Who Is Cynthia Erivo?

Part of Who HQ Now

Illustrated by Gregory Copeland
How did a young girl born in South London grow up to be a Tony and Grammy Award–winning star? Find out in this Who HQ Now biography about Cynthia Erivo and her exciting career from The Color Purple on Broadway to starring as Elphaba in the Wicked movie!

Cynthia Erivo fell in love with performing when she was only five years old and sang "Silent Night" as a solo in a school Christmas play. When she grew up, she trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art before beginning her career as a professional actress and singer. Cynthia made her Broadway debut in 2015 as Celie Harris in The Color Purple. This performance earned her the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical. In 2017, she won her first Grammy Award for the cast album of The Color Purple. Cynthia went on to play Harriet Tubman in the blockbuster film Harriet in 2019. This movie earned Cynthia her first Academy Award nomination as a lead actress. In 2024, Cythia will star as Elphaba in the blockbuster movie muscial Wicked.
Who Is Cynthia Erivo?
 
EGOT winners are rare in the entertainment industry. EGOT stands for Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony—the four biggest entertainment awards that can be won in the United States. Elton John, Viola Davis, Jennifer Hudson, and Whoopi Goldberg are four of the nineteen performing artists who have won all four awards. It can take decades in the arts to become an EGOT winner, but in only eight years, Cynthia Erivo has made it three-fourths of the way there.

Emmy Awards honor great television performances and all of the people who make TV possible. Grammy Awards are given for great accomplishments in the recording industry. The film industry gives Oscars to the people voted the best at their part in making a movie, from the actors on the screen to the people who dress them and design the sets. The Tony Award is similar to the Oscar, but it goes to those who are the best in theatrical productions—-like plays and musicals— on Broadway in New York City.

From the moment she arrived in the United States, handpicked to perform in her first Broadway musical as the lead character, to her first starring role in a Hollywood blockbuster, Cynthia has proven she is one of the most talented performers in the world. She has won three of the most coveted awards in professional entertainment and twice been nominated for the fourth.

Cynthia is a small woman with a big voice and an even bigger presence. She stands out with her shaved head and bold fashion sense. Unafraid of the hard work it takes to make a dream come true, Cynthia is proving to be one of the world’s most original and fastest--rising talents.
 
Chapter 1
Born to Perform
 
Cynthia Onyedinmanasu Chinasaokwu Erivo was born on January 8, 1987, in Stockwell, South London, in England. Her parents had immigrated to the United Kingdom from Nigeria. Her mother, Edith, was twenty-four years old when they moved.

Edith remembers Cynthia humming around the house when she was only eighteen months old. In a baby book she kept, Edith wrote that she believed Cynthia would become a singer when she grew up because she sang even when she was eating. Edith was a nurse, and by the time Cynthia was two years old, she would copy her mother’s actions. In Cynthia’s baby book, Edith wrote that she thought Cynthia might become a doctor as well as a singer.

Looking back when she was older, Cynthia realized that her behavior as a child was the first indication that she wanted to be an actress and a singer. She enjoyed acting like a medical professional. She never actually wanted to become one.

“My mom would play music in the house all the time,” Cynthia said. “It usually was Christian music, but then randomly she’d play Diana Ross and this [Euro--Caribbean] band called Boney M. who did like funk and disco. She loved this Nigerian artist, Sir Shina Peters, and Bette Midler’s ‘Wind Beneath My Wings.’"

Listening to the car radio on the way to school introduced Cynthia to an even wider variety of music and singers. She listened to the pop rock songs of Mike + The Mechanics, the soul music of Teddy Pendergrass, and the dance pop songs of George Michael. Cynthia credits one of her aunts with introducing her to the mellow, soulful voice of Toni Braxton and the visionary hip--hop of Missy Elliott and TLC.

“So I was hearing everything all the time, and it never left me,” Cynthia said. “It sort of came together and made one strange sound that comes from me. I was singing whatever I could sing wherever I could sing it—-talent shows, open mic nights.”

Cynthia was five years old when she sang “Silent Night” in her school’s Christmas play. It was her first public performance. The applause of the audience convinced her that singing was something she was meant to do. Her mother and her two-year-old sister Stephanie clapped loudest. Her father, who had abandoned the family, missed the performance.

“As far as I was concerned, whatever I was doing was making people happy,” Cynthia recalled. “By making people happy, it made me feel happy. So I knew I wanted to continue feeling like that and making other people feel like that.”

Singing might have been her first love, but Cynthia still pursued acting. Two of her idols were Barbra Streisand and Diana Ross, singers who also acted. Edith enrolled Cynthia in a youth drama group. Cynthia was eleven years old when she earned a role in a very serious play titled The Caucasian Chalk Circle. The play was written by Bertolt Brecht, a famous German playwright known for writing plays with complex messages.

At fifteen years old, Cynthia made her television debut on a British Channel 4 reality show called Trust Me, I’m a Teenager. The show had a short life, but that didn’t deter Cynthia from her dream of performing. She was also cast as Juliet in a production of Romeo and Juliet at the Young Vic, a London theater dedicated to developing the talents of young performers.

Cynthia learned so much about acting in her role as Juliet. “That was the first time I was able to access my emotions and to cry onstage,” Cynthia said. “I shocked myself. I didn’t know I could access a part of myself that made me feel the way you have to feel before you start crying. It happened and I remember thinking, gosh, I just did that.”
 
Chapter 2
Tumultuous Teen Years
  
Cynthia attended La Retraite Roman Catholic Girls’ School in Lambeth, England. She was an eager and involved student and a devout Catholic. Her faith helped drive her to fight through obstacles she encountered as she tried to build a career in entertainment.

One of her most painful disappointments occurred offstage when she was sixteen years old and tried to build a relationship with her father. Cynthia met with her father at a London Underground station. (The London Underground is a subway system.) During that meeting, he told her that he did not want to see her or Stephanie ever again. His rejection was heartbreaking, and Cynthia had to be the one to tell her mother and her sister what her father said. But Cynthia didn’t let his rejection break her. Instead, it strengthened her resolve to succeed.

“I don’t know that that is a trauma,” Cynthia recalled years later. “And if it was, I learned how to deal with that trauma. . . . I think it comes out in the roles I choose and the decisions I make.”

Cynthia saw her father again when she was twenty--five years old, when they both attended a family wedding. But at the event, they did not speak to each other beyond an awkward “hello.”

Edith had remarried in 1992, when Cynthia was five years old. Samuel Uregbula became Cynthia and Stephanie’s stepfather.

After graduating from La Retraite Roman Catholic Girls’ School in 2004, Cynthia attended the University of East London. She intended to earn a degree in music psychology. Cynthia wanted to learn about how music affected people and their emotions and how people use music to communicate.

As much as she enjoyed studying music psychology, twenty-year-old Cynthia couldn’t resist the pull to perform. She consulted her director at the Young Vic, the performing arts theater in Lambeth, who urged Cynthia to apply to acting school. The only school Cynthia considered was the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), England’s most prestigious school for acting and theater. She was accepted, and only then did she tell her mother that she was leaving university to attend RADA.

Rather than being angry or disappointed, Edith was very proud of Cynthia. Cynthia considers herself lucky to have a mother who wanted to make sure she was always dreaming big. Her mother also reminded her that hard work is behind every dream.

With a few acting credits behind her, Cynthia entered RADA with confidence. Perhaps too much confidence. There were only three other Black students in the program. She was frustrated when most of her teachers encouraged her to develop stereotypical “strong black woman” roles. Everything changed when Cynthia began working with Dee Cannon, an acting coach and mentor. “She saw that the path I was on was these strong roles when actually I needed to understand that I was allowed to play characters that had vulnerability.” Dee meant that Cynthia should consider roles that forced her to show deeper and more raw emotions.

Cynthia graduated from RADA in 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in acting. It wasn’t long before she got roles in British television shows. She was cast in a comedy called Chewing Gum and a drama called The Tunnel. A stage role in a play followed, and then she was cast in her first musical role. Her second starring role in a musical was in the first touring production of Sister Act, a musical based on a movie starring EGOT winner Whoopi Goldberg, an American actress, talk show host, and comedian.

Sister Act opened at the Manchester Opera House on October 4, 2011. Cynthia portrayed Deloris Van Cartier, a singer who had to disguise herself as a nun named Sister Mary Clarence while hiding from criminals. It was the same role Whoopi Goldberg played in the movie.

Cynthia followed up Sister Act with another musical. She played Chenice in I Can’t Sing!, a musical based on the popular X Factor television talent show. Simon Cowell, the creator of X Factor, and his business partner Harry Hill had spent over $7 million on the production that opened at the grand London Palladium on March 26, 2014. Cynthia had high expectations for the show. She hoped it would be her breakthrough performance. Cynthia received good reviews for her acting and singing, but it wasn’t enough to keep the show from closing six weeks after it opened. Her hopes crumbled, but Cynthia didn’t let the show’s failure keep her down. Just one year later, she would perform in the role that would change her life and rocket her to stardom.
Who HQ is your headquarters for history. The Who HQ team is always working to provide simple and clear answers to some of our biggest questions. From Who Was George Washington? to Who Is Michelle Obama?, and What Was the Battle of Gettysburg? to Where Is the Great Barrier Reef?, we strive to give you all the facts. Visit us at WhoHQ.com View titles by Who HQ

About

How did a young girl born in South London grow up to be a Tony and Grammy Award–winning star? Find out in this Who HQ Now biography about Cynthia Erivo and her exciting career from The Color Purple on Broadway to starring as Elphaba in the Wicked movie!

Cynthia Erivo fell in love with performing when she was only five years old and sang "Silent Night" as a solo in a school Christmas play. When she grew up, she trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art before beginning her career as a professional actress and singer. Cynthia made her Broadway debut in 2015 as Celie Harris in The Color Purple. This performance earned her the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical. In 2017, she won her first Grammy Award for the cast album of The Color Purple. Cynthia went on to play Harriet Tubman in the blockbuster film Harriet in 2019. This movie earned Cynthia her first Academy Award nomination as a lead actress. In 2024, Cythia will star as Elphaba in the blockbuster movie muscial Wicked.

Excerpt

Who Is Cynthia Erivo?
 
EGOT winners are rare in the entertainment industry. EGOT stands for Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony—the four biggest entertainment awards that can be won in the United States. Elton John, Viola Davis, Jennifer Hudson, and Whoopi Goldberg are four of the nineteen performing artists who have won all four awards. It can take decades in the arts to become an EGOT winner, but in only eight years, Cynthia Erivo has made it three-fourths of the way there.

Emmy Awards honor great television performances and all of the people who make TV possible. Grammy Awards are given for great accomplishments in the recording industry. The film industry gives Oscars to the people voted the best at their part in making a movie, from the actors on the screen to the people who dress them and design the sets. The Tony Award is similar to the Oscar, but it goes to those who are the best in theatrical productions—-like plays and musicals— on Broadway in New York City.

From the moment she arrived in the United States, handpicked to perform in her first Broadway musical as the lead character, to her first starring role in a Hollywood blockbuster, Cynthia has proven she is one of the most talented performers in the world. She has won three of the most coveted awards in professional entertainment and twice been nominated for the fourth.

Cynthia is a small woman with a big voice and an even bigger presence. She stands out with her shaved head and bold fashion sense. Unafraid of the hard work it takes to make a dream come true, Cynthia is proving to be one of the world’s most original and fastest--rising talents.
 
Chapter 1
Born to Perform
 
Cynthia Onyedinmanasu Chinasaokwu Erivo was born on January 8, 1987, in Stockwell, South London, in England. Her parents had immigrated to the United Kingdom from Nigeria. Her mother, Edith, was twenty-four years old when they moved.

Edith remembers Cynthia humming around the house when she was only eighteen months old. In a baby book she kept, Edith wrote that she believed Cynthia would become a singer when she grew up because she sang even when she was eating. Edith was a nurse, and by the time Cynthia was two years old, she would copy her mother’s actions. In Cynthia’s baby book, Edith wrote that she thought Cynthia might become a doctor as well as a singer.

Looking back when she was older, Cynthia realized that her behavior as a child was the first indication that she wanted to be an actress and a singer. She enjoyed acting like a medical professional. She never actually wanted to become one.

“My mom would play music in the house all the time,” Cynthia said. “It usually was Christian music, but then randomly she’d play Diana Ross and this [Euro--Caribbean] band called Boney M. who did like funk and disco. She loved this Nigerian artist, Sir Shina Peters, and Bette Midler’s ‘Wind Beneath My Wings.’"

Listening to the car radio on the way to school introduced Cynthia to an even wider variety of music and singers. She listened to the pop rock songs of Mike + The Mechanics, the soul music of Teddy Pendergrass, and the dance pop songs of George Michael. Cynthia credits one of her aunts with introducing her to the mellow, soulful voice of Toni Braxton and the visionary hip--hop of Missy Elliott and TLC.

“So I was hearing everything all the time, and it never left me,” Cynthia said. “It sort of came together and made one strange sound that comes from me. I was singing whatever I could sing wherever I could sing it—-talent shows, open mic nights.”

Cynthia was five years old when she sang “Silent Night” in her school’s Christmas play. It was her first public performance. The applause of the audience convinced her that singing was something she was meant to do. Her mother and her two-year-old sister Stephanie clapped loudest. Her father, who had abandoned the family, missed the performance.

“As far as I was concerned, whatever I was doing was making people happy,” Cynthia recalled. “By making people happy, it made me feel happy. So I knew I wanted to continue feeling like that and making other people feel like that.”

Singing might have been her first love, but Cynthia still pursued acting. Two of her idols were Barbra Streisand and Diana Ross, singers who also acted. Edith enrolled Cynthia in a youth drama group. Cynthia was eleven years old when she earned a role in a very serious play titled The Caucasian Chalk Circle. The play was written by Bertolt Brecht, a famous German playwright known for writing plays with complex messages.

At fifteen years old, Cynthia made her television debut on a British Channel 4 reality show called Trust Me, I’m a Teenager. The show had a short life, but that didn’t deter Cynthia from her dream of performing. She was also cast as Juliet in a production of Romeo and Juliet at the Young Vic, a London theater dedicated to developing the talents of young performers.

Cynthia learned so much about acting in her role as Juliet. “That was the first time I was able to access my emotions and to cry onstage,” Cynthia said. “I shocked myself. I didn’t know I could access a part of myself that made me feel the way you have to feel before you start crying. It happened and I remember thinking, gosh, I just did that.”
 
Chapter 2
Tumultuous Teen Years
  
Cynthia attended La Retraite Roman Catholic Girls’ School in Lambeth, England. She was an eager and involved student and a devout Catholic. Her faith helped drive her to fight through obstacles she encountered as she tried to build a career in entertainment.

One of her most painful disappointments occurred offstage when she was sixteen years old and tried to build a relationship with her father. Cynthia met with her father at a London Underground station. (The London Underground is a subway system.) During that meeting, he told her that he did not want to see her or Stephanie ever again. His rejection was heartbreaking, and Cynthia had to be the one to tell her mother and her sister what her father said. But Cynthia didn’t let his rejection break her. Instead, it strengthened her resolve to succeed.

“I don’t know that that is a trauma,” Cynthia recalled years later. “And if it was, I learned how to deal with that trauma. . . . I think it comes out in the roles I choose and the decisions I make.”

Cynthia saw her father again when she was twenty--five years old, when they both attended a family wedding. But at the event, they did not speak to each other beyond an awkward “hello.”

Edith had remarried in 1992, when Cynthia was five years old. Samuel Uregbula became Cynthia and Stephanie’s stepfather.

After graduating from La Retraite Roman Catholic Girls’ School in 2004, Cynthia attended the University of East London. She intended to earn a degree in music psychology. Cynthia wanted to learn about how music affected people and their emotions and how people use music to communicate.

As much as she enjoyed studying music psychology, twenty-year-old Cynthia couldn’t resist the pull to perform. She consulted her director at the Young Vic, the performing arts theater in Lambeth, who urged Cynthia to apply to acting school. The only school Cynthia considered was the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA), England’s most prestigious school for acting and theater. She was accepted, and only then did she tell her mother that she was leaving university to attend RADA.

Rather than being angry or disappointed, Edith was very proud of Cynthia. Cynthia considers herself lucky to have a mother who wanted to make sure she was always dreaming big. Her mother also reminded her that hard work is behind every dream.

With a few acting credits behind her, Cynthia entered RADA with confidence. Perhaps too much confidence. There were only three other Black students in the program. She was frustrated when most of her teachers encouraged her to develop stereotypical “strong black woman” roles. Everything changed when Cynthia began working with Dee Cannon, an acting coach and mentor. “She saw that the path I was on was these strong roles when actually I needed to understand that I was allowed to play characters that had vulnerability.” Dee meant that Cynthia should consider roles that forced her to show deeper and more raw emotions.

Cynthia graduated from RADA in 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in acting. It wasn’t long before she got roles in British television shows. She was cast in a comedy called Chewing Gum and a drama called The Tunnel. A stage role in a play followed, and then she was cast in her first musical role. Her second starring role in a musical was in the first touring production of Sister Act, a musical based on a movie starring EGOT winner Whoopi Goldberg, an American actress, talk show host, and comedian.

Sister Act opened at the Manchester Opera House on October 4, 2011. Cynthia portrayed Deloris Van Cartier, a singer who had to disguise herself as a nun named Sister Mary Clarence while hiding from criminals. It was the same role Whoopi Goldberg played in the movie.

Cynthia followed up Sister Act with another musical. She played Chenice in I Can’t Sing!, a musical based on the popular X Factor television talent show. Simon Cowell, the creator of X Factor, and his business partner Harry Hill had spent over $7 million on the production that opened at the grand London Palladium on March 26, 2014. Cynthia had high expectations for the show. She hoped it would be her breakthrough performance. Cynthia received good reviews for her acting and singing, but it wasn’t enough to keep the show from closing six weeks after it opened. Her hopes crumbled, but Cynthia didn’t let the show’s failure keep her down. Just one year later, she would perform in the role that would change her life and rocket her to stardom.

Author

Who HQ is your headquarters for history. The Who HQ team is always working to provide simple and clear answers to some of our biggest questions. From Who Was George Washington? to Who Is Michelle Obama?, and What Was the Battle of Gettysburg? to Where Is the Great Barrier Reef?, we strive to give you all the facts. Visit us at WhoHQ.com View titles by Who HQ

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