N.C. Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry. N.C. Department of Labor
N.C. Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry. N.C. Department of Labor

Durham County

The woman in the elevator, Cherie Berry, is "a bit of an icon" for Millennials.

By Colin Warren-Hicks

cwarrenhicks@heraldsun.com

September 05, 2017 06:00 AM

Raleigh

Would you say red is your signature color, Ms. Berry?

“Well … I am ‘Cherry’ Berry,” N.C. Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry said.

Wearing a red suit and glinting layered necklace, nails polished a bright confetti gloss, the commissioner then leaned forward and winked.

The petite politician’s practiced charm surmounts her physical stature.

Few visit the N.C. Department of Labor’s dull, red brick building, yet almost every North Carolinian, regardless of political affiliation, has glimpsed its commissioner’s face – at least, fleetingly.

Because, it’s in over 12,000 state-inspected elevators in the state of North Carolina

Her first name is Cherie, and that kind of sounds like cherry. And her last name is Berry, and thousands of Cherie “Cherry” Berry pictures are zipping up and down all over the state all the time.

“If you’re thinking about people who know my name – a lot of people,” Berry said. “Because the ‘Cherry Berry,’ it’s just, you know ...”

A cherry resembles a berry.

Fame

The first time someone recognized Berry from her likeness in elevators, she was on a plane.

Berry ordered a drink, “I think it was a martini,” she said.

Vodka or gin?

“Either one – dirty. But I like gin martinis clean. Just whisper the vermouth. Whisper it,” Berry said. “That’s it.”

The flight attendant glanced down, read the name on the credit card and exclaimed, “Oh, my, God, it’s the elevator lady!”

“She wanted a picture,” Berry said. “People flying on the plane wanted pictures.”

Shortly thereafter at a grocery store, a checkout clerk asked, “Are you the elevator lady? Cherry Berry?”

Berry said, “Guilty,” and a woman at the back of the line said, “Really? Wait. Let me go get my daughter.”

Are you the elevator lady? Cherry Berry?

A grocery store clerk

The pictures started appearing en masse in the mid-2000s. When university a capella groups started posting songs about her on YouTube, Berry realized “something is happening here.”

North Carolinian millennials know Berry.

On Oct. 27, 2015, an N.C. State student who’d ridden up-and-down alongside Berry’s picture since childhood wrote to the Department of Labor, “Ms. Berry has become a bit of an icon for my generation that way.”

There’s even a popular parody Twitter account called @ElevatorQueen in which a pretend Berry tweets jokes like ‘Damn y’all it was so hot today I was sweatin’ like @GovBevPerdue in church!” Berry enjoys reading it.

But, the woman in the elevator wasn’t always famous.

Small town girl

“OK, let me scroll back through my memory cells,” Berry said.

She was born in the Catawba County town of Newton across the street from her current home.

Her father, Earl Clifford Killian, was a tail gunner in World War II who was shot down twice, captured the second time and spent 13 months in a German prisoner of war camp before being liberated by the British.

Killian traveled through France on his way home and took a liking to a phrase he kept hearing the French say, “Mon cherie.”

Killian named his daughter Cherie.

After high school, the then-Cherie Killian moved to Boone, got a job wrapping Christmas presents at Hunt’s Department Store – “I wasn’t very good at it” – and sold ads, reported for and threw newspapers out a car window “into people’s yards.”

Berry remembers evenings in the back yard, holding a martini as her husband sipped a beer, admiring their camellias while wondering aloud if they afford their house for another year.

She once interviewed the husband of country singer Jeannie C. Riley, known for her hit song, “Harper Valley P.T.A.”

“(Riley) was surrounded by reporters from the Charlotte Observer and places like that,” Berry said. “I went over, sat down, had a beer with (her husband) and asked what it was like being married to her.”

Later, Berry married “the love of her life,” Norman H. Berry Jr., and thus became Cherie Berry.

Politics

Berry won election to the N.C. House of Representatives in 1992, served there from 1993 to 2000, and the Republican won election as the state’s first female labor commissioner in November 2000.

Controversy arose after an article in the journal American Politics Research called “The Elevator Effect” suggested signs like Berry’s could “indirectly improve” candidates’ electoral fortunes.

“The parts of the state in which Berry performs best in 2008 relative to her own prior performance are those that have the highest concentration of elevators,” the study said.

Berry said any bolstering to her vote tallies caused by her picture was inconsequential, because the highest concentrations of elevators are found in cities.

Cities vote blue, she said, and she was never going to win those liberals anyhow.

Co-author of “The Elevator Effect,” UNC-Chapel Hill doctoral candidate Jacob Smith thinks the most important takeaway from his study is “incumbents have the potential to favorably effect their vote shares in such ways that increase their vote totals,” he said.

But the elevator photo wasn’t even Berry’s idea, she says.

Her then-spokesman, Juan Santos, approached Berry about putting her picture on elevator inspection placards.

“Why?” she asked.

“We need to put a face on government,” he said.

She turned him down.

“I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t a fluke – a one-termer,” Berry said.

Santos died in 2008.

“And we greatly miss him,” Berry said. Berry’s current spokeswoman, Dolores Quesenberry, nodded, “We do,” she said.

Before Berry’s second term, Quesenberry said only some “lawyers downtown called her Cherry Berry.”

But after Berry was re-elected, a black and white head shot was added to elevators statewide. During her third term, the picture was updated, and after a win last November, Berry’s portrait has gotten a little color.

New placards are placed in elevators after they’ve passed a yearly inspection, Berry said; “I didn’t send them out and say ‘Blanket the land!’”

Business

Berry and her husband founded LGM Ltd., making new sparkplug wires for modern cars, inside a former billiards hall in 1985.

Are you the elevator lady? Cherry Berry?

A grocery store clerk

The business wasn’t an instant success.

Berry remembers evenings sitting in the back yard, holding a martini as her husband sipped a beer, admiring their camellias while wondering aloud if they could afford their house for another year.

“You know when you go to carnivals and things – they look like they’re having a lot of fun at fairs – those people who have those game wagons?” Berry remembers telling her husband. “We could do that. We could make up a game and do that.”

But LGM Ltd. took off and the Berrys did very well for themselves.

These days

These days, revelers send Berry selfies of their “Cherry Berry” Halloween costumes.

When a little North Carolina girl refused to get on a South Carolina elevator, not feeling safe without seeing Berry’s picture, her grandfather wrote Berry’s office. The girl’s family was soon moving to Chicago, he wrote – high-rises, lots of elevators. He asked for an elevator placard that the little girl could take with her to the big city.

Quick to oblige, Berry and her staff sent one to her.

Colin Warren-Hicks: 919-419-6636, @CWarrenHicks