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A standout life

Aisha Tyler joins Friends this week as one of its few nonwhite love interests. At 32, the actor-comedian is used to being in the vanguard.

©Associated Press
April 23, 2003

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- Aisha Tyler looks at a reporter's hand extended in greeting and declines to shake. Is the new addition to Friends unfriendly? No, just considerate.

"I have a cold," she says apologetically, clutching a tissue. It takes more than a minor bug to keep Tyler down, however. The actor and comedian is energetic, smart and, sniffles or not, a stunner.

Tyler, who begins a four-week run on Friends on Thursday, also is among the very few nonwhite love interests -- or faces, for that matter -- to have appeared on the popular NBC comedy.

Ross (David Schwimmer) and Joey (Matt LeBlanc) compete for the attentions of Tyler's character, a sexy paleontologist who shares Ross' passion for dinosaurs.

She's not the first nonwhite girlfriend on Friends: Lauren Tom, an Asian-American, and Gabrielle Union, who is black, have appeared. But Tyler has a sustained role in a show that has been criticized for whitewashing multiethnic Manhattan.

"The role wasn't written particularly for an African-American. I think they were just trying to cast the right actress," Tyler said.

She nearly didn't survive hearing the good news from her manager, delivered by cell phone while Tyler was driving in Los Angeles traffic.

"I screeched over and practically killed three people. And I started banging on my car, and it was new, and I was thinking I probably shouldn't bang on my car," she said. "It was the biggest thing in the whole world."

Bigger even than her job as the host of E! Entertainment's Talk Soup. In 2001, she became its first female host (following Greg Kinnear, John Henson and Hal Sparks).

The 11-year-old comedy show ended last year but helped make her a media darling: Esquire magazine deemed her one of the "Women We Love," and Maxim listed her among its "Hot 100." It also won her the devotion of fans, including high school and college boys who write such sweet nothings as "You're the funniest chick I've ever seen" and offer to buy her a beer.

When Tyler tried out for Talk Soup, she thought the show would never hire a black woman. "I was just going to go in and have a fun time."

Given a shot as a guest host, she drew such an overwhelming response from viewers that she was hired full time. Others appreciated what she stood for as well.

"What's wonderful is there are people who would write in saying, 'It's so great to see a smart, offbeat black woman on TV.' . . . But I don't think I set out to have a standard-bearer career. I just set out to be funny and communicate with people," she said.

Being an agent of social change is "a heavy burden," she said jokingly. But she knows that pop culture images carry weight.

"Typically, black women are not seen as attractive in white culture, so maybe it's a coup for a black woman who isn't light-skinned to appeal to black and white men," she told Heart & Soul magazine last year. "Maybe it's a coup for us that we start to be seen as attractive, not as pretty for black girls, but just beautiful, period."

The 6-foot Tyler is accustomed to being in the vanguard, by choice or not. Her family (her father is a photographer, her mother a teacher) stretched itself financially to send her to a private school in San Francisco, where she was at times the only black student.

"And my parents were vegetarians. I'd show up at school, this giant black kid, with none of the cool clothes and a tofu sandwich and celery sticks," she recalled over afternoon tea at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

"It was very alienating, and I could have just laid down and died. Instead, I said, 'I'm going to make friends.' I was forced to intersect and interact and assimilate with a lot of other kids," Tyler said.

As a performer, she said, that has given her the ability to reach out across ethnic and gender lines. Hard work was also part of the formula: After graduating as a political science major from Dartmouth College (where she met her husband, attorney Jeff Tietjens), she worked days as an advertising executive in San Francisco and nights honing her standup skills at clubs.

Tyler, 32, hasn't abandoned her work ethic. Besides Friends, there are movies (including The Santa Clause 2 and the upcoming Never Die Alone with David Arquette) and a "comedic, post-feminist anti- The Rules" book she's writing, which she intends as an antidote to the bestselling dating manual.

The next step? She admires Jennifer Aniston's career but has her eye on another Hollywood role model.

"I'm looking forward to doing work like Eddie Murphy did early in his career: action-comedy films," Tyler said. "I'd like to do that because no woman has done it yet. It'd be cool to do something no one has done before."

* * *

Friends airs at 8 p.m. Thursday on WFLA-Ch. 8.

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