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Vancouver Fan Expo: The First Lady of Star Trek

Over the course of her storied career, Nichelle Nichols has routinely gone where no one has gone before.
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Over the course of her storied career, Nichelle Nichols has routinely gone where no one has gone before.

The Illinois native — who will sign autographs, answer questions and pose for pictures at this weekend's Vancouver Fan Expo — first made history in 1966, when she was cast as Lieutenant Uhura in Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry's groundbreaking television series about a multicultural crew exploring the outer reaches of space aboard a steadfast starship (perhaps you've heard of the USS Enterprise?).

Roddenberry's humanist vision of the future was particularly daring in an era when America was deeply divided along racial lines. "I thought it was such good writing from a man who felt that the television should express men and women of all races as equals," said Nichols in a recent phone interview from her California home. "I was very excited about it."

Never before had Americans seen a character like Uhura on their television screens. Previously, African American actresses had been relegated to menial servant roles; on Star Trek, Uhura was an equal and integral member of the Enterprise crew. Nichols recalls long lunches with Roddenberry during which they discussed (and sometimes debated) the background and nuances of the trailblazing character. "[Roddenberry] was very, very kind and very loving and protective of his characters, so when he found someone who was as protective and generous with them and understood the interplay with the other characters, he was very, very pleased," said Nichols, now 80, who performed a song she co-wrote entitled Gene at Roddenberry's 1991 funeral.

As Uhura, Nichols secured her place in the history books when she shared a kiss with William Shatner's Captain James T. Kirk — the first interracial kiss on American television.

But Nichols did more than breathe life into an iconic character, one she admittedly still holds closely to her heart. Nichols worked with NASA — yes, that NASA, whose employees literally trek through the stars — to recruit women and minorities for the space shuttle program. "[NASA was] so pleased with the outcome, they couldn't believe it," she said. Nichols' recruits included Dr. Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut, and United States Air Force Colonel Guion Bluford, the first African-American astronaut. "I called my company Women in Motion, because women can move the Earth if need be."

And soar above the Earth, too: Nichols is one of a handful of people on the planet who have travelled to the edge of space by way of an eight-hour high altitude mission. "It was fantastic," she raved. "I didn't get nervous until it was all over."

Although Star Trek was cancelled two years short of completing its original five-year mission, it remains a cultural powerhouse, with numerous movie and television spin-offs to its credit. Fans of all ages still pack into convention halls to thank Nichols for inspiring them to dream big and reach for the stars.

Last year, Nichols visited one especially dedicated fan — President Barack Obama — in his place of work. "He goes, 'would you like to come to my office?' And I said, 'You mean the Oval Office? But of course! If you hadn't said it, I was going to beg it of you,'" she said, laughing. Following her visit to the White House, Nichols tweeted a photograph showing herself and the President smiling widely and flashing the Vulcan salute. "I took him a big Star Trek poster and I took him one of mine, and he was just thrilled," said Nichols of the President, who is reported to have had a crush on Uhura growing up. "I thought it was wonderful. It was really an honour, and he's pretty special, I have to tell you."