Gabourey Sidibe has been breaking Hollywood boundaries since her starring role in Precious, but the Brooklyn-born actor, director and author has so much more to shout about…
“I’m tired of being told I am less than someone else. I am not. I’m amazing.” If you’re ever having a down day, a day when your self-worth is in doubt, I suggest having brunch with Gabourey Sidibe. To say the 35-year-old actor is ‘refreshing’ is to say Precious was an ‘OK’ film. Sidibe is a force and the world could do with the woke-quake she is ready to unleash. To be around her is to want to be the best version of yourself.
While her messages are serious – her blackness, her appearance, her African heritage, her complicated upbringing [her father had a secret family in Senegal where polygamy is accepted] – Sidibe is also wildly funny. She is the only person I have ever interviewed who has twice made me snort into my drink. The topic of conversation? “Butt sex.”
Before I met Sidibe, I had already assumed we would find similarities in each other. We are both plus-size women of colour working in an industry where you don’t typically see people like us. She just happened to be playing out her career in big screen films such as the career-defining Precious (2009), for which she was nominated for an Oscar, and Tower Heist (2011), while also owning the small screen playing Becky Williams in Empire – and I was carving out mine as a fashion writer at Stylist, Holborn.
Within minutes of meeting, Sidibe made me realise the words I used to describe us do not define us as people, they are merely facts. “Look at you! You are so f*cking dope,” she encourages me. “You work in an industry that would not have you otherwise – but they are forced to have you, so tell the fashion industry they can choke on you.”
I am not the only one that Sidibe has cast a much-needed spell over. In 2014, she gave a speech at the Gloria Awards (named in honour of feminist activist Gloria Steinem) that was so epic, no hater stood a chance against her force.
“If they hadn’t tried to break me down, I wouldn’t know that I’m unbreakable,” she told them. “So when you ask me how I’m so confident, I know you’re really asking me: how could someone like me be confident? Go ask Rihanna, asshole!”
Realising she had more words in her that needed to be heard, Sidibe started working on a book, This Is Just My Face: Try Not To Stare. The reason for its title?
“You know ‘resting bitch face’? And how it’s only directed at women, never at men. People say I have it, but I don’t feel the need to smile for no god damn reason.” Sidibe attests. “I’m not mad at you, I’m not a bitch, this is just my face.” Can’t argue with that.
You have had huge success as an actor, what spurred you to write a book?
When I was a teenager I wrote soap operas, but it wasn’t until I wrote my speech for The Gloria Awards that I really thought about anything more. There was a lot of freedom in writing, it was like verbally throwing up and coming to terms with my feelings.
You have said you read The Colour Purple by Alice Walker as therapy. Do you want your book to be therapy for someone?
I’m very, very shy and I would never say I want this book to be therapy because I don’t want to force that; but it’s beautiful if it can be therapy for someone. We need it, therapy is essential.
Why is therapy so important to you?
I probably should have been in therapy since I was nine. It’s having someone to talk to that’s impartial about everything else in my life and to have a time where you can just talk about yourself for an hour and not worry about whether you are monopolising the conversation.
Especially if you’re a woman, it’s like, “I’m always talking about this guy I like and he doesn’t like me and my friends are probably sick of me!” My therapist will talk about the guy I liked in 4th grade.
What was the hardest chapter to write?
There were two chapters that were excruciatingly hard. One was about my parents and their marriage. There was a lot of crying because I was forced to see my parents as people and not as indestructible.
I was forced to see my dad as an African man with values and a culture that aren’t the same as mine. For a long time, I was p*ssed: how dare he marry another woman? How dare he cheat on us? But that is how he was raised.
Polygamy is normal in Senegal – my grandfather had three other families – and I can’t ask him to be something he doesn’t understand. But when my parents got divorced and I saw how bitter it made my mom, I felt betrayed.
And the other one?
Money. In families of colour, or at least my family, money flows in a different direction. It should be that your parents make money and they pass it down to their children. In black families, the children nearly always make more money than their parents, so the money flows backwards.
My grandmother was a nanny to white children earning 50 cents a a day, my mother was a teacher and then became a subway performer, I am an actress in an Oscar-nominated film, who has sold a book, so the money flows in a different direction.
How do you feel about having money when your family don’t?
I feel guilty. But I feel like I shouldn’t have to feel that way as well. Money can be very, very hard to deal with. I have to spend money on everyone’s rent including my own which means people might think you have money, but you end up being spread really thin. I can afford my life but I can’t afford theirs. But what is the solution? I can’t adopt them.
Before you were acting, you had a job as a phone sex worker. Tell me about that…
My aunt told me when I was a kid that no one wants a fat person working for them in an office. My professor and my therapist both told me I would be good at telemarketing but no one wanted me. I thought, “I bet I could do phone sex!”
Everyone at the interview looked like me – they were all black and fat. I thought, “I think I am going to like it here.” It felt like all the outcasts ended up there. Being on the phones is really tough – you are at the whim of what the customers want, and while a lot of them just want a conversation there were also a lot that wanted something else. I was there for three years and it was the most money I had ever made as an average person.
You talk about confidence a lot, but not everyone can find that in themselves. Did someone help you to find yours?
I don’t think confidence can come from someone else. I am not great at trusting people when they say something kind. I am much more likely to trust something bad.
But I knew I was really smart, I was so smart I didn’t have friends. I was made fun of for reading. I was made fun of for the way I spoke so I began to talk like the people around me to make fun of them back. I was very much an asshole. The confidence really came from fighting for my right to live.
If people say negative things now, how do you shut it down?
I don’t bother shutting it down because it doesn’t matter. People keep saying, “Don’t judge me,” but what does it matter if I judge you? We are all just as sh*tty as the next person. If you love butt sex and I judge you on that, are you going to like butt sex any less? No. You still love butt sex. People judge me all the time, it doesn’t take any coins from my bank account. It doesn’t hurt me.
I think you underestimate how many people do not have that confidence. You have a fearlessness.
It’s not being fearless, it’s just being tired of being told I don’t deserve space on this earth. No one’s hate has ever shaved 10 pounds off my waist, no one’s hate has ever made my skin lighter. Fearlessness doesn’t come into play any more. I’m just tired of being told I am less than someone else.
The way you talk about your blackness makes it feel like a superpower. Have you always felt this way about it?
I have never been anything other than a black woman. But I have learnt to appreciate it. I spent a lot of time being made fun of for my blackness, even by black people. People would ask if I was adopted by white people because I read books and I sounded like a Californian ‘Valley Girl’. My dad had a French accent and my mom had a southern accent, I thought we got to choose an accent, so I chose Saved By The Bell, not Brooklyn.
My blackness isn’t the same as everyone else’s blackness, it’s personal. I love being black, I love my hair even though the one braid is hanging on by a string. I love my dark skin, I want to have babies that have my dark chocolate skin. I love our brilliance. Did you know black women are the most educated group in the world?
What do you enjoy reading?
I just started Sula by Toni Morrison and I am reading Children Of Blood And Bone – it’s a trilogy based in Africa [by Tomi Adeyemi]. It’s like Game Of Thrones.
What’s next for Gabourey Sidibe?
I want to write another book – this time about love and romance because I don’t understand it. My romantic escapades are just the dumbest. I want to be able to understand relationships and myself in a real grown-up relationship. I want to direct more. I directed one short film [The Tale Of Four based on a Nina Simone song] and it got a bunch of awards which was cool and interesting.
I want to not just see myself on screen, I want to see my mom, my sisters, my family, and people of different abilities. I am going to direct an episode of Empire. I want to see more of the world and I want to be able to control more of the world, if that’s possible.
If you could change one thing about the world what would it be?
Black women would not be invisible any more. How do you know if you are even real if you don’t see yourself represented?
This Is Just My Face: Try Not To Stare by Gabourey Sidibe (£7.99, Vintage) is out now.
Images: Getty Images