Three monitor screens face Tyler Perry as he sits at his desk underneath a blown-up photo of the Little Rascals with Buckwheat at its center. Dressed in a black warm-up suit, the media mogul indicates the flat HDTV screen on the wall near his desk, which shows a live feed from the set of his sitcom "House of Payne," filming at a soundstage a few buildings away.
"They're rehearsing the show now," he explains. Nodding at the large computer monitor on his desk, he says, "Here, I've got a new screenplay that I'm working on, and here" — he points to an open Mac laptop — "I've got a play that I'm working on. It looks chaotic, but it's very controlled."
Actually, it doesn't look that chaotic. Perry creates such a powerful impression of self-mastery that it's easy to imagine him with a hand on each keyboard, typing both scripts at once while keeping an eye on the TV. From his second-floor office at his eponymous studio complex, Atlanta's most successful entertainer never stops expanding the media empire he's created in his image. Perry writes, directs and produces all of his plays and movies, including Tyler Perry's Madea's Big Happy Family, opening April 22, and many of his TV episodes. He even pens songs released through My TY PE Music Publishing.
It's an approach that, to put it mildly, has worked well for Perry. His films have earned nearly half a billion dollars worldwide. Forbes estimates Perry took in $125 million last year, making him the third highest-paid entertainment figure, after Oprah Winfrey and James Cameron. When fully staffed, his 200,000-square-foot Tyler Perry Studios near Greenbriar Mall employs about 400 people on a campus that boasts five soundstages, a gym and even a chapel. His realm thrives as a virtually self-contained, self-sustaining entity afloat in American culture.
Perry doesn't exactly repel outsiders, but he doesn't readily invite them in, either. His is a kingdom passionately supported by its subjects — preeminently church-going African-American women — who'll snap up anything bearing the Tyler Perry brand. He has stronger ties to contemporary black Christian ministry than to any African-American pop trends, and projects a wholesome image closer to the messianic uplift of his pal Oprah than to hip-hop moguls like Sean Combs.
Perry both embodies the growing success of Black Hollywood and stands apart from it. The black intelligentsia has shown ambivalence to his work, with Spike Lee having described the raucous comedy in Perry's spiritual-themed stories as "coonery and buffoonery." Audiences in between the extremes of fandom and detractors often puzzle over his mix of broad comedy and heavy-handed moralizing.
At 6 foot 5 inches, the dapper, 41-year-old Perry looks like the most eligible bachelor at a church single's night, and is prone to wear a half-smile that's equal parts sphinx and Mona Lisa. Perry puts a face on both Atlanta's upwardly mobile African-American community and the city's booming film industry, but for such a major media figure, he's surprisingly enigmatic.
His name and face are omnipresent on billboards, but compared to other entertainers of his stature he shuns the public eye and avoids the familiar stops on the promotional circuit. And for a performer best known for playing the pistol-packing matriarch Madea, his spiritual-minded persona proves nearly free of irony. He's a riddle wrapped in a mystery — wearing a housedress and granny glasses.
Perry's unconventional celebrity echoes his singular path to success, and the factors that won him such ardent followers keep him at the margins of the mainstream. Perry's empire is not just the product of his can-do attitude, but of a hustle born of poverty, neglect and abuse — the kind of determination that either lands you in jail or inside a 30,000-square-foot mansion.
We wouldn't know the Tyler Perry name if he didn't have that tireless drive, but some of his major turning points have come when he's ceded control. The filmmaker explains that in his life, a higher power calls the shots. "That voice that I believe God to be is very clear for me. Every time I surrender to it, I end up doing pretty well. Every time I went against it, I ended up in some mess."
For nearly two decades, Perry has created plays, films and television series at the pace of an artist with hellhounds on his trail, until he seems at once a king of African-American media and a prisoner of his own fame. His drive to succeed on his own terms derived largely from the desire to live up to the expectations of his mother and God. Compared to them, meeting the expectations of mainstream America isn't much of a priority.