Baltimore’s Ernestine Shepherd, 84, lives by the mantra: dedicated, determined, disciplined. These words, emblazoned on all her gym clothing, have fueled her for nearly three decades.
A mother, grandmother and retired school secretary, Shepherd holds a Guinness world record for oldest female competitive bodybuilder in the world. She was named “6-pack granny” by Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Now she can add another honor to the list: appearance in a Beyoncé production.
Millions have seen Shepherd’s cameo appearance in Beyonce’s hit visual musical album, “Black Is King,” which debuted July 31 on Disney Plus. Shepherd got the role through her longtime trainer and manager, Yohnnie Shambourger.
“One of my contacts knew someone who was organizing ‘Black Is King,‘” Shambourger said. “I wanted to promote Shepherd, and we got an email last year saying Beyonce’s team wanted her to be part of it.”
“It had to be a well kept secret,” Shepherd said of the production, shot last year. “I was on Cloud Nine.”
She said she and Shambourger’s daughter, Yohnei, flew to Los Angeles in October 2019 for the production of “My Power,” one of the videos in the “Black Is King” music video album.
The song weaves together the rhythms of afrobeats and reggae with lyrics celebrating power, beauty and Blackness. Shepherd’s appearance is brief. She’s seen flexing her arm muscles while wearing a bright orange athletic T and a beaded, multi-strand necklace.
Shepherd said despite having just a cameo, Beyoncé gave her star treatment.
“It was a wonderful, wonderful experience,” she said. ”Beyoncé ...made me feel like a queen.”
At the end of the video shoot, Beyoncé, who Shepherd described as “breathtakingly beautiful,” walked over to her and thanked her with a warm hug, Shepherd said.
“I felt so honored,” she said. “I went to the ladies room and shed a few tears.”
Shepherd said her moment in the spotlight pays homage to her older sister, who was the inspiration behind her journey in bodybuilding.
When Shepherd was in her mid-50s, her husband, Collin, was planning to host a poolside outing. She and her sister, Velvet Blackwell, went shopping for bathing suits before the party.
Shepherd says the two felt apprehensive about how they looked in the swimwear, so they made a pact to eat healthier and work out. Blackwell, who wanted to be a professional bodybuilder, got into shape more quickly than her sister. Blackwell’s success motivated Shepherd to work harder.
“You’re never too old,” Shepherd said. “You need to be dedicated, determined and disciplined to see the results you want.
Before the two turned 60, Shepherd recalled, her sister became ill.
Blackwell told her sister that she was not feeling well. She had a headache, a rushing sound in her ears, and had lost vision in one eye. While she was being taken to the hospital, Blackwell laid her head on Shepherd’s lap.
“She reached for my hand and made me pinky promise that I’d continue to do the work we were doing,” Shepherd said.
Blackwell died shortly after from a ruptured aneurysm.
“My sister was no longer here, but I wanted to keep her dream alive,” Shepherd said.
At 71, Shepherd hired Shambourger and told him she wanted to be a competitive bodybuilder. They started a tough daily routine that paid off.
“I competed with women who were younger than me and won every single time,” Shepherd said.
She started weekly community runs in Druid Hill Park that, before COVID-19 hit, attracted about 50 people most weekends.
“Ever since I started this journey, I’ve been able to travel to places I never thought I would,” said Shepherd, adding that California holds a special place in her heart.
The Beyoncé project in Los Angeles came just a month after Shepherd’s husband of 63 years passed away. The trip was the first time in weeks that she had ventured away from Baltimore.
Shepherd said being in the video gave her newfound strength.
“I felt like I had the power to smile again,” Shepherd said. “Beyoncé has no idea what she’s done for me.”
Tatyana Turner is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers African American neighborhoods, life and culture.