Gabourey Sidibe Doesn’t Want to Talk About Her Body

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Gabourey Sidibe Doesn’t Want to Talk About Her Body

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LOS ANGELES — On the night the director Lee Daniels offered Gabourey Sidibe the lead in “Precious,” the role that would earn her an Oscar nomination, Mr. Daniels asked if she had a boyfriend. Ms. Sidibe, then a 24-year-old psychology major whose training as an actor had been confined to her work as a phone-sex operator, as well as roles in college productions of “Peter Pan” and “The Wiz,” answered tartly.

“No,” Ms. Sidibe told him, “but now that I’m going to be a movie star, I’m going to get pregnant by a basketball player and lock down that child support.” Mr. Daniels cracked up, and the deal was sealed.

“Sarcasm is my birth defect,” Ms. Sidibe, now 33, said recently. “I was born cynical.”

Like many smart young women whose precociousness put them at odds with their peers — by fourth grade, Ms. Sidibe said, she was an entrenched outlier — sarcasm has been both weapon and armor. She deployed it to fine effect in her upside-down household in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, where she and her older brother were raised by their warm, Southern mother and stern African father, whose family traditions extended to polygamy — “I know!” Ms. Sidibe said — and who called his firstborn daughter “fatso,” as did her relatives, while outlining her future as a good Muslim wife.

Her sarcasm is on rueful display in her new memoir, “This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), in which she writes of trying to please a father for whom she is too American, too vivid and altogether too much. Her parents married when her father, who trained as an architect and worked as a taxi driver, offered to pay her mother to marry him so that he could apply for a green card. A year later, she fell in love with her paper husband. “That’s right!” Ms. Sidibe writes. “My mother is so classy that you have to marry her and then wait a year before she gives you any play.”

She writes of her panic when they divorced, and her mother gave up her teaching career to become a subway singer, at the same time that the family of three moved into a single room of her aunt’s Harlem townhouse. (They would later move to a studio apartment nearby, where all three shared a bunk bed.)

Ms. Sidibe’s aunt is Dorothy Pitman Hughes, a founder of Ms. Magazine; a famous portrait from 1971, of Ms. Pitman Hughes and Gloria Steinem raising their fists in a Black Power salute, hung in her sitting room, where Ms. Sidibe passed it every day on her way to school, and Ms. Steinem was a regular guest. While Ms. Sidibe averred that she is “a link on a chain of powerful women,” her own steely self-confidence, she said, wasn’t nurtured by her activist relatives so much as a survival skill she taught herself in the bruising theater of elementary school.

“Children are horrible,” she said. “I was horrible.”

Ms. Sidibe and I were holed up in a basement reading room at the Museum of Contemporary Art after touring the Kerry James Marshall exhibit upstairs. She wore a ruffled, daffodil-yellow dress and, for our interview, a pair of glasses. Last May, Ms. Sidibe bought a house in this city, a three-bedroom painted inside with bold colors and accessorized by African prints, surrounded by a white picket fence and climbing roses. But she had suggested the museum instead as a meeting place. Mr. Marshall’s exuberant paintings of black American life come with a manifesto she feels more strongly than ever, given the political climate. “I’m really starting to regret voting for Trump,” she said, poker-faced, and then snorted with laughter. Later she said, “Even though I’ve been black and proud my whole life, now I want to be draped in my culture; I want to be draped in my blackness.”

She also wants to be swathed in privacy. Just after “Precious” made her famous, when a crew from a magazine showed up at the West End apartment where she was living at the time, drawing a crowd of onlookers, Ms. Sidibe had a full-blown panic attack. “I was an anxious kid, and now I’m an anxious adult,” she said. “I had to shut it down.” (In her book, she writes of her deep wariness of strangers. “When are you leaving?” she would ask her parents’ guests the moment they arrived. It was particularly trying for her when Ms. Sidibe’s father ensconced his female “cousin” in her bedroom and bed for months; it wasn’t until much later that she realized the woman was her father’s second wife, as in the woman he had married back home in Senegal while still married to Ms. Sidibe’s mother.)

Ms. Sidibe was working at the phone-sex company and had just started Mercy College in Manhattan, her second college stint, when a friend told her about a casting call for “Precious.” She showed up almost as an afterthought, though five years earlier she had read “Push,” the novel by Sapphire, from which the movie was adapted, when a casting agent had wanted to cast Ms. Sidibe’s mother as the monstrous onscreen mother who would eventually be played by Mo’Nique. To Mr. Daniels, the harrowing role of Precious, an obese and illiterate teenager who had been sexually abused by her father and was drawn partly from the author’s real-life experience, had seemed out of reach for most Hollywood actresses.

So he created a “Precious” boot camp, casting young women with no training, many of whom were the victims of abuse and the foster care system. But none worked out, he said, “and the search was mad on, and the clock was ticking.”

Ms. Sidibe’s audition “was exquisite,” Mr. Daniels said.

“Gabby tapped her life experience in a way that was beautiful and wasn’t tragic,” he continued. “She came in as an actor, though she was unaware of her instrument and her ability.”

Yet Ms. Sidibe had had training, although it was unorthodox. Upended by panic attacks, depression and bulimia, she had dropped out of college to attend an intensive, six-month program of dialectical behavioral therapy, at which her fellow patients called her “the happiest person at Sad Camp,” and from which she emerged with unlooked-for job skills like “active listening,” a linchpin of psychotherapy. “I put it on my resume,” she said, “even though I had learned it as a patient, not a student.” (Since she didn’t yet have actual job skills, her therapist suggested telemarketing as a profession, though, “for some reason, I heard ‘phone sex,’” she said.)

Active listening, Ms. Sidibe added, made her a terrific phone-sex operator, which in turn gave her acting chops, particularly since the “phone ho station,” as she called it, was staffed mostly by plus-size African-American women, all of whom were playing the role of a barely legal white teenager of limited intelligence.

“I learned to talk to anyone,” she said, “to lead with my personality and to not be afraid. We’re all human.” Even the businessman who wears women’s underpants under his suit, she said, “maybe especially him,” though Ms. Sidibe was most moved by the soldiers calling from Afghanistan wanting to talk to someone who wasn’t, she said, “the person they were lonely for, because it only made them lonelier.”

“So it was like a normal conversation,” she continued. “‘What kind of soda do you like?’ ‘What kind of beer?’”

Phone work paid well, but she quit to play Precious. Money was tight after the film wrapped; she was paid scale, about $2,500 a week, but it took a month for her to receive her first check. After “Precious” made its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 2009, Ms. Sidibe experienced fame without fortune, riding subways and buses to red carpet events. Life at home was still precarious. On the morning of one event, her landlord tried to evict the family for what turned out to be a clerical error.

Her income that year was about $50,000, just under half of which was from the phone-sex work — and almost double what her mother made, earning Ms. Sidibe head of household status on the family tax returns, a position that made her anxious.

Even after her Oscar nomination, and years of steady roles on shows like “American Horror Story” and “Empire,” and films like “Tower Heist,” money and family would continue to bedevil her. She took to paying her parents’ rents before paying her own, in a stew of guilt and pride, and constantly fielding entreaties from more distant relatives.

Wouldn’t it be nice, Ms. Sidibe writes, “if money bought love? But it doesn’t. It buys resentment.”

As musuemgoers wandered in and out of the reading room, bemused by the sight of Ms. Sidibe and me hunkered down on a sofa there, she said: “Honestly, I think women in general have a lot of guilt. I think it’s a woman’s burden. I think even more so a black woman’s burden.

“It’s the idea of the strong black woman. We’re put upon in so many different ways. And so my guilt comes from: ‘You know you should be nicer. I don’t care if you’re uncomfortable, you have to do this.’ I’ve been uncomfortable my whole life. I just don’t want to be uncomfortable anymore.”

In 2014, Ms. Sidibe found herself courted by literary agents, after she spoke, along with Chelsea Handler and Amy Schumer, at a Ms. Foundation awards gala that was also a party for Ms. Steinem’s 80th birthday. The activist, actress and comedian Kathy Najimy said she was in charge of “curating the right voices, and Gabby seemed to be that perfect voice.” She recalled that after Ms. Sidibe spoke, it was like church.

The speech involved a childhood memory and a crisis of confidence, a story about how Ms. Sidibe had baked cookies for a fourth-grade party and was shunned by her classmates. At first, Ms. Sidibe said, she sat glumly at her desk before taking herself in hand. “I was like, ‘This is also my party, and I’m going to have a good time,’” she said. “I was aware I was smart. I read books. I had zero friends. It wasn’t because I was fat. It was because I was” — and here she used a pungent expletive that had brought the house down that night at the gala. “I was really sarcastic and children don’t understand sarcasm.”

“People are always asking me why or how I’m so confident,” Ms. Sidibe added, describing the essence of the talk. “But what they really mean is why are you so confident. They are not asking Rihanna. They are asking me, because they don’t think I should be. That’s what the cookie story was about, and that’s what started the book.”

Ms. Najimy said: “Being heavy for her wasn’t about self hate. We had that in common: being a person in Hollywood who doesn’t look like a person should look in Hollywood. People can’t believe you walk through the world without fear because they are so paralyzed with fear about how they look. They can’t believe you have the confidence and the balls to get onstage, that you dress in cute clothes and are not ashamed.”

In her book, Ms. Sidibe says, “My body sometimes feels like a tragedy, but I’m trying very hard to change my mind about that.”

But she also acknowledges the power of her unconventional beauty, which makes this memoir a book you will want to give your daughter. Entertainment Weekly reported that it sold at auction for $2.5 million. “It wasn’t quite that much,” said David Kuhn, the agent she chose. Eighteen publishers, Mr. Kuhn said, had asked for a meeting with Ms. Sidibe, who was in town for just a few days and could meet with only 10. So he held a preauction to winnow her suitors.

“I was ready to sell the book for $70,000,” Ms. Sidibe said. “It was much more than I expected. I was very surprised.”

But readers of her Twitter and Instagram feeds, where she plays a modern, though still profane, Dorothy Parker, might not have been. “Gabby doesn’t just spew,” said Jussie Smollett, her co-star on “Empire,” the Fox series created by Mr. Daniels that is now in its third season. “She’s snappy and down with the clapback and hilarious without being mean.”

Mr. Smollett plays Jamal, the “good” son, on the “Dallas”-like drama in which the family business is hip-hop, not oil, and Ms. Sidibe plays Becky, the long-suffering assistant to Luscious Lyon, the show’s patriarch and King Lear-figure, played by Terrence Howard.

Interactive Feature | NYT Living Newsletter Get lifestyle news from the Style, Travel and Food sections, from the latest trends to news you can use.

Mr. Smollett wrote to Ms. Sidibe years before they met on the set. It was just after “Precious” had made her a star, he said. “I had seen her on the red carpet and she was talking to Ryan Seacrest about Gerard Butler, and she said something like, ‘Yeah, I’d hit that.’” Mr. Smollett said he was entranced by her brashness. “‘Precious’ was so sad, but Gabby was a ball of happiness. I wrote her then and said: ‘I think we’re going to be best friends. You’re going to be the She-Ra to my He-Man.’ Then I got ‘Empire,’ and from that moment we’ve been like peanut butter and jelly.”

Mr. Daniels remembered that after “Precious,” people said Ms. Sidibe would never work again. People would make the mistake — as he almost did — that no actor could nail the role, and they would continue to confuse Ms. Sidibe with the character of “Precious.” In those early years of her career, interviewers were surprised that she was not, in fact, a beaten-down illiterate teenager.

The internet was predictably vicious. “Whale, gorilla, elephant” were typical epithets for Precious, she said, along with more insidious commentary. “A lot of people were concerned that I was ‘promoting unhealthy eating habits,’” she writes. “Funny. I could’ve sworn I was promoting a movie.”

At Halloween, people would dress up as Precious by stuffing sweatshirts with pillows and blackening their faces, and her friends would send her photos because they found them funny and thought she would, too. Ms. Sidibe writes of the time she overheard André Leon Talley, the Vogue editor, on speaker phone with Mr. Daniels, crowing: “I am putting that fat bitch right on the cover of Vogue. I love her. That black bitch will be on the cover.”

Mr. Daniels pointed out that the word can be a term of endearment. “I think it was said in love,” he recalled, adding that he was rather large at the time. “It was almost a militant, defiant statement about the movie.”

But even though Ms. Sidibe might have joined in had she been in the room, she was stung.

“I know what I looked like, I had mirrors in my home,” she writes. “But at the time I thought that if I could just get the world to see me the way I saw myself, then my body wouldn’t be the thing you walked away thinking about.”

When she decided last spring to have bariatric surgery after years of living secretly with diabetes, the first doctor she interviewed confused her with Amber Riley, another young, black plus-size actor. Ms. Sidibe went with another surgeon. She told only one person about her “very grown-up surgery,” said her friend Kia Perry, who took care of her.

Then Ms. Sidibe told Mr. Daniels. “He’s like, ‘Bitch, what are you doing?’” she recalled in the interview. “I’m like, ‘Cocaine?’”

Are we ever going to stop scrutinizing women’s bodies?

“No, I don’t think so,” she said. “I try my best. I’m very sensitive to this question. Even when someone is really tall, I try not to be like, ‘Wow, you’re tall!’ because that person effing knows. I don’t want to talk about my body. I’m bored with it. I wrote about it because I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”

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