Shari Belafonte (56)
There is one word to describe Shari Belafonte: cool. That's cool as in hip, not aloof, au contraire. Decked out in jeans and tank top, her face makeup-free, her head encased in dozens of bleached dreadlocks, she sits perched on the back of the sofa casually chatting with the photographer and his assistants, watching them work instead of choosing to wait her turn for hair and makeup in the privacy of the dressing room. She could be a member of the crew. Indeed, between film, television and photo shoots, there isn't a type of set the 56-year-old model-actress-filmmaker hasn't hung out on.

Belafonte has graced the covers of more than 300 magazines internationally since debuting in 1980. “I loved shooting Vogue,” she beams. “Whenever Richard Avedon called me for anything, it could be cleaning toilets, and I'd have been, 'Yeah, sign me up!' ”

Belafonte says she's close to her famous father, Harry, who was more than a little ambivalent about her choice of career. “He didn't really want his kids to get into the business because it's such a hard business,” she explains. “I give him credit for being concerned but, having been exposed to it all our lives, there were no surprises. I knew there was tons of rejection and you build yourself up for it. When it happens — and it happens a lot — you just have to be prepared.”

Rejection may be part and parcel of show business, but a successful acting career, including a starring role on the 1980s prime-time soap Hotel, kept Belafonte in front of the public eye. But her passion has always been behind the camera. She studied film production at Carnegie-Mellon and has carved out a career as both a director of photography and a stills photographer with a recent exhibition in New York. Belafonte has also turned her attention to writing and has a mini-series in development.

Her style is funky and eclectic. a fact that was first noticed when she appeared on Johnny Carson accidentally wearing two different shoes. Fellow guest Bill Cosby made such a joke of it that she started wearing two different shoes on a regular basis for a time. “To this day, I still have people coming up to me saying, 'You're not wearing two different shoes!' ”

Not surprisingly, Belafonte's health and beauty regime is just as offbeat. “I hate to say it but at the end of the day when I'm in the shower, if I feel like I've got grit or grime or makeup on my face, I put Vaseline on to deal with the grit and then I wash it off with rubbing alcohol,” she laughs, then adds, “And I drink martinis and I smoke pot.”

As for the distinctive dreadlocks? They are all her own. But back in the day, she was one of the first African-American women to shear off her hair. Yes, long before Halle Berry.
“I did it before Halle Berry was born,” she jokes. Her smile and her laugh are infectious. Asked if she's always so optimistic, she nods. “I am happy. Nothing not to be happy about. I've always been pretty low-key.” Shirt, Nada, $255

(February 2011)

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