to spend time fulfilling yourself before you begin to consider taking another person into your space,” Tyson said. “Then you have to learn that person and decide for yourself whether or not you want that person to be the parent of the children you hope to bring into this world. Then and only then, I think, will you be able to make an intelligent decision about the future of your life. You need time to find out who you are, before you involve somebody else in your life.”

 

You can find more on the Leading Women Defined summit here: www.BET.com/lwd.

 

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(Photo: Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)

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