The success of Living Single may have been unanticipated, but it was no accident. Over 25 years ago, a determined 27-year-old writer named Yvette Denise Lee (now Yvette Lee Bowser) found herself with a rare, welcome opportunity: the chance to create a show around the comic legend Kim Coles and the rap phenom Queen Latifah. Having cut her teeth writing on shows like A Different World and Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper, Lee Bowser was ready for the chance to create a world that revolved around the kinds of black characters she knew best.
“For me, it began with the realization that if this industry was really only going to cater to and embrace white people, and white men in particular, and have them in positions of power behind the scenes,” Lee Bowser said when we spoke earlier this summer, “I wasn't gonna be here for long. So that was my impetus for getting into the world of development and creation of shows about us.”
Over the course of its five-season run, Living Single followed the lives of six main characters, with a Brooklyn brownstone as their home and the show’s primary backdrop. Three of the women were roommates: Khadijah James (Latifah), the fearless editor of a black magazine called Flavor; Khadijah’s bubbly cousin and assistant, Synclaire James (Coles), and a spunky, projects-raised boutique saleswoman named Regine Hunter (Kim Fields). Their neighbor, the fierce lawyer Maxine Shaw (Erika Alexander), dropped in on the women often, along with two men who shared an apartment upstairs: the suave, Afrocentric stockbroker Kyle Barker (Terrence “T.C.” Carson) and the kind-hearted handyman Overton Jones (John Henton).
Together with an impressive crew of guest stars including Morris Chestnut, Gladys Knight, and Cress Williams (who played a recurring role as Khadijah’s childhood best friend turned beau), the six actors welcomed viewers into a world of Lee Bowser’s creating. That brownstone held love, loss, and laughter; the cast radiated an electric chemistry. In the decades since the first episode aired on August 22, 1993, the Living Single ecosystem has branched out beyond the showrunners’ expectations—resonating with members of the original studio audience, viewers at home, and new adoptees of the show alike.
After Living Single went off the air in 1998, a slew of shows replicated the classic big-city-livin’ ensemble formula; the show’s fingerprints are visible, however light the touch, on productions including Mara Brock Akil’s Girlfriends, Marta Kauffman and David Crane’s Friends, Lena Dunham’s Girls, and Issa Rae’s Insecure. But now, with Living Single streaming on Hulu, a generation of viewers who may not even have been alive to witness the first airing of Max and Kyle’s first kiss—or Regine’s wig changes, or Overton and Synclaire’s wedding—is learning what it was like to live in a ’90s kinda world. “We were good stewards of the opportunity that was put in front of us and we didn’t really think about how big a hit it was at the time,” Lee Bowser said. “And the fact that it’s still on people’s minds and in their hearts now is really, just, very humbling.”
Through Lee Bowser’s creative vision and the dynamic performances of its cast, Living Single put the urban sitcom—and the diversity within black experiences—on network television’s map. Twenty-five years later, The Atlantic caught up with some of the show’s cast and crew members to talk about how they did it and why that still matters. The interviews have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Yvette Lee Bowser, creator and executive producer: I was a very frustrated writer on a show about black people where there were basically no black people in power behind the scenes, so that set the tone. That was the impetus for me becoming more determined to create something so that I could create what I felt were more well-rounded depictions of us, as well as creating a workplace that was not necessarily warm and fuzzy, but more open to us, a workplace that embraced us. And by us I mean women and people of color.
Kim Coles, “Synclaire James”: From my perspective, I had a meeting at, I think it was called Warner Bros. then, it might’ve been called Lorimar. They asked me, Well what do you think of Queen Latifah? and I was like Oh my god, I love her. And I found out that at the same time they were having meetings with her and saying, What do you think of Kim Coles? and so they put the two of us together and the impetus was, they had seen—and this is the piece I never tell people, I forget about this. Spike Lee’s movie, Jungle Fever, there was a scene where a bunch of women were sitting around talking about men and life and all of that. And that was sort of the impetus of the idea: We wanna do a show with a bunch of women, how they feel about men. And I’m like, I’m for that, but I’m not gonna diss men. I love men. I love them, and so I think that was the germ of the idea. They put the two of us together and then Latifah and I were given a list of writers to meet with, and Yvette Lee Bowser was the absolute right one.
Lee Bowser: I developed a rapport with one of the development executives at Warner Bros., a guy named David Janollari, who’s still a dear friend. Queen Latifah and Kim Coles made talent-holding deals with Warner Bros. and their mandate was for the studio network to engage a black writer to create something for them. That’s how I got into the fold. Both of them had had failed pilots that were authored by white writers prior to this experience, and so they were both on the same page this time around. They came to me and they had the idea to do a buddy comedy, basically. It wasn’t really the show I wanted to do, and I asked for some time to think about what the show could be.
I had meetings with them, with Latifah and [Coles], visually to get a better sense of who they were and what was important to them, and I decided to also take that to help create the characters for them very specifically, but in a universe that was very much inspired by my own personal life and the very close relationships I have with my girlfriends to this day. Each of the characters are parts of me and my girlfriends—they’re all amalgamations. And then they’re very much informed by the actors who played them. And certainly, the deepness of the characters was definitely informed by all the other actors who were subsequently cast in the show—you know, Kim Fields and Erika Alexander.
Kim Fields, “Regine Hunter”: At the time her name was Yvette Lee, and I had reached out to her while she was working on Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper, she was one of the writers there. Because I was done with [The] Facts of Life, I was done with college and looking at what my next project would be, and I wanted to do a series, a rom-com. And I’d come up with what I’d thought was a very good concept and my dear friend Rocky Carroll is who I was asking, Hey would you be the male counterpart? And he said, Yeah, it’s a great idea, but you really need a showrunner, so I was like [sighs], Oh, my gosh, okay. So I knew [Lee Bowser] was really getting her comeuppance, she had done A Different World, she, like I said, was on Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper, and at the time, my mom was coaching Mark Curry on Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper, so I knew the folks over there.
So I got a call arranged with [Lee Bowser], and she liked my idea very much, and she said, The only thing is, I’m working on a new project. I just landed this deal with Warner Bros. and Fox to develop a show with Kim Coles and Queen Latifah. And my first thought was, Well, who put that combo together? That’s interesting. Wow. Okay. And she says, I’m writing this ensemble comedy and one of the characters, I actually had you in mind, I had your voice in mind when I was writing. Her name is Regine, and she’s kind of like this diva from the hood. And I was like, Oh okay, awesome!
Erika Alexander, “Maxine Shaw”: I was living in New York, I’d just finished a series on ABC called Going to Extremes that didn’t get picked up. And then I went to L.A. to audition for pilot season. It came down to [two auditions] and Living Single was in second position. I really wanted to be what I thought would be the black Lois Lane on a show called M.A.N.T.I.S., and I didn’t end up getting that show. I ended up having to go in the next day for the same network for Living Single, and ended up getting Max.
I was 23, going on 24, and at the time I’d just finished The Cosby Show two years before, and I didn’t really feel like I understood the concept of a comedy in front of an audience. I felt a little better when they built my character out and I got a chance to do a little bit more. But Maxine Shaw taught me how to act for a live audience with cameras recording, which is actually a skill set.
Lee Bowser: Erika came in as part of the casting process and just blew us away. I had a totally different person in my head, I had a totally different visual in my head, because I didn’t really know that Erika was that funny, even though she had done The Cosby Show. I really did not know what a tremendous actor she was, both comedically and dramatically. But I knew right away that she was Max. And she would make Max even better than I imagined.
T.C. Carson, “Kyle Barker”: I had auditioned for Living Single when I was still living in Chicago and sent an audition tape in, and they had basically said no at first. And then they called me out for a callback, a screen test, and then on, I think, a Tuesday, we went in and I read with Erika that Wednesday, and I think I went to work that Thursday.
John Henton, “Overton ‘Obie’ Jones”: It was pilot season in ’93. It was pretty busy because I just recently, like two years earlier, I just got an agent, so this is like my second pilot season. So I was excited about it, reading for a lot of stuff, and then my agent, Rick Greenstein, he told me that I had an audition for a show and Kim Coles would be my love interest if I got the part, which excited me because I was in love with Kim Coles because she was on In Living Color and she was hosting Showtime at the Apollo. I just loved watching this funny, this very funny, very attractive woman, so I definitely was hyped up to get on this show. And then I found out Queen Latifah was in it—Queen Latifah had, like, the No. 1 album in the country, and I was listening to her album as I’m going to audition for her show, so it was kind of surreal.
I noticed that Yvette Lee Bowser, who created the show, she was in the audition, and there was this one line that I would hit and she would laugh. And I was like, Well, you know, this is the girl that created the show and if she’s laughing, this is my target audience right here. So I’m just playing everything to her, and I’m like, If I got her laughing, then obviously I’m saying it the way that she wrote it and I’m onto something, so I just played to her and I kept going back—I think it was maybe four or five times, it was a lot. I had to go back and forth and it was just less and less people and it just got down to, it was just me and another guy, and I went up to him and I said, You know, with this show, this one ain’t for you, brother, because I’ve got to have it. I just told him. I said, Look, you know,
Cress Williams, “Terrence ‘Scooter’ Williams”: I distinctly remember that the rapper Young MC was in the waiting room auditioning. This was the ’90s and so this is when the idea of rappers taking jobs was really in, so I saw a recognizable face and I’m like, Oh man, I’m going to lose this job to this rapper. But, luckily, it was mine, so it was really a great start to a career because it was, like, you know, I was two for two. I booked this job and my agent kind of promptly called me into their office and said, Okay, we just, we want to bring you down to Earth and just real life so you realize you’re not going to book every single job you get.
Lee Bowser’s stellar cast inspired both the show’s storylines and its setting. “Latifah is so definitely East Coast, she’s from Jersey, so it made sense to make them from New York. And I love Brooklyn, so I wanted to at least pretend that I was there,” the California-bred showrunner said with a laugh. “There’s just so much flavor and culture and, quite frankly, we were somewhat limited by our multi-cam format, but I think we captured it as well as [we] could have given the nature of our show and our limited budget.”
“We didn’t have the Friends budget,” she continued. “And they went out into an all-white New York. Our New York, our Brooklyn, was as diverse as it is in reality.”
Living Single didn’t stumble upon a diverse depiction of Brooklyn life by assembling a black cast and hoping for the best. Lee Bowser was strategic about crafting characters and conflicts that represented the vastness within the experiences of young black people. “There had been such a void on television that needed to be filled. It’s interesting because there’s certain aspects of certain characters that we’ve seen—we’ve seen Clair Huxtable, we’ve seen the black lawyer, but she was a mom,” Lee Bowser said. “So we really hadn’t seen [stories about young black people in the city], and I know that they obviously existed in the real world.”
Living Single’s main characters may have lived under the same roof (barring Maxine), but they came from a vast range of socioeconomic and geographic backgrounds. The show didn’t peddle an aspirational respectability so much as it reflected multiple strains of black life. Khadijah helmed her own magazine, but still lived with roommates (and sometimes struggled to cover the costs of running her publication). Synclaire relocated from Minnesota to start a new life in Brooklyn, a move that was enabled by the job Khadijah gave her at Flavor. Regine chased glamour in her work and relationships, but she grew up in housing projects. Maxine was a high-powered lawyer who had no qualms about sharing her resources with her girls, but even she sometimes fell victim to the unstable returns of corporate life. Kyle excelled as a stockbroker, but the only arena in which he thought himself superior to the handyman Overton was with the ladies.
“The mix of class was definitely intentional, because we’re not a monolith and we also, at the time, didn’t have that many depictions of us. So I really was trying to put as many versions of us as I could into the show in ways that made sense, that felt organic,” Lee Bowser said. “I wanted to make the characters feel like they really would have these relationships. Max is from a very different place than Khadijah is, but you believe that these two girls went to college together and became the truest, bluest friends, and are to this day.”
Getting six series-regular actors—and even more guest stars—to mesh perfectly is no simple science. But Living Single’s cast and crew alike were up for the challenge, and found an unexpected family in the process. Or, as Lee Bowser said, “Being able to ensemble that cast was akin to catching lightning in a bottle.”
Lee Bowser: I was involved in more casting than I should have been. I was so young and so naïve and so eager, that I just took my role in the casting process to the next level. I just didn’t want to miss anyone, and I wanted to also learn more about [the pre-reading] process, because I had not had the opportunity to be that intimately involved in the process. I have a lifelong friendship with Geraldine Leder, who cast the show, because she just thought I was crazy and we just had to establish that, because I didn’t want, literally, I didn’t want to miss anybody!
And quite frankly, I found lots of people by sitting in earlier over the years. That’s one of the ways we found John Henton, although John Henton was in a failed pilot that I had seen, I think it was two years prior—but he was primarily a stand-up. There’s a chance that if I hadn’t been in the pre-reads, that maybe [Leder] wouldn’t have seen in him what I saw in him, and then he may not have been brought to me as a producer.
Fields: I met with the producers and network, and they were like, Yep, next! Yvette was like, Yep, this is exactly what we were looking for. And they had also let me know that because [Latifah] obviously was coming from her amazing rap career, [Coles] was in the midst of her career as a stand-up comic and sketch comedy with In Living Color, and [Henton] was a stand-up comic, and T.C. was still new to the game, he had just done a movie. And so they said they really wanted to try to get somebody who was a bit of a veteran, if you will, to kinda anchor things. And they felt like I could also bring that to the table.
Alexander: Kim Fields was the biggest freakout for me, because I’d grown up watching her in [The] Facts of Life. She was a veteran on there. She knew where the bodies were buried. The chick was undeniably talented, and a prodigy. She could look at a script and just have it memorized like nobody’s business. She had a photographic memory, and she was technically always very precise. It kind of underestimates how good she is in life. It’s just one of those things that even Raven-Symoné as a child had, but Kim Fields had it and she was our Shirley Temple in that way. I admired, of course, Latifah because she was the queen and I had come from New York and appreciated her being so strong and effective in her rap and, more importantly, kind of representing the tomboy part of who I thought I was.
Coles: [Working with Latifah] was great because she’s so smart. I think people know that now, but at the time she was a rock star. She was a rap star, but that falls under it. She was an international star by the time she was on the show. So to work with someone who was so known and so proficient at what she did, so excellent—actually, to be honest, I was a little intimidated because I thought, She’s Queen Latifah. I thought I was going to be intimidated. I remember one day saying to her, I wanna be a queen, and she was like, You ARE one. I said, Just like that?! Okay! To work with somebody who was already well-defined and had built a brand and had been a trailblazer was really exciting.
Williams: Queen Latifah’s a very strong woman, and so, when I looked back and I’m like, Oh okay, so Young MC really didn’t have much of a chance because he’s not anything—I’m 6’5, he’s not anything close to 6’5. Queen and the whole cast had been doing the show, obviously, for a while and had more on-camera experience than I did, so what was really great is that from the very beginning, I felt like they welcomed me in and made me feel like a part [of the family]. You know, because [as a recurring guest] I was there quite a bit and whenever I was there, I felt like part of the group. I remember especially back then, I was tall but I had such a young-looking face. That was one of the things Queen Latifah said: Can you grow a beard? And at that time, I could grow a goatee, so that’s why I had the goatee.
I remember Kim Fields—because, you know, as a guest star, as a person who’s coming in not all the time, like I had a trailer but I didn’t have anything as fancy as they did. I remember her distinctly letting me come into her trailer to watch a movie and, you know, just being treated really well. What you saw on-screen was what was also the vibe behind the scenes.
Coles: To work with Kim Fields, who was a LEGEND—she was the only little black girl that we had on TV, you know—it was awesome. And then to work with [Alexander], who I’d seen on The Cosby Show, and then [Henton] who was from the world of stand-up, which I’m very much a member of. I remember the night that he was on The Tonight Show [with Johnny Carson] and soared. Like I just remember seeing him and going, Oh snap, that guy’s gonna be a star! And T.C., I didn't know well but I had seen his movie, Livin’ Large. So I was like, Who’s this guy outta Chicago?! So I was a fan of everyone, and we all came together to create something I think was so unique and so beautiful.
Henton: [Playing opposite Coles] was a delight. They said just to work with her because she was so funny, just crazy. I mean, what you see is what you get. So we were in there just cracking jokes and we had so much fun. That cast, we had more fun—you know, people would always say, Boy, looked like y’all was having a good time making it. I’m like, Yeah, but the most fun we had was off-camera. The stuff that we did in between takes would be funnier than anything we could put on [camera] or, like, sometimes somebody would hit the line so hard that the audience would just clap and laugh so long that we couldn’t even use that take. Because the show was only 23 minutes and it was three or four house laughs in there and we left that in, we wouldn’t even get the whole story in. So that was the thing. A lot of the fun was had before, when the camera wasn’t on. We just had fun. We definitely amused ourselves.
Fields: That chemistry is beyond real. It’s a transcending chemistry. We transcended the cameras and the barrier of television, the literal barrier of a TV set. We were and remain extraordinarily close. We became family instantly and not for the sake of, Well yeah, we better be close because we makin’ a TV show. It was that we became close and the TV show was the beneficiary of it.
Carson: We weren’t play-acting. We were all invested in the people we were doing, and so we weren’t just saying lines. We were friends and we were basically those people with each other. And there was a love [Kyle] had for all the women on the show. I think that’s the thing that people see in the show. We really do love each other. We’re really friends before Friends was friends.
Alexander: T.C. Carson is what most people will never experience, he’s my comedic partner. I used to look at movies with Gene Kelly and the woman that they would partner him with, and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and you wonder how they move almost in sync. That was me and T.C. Carson. We’re actually born on the same day in real life—both November 19th Scorpios.The first season, they paired Maxine up with going back and forth with Regine a lot. But then, as it moved forward, they saw that the real foil and the back and forth, the real fire, was between [Carson] and me as [Kyle and Max]. And then they had something.
If you have a partner [and] they pitch you something, you know how to hit it. You’re not competing with them, you’re having a dialogue. And it’s just all instinct at that point. You just know that you don’t step on their line; if they have something to say, you have to react. You don’t overreact. And the audience loves that, they love that we knew how to dance with each other. What they’re watching is very delicate, and again, it has nothing to do with even the words on paper. It’s about chemistry and it’s about luck.
The cast’s rapport was dynamic, but Living Single also presented audiences with six distinct personalities—to love, root for, disagree with, roll their eyes at, and laugh alongside. Each character of Lee Bowser’s creating took on a new life in the hands of the cast. “They were very, very protective of the characters,” Lee Bowser said. “And those conversations resulted in a better show and a show that had more richness and dimension to it than just the writers could provide.”
Naturally, the actors knew their roles were just that—characters—but that didn’t stop them from getting attached to the storylines (or each other). “They really cared about each other and they cared about the work, and sometimes they cared about both a little too much, in that sometimes they would take something that would happen to the character very personally,” Lee Bowser said. “We can laugh about it now, but it was very serious then. One example of that would be when we were testing the Overton-Synclaire relationship and we brought in Shemar Moore, and he kissed Synclaire. [Henton] took that very personally.”
Though most of the actors have sustained long careers in the time both before and since Living Single’s run, their iconic characters have stayed with them in no small part because they brought a piece of themselves into the role—and audiences latched onto that kernel of authenticity.
Lee Bowser: When I first created this show, there were some executives that thought that Maxine Shaw was too brash and too strong, and so they wanted to eliminate her character from the show. I was too young and too naïve to know that they might have pulled the plug when I threatened to leave, but I threatened to leave. To take Max out of the show is to take me out of the show, and I’d rather not do it. And so I came up with the idea of moving her across the street, because she originally lived with the ladies. She’s an attorney—why doesn’t she have her own place? Well, do you know what it costs to live in New York? [Laughs.]
So they originally all lived together and I was like, You know what? The compromise will be that she lives across the street. She doesn’t have to be there all the time. But she is. I turned those lemons into lemonade. That was my first real lemonade experience. My battle for Maxine.
Alexander: I’m a product of very strong women and men. My father was an itinerant preacher, my mother was a teacher. They were both orphans. It was a very tough way to go; I was born in the mountains of Arizona. We were what is right now called “working poor”—dumpster diving, all that—amidst the first 11 years of my life in a hotel called Starlight [Pines], off Route 66. So I think I know a little bit about being tough, or at least being persistent. I started work at [the age of] five, knocking on people’s doors, asking to take out trash, sweep the porch. So I knew about hard work. I had not gone to college though, but I did go to an all-girls’ high school. By that time my father had changed denominations, they moved us to Philadelphia, and that’s where I was discovered in a basement theater called Freedom for a Merchant Ivory film. I’m a Girls’ High graduate, and obviously a lot of my mentors, whether I met them or not, including Hillary Clinton, were the type of people I was naturally attracted to. And I think that has everything to do with how Maxine Shaw approached life.
Carson: As an African-American man in this country and an actor, we get asked to do a lot of things that aren’t really necessarily positive. And so to get an opportunity to be instrumental in crafting somebody that has turned out to be iconic for my culture was really wonderful for me. To know that I had a hand in giving my people something that was positive and that represented them in the best possible light really makes me feel good, and that’s what I wanted to do. That was my aim with [Kyle Barker], was to make sure, even with his bravado, other people understood that he was a really good brother. He cared about his brothers and sisters and his friends.
I think his swag comes from several people that I know. The way he dresses comes from my dad. And his Africanness, I don’t think they were looking for that, but I thought it was really important to show how someone could be on Wall Street but still connected to their heritage and still infuse how they lived and dressed with their heritage and still make it work in today’s world.
Henton: [Overton] was old-school, you know, just, like, had an old soul, and that’s how I tried to play him because Overton was—I always like to say he was the wisest of all of them; he just had a country way of saying it. But he was always right. He just had this weird way of saying — everybody just thought that was crazy, but he was right all the time, so he’s just the wisest of the show. That’s my story. I’m sticking to it.
I wanted him to be from Cleveland. I went up to Yvette and I asked her, I said, Where are the guys from? And she said, I don’t know. I said, They’re from Cleveland. And then we had some writers from Cleveland so they would add stuff to the script. So we had a lot of storylines about Cleveland, about the Browns, Ohio State, you know, things that were happening in the city. So, that was the best thing that we kind of brought to it, just the fact that they’re from Cleveland and I got a chance to represent my hometown.
I worked so much with Steve Harvey, so I had a little bit of a Steve Harvey flair. I think in the pilot you can actually hear I had a little bit of flair because [he] was one of my favorite comics and we were all working on the road all the time and I had a little bit of Steve Harvey country. I think that’s where some of the country came from too, so that helped out.
Coles: Yvette and I sat down, Latifah and I sat down. I was very much involved in the creation of this character. I mean, she’s based a lot on me. Yvette tells people the characters are all based on her, and I think that we all brought ourselves to it. So I am a lover of people, I am—I’m not as naive as Synclaire was, I don’t necessarily love animals, but my point of view is one of joy and love and laughter and positivity. And so we were meeting and she saw that in me, and that’s how the character began to unfold. And you’ve got Latifah who’s somebody who’s strong and driven and super smart, and so it was very easy for Khadijah to be born of that. So we sat around the table and came up with it and then Synclaire was born!
Williams: It was virtually my first job and what was interesting and rare and great is that it was a 100-percent positive character. He wasn’t an ex-con, he didn’t have a gun in his hand. So I think it really set a beautiful tone to start a career as an African American. I was filming [Black Lightning] yesterday and we had a young actor on our set and he was like, You’ve been able to be so versatile. You’ve played so many different, a wide variety of characters. And so [Living Single] was such a great start. Now, you know, later on in my career, I was playing dudes with guns and killers and this and that, but it was great not to start that way and I think it set the tone so that I just didn’t stay in that lane.
A lot of times, African Americans are portrayed in one light and we don’t get to show the rainbow. We don’t get to show that blackness is really more than a color and that we are in every facet of society and every facet of life, and so what was great about that show was that you saw such a variety.
Perhaps one of the most satisfying elements of the show’s chemistry was the varying approaches that the writers took to romantic connections between the characters. Scooter and Khadijah nursed a longtime friendship turned relationship, even amid professional duties that kept them away from one another. Overton and Synclaire took their sweet time getting together even though they were both clearly smitten with each other. Kyle and Max both loathed and loved one another. Regine got her Prince Charming, the handsome entrepreneur Dexter Knight (Don Franklin).
“None of it is by accident. We definitely enhanced it as we started to learn people’s strengths and weakness, but the Kyle and Max thing was there from the pilot,” Lee Bowser said. “It was there from inception. Synclaire and Overton was there from the pilot.”
“Obie was slowly working a plan, from the pilot. He had a long plan. Kyle as his mentor and Khadijah as Synclaire’s mentor, and Khadijah ultimately learning to put work aside and open up herself to love, and Max also learning to take off some of her armor and not be afraid to be effeminate and also be vulnerable. Those were all things that were, again, very structured.”
Lee Bowser noted that some of the inspiration, once again, came from her own life: “I’m married to the guy that is the inspiration for Kyle. … We are just the feistiest couple, and we go toe-to-toe with so much love and lust.”
Living Single didn’t shy away from sex, but it did offer the characters an opportunity to explore love and romance beyond stereotypical images of black hypersexuality. The show traced the contours of black love in all its forms: platonic, romantic, sexual. The characters had both flings and long-term relationships. That the couples have become avatars of #BlackLove in the digital age isn’t surprising, but none of the actors anticipated that their fictional love stories would resonate so many years beyond the show’s run.
Coles: I knew that the plan was for these two characters [Synclaire and Overton] to eventually become a couple. But I didn’t think at the time, Oh snap, this is gonna be iconic. I remember there was an article that was written that said we were an Emmy-worthy couple, an Emmy-worthy image. And so that’s when I knew that, wow, people were really resonating with this. And not just people of color. I think that people in general really, really resonated with it because it wasn’t oversexualized, and also because it was a contrast to Max and Kyle and was allowed to unfold beautifully.
[Henton is] a gentleman and I never once felt weird with him. He and [Carson] were our protectors whenever we went and did things together, so they already acted as our protectors and lovers of women. [Henton] was always so sweet about it. It was fun and it was easy. And he brought his whole self to it in a way that was really sweet. It never felt lecherous or weird. It just felt natural and people loved them.
Henton: Overton and Synclaire, they were just like big kids, that’s all. We grew up together and towards each other, so it all worked out. It was well-written. We had great writers on the show and they laid it out to where everybody knew what was coming but it wasn’t rushed. I remember the audience just going crazy when Overton finally got a kiss from Synclaire because we had been waiting for this forever, you know? And the audience just went berserk and it was just like, that was a good kiss too, so we sold that.
Williams: Even back then, I loved the fact that the romance between me and Queen [Latifah’s character, Khadijah] started from a friendship first. They were friends who turned into a romance, which I think is always the best thing. I think in all those friends, we saw things that we don’t normally see, and that’s what I was really proud of being a part of.
Fields: A great deal of [Regine’s] drive is her past. She grew up without a dad, she is from the hood. And the things that she wants different for her life as an adult. And again, I understood that. I’m forever grateful to the writing and producing team for the end of Regine’s run on Living Single where, after all is said and done, she got her fairytale. She lived through her realities, dealt with them, and she still was able to get her fairytale.
Carson: There was a love [Kyle] had for all the women on the show, all of his sisters that he really did—I think the fact that Maxine challenged him the most was the thing that he liked. She wasn’t an easy win and he was used to easy wins.
Alexander: Here’s what [Maxine and Kyle] do represent: strength, on both sides. Honor, of some type. And an honesty to a fault, because they were honest with each other, and yet the passion and the lust was there. But it didn’t feel nasty. It felt very much like they couldn’t help it. And I think if that’s black love, then yeah. Right on.
It’s absurd, the kente cloth sheet. It’s hysterical. When we were filming that, you could feel the anticipation in the warehouse, in the studio. We felt it. And so, we knew there would be looong laughs, and there were. People just broke out laughing. They had been anticipating [it] the whole time. It was a very well-written episode. [Maxine and Kyle] were horrified by it. But even the whole kente cloth thing—being wrapped in his stupid blanket. It makes me laugh, because it was so T.C. Carson.
On the Living Single set, T.C. Carson did have a bit of a reputation for bringing his distinct, Afrocentric flair to everything Kyle Barker did, said, and—most importantly—wore. “T.C. always brought his own brand of T.C.-ness. And he was definitely very accessorized and very debonair, very dapper with every look,” said Ceci, the costume designer who did the Living Single cast’s wardrobe from Seasons 2 through 5.
“And he would bring in this triple-leveled case of chains and this and that. He was always open to mixing patterns and doing a lot of the Afrocentric fabrics, you know, the mudcloth. He was really down for that. Sometimes I would take the mudcloth and be like, Oooh T.C., I wanna dye this burgundy! and he’s like, [Imitating T.C.’s voice] Yass, buuuurgundy. Oh, that would be faaahbulous.”
Carson’s personal appreciation of fashion functioned not just to ensure Kyle Barker looked fly every episode, but also to aid in setting up Living Single’s visual nods to the cast and crew’s pride in their blackness. As ’90s fashion continues to make a comeback, it’s the Afrocentric looks from the show—Kyle’s patterns, Maxine’s jewelry, Khadijah’s vests—that top black Millennials’ sartorial inspiration lists. “I just never knew in the moment that the show was gonna be an iconic show, and these characters that I was dressing, those were iconic looks,” Ceci said after recounting recent experiences in which people have informed her that there are now entire webpages dedicated to replicating the characters’ styles.
But Ceci, who’s now doing wardrobe for Dear White People, the show helmed by Lee Bowser mentee Justin Simien, wrangled seasons’ worth of looks for characters of all different stylistic leanings and body types. It was and remains an impressive feat. “At the end of every season I would be like, Oh my god, I cannot believe that I was able to buy for every, like—because a lot of times, these episodes had five [wardrobe] changes for Queen Latifah, six changes for Kim Coles,” she said. “And I would be just like, I cannot believe that every episode I was able to get some great outfits for all these characters.”
“It was nothing short of miraculous to tell you the truth, because at the time, [Queen Latifah] and Kim Coles would fluctuate in sizes, sometimes within the season. At the time there wasn’t really a lot in terms of offerings for what they call plus size now, so that was really, really hard,” she continued. “And the budget was meager. I’m sure whatever I had for the budget—trust me, for Friends and all these other subsequent shows, white shows, oh please, they had 10 times as much.”
For the cast, style was an integral part of each character’s arc—and everybody had a signature detail.
Alexander: Believe it or not, that hairstyle informed the character a lot, because it had movement, it had shape, and it’s certainly pulling from—who?—Whoopi Goldberg. Whoopi Goldberg, who was known for being funny and kind of flat. And, again, I’m a product of Whoopi Goldberg’s largesse and her success.
[The undercut] was me growing out a style, from again, going to extremes. I was in New York. They had shaved off my hair at ABC because I was in Jamaica and I had natural hair and they couldn’t press it. They saw somebody walking by and they said, You wanna shave your hair off? I said, Sure. I had a very low fade, and when I finished I had just enough for my hairdresser, Debra Hare-Bey of Red Salon [now OMhh Beauty Oasis] in Brooklyn, to catch it. And she put in these new things she had created, literally just created, called Nu-Locs. And Nu-Locs were interesting because it was made out of yarn. My hairstyle was made out of knitting yarn. And the older it got, the more it looked like locs. And so she said, This will grow your hair out, and that’s how I auditioned, and then I just kept it.
I can’t walk worth beans on shoes, so that’s where you get the walk. I kind of just stomped around and made it part of it. One of the reasons I’m in show business is because my mother saw me go across the stage in eighth grade to pick up a surprise award at a graduation, and she said, Erika, I was so embarrassed! You clomped across the stage like you had just got off a horse. And she sent me to modeling school, a modeling school called Black Glamour, where I actually won the best walker and went to John Robert Powers modeling school and won their best walker. But just because I could do it on a runway did not mean I could do it in real life, certainly not while acting. So that’s the Maxine Shaw walk—it comes from me making sure that I’ve got attitude and stumble around on these things that are totally anathema to me.
Ceci: The Maxine Shaw character, she’s a boss. She’s a badass, she a boss, she’s hard-edge, you have the little Afrocentricity to her. She’s sharp, she’s clean. She’s not feminine in the soft, pink, lace kind of a way. She’s sexy, she’s a boss. Versus Kim Coles’s character, [who] is more flighty and flirty and flowery, sunflower child, and whimsical. And so if I shop with adjectives in my mind, then that sort of cements the notion that there won’t be cross-pollination.
Alexander: Me and Latifah were the hardest to get to wardrobe. We just never really wanted to do it. That or hair and makeup. You put our hair and makeup on and we just went. It’s so funny how I see people in the mirror—I never looked.
But it was those coats, capes—it was things that, there was flourish. Anything that could move was great. Obviously the tailored part of it was great because I myself am very casual. I’m from Arizona, so I came in looking like I just hitchhiked there. But Max was a corporate chick. I spent my whole life in theaters, and just being dressed up. So that was work. The minute I would put on her clothes, I had my hairstyle, they’d give me a little makeup—I knew what to do. The character would suddenly come alive.
Henton: My favorite [hat] was the first one I wore, this one called “Eracism.” There was a guy that came up and he had a slogan and everything and it was just this pro-Black thing. It was the ’90s and everything was pro-Black, so any hat I could put on that had a black power fist or a peace sign or, you know, just promoting brotherhood. But it was a lot of cool sayings and anything that was cool that was pro-Black, you know, that was what the show was about so I would definitely wear.
Williams: What I remember about the ’90s is the cut of, like—actually I was on set just, I think it was actually just yesterday, because I was wearing a pair of pants that were a little tight, a little bit on the skinny side, and I was like, ugh, and my wardrobe guy was like, Yeah, but you look good in these. I’m like, I’m an old-school cat, and I said, In the immortal words of Morris Day, ‘Ain’t nothing like a fresh pair of baggies.’ And that’s what I loved about the ’90s, is the cut of the jeans, the cut of the pants. It was baggies we were in. I’m like, Yeah, that’s what I am all about.
Fields: What drew me to acting when I was a child was seeing my mother onstage with Pearl Bailey in Hello, Dolly! when I was 5 years old. When you go backstage and you see all the inner workings, the behind the scenes, the process, people either making the costumes and the sets, and getting the wigs and the makeup—just that entire process—that’s the part that was so magical to me as a kid. So now being in an environment where I was a contributor to the craft of creating a character, it was fantastic.
Regine was a great character if you loved clothes. And one of the reasons she was so much fun to play is because she was the exact opposite of me. I don’t like shopping, I don’t like trying on clothes—and especially back then, I was not into couture and fashion, all that. So it was almost like I was Ceci’s paper doll, and again that made it really fun, going to the wardrobe fittings every week to see all that she had pulled, even with the wigs, too. I’m a classic movie and TV lover, so there were times when toward the end, like at my very last episode, when I have on the wrap skirt with the leggings and the bodysuit with the cuffs and collar, that’s very Lucy.
Ceci: Regine was a fashionista, sassy. She was also sexy, but she was always experimental. She was the Vogue of all the girls, she was the fashion plate. And heavily accessorized. She would always have the hat and the gloves and the jewelry. She was always head to toe on point, regardless.
Fields: I really appreciated Ceci and [previous costumer] Bambi [Breakstone], when she was there, making sure that I was never self-conscious—that’s really what stands out to me. We did an episode where we had a summer block party and I remember I didn’t have the kind of body like [Alexander], who I always thought, Man her body is so cool. I wasn’t tall, and I was chesty as they would say, and I was like, Well, what are we gonna do for me? because I knew they were gonna put [Coles] in a sundress, they were gonna put [Latifah] in shorts and, you know, the Hawaiian shirt, that sorta thing, [Alexander] could easily rock a bikini, and I was like, [Sings] Aaaand what about Kimmy? [Laughs.]
They took like a bustier and they covered it, so my chest was able to have coverage and lift, if you will [laughs], and then the bustier because of the corset part was able to cinch me in, but they covered it in a really fun Hawaiian print kind of thing and then they did cutouts at the stomach area because my stomach was flat enough where I could do that and not feel self-conscious. I just felt like they really worked at making sure that, again, I was comfortable, I was confident.
Ceci: What I liked about [Khadijah] was she was still like, keepin’ it real. Like we weren’t saying, Keepin’ it real back then, but that’s appropriate to describe her outfits. She had a nice balance of keepin’ it real, being homegirl, being clean, polished, and professional, and she wasn’t, you know, that feminine, soft, flowery type of a character but still very sophisticated and clean. When she wore a suit, it was always balanced [because] when she got home sometimes, she would just wear a jersey and some jeans. I loved that about her because that’s the multifacetedness of this character. She wasn’t just about a suit or working at Flavor. She had a life, and when she got home, she was chill like we all are.
Coles: I got the chance to co-design [Synclaire’s] wedding dress. That was a lot of fun! [Ceci] really let me be involved because she said, You’re gonna be the bride, and she let me choose, with her help of course, the bridesmaids’ dresses because, again, you’ve got three other body types. And the color! And purple’s my favorite color. And so I got a chance to be involved in all of that. Out of all of us, I would say T.C. was probably the most influential in his style, and Ceci was open to it.
Carson: The whole process of it was very organic and collaborative. I think when we started out, they weren’t quite sure how to make it work, so I was more instrumental in putting outfits together and bringing things in, and I had a couple of shops that I shopped at quite often in Chicago and in Los Angeles where I would go and bring things in for wardrobe. And there was also a wonderful artist, her name is Aklia, and she made a lot of jewelry for the show. Most of the African pieces you saw were from her collection.
Ceci: [Carson] made my job easier because a lot of guys wouldn’t put on what I would put on him. They would think it’s too soft or whatever, but he was like, Let’s do some traditional this, and do these pants, and the drawstring this, and some interesting shoes. So it really helped to push the boundaries of the walls of his character. That added more adjectives to my bag of tricks, which made him more multi-dimensional, and that’s what expanded the opportunity to do more with him. If he was like, Nah, nah just give me some jeans and a T-shirt, it would not have been as interesting. So I really do value that in real life, he definitely has an eye for fashion.
Putting his suit looks together was probably one of the more fun ensembles that I looked forward to doing because I’m like a tie connoisseur, honey. Can’t nobody pick a tie better than I can. My father used to take me as a little girl in elementary school to this li’l tiny li’l hole in the wall place downtown, California Tie Shop. And he would carefully take out ties and shirts and he would show me, Now, this is elegant. And this elegant because this, this, and this. Now this one, this looks too sloppy. This is not a good tie. And so I learned from [when I was] a young child how to pick out ties, and shirts, and suits. So when I got a chance to put all that into Kyle Barker, oh my god, it was a complete joy. And I would spend so much time, like really a lot of time, picking out the right pocket square, the right shirt, the right suit, the right pinstripe, the right shoes, right everything. I was very proud of his suit looks, his whole everything, all his looks suited the mood. I wish more men dressed like that these days!
Wardrobe, hair included, was just one way Living Single communicated the core values of its characters. The show also explored a number of relevant issues of the time, with an approach that was far less didactic than shows like A Different World.
“We were basically pushing the culture by just being raw and honest. We were kind of dealing with intersectionality and code-switching and micro-aggressions and mansplaining before we had terms for all of these aspects,” Lee Bowser said with a laugh. “Now we have words! Now we have terms for all of those things."
But the distinctly ’90s show, with its crew of young professional friends, didn’t take the approach that a Dear White People or a Facts of Life might. “On Living Single, I wanted to use a lighter touch than we did on A Different World, because it was a different show. It had its own tone,” Lee Bowser said. “I wasn’t afraid to veer from that, but I wanted to make sure that it felt like the right way to handle issues that you’ve built in this particular form—even using Latifah’s song to inspire an episode where one of Kyle’s co-workers referred to Regine as a bitch. We made our point with a lot of laughs.”
“If we were athletes playing at the professional level, the best thing you can do is play loose and I think that’s what we did. Not be tight and not be pious about what we’re doing—just really have fun, and project that, and to be our truest selves,” she continued. “To not be afraid to show somebody sleeping with a headscarf on. To not have makeup on every scene. Those were things that people were not really doing at the time.”
Living Single’s impact on television and the entertainment industry writ large extends far beyond the lessons it imparted during its run. One of the landmark episodes addressing discrimination followed Kyle as he dealt with superiors at his office who suggested that he needed to get rid of his dreadlocks to look professional. For Carson, the experience offered an opportunity to reiterate what he most wanted viewers to take away from the character of Kyle Barker: “That black men are complicated individuals. That we are strong, we are determined, we have tenacity, but we are vulnerable as well.”
Fields: [T.C.’s hair episode was] very organic. We were relevant, and so people could relate to what was going on with us because it was more than likely going on with them or someone in their circle, someone in their squad.
Carson: [Hair] was talked about when I first got hired. Should he do something with it and do we need to have him cut it? And I was like, Well, why? Why should he cut it? He shouldn’t—why? It’s neat, it’s not hanging all over the place, it’s neat, it’s not, so why not have it? So they left it alone and then they decided to kind of address it with an episode because when I started to really push the more Africanness of who he was, they thought it would be a great idea to use it in one of the episodes, and to show that you don’t have to sell out. I feel that sometimes people believe that in order to get ahead, you have to adopt another culture’s aesthetic, you have to adopt another culture’s way of being, and I don’t think you do. I think you just need to be good at what you do and do business well.
Alexander: They have something that they’re calling the Maxine Shaw Effect. It’s like the Scully Effect, but it’s particular to this character and they’re getting ready to do research around it through the Geena Davis Institute [on Gender in Media]. She’s locked in time, so she’ll never get older. I got older, but she didn’t. But walking around with her face is really something interesting, because wherever I go, I have instances whether it’s [Georgia gubernatorial candidate] Stacey Abrams; Marilyn Mosby up in Baltimore, the state’s attorney—these people come to me and say they went into politics because of Maxine Shaw partly.
Lee Bowser: What do people take away [from Living Single]? A sense of pride, that we’re not a monolith. That’s my recurring theme. Expect the unexpected from us. We’re still discovering who we are. This whole life’s journey is about identity. So I would hope that people would take a sense of pride in who they are, and the culture and the people that they come from. That’s always really at the center for me, as much as possible.
Henton: Nobody can imagine just being on TV continuously for 25 years, you know? It’s like, you had a good run and then they play the reruns for a while, and then you go away, you know, and you go away for a while. But we never went away. We came on in ’93 and I’ve been on TV somewhere in some country across the world every week since 1993 and that’s insane. Nobody expected that, but we knew we had something good and we knew that it would be memorable because of the crowd response that we got and we started getting the fan mail and people really liking what we did. So we knew we had something special, but just to be, just constantly still on TV for 25 years? No, nobody everybody imagined that.
Coles: I’m so proud of it because it remains, it lasts. And my favorite thing in the whole wide world, one of my favorite things is in the last few years, I’ve met three little girls named Synclaire. And they told me that their mothers spelled it the way mine was: S-y-n-c-l-a-i-r-e. And that is just phenomenal to me.
I ran into Marsha Ambrosius, the singer, at Essence Festival this summer, and she said to me, [imitates Ambrosius’s British accent] Oh my god! I love you! and I was like, Really? Did the show air in England? and she said, No, but I had an auntie in the States and she would put the show on VCR tapes and she would name the tape—and this is gonna make me cry—“Women You Will Love.” We didn’t even know the name of the show! She didn’t put the name of the show, we didn’t even know the name of the show. It was just a tape that she’d put, like, masking tape, and it said “Women You Will Love,” and [Ambrosius] said, You have no idea how much you were a part of my childhood, and you ARE a woman that I love! And she made me cry!
And so, I just—maybe that’s the name of my next book, Women You Will Love. I just think that that’s the impact, and that’s how the show got over there. People of the African diaspora, Caribbean people, all of this, they were sending the tapes over because You need to see this show and that’s how it has incredible impact and I’m proud of it and I can’t wait to keep hearing where it goes next and next and next.
For much of the show’s cast and crew, rumors of a reboot are both exciting and far-off. Everyone I spoke to was tentatively enthusiastic about the idea, but some expressed doubts about the project’s feasibility. Coles, for her part, conveyed her sentiments with a wistful melancholy: “I would say a resounding yes. I would show up to rehearsal tomorrow. And I can only speak for myself. I’m gonna say that I hope that it happens. I would show up early for rehearsal, and that’s all I can speak to. I just don’t know that it’s gonna happen.” Lee Bowser was more direct: “There is no reboot without Khadijah and Max.” Through a representative, Queen Latifah declined to comment, but Alexander expressed measured misgivings.
“There’s a part of me that often believes that people need to make room for the new generation, and people need to make room in their own lives to push forward with their own idea,” she said. “Life is short, and as an actress, there’s only so many beats you have. Five years of doing something is a long time. Let’s just say, never say never, but right now I don’t see it.”
To Alexander’s point about a new generation, everyone I spoke to is continuing to push Hollywood forward and make space for other creators of color—especially black actors, writers, and filmmakers—in ways both big and small. Kim Fields says she has a development deal with Lifetime and just directed an episode of Insecure, which featured Alexander acting in Kev’Yn, the Insecure Season 3 show-within-a-show that harkens back to Living Single. Cress Williams plays the lead on The CW’s Black Lightning, which follows the surprising, timely story of a black superhero. T.C. Carson has acted alongside Williams on Black Lightning, but he’s also acting in shows like OWN’s Greenleaf.
Kim Coles still does stand-up (often co-headlining with her Living Single husband, John Henton) and offers lessons in public speaking and narrative development. Queen Latifah is still acting in a host of movies, like last summer’s blockbuster Girls Trip. Erika Alexander has started a talent and content development company called Color Farm Media with the specific goal of diversifying Hollywood in the process: “We’re Motown. We want to find the jewels and the diamonds out there on the street.”
Yvette Lee Bowser, “the Black TV Series Whisperer,” is now an executive producer on Netflix’s Dear White People. “I’m in a good place, and I love that there’s the opportunity to take some of my seniority and my life experience and my professional experience and lend that wisdom to other people’s creative vision,” she said. “It’s very rewarding, in particular, working with Justin Simien on Dear White People. We’ve just had a great relationship; he’s a terrific collaborator. His vision for the show is crystal clear and my job is to just not get in the way. It’s his gut and my guidance.”
Living Single brought a special group of people together, and its impact didn’t end when the show’s lights cut off. For Lee Bowser, the fans’ enthusiasm for whatever comes next remains one of the most rewarding parts of the show’s journey.
“My whole life story just laid bare for the audience to pick apart and hopefully be amused. My pain has a price, but also my pain is the audience’s pleasure,” she said. “It’s been amazing and a blessing to be able to make a living telling such personal stories that also happen to turn out to be universal stories.”