Gabourey Sidibe's Message To The World: 'Mind Your Own Body'

May 1, 2017
Originally published on May 1, 2017 9:58 am

Remember Precious? The 2009 film earned six Oscar nominations, including a best actress nod for newcomer Gabourey Sidibe. Precious was Sidibe's first acting job, and audiences ached for her character, a teen who is physically and sexually abused by her family.

Before Precious, Sidibe had been in two school plays — in the chorus. Since then, she has gone on to make a career for herself in movies and TV shows, like Fox's Empire.

Now the 33-year-old has written a book of essays about her rise to fame, body image and what it's like to be her. The book is called This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare. She tells NPR about how fame changed her life and how she responds when people comment on her weight.


Interview Highlights

On anticipating the fame Precious might bring after she finished filming

The film was coming out and I'd shot it and everyone was telling me that I was about to be a star. But, like, I still lived in a two-bedroom apartment with, you know, my mom sleeping in the living room on a day bed, and my brother. And I would go from, you know, really, really, really excited moments to depression. ...

There was a lot of like, "Yeah, maybe." ... [The film] could have been not as big a deal as they all thought it was going to be. It could have gone straight to video. But also I didn't want to be famous, like that wasn't my goal. My goal was just to live a good life that I was happy with. And I wasn't exactly sure that that meant being the star of a movie.

On not having anything to wear when she started attending film festivals for Precious

I didn't have any money. I had to compete with, you know, the Mariah Careys, all the fancy people that were in the film that had, you know, whole teams behind them — makeup artists, stylists, everything — and I had none of it. ...

We're at Cannes; we're in the south of France. I'm wearing this dress that I bought from Torrid or something, and I'm also wearing jeans underneath. ... I also was wearing a headband because there was a very real point in my career where I thought, Oh, headbands will be my thing. Like, I really thought that. I was like, Ya gotta have a gimmick. ... And like these brown wedges that I truly bought from Payless. My whole outfit cost maybe $37, but I still had to stand in between Paula Patton — as gorgeous as she is, as stylish as she is — and Mariah Carey. I don't think I need to tell you how gorgeous and stylish and fancy Mariah is. That is real pressure.

On what it was like to have fans confuse her for her character in Precious

Having people call me Precious and having people confuse me for this character was both really scary, frustrating, but also really endearing and powerful. ... People would see the film and then come up to me and say, you know, "I was Precious and I was abused by my parents," and "I was abused by this family member," or, you know, "I've dealt with these issues." And these people were 70-year-old white men and [Asian teenagers], just like so many different people from all over the scope of the world. So many different people connected to this struggle because it's not about race, it's not about gender, it's not about sexuality, it's not about age — it's not about any of that. It's about humanity. ...

And people would say, even when they couldn't see me as a different person from this character, they would say, "This happened to me the same way it happened to you." And I didn't feel like I could say, "This didn't happen to me. This is a character." All I could do was give sympathy and push forth strength, in a way. Say, "She made it and you can make it too."

On the chapter in her book titled "MYOB"

MYOB: Mind your own body. It's important because I don't happen to have the kind of body that we usually see on television and in films. I am plus-size, I have dark skin and I am 100 percent beautiful, but I get a lot of flak. "Oh, you should lose weight." And now that I have lost weight — I lost weight for health reasons — I get, "You look good, but don't lose too much weight because your face is starting to sink in." ...

Literally someone said, "Congratulations, I see you lost weight. Congratulations." And I say, "That's a weird thing to congratulate me on because this is my body." And it's not just the male gaze, it's like the human gaze. People do this to me. ... People staring at me. But also, this has been my body since I was 5ish, you know? It's been a 30-year thing of other people putting their own stuff on my body. But it's mine, so I will police it, thank you.

On overhearing a conversation between Precious director Lee Daniels and then-Vogue editor André Leon Talley in which they called her a "fat bitch" while planning to get her on the cover of Vogue

I know that Lee himself has struggled with his weight throughout his entire life. Lee is always on my side. But he also is very much a part of Hollywood, and Hollywood in general is not on my body's side, you know. And he's a part of that. Everyone I work with is a part of that. ...

I was listening in on the phone call where André Leon Talley was saying that he was going to get my fat black ass on the cover of the magazine, and Lee was excited about it. You know André Leon Talley is fat and black, and Lee was at that time, too, and I think that they saw me as this thing that was closer to them than I was to Hollywood, and they were celebrating that. And it hurt my feelings. It hurt my feelings. But it also was a lesson in this is what they think and this is what they will always think, and there's no way of being too talented or too pretty or too confident around it. People will still have their opinions....

I never got that cover. ... I'm not sure I want it.

Shannon Rhoades, Maddalena Richards and Nicole Cohen contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Do you remember the movie "Precious"? There were all these big names attached to the film. Oprah was the executive producer. Lee Daniels directed it. But the young woman at the center of the Oscar-nominated movie was far from a big name at the time. Gabourey Sidibe, audiences ached for her as they watched her play a teen who was physically and sexually abused by her family, as in this scene when a school counselor confronts her about her pregnancy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PRECIOUS")

NEALLA GORDON: (As Mrs. Lichtenstein) I'm going to have to suspend you.

GABOUREY SIDIBE: (As Precious) That ain't fair. I don't do nothing. I do my work. My grades is good.

GORDON: (As Mrs. Lichtenstein) Is something going on at home? If something's going on at home, I want you to tell me right now.

MARTIN: That was Gabourey Sidibe's first real acting job. She was in college studying psychology when she got this part. Since then, she's gone on to make a huge career for herself in movies and TV, appearing regularly on the TV show "Empire." And now the 33-year-old is engaging audiences in a different way. Sidibe is sharing her voice in a book of essays about her rise to fame, body image and, as she reads in this passage, what it is like to be her.

SIDIBE: (Reading) When I say a girl like me, I bet you think I'm just talking about being fat. How dare you fat-shame me? You think I'm talking about being black? Racist. What makes you think I'm not talking about being smart? What? You don't think a fat, black girl can be smart or something? Fat-shaming racists like you make me sick. I'm just kidding.

MARTIN: I asked Sidibe about the time right before the movie "Precious" came out.

SIDIBE: Everyone was telling me that I was about to be a star, but, like, I still lived in a two-bedroom apartment, with my mom sleeping in the living room on a daybed. And I would go from really, really, really excited moments to depression (laughter).

MARTIN: Because a lot's riding on it, right? There's no like - I know everyone kept telling you you're going to be a star, but I imagine there was part of you that's, like, I don't know. Maybe, but maybe not.

SIDIBE: Yeah, yeah. There's a lot of like, yeah, maybe or like - it could have been not as big a deal as they all thought it was going to be. It could have gone straight to video or, you know - but also I wasn't sure that I want - I didn't want to be famous. Like, that wasn't my goal. My goal was just to live a good life that I was happy with. And I wasn't exactly sure that that meant being the star of a movie.

MARTIN: So you mentioned, when the film came out, you had to kind of do the festival circuit. And so there you are, this young woman who all of a sudden is like a movie star. And you, like, don't have anything to wear.

SIDIBE: Oh, no. I mean - honestly - OK - didn't have any money (laughter). I had to compete with all of the, like, fancy people that were in the film that had makeup artists, stylists, everything. And I had none of it.

MARTIN: There's a picture, we should say, in the memoir of you standing with...

SIDIBE: Paula Patton?

MARTIN: Yeah, Paula Patton on the one side and Mariah Carey on the other side - scantily clad in, like, these crazy get-ups.

SIDIBE: Full ballgowns.

MARTIN: Yeah.

SIDIBE: And we're also - we're at Cannes. Like, we're in the south of France. I'm wearing this, like, dress that I bought from Torrid or something. And I'm also wearing jeans underneath. And I also was wearing a headband because they was a very real point in my career where I thought, oh, headbands will be my thing. Like, I really thought that. I was, like, you got to have a gimmick (laughter).

MARTIN: (Laughter) Headbands. That's where it's at.

SIDIBE: Headbands (laughter). I had so many different colors of it - I mean, I really thought I was doing it. My whole outfit cost maybe $37.

MARTIN: You seemed to weather that OK.

SIDIBE: Yeah, I did fine.

MARTIN: I want to ask you about this chapter in the book devoted to the acronym MYOB, which doesn't stand for mind your own business but pretty close. Explain what that means to you and why it's so important.

SIDIBE: Yeah, MYOB - mind your own body. It's important because I don't happen to have the kind of body that we usually see on television and in films. I am plus-size. I have dark skin. And I am 100 percent beautiful. But I get a lot of flak - oh, you should lose weight. And now that I have lost weight - and I lost weight for health reasons - I get, you look good but don't lose too much weight because your face is starting to sink in. And it's, like, I don't know you, sir. You have no...

MARTIN: So what do you say?

SIDIBE: I say - I literally - someone said, congratulations on your - I see you lost weight, congratulations. And I say, that's a weird thing to congratulate me on because this is my body. This is - and it's not just the male gaze. It's, like, the human gaze. People do this to me. I mean the gaze not gays.

MARTIN: G-A-Z-E.

SIDIBE: (Laughter) Yeah, G-A-Z-E.

MARTIN: Not the gays.

SIDIBE: Yeah, people staring at me and like this - but also this has been my body since I was 5-ish, you know? It's been a 30-year thing of other people putting their own stuff on my body. But it's mine, so I will police it. Thank you.

MARTIN: It was jarring, actually, when I read in the book even Lee Daniels, who you love, adore, respect, changed your life as the director of "Precious" - even he at one moment, which you recount, wasn't totally on your side.

SIDIBE: Do you mean he wasn't on my side about - with the...

MARTIN: Oh, just that moment with the guy...

SIDIBE: The Vogue thing?

MARTIN: Yeah, the Vogue thing.

SIDIBE: Yeah.

MARTIN: We should just clarify. This was a conversation - a phone call you weren't supposed to hear...

SIDIBE: Correct.

MARTIN: ...Between a fashion editor of Vogue, very famous, and - and Lee Daniels. They were talking about you getting the cover of Vogue, and it was something that you overheard.

SIDIBE: What I didn't know when I was listening in on the phone call where Andre Leon Talley was saying that he was going to get my fat, black ass on the cover of a magazine. And Lee was excited about it. I think that - you know, Andre Leon Talley is fat and black. And Lee was at that time, too. And I think that they - they saw me as this thing that was closer to them than I was to Hollywood. And they were celebrating that.

And it hurt my feelings. It hurt my feelings. But it also was a lesson in this is what they think, and this is what they will always think. And there's no way of being too talented or too pretty or too confident around it. People will still have their opinions.

MARTIN: Yeah. So early in the book, you describe yourself as being born - and I'm quoting here - "a cynical, suspicious, 45-year-old divorcee." Do you still think of yourself that way?

SIDIBE: Certainly.

MARTIN: Really?

SIDIBE: Definitely. I'm very cynical.

MARTIN: But there's all this, like, positive, joy stuff coming out of this book.

SIDIBE: And you know what? And I am joyful, and I am positive. And honestly...

MARTIN: I can't tell, really?

SIDIBE: (Laughter) I'm - I'm - the honest truth is I'm actually nervous. I'm scared a lot. But what my prayer has been for the beginning of my book tour is that I see love and that I invite in instead of pushing it away.

MARTIN: Gabourey, thanks so much.

SIDIBE: Thank you.

MARTIN: Actress and writer Gabourey Sidibe. Her new book is called "This Is Just My Face." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.