In a tell-all interview actress and activist Jameela Jamil talks about Hollywood, red carpets and why it's a good time to be brown
Outspoken and fierce, British actress Jameela Jamil has managed to stand out in a sea of celebrities by never shying away from calling a spade a spade. In the last few months, the actress of Indian and Pakistani descent has stood up for pro-life choices following Georgia ‘heartbeat’ bill and bravely speaking out about sexual abuse. Not only that, she has fuelled a wave of attention towards body positivity with her I_Weigh movement on social media, which has now become one of the only 16 accounts that the official Instagram account of The Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle follow. On a regular day, you can catch her playing the name-dropping socialite Tahani Al-Jamil in the Golden Globes-nominated dark comedy, The Good Place. Creator Michael Schur recently confirmed that the show will be back for one last season, and the fans are likely to miss Tahani very much. But Jameela is here to stay on the global pop culture map for a long time. In an exclusive chat with Indulge, Jameela opens up about working on The Good Place, I_Weigh, and about her ethnicity. Excerpts from the conversation:
First up, congratulations on the I_Weigh movement, you have been cheered by so many well-known celebrities. From Taylor Swift giving you a shout out to Sam Smith participating in an inspiring interview, do you think this wave of positivity was long overdue?
I do think the #TimesUp and #MeToo campaigns have greatly shifted the conversation and situation in the film fraternity — in Hollywood, in Indian cinema, everywhere. It is an exciting time to be here! However, it is important to recognise that the work isn’t done. We are just starting to undo hundreds of years of damage and misinformation. There is a long way to go until we arrive at equality. I_Weigh is an important part of this global shift. I’ve worked very hard on it, and I’m proud of it and inspired by all of our followers. It’s a safe space on the internet for vulnerable people who are tired of being abused and erased. But it’s also a movement that tells truth and helps marginalised people feel bold and supported in a society that normally tries to drown out their problems.
Ever since you interviewed singer Sam Smith, have you noticed that it has helped more men to deal with the problems they face accepting their bodies?
Yes! My feminism is very inclusive of men. I believe men can be great allies to us. But they have a lot to learn and unlearn. Like iPhones, we all need to update! Men should be encouraged to talk more about their feelings, insecurities and fears. It will help us all come together and it will also improve their mental well-being.
What’s the importance of sisterhood, according to you, in show business?
The #MeToo movement revealed that all the women have been divided and conquered and forbidden from sharing our common experiences. It has brought so many women together. I certainly think the competition is subsiding and the union is strengthening between us. I rely on strong, smart, funny and loyal women in all areas of my life. Together we are stronger!
Women all over the world have lauded your courage when you decided to open up about your episodes of sexual harassment. What made you open up about it?
I’m open about everything because keeping secrets implies shame around those stories. I don’t believe in shame. I think it’s a device used to silence women. I like to use my experiences to help other people, then it feels like I’m recycling the trauma and turning it into something beautiful and meaningful. Also, it encourages other people to share as well, and that provides a feeling of solidarity and community.
As a star and a principal character on a well-loved TV show, have you still been told anything by a designer, a photographer that perpetuates toxic beauty standards?
Not on The Good Place, but everywhere else! My entire career almost, I have been spoken to inappropriately, fat-shamed or bullied by men. I’ve been told I’m not funny because I’m a woman, and women aren’t funny. I’ve been told I’m not smart, and I should try to just look pretty because men prefer stupid, quiet, pretty women.I’ve been asked by photographers to shoot naked. I’ve never done it, and I can’t imagine any of my male colleagues ever being approached to do this. The sexism is really quite extraordinary.
Have you ever faced racist or sexist jibes while you started work in Hollywood? How have you clapped back to those trolls and bullies of show business?
I’ve been called a dirty monkey, a ‘fat Pa*i, and dumb’. This was early in my career. Now I’m too powerful for people to get away with that, and also things are changing. You can’t say that anymore. It always comes out. It has been very hard to get to where I am, but I’m so grateful for other South Asian women for paving the path for me in a much harder time.
In such an atmosphere of hate, what are tenets of self-love one should remember?
Kill your inner bully. Don’t allow anyone, including your own mind, to say things to you that you wouldn’t allow being said to someone you love. You have to protect yourself from negativity and fight back. It’s a daily learning curve. Recognise the voice in your head that tells you that you’re not good enough, or not beautiful enough, and tell it to shut up.
The Good Place is so inclusive when it comes to the racial identities of the characters. How is it like to be on the sets with so many talented actors like Kristen Bell, William Jackson Harper and Manny Jacinto?
It’s truly a gift. I fear to work on another show because it will have so much to live up to. I learn a lot from my co-stars, and it’s incredible to finally be on a set that reflects the diverse world I walk around in.
Now that the show will end after its fourth season, tell us what’s the best part about playing Tahani?
She’s everything I find annoying and endearing about other people I meet in this industry. I love her. I love playing her. It’s fun to exorcise the demons of the people I find annoying and to be able to understand them the way I do when I delve into Tahani’s character. Her costumes
are amazing, but her one-liners are truly my favourite thing.
For this show, how has it been working with a writer and producer like Michael Herbert Schur, who has been a part of landmark shows like The Office, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Parks and Recreation?
Michael is incredible and a true renegade. He breaks all of the rules and wins every time. His representation is so impressive, his attention to detail and nuance when he writes female characters, his refusal to dumb down his material for mainstream audiences. Also, what a fair and kind boss he is in a town where this is not the norm, shows that being progressive is possible, and very profitable. He’s a genius and I’m very proud to know him.
Who are some of the other ladies in Hollywood you look up to and how have your interactions with them been?
I admire Priyanka Chopra, who has paved the way for women like me. I like her unapologetic pride and strength. It’s very important for us — women of colour — to be given the space to thrive and shine. I love Emma Thompson for being so talented, righteous and dignified. I admire her career so much. I also really admire Yara Shahidi, who I think may be the smartest person I’ve ever met. She uses her privilege in such an important and astoundingly powerful way. She’s much younger than me, but I want to be her when I grow up!
How are the award show experiences like behind the scenes? We love how you wore jeans underneath your Monique Lhuillier Golden Globes gown. Do you wish the ladies could settle for more comfortable couture at these shows?
The award show ceremonies can be quite uptight and intimidating, which is why I try to bring my sense of humour and my inner child with me, to lighten the mood and to remind myself that none of this is real. It’s all just very fun, and I’m very happy to be there. The jeans were genius! I was so warm and comfortable. I will always do that in the future.
Apart from The Good Place and I_Weigh movement, what are the other things your admirers can look forward to?
I am a multi-faceted person with many interests, and the sky is the limit right now. It’s finally a good time to be brown and outspoken!