High Marks and Huzzahs

updated 05/29/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/29/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

IT DIDN'T GO UNNOTICED WHEN TALK SHOW host Rolonda Watts—schmoozing in the front row at the eighth annual Essence magazine awards in New York City on May 12—planted a peck on the cheek of Oprah Winfrey's fiancé, Stedman Graham. "I don't know why you're kissing on Oprah's friend," zinged comedian Lewis Dix from the stage as the audience roared. "You know you don't like her."

Don't bet on it. Mutual admiration was the overriding emotion of the evening. With achievement awards presented to outstanding African-Americans, including Janet Jackson, Stevie Wonder and Gen. Colin L. Powell, a slew of celebs—among them Will Smith, Michael Bolton, Jane Pauley and Laurence Fishburne—came out to cheer on the recipients. "I promise to always try to represent our people the best way I know how," Jackson, sporting a new gamine do, told the 5,600 guests packed into the Paramount Theater. "I will always follow my dreams, and I will never, ever, lose my pride."

That message prevailed throughout the evening. "It's inspiring for our kids to know what other black people have done," said Cheryl James of Salt-n-Pepa. Chimed in singer Toni Braxton: "As an African-American woman, I'm proud to be here." And, she added, "I love Oprah!"

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