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Jameela Jamil gets real about periods, depression and Kim Kardashian

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Helen Bownass
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Jameela Jamil - Stylist cover star

With a major role in hit US sitcom The Good Place, Jameela Jamil is riding high, but it’s her determination to use her platform for good that has really got Stylist’s attention…

If Stylist was a person, it would be Jameela Jamil. Because it’s not an understatement to say Jamil is a true force for change. Someone who has made it her life’s mission to shout about the need for women to be valued for more than how they look or how much they weigh. For women to be treated with respect. This mission has crystallised in ‘I Weigh’, the social media movement where thousands of women send in pictures of themselves listing all the things they value about themselves – Jamil’s list includes ‘activism, the abuse I survived, a relationship with the best man I have ever met’.

She’s also utterly unafraid to hold people – no matter how powerful – accountable on social media. She recently called Kim Kardashian a “terrible and toxic influence on young girls” for posting an ad on Instagram about appetite-suppressing lollipops, has spoken out about the hiring of actor Emile Hirsch, by Quentin Tarantino, after he choked her friend and was sentenced to 15 days in prison, and weighed in on the Aziz Ansari story commenting that men aren’t conditioned to pay attention to the needs of women. I can’t think of many other people in the public eye so unafraid and socially attuned. In person too she’s rousing, thoughtful, funny. It’s impossible not to be inspired by her.

And because she has so much to say about how women are portrayed and treated – she also specified when we set up our shoot that she must not be retouched, and wanted to do her own make-up (unheard of) – we decided to also ask her how she wanted to be portrayed on the cover of Stylist. Turns out if you ask Jameela Jamil how she wants to be photographed she’ll request “to wear masculine suits like Julia Roberts in the Nineties”.

Which is why I’m sat in an LA studio watching Jamil taking up as much space as she can, for the cover of Stylist, having done her make-up “in 10 minutes in the back of an Uber on the way here”, while telling us about a bolognese so good it will make you orgasm (at local restaurant called Osteria La Buca).

“A big thing I am arguing for is that women can be as comfortable as men both in life and in the industry,” Jamil, currently starring in one of Hollywood’s most talked about comedies The Good Place, goes on to tell me. “I’ve got nothing against sexy clothing but I always get hyper-sexualised in photoshoots; wearing suits means I don’t have to think about what my body’s doing and my vagina is the most comfortable it’s ever been.” She’s got a point.

For Americans this is the first wave of Jamil. They don’t know that before she moved to Los Angeles aged 29 she had a career at the sharp end of UK popular music. Firstly as a T4 presenter, followed by hosting The Official Chart Show on Radio 1 – neither expected, not least from her, of a “19-year-old who had a basic education, didn’t have any contacts, who came from complete poverty”.

Now she is at a pinnacle. As well as being the best thing about The Good Place as name-dropping Tahani – the radical comedy set in the after-life, alongside Ted Danson and Kristen Bell – she will soon start hosting a show on NBC and has a book to finish, based on the columns she wrote for the now-closed Company magazine about love and life. She is also seeking funding to make a documentary about “the systemic problem of the way we manipulate girls to hate themselves”, wants to hold truly inclusive Fashion Week events and is turning I Weigh into a foundation. The world needs so much more of this…

Calling out a Kardashian is a bold move. Why were you compelled to do it?

I didn’t think about it; I almost feel allergic to this sh*t now. I don’t care enough about this business to allow injustice any more. I feel guilty about how long I spent being quiet about certain things out of fear. When I was 14 I developed anorexia, as did almost every girl in my school. We were all emaciated and living on 400 calories a day, we weren’t menstruating. For three years I didn’t eat a meal. That happened to me before social media so what’s going to happen now? I would like to turn all the lights on in the club so everyone can see what’s going on. I’m sure it will cost me photoshoots and branding opportunities but how much money do I f*cking need? Stop telling women to not eat. I look at women who do that kind of thing, not just the Kardashians, any of these women who fully pursue patriarchal messaging. [Some people argue], “But they’re doing it as women so it’s feminism,” but no! You’re a double agent for the patriarchy.

Because feminism isn’t just agreeing with everything any woman does…

Agreed. I get so much sh*t any time I ever criticise any woman. I don’t even think [said] women are aware it’s happening, they just see money and fame and they’re not taking a minute to get outside of their own arseholes to see the influence they have. I take it maybe too seriously, but I take it very seriously because I got very f*cked up by this stuff when I was younger.

Did you expect such widespread reaction? [The story made headlines globally in May, she got over 62,000 likes for a post talking about it, while thousands of people also then called out Kim’s original post.]

I don’t have a very big online following so I never expect anyone’s listening. I tweeted thinking a couple of my followers might see it, but hoping to reach young girls. I didn’t think I’d wake up and it’d be international news. I definitely felt a pain in my heart because I’m in the papers for criticising another woman, but the way to evolve is to sometimes be criticised. I have grown more from my failures than my successes because people have called me out when I f*cked things up. I do it out of love; I would never envy them, or feel that way about myself the way that they do.

Why do you think women, including the Kardashians, feel that way about themselves?

I think they’re broken by this industry. I bet [Kim] went through all the same sh*t I did. She keeps fixing and fixing but there’s nothing to fix. She clearly can’t see what she looks like, none of them can see what they look like. I just feel sad for them.

What was the moment when all the thoughts you’d had about women and how they’re judged fully crystallised?

It began six years ago when I was the first woman hosting The Official Chart Show in 60 years; I’d gained 200,000 listeners but it wasn’t mentioned. The papers just documented that I’d gained two dress sizes, or five dress sizes probably. I just thought, ‘This is what I’ve been reduced to’. That’s when I got angry and that’s when I released a clothing line with Simply Be and spoke to the House of Commons. Now the closer I’m coming to thinking about one day having children, that’s having an effect: what kind of world am I going to bring my children into? It’s terrifying the ideals teenagers have, the way that they’ve been poisoned, especially girls. The body standards that we’re expected to achieve are more and more ridiculous. In the Nineties you had to be skeletally thin, now you have to be skeletally thin but with big tits and a big arse but no thighs. We’ve all been through enough now. We’ve been too sexualised, we’ve been too objectified and there’s no sense of balance. I’d like to be one of the role models that I didn’t have. It’s really important to use your platform responsibly. Otherwise you really don’t deserve it.

Jameela Jamil - Stylist cover star

What should we be showing young women?

I’ve got spots today because my period is due next week – I’m fine with the fact those might show up in the photoshoot. And I always show off my stretch marks, cannot stop getting my bingo wings out. Women are becoming immune to seeing flaws because we are not used to seeing them anywhere. This is why everyone just ends up having surgery because then they feel like they have to live up to the airbrushed picture and then they get a sh*t-load of Botox and their eyebrows f*cking collapse and they look like a melting mask because they were trying to match something that was fake. We need to keep our eye on the ball, value each other properly, stop objectifying each other and stop shaming. When I gained weight I had girls, teenage girls, messaging me saying, “I hate you now that you’re fat”. I’m like, “Who poisoned your brain for you to not like me any more because I’m bigger.”

People are still routinely congratulated when they lose weight though…

As a rule I never mention it to friends because I think it is toxic. I’ve lived with a couple of different women and their obsession over their weight started to affect the way I thought about myself. We could be thinking about so many more important things.

How have you quietened that noise?

By cutting people out. I have a very curated bubble around me. You have to be your own weapon of self-preservation. I turned 29 when I decided to move [to LA]. I left my relationship, my job, my country and decided to start all over again. I culled about 400 people from Facebook and started to look at my relationships and who was triggering me.

There’s some social politics around unfollowing someone on social media…

I didn’t have an issue saying someone’s Facebook or Instagram gave me a problem. I was not OK in my 20s, which is why it took me so long to get to this conclusion: you can just tell people the truth and say no. I’m very good at asking what I want from people politely and it’s changed my life. People can’t believe it when you tell them they’re making you feel uncomfortable, especially as a woman. A male friend of mine was constantly ranting on Facebook and I deleted him.

He contacted me [to ask why] and I said, “I’m really sorry I find your manner on Facebook unpleasant and I don’t find it unpleasant in real life but that’s the only place I ever wish to know you.”

How do those conversations make you feel?

Very sweaty. But as soon as it’s done it feels like a tonne has been taken off your heart. I used to have depression and anxiety in my 20s and I believe a lot of that was because I was very repressed: as an English person and an Asian person and as a woman. I believe that repression leads to depression and since I’ve stopped repressing myself I don’t feel depressed. I’m not worrying, I sleep better, I’m less distracted. I love to confront people over email, it’s very thoughtful – my boyfriend and I argue over email even though we live together. It is the best way to keep yourself in check in a situation of combat. 

I’m wondering why I’m so shocked that you feel able to tell people what you want from them…

I’m in shock! I still get surprised every time I actually get something I want. Being able to put my foot down has lifted all of the weight off me. I’m the happiest and most comfortable I’ve ever been.

What are the ways you ask to be treated?

Don’t take your sh*t out on me ever. Don’t put me down because you’re feeling bad about yourself. Don’t make me feel self-conscious. Don’t judge my lifestyle. I’m not high-maintenance but I do demand a certain level of respect that I didn’t get when I was younger because I didn’t ask for it.

How would you advise people to follow suit?

Start small. Start with food orders: something comes not the way you ordered, be nice and say, “I’m so sorry but this is not what I wanted, can I please have this thing that I want”. If you ask someone for something that is good for you and respectful and they don’t do it, get away from that person. Even if it’s family. I didn’t talk to a couple of my family members for six years until they agreed to treat me in a way I found appropriate.

If we empowered young women to ask for what they want would the world be different?

Hugely so. These things are so often available to us but we’ve been discouraged from asking. I recently got offered a really big job but with a lot less money than I deserved so I turned it down three times. I felt sick the whole time but I got what I deserved in the end. It’s not easy. It probably is in our nature, but it’s not in our nurture. Make sure you know your own worth and ask for the basics. So much more is available to us than we know.

You mentioned your depression before – do you find there’s still reticence to discuss that?

I talk openly about my mental health struggles because I don’t think it should be a taboo. I’m against shame – I Weigh is my revolution against shame. We get doused with shame everywhere: we’re too sexy, or not sexy enough, we’re too thin, we’re too fat, we’re too old – although we’re never too young. From the minute we’re little and pick up a Barbie doll with a tiny waist and endless legs that’s the second we are handed shame. There’s so much toxicity, if I could save anyone from what I went through for the past 15 years, I’ll spend my life fighting for that.

You had therapy in your 20s, is that something you still do?

I did short-form therapy called EMDR [Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing], which is really good for trauma. I did it for three to four months and it saved my life. It got rid of old patterns and deep-buried sadness from when I was very young. Everyone should have therapy because it’s nice to have someone to be able to tell your most terrible thoughts to who won’t judge you.

How have you learnt to find peace within your own body?

I have a rule that anything I wouldn’t have said to my best friend in front of me I’m not allowed to say to myself. I have little moments, not as many as other people I know, but of course I do, especially now that I’m in Hollywood. These actresses who look normal on the red carpet look like skeletons in real life. But when I have those thoughts, I think you’d never let someone else say that. If someone came up to me and was rude about your appearance, I would go absolutely apesh*t. Why do I allow those things to be said to me either via trolls, or subliminal conditioning, or most of all what I say to myself? So I have a really quick cleaning mechanism.

How do you think shows like Love Island contribute to the way women see themselves?

We cannot just hold Love Island to task for this kind of thing. This is a constant problem in the history of television, but now more than ever. Why do people with disabilities only get to be on a show called The Undateables? I think we need to start taking a look at ourselves. I think the producers of those shows need to sit back and take a f*cking look at themselves.

When you were growing up did you ever see anyone that looked like you?

No! They said that Kate Winslet was so fat she sank the Titanic… she was a UK size 10. There was a picture of Gemma Arterton, who was model thin, laughing at the James Bond premiere and a tabloid printed, “Who ate all the spies”, because she had a double chin. We had poor old Paltrow talking about eating naked in front of the mirror. All kinds of sh*t going on. I didn’t have anyone to look at.

Did you consider yourself a feminist as a teenager?

I disassociated myself from female culture a lot. I was a big tomboy because I was so uninterested in things I was told I was supposed to be interested in. I didn’t really have many friends but nerdy boys were the people I gravitated towards. I was miserable trying to be thin like I was told to be and miserable trying to fit these stereotypes so I gravitated towards men. That’s so sad looking back that I didn’t have any female role models.

Do you think we’re seeing any change?

I think the #MeToo movement has changed this industry. There is a feeling that women have just woken up out of this apologetic coma and we’re like, ‘Hang on a minute, what? What have I allowed to happen to myself?’ Since the #MeToo movement I have this sense of self.

And before we couldn’t let women have their own agency because that’s threatening…

If we turn on each other we won’t stick together and if we don’t stick together we’re easier to conquer. The #MeToo movement is what happens when women stick together: Harvey Weinstein gets kicked out of the academy and goes to jail, and men are afraid of us. When I walk onto set, a man won’t give me a hug because he’s afraid that will be inappropriate. Men talk to me so much more appropriately – I never get asked out for dinner after meetings, it’s been a complete change.

What does happiness feel like for you right now?

It’s contentment and gratitude as much as you might be sick in your mouth reading this. Being happy with your lot is the biggest ‘F*ck you’ you can give to society. It makes you independent. There was a time when I couldn’t urinate on my own because I had such a damaged back from my car accident [aged 17 Jamil was bedridden for two years] but I’ve pissed on my own several times today. Contentment and gratitude have given me every bit of success I’ve ever had.

The Good Place is on Netflix now, season three will return this summer. Follow @i_weigh on Instagram

Images: Martin Schoeller