Phyllis Stickney Stopped Seeing Herself as An Outcast When She Found It's a Different World

updated 07/13/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/13/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The door guard at New York City's Catch a Rising Star nightclub was in a cruel mood during an audition call in 1985. Though a bitter wind whipped down First Avenue, the guard made Phyllis Stickney, an aspiring comedienne, wait outside. For hours Stickney rubbed her mittened hands and waited. When she finally took the stage at 1 a.m., she got a chill that made the outdoors seem balmy. Most seats were empty, and the remaining audience was too drunk to listen. "I've got the hardest job of the night," she said. "I've got to make tables laugh."

Stickney knows it's hard enough to make humans laugh. She has been rejected by Saturday Night Live and turned away from Late Night with David Letterman. But as she fine-tuned characters such as Benefa, a tough street kid, and the Buppie, a black urban professional, she felt her career heating up. First the Today show included her in a report on comedy, then Andy Warhol saw her win amateur night at the Apollo Theater and put her on his MTV talk show. This spring she won a regular role on the fall Cosby spinoff, It's a Different World.

"My agent told me I was too old to play a 19-year-old and refused to submit my bio," says Stickney, who claims she's in her mid-20s. "I was so hurt. But that lasted about 20 seconds. I called the casting department myself and pretended to be my own agent." The producers liked Stickney so much that they raised the age of the student she will play. Worried about her West African hairdo, they consulted the Coz himself, who said to keep it.

Much of Stickney's humor has painful origins. Her father's job with the YMCA forced the family to move from Little Rock across the country. Sometimes she was ostracized by classmates who considered her skin "too dark." She says, "The first time someone said I was attractive was eight years ago." She left home at 16, studied for a few years at UCLA and eventually ended up in New York as an aspiring actress. Riding the subway home after late gigs, she pretended to be crazy to ward off muggers. Now with a TV role and a boyfriend who works as her assistant, Stickney travels a safer path. This funny lady won't spend another night out in the cold.

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