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Mama Dearest

Contributions by Karen Hunter

About The Book

Diva supreme Yancey Harrington Braxton is working her way back to Broadway and beyond—and stirring up drama in and out of the spotlight—in the acclaimed New York Times bestseller from E. Lynn Harris.

After being out on tour, the ambitious singer and actress is fired up to move past her recent setbacks—including an explosive romance with NFL tight end John Basil Henderson—and prove her talents are stronger than ever. What Yancey really wants is to star in her own reality TV series, and she’s even found a rich and well-connected lover to make it happen. There are, however, two women fierce enough to derail Yancey’s comeback dreams: Madison B., a hot new bombshell taking the music industry by storm, and Ava Middlebrooks, who happens to be Yancey’s own mama dearest.

Not even a stint in prison for attempted murder has curbed Ava’s competitive nature. Now she will bring down her #1 rival—her own daughter—by using Madison B. to turn Yancey’s world upside-down.


Mama Dearest CHAPTER

As I savor the first sip of my second glass of wine, my eyes move to the television and I say to myself, “Yancey, that’s the bitch who got your life.”

Here I am in a third-rate hotel (it used to be a Days Inn) down the street from the Jackie Gleason Theater near South Beach in Miami. I’m in the second week of my role as Deena Jones in a bus-and-truck company of Dreamgirls. The producers aren’t extravagant when it comes to lodging, and I can’t wait until this tour is over and I can get my beautiful ass back to New York City where I belong.

I’m sitting here watching the DVD of the 2007 Grammys, and there is Beyonce singing and gliding across the stage with Tina Turner. That should’ve been me singing with Tina or on the stage alone, but things haven’t turned out the way I’d planned. And I don’t have much time before it will be too late.

My name is Yancey Harrington Braxton, and I’m a singer and actress. I’ve been close to stardom and even had a big pop hit at the beginning of the decade, but just as I got near Beyonce and Tina status, something happened that slammed the door in my face.

I’m thirty-six in actress years, which really means I’m a sneeze away from turning forty. At times that scares me, but thank God I still have my looks, especially a body that could compete with a twenty-year-old on the beach and in the bedroom.

I had come to Miami with a plan to make a second comeback but I’m running out of ideas. Maybe I need a stalker; then people would feel sorry for me. I could do the drug thing and go into rehab. It looks like it might work for Miss Whitney and Lord knows it ain’t hurting that crazy singer from England, Amy Winehouse. I’m much too vain to put on a few pounds and then become a spokesperson for one of the weight-loss companies like Queen Latifah. But there has to be something legal that I can do to push myself back onto the national scene one last time. This is a time when it seems everybody and their mama has a reality show. Surely there is still room for a legitimate star of my caliber. Yeah, that’s the ticket—I need my own reality show.

I took this job even though I hate working with a bunch of no-talent people who’ve never set foot on a Broadway stage unless they were pushing a broom across it, but I’d run into some tough times with my finances. Besides, I’ve played the role of Deena Jones since I was in my twenties and could do it in my sleep. Gone are the days when I can demand first-class transportation, suites and car service. Let’s not forget my name over the title on the theater marquee. Most producers and directors aren’t savvy enough to recognize talent and class in one package.

Thank God I still own a really nice town house on the Upper East Side. I’d always planned to use it as my nest egg but now when I need to sell it, the real estate market has gone to hell in a handbasket. A lot of people were interested in purchasing it, but with the banks tight with money, even so-called rich white folks are having a hard time getting a loan. My real estate agent told me that my best hope for getting my asking price is if some rich Russian falls in love with it and pays cash. I told her that she needs to get her ass on a plane to Russia quick, fast and in a hurry.

If I sell the house, I’ll get myself a smaller place and there will still be enough money left over to get new headshots and some new outfits and go sit my ass in some spa where rich men hang out. I just can’t take another night in a seedy hotel when somebody with as little talent as Beyonce has all the things I’m supposed to have, including a rich, powerful husband. It should be me who’s the toast of the red carpet, with my own clothing line and preparing for yet another world tour.

As I watched Tina and Beyonce complete their performances and take their bows I thought, “I can sing better than both of them.” I’d give them a run for their money on the dancing as well. When did it all go wrong for me and why? I was born to be a star.

I’m a statuesque five feet eight inches, 125 pounds with a twenty-two-inch waist. A beige princess with a diamond-shaped face, golden brown eyes and auburn-tinted hair that falls just below my shoulders. My arms are long and slender, almost perfect … almost. I am still as beautiful as any actress, black or white, working today. I just need to remind Hollywood of that so I can move from the D-list back to the A-list.

As I tried to figure out what I could do to get some positive press, I thought back to almost ten years before when I was on Broadway starring in yet another Dreamgirls revival. I guess I should be thankful that Jennifer Hudson and Beyonce made the movie musical. Still, I’m pissed that I couldn’t even get a role as an extra in the glitzy film. Maybe the first step for me should be to get another agent and by this I mean a good one. And I don’t mean somebody calling himself an agent/producer like the current fool who represents me, Zeus Miller. First of all what kind of name is that? But for now he’s the best that I can do.

I finished my glass of wine and looked around the tacky room for the rest of the bottle. Another glass would ensure me of at least a sound sleep and I wouldn’t spend the night worrying about how I was going to keep the bank from foreclosing on my home before I could sell it and hopefully make a nice profit or at least break even.

Just as I got up, there was a knock at my door. I figured it was housekeeping finally bringing the extra towels I’d asked for three hours ago. If I was staying in a Four Seasons or the Ritz Carlton South Beach, I would have had those towels before I hung up the phone. I miss those days more than I can say. You get what you pay for.

I pulled together my robe and opened the door.

“You got a corkscrew I can borrow for a few?” It was Violet Smith, one of the understudies for the musical and my next-door neighbor. Violet is an okay-looking young girl when she has makeup on. She’d made it to the top ten on American Star a couple seasons back and landed a small part in the Dreamgirls movie, something she never fails to tell people when she meets them. Now with shows like American Idol and So-You-Think-You-Can-Do-This-or-Do-That, any clown can have a little time in the sun. Gets on my damn nerves. When I first entered the business you had to have talent before you appeared on stage or television, let alone being cast in a movie. I have sold millions of CDs, had a number-one hit and appeared on Broadway countless times. Damn, I was even nominated for a Tony Award. I should have won and would have if Patti Lupone had taken her old ass somewhere and sat down.

Violet stood there impatiently. “Yeah, but I’m not lending it out,” I said. “Bring your bottle of wine to my room and I’ll open it for you.” Maybe Violet will have the decency to offer me a glass and I can save my corner for later on tonight in case I wake up.

Violet gave me an are-you-serious look. “Girl, quit playing,” she said, “I promise to bring it right back. I got a real nice man I met at the after-hour’s club off Lincoln in my room waiting on me. I know we normally hang out and talk but I can’t tonight, hon. I got some catching up to do. Some of the cast is watching the semifinals of American Star in Dalton’s room. Why don’t you go down there? I think they got some drinks.”

I ignored her suggestion that I join a bunch of sexually confused chorus boys watching a bunch of no-talent teenagers and walked over to the desk and picked up the corkscrew I’d stolen from the hotel we’d stayed at in Tampa. It was one of the few times we’d stayed in a hotel that had a wine list and twenty-four-hour room service. Still, it wasn’t a five-star hotel, but more like a two and a half.

When I turned around, Violet had let herself into my room and was sitting in the chair making herself at home. I made a mental note to make sure to let Violet know I didn’t like people invading my space without my permission. I don’t have roommates on the road, no matter how much money it saves.

“Did you hear who was in the audience tonight?”

“Who, Michelle Obama?” I asked, being cute.

“No, honey, but I hope that she and the president will come to this show. That would really put us on the map. It was Nicole Springer. She was one of the Deena Jones that played in the show when it was on Broadway back in the day. Do you know her?”

“No” I lied. Of course I knew Nicole Springer, and if there was one person I despised more than Beyonce it was Nicole “Miss Perfect” Springer. I’d understudied her on Broadway and plotted her demise by spiking her coffee. I don’t think she ever found out or suspected me because I was a better actress than she was. I have to admit that the reason I dislike her so is that everything came so easily to her. Talented, beautiful and nice to almost everyone, and to me that took just too much work.

“That’s funny, she said she knew you. Dalton and I were going to bring her to your dressing room but we were so busy talking. Dalton used to take voice lessons from her in Atlanta and was a member of her theater group. She was the one who talked him into auditioning for this show,” Violet said.

I was not going to engage her in this Nicole banter so I just handed her the corkscrew. “Now don’t make me have to knock on your door to get this back.”

“Thanks,” she said popping up from the chair, “and don’t worry, you won’t have to. As soon as my company leaves I will bring it back. If you don’t answer I’ll leave it by your door.”

“Don’t do that because if it comes up missing, I’m still coming back to you. Understand?” What did it say about my depressed life that I was clutching a corkscrew the way a diabetic relies on insulin.

“I hear you. Thanks, Yancey. You’re the best.”

I shut the door and thought, I once was the best and very soon I’ll be the best again. These bitches better get out of my way!

I WAS SITTING AT my dressing-room table removing my makeup when I heard a knock at the door.

“Come in,” I shouted.

Dalton McGurdy, the understudy for C. C. White, stuck his head in and asked if he could talk to me for a moment.

I like Dalton more than most of the chorus boys but now I was a little apprehensive since he knew Nicole. He was talented and a bit unusual. I assumed he was gay but he was also in charge of the weekly Bible studies the cast held that I never attended. I didn’t see how a gay boy could conduct biweekly Bible study. But this was the theater, where conventional rules didn’t apply.

“Sure, Dalton, come on in.”

Dalton was light brown and on the thin side. He had an unshaven face and had recently cut his dreads, which made him look boyish and not old enough to play the main character, Effie’s brother, and my love interest in the first half of the show. Thank God we didn’t have any kissing scenes.

“I only need to see you for a few moments. Here’s a CD of some of the songs I’ve written. It’s classic R & B kinda like Stephanie Mills and Angela Winbush used to sing. I think you have the perfect voice for the songs.”

“Okay, lay it on my dresser and I’ll listen to them when I get a chance.”

Why did all of these kids think they could write music or choreograph dances just because they were in a show?

“Take your time because I just found out I might have a gig in New York after this show closes and we’ll have plenty of time to talk about it.”

“I thought you were going back to Atlanta.”

“No, hon, I’m from Athens, Georgia, you know, the University of Georgia, go bulldogs.”


“Don’t mind me, I was just making a little joke, or should I say making a little cheer.”

“Whatever, Dalton.”

“Danni—I told you my good friends call me Danni.”

“Okay, Danni,” I said, wondering when we had suddenly become good friends.

“See you at the next show or maybe back at the hotel.”

“Okay, whatever. Hey, I heard you were really tight with Nicole Springer.”

“You mean Nicole Springer-Stovall? Oh, I just love her. She is the greatest. Ms. Stovall said she knew you back in the day.”

“What did she say about me?”

“Oh, that you were really talented, beautiful and a real go-getter.”


“Yeah, I think she respects you a lot. She encouraged me with my songwriting.”

“Then why didn’t you give her the songs? I remember an okay voice,” I said.

“Nicole is done with that side of the business. She told me she just loves teaching and being a wife and mother.”

“Oh, I forgot what they say. Those who can’t, teach,” I said with a wicked grin.

“Well, let me get out of here,” Dalton said with slight disappointment in his voice. If he wanted to really work with me he was going to have to get over his infatuation with Nicole Springer.

“Whatever, Dalton.”

Dalton left my dressing room and it was back to my mirror time.

SOMETIMES I DON’T LIKE what I see in the mirror and this evening before I left for the theater was no different. I decided to do something about it. In the cramped dressing room I looked into the tiny mirror on the wall that was chipped in two places and gave myself a much needed pep talk.

I spoke swiftly and with great conviction. “Yancey Harrington Braxton, stop feeling sorry for yourself. You a bad bitch! It’s time to show the world what you’re really made of. What you’re capable of. It starts tonight when you open the stage door. You’re as good as Vanessa L. Williams, Angela Bassett and Gabrielle Union. No! Not as good as, better than all those pretend divas. A setback is a setup for a comeback, bitch. Now let’s get to work.”

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Mama Dearest by E. Lynn Harris includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


Yancey Harrington Braxton is trying to make a comeback. She’s a has-been singer/actress working with small theatre productions and even smaller budgets. Yancey has lost the status, but she hasn’t lost the attitude. Her world begins to change on the evening she meets a sexy stranger in Miami and when her mother Ava is released from prison on early parole. When that stranger helps Yancey get her own reality show and Ava starts wreaking havoc on her life, Yancey will have to decide between facing her past for real or for show. 


Questions for Discussion

1. When Yancey’s producer Cale begins to ask her about Madison she says: “I come from a long line of bad mothers and [that is] most likely the reason I was so afraid to be one myself.” What do you think the author is saying about the importance of mother/daughter relationships? 

2. Describe the men in the novel. How do they interact with Ava and Yancey? What do the men in their lives tell us about their behavior?

3. Throughout the novel, characters are either being used or are trying to use others. From career moves, to hook ups, to vengeance plots, talk about some of the examples and how they move the plot along. 

4. At the start of the novel, what do Ava and Yancey have in common? How are they different? Has Yancey become her mother’s daughter?

5. When Yancey first meets Lyrical, she describes her as “a tall girl who was dressed like a reject from the WNBA.” Cite other examples of how the main characters, particularly Ava and Yancey, size people up based on their appearances. 

6. “Class,” success and happiness are heavily defined by material items throughout the novel. Discuss the impact those three things have on how the characters are viewed by both other characters and you as a reader.

7. Dalton and Lyrical play similar functions as lesser characters. Describe what those functions ultimately are, and how they evolve. 

8. Yancey and Dalton are able to connect in a way that Yancey cannot with any other character in the novel. What is the author saying about the importance of friendships? Describe some of the other friendships and how they change during the course of the novel.

9. How does the reality show, but particularly the forgiveness aspect introduced by Cale, begin to change Yancey’s attitude?

10. Ava lies compulsively throughout the novel. How does this influence your perception of her? Why does she have so much difficulty telling the truth? 

11. For most of the novel Yancey and Ava proudly behave like “divas.” But Nicole and Madison have achieved success and act quite differently. Using both the text and your imagination, piece together what might have happened in all of these women’s pasts to produce such different outcomes.

12. Talk about S. Marcus. Did you think he was too good to be true? Were you expecting the plot twist regarding this character? Was Yancey a chump for falling for him so quickly?


Enhance Your Book Club

1. Design your own reality show. What would be the hook? Who would finance it? 

2. What are some of the most salacious and interesting celebrity comebacks? Talk about them and compare them to Yancey’s planned comeback.

3. Watch or re-watch Mama Dearest, the 1981 movie about Joan Crawford, as a companion to reading the book. How is Ava different? How is she similar?

About The Author

Photograph © Matthew Jordan Smith

E. Lynn Harris, a #1 national and New York Times bestselling author, wrote twelve acclaimed novels including Basketball Jones, Just Too Good to Be True, and I Say a Little Prayer. There are more than four million copies of his novels in print. He died in 2009 at the age of 54.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Gallery Books/Karen Hunter Publishing (June 1, 2010)
  • Length: 400 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781439158913

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