The following feature appears in the April 2017 issue of NYLON.
Gabourey Sidibe flashes a gold ring with her nickname “Gabby” engraved in cursive. Her first name means “the one with the beautiful cheeks” and her middle name, MaLingair, translates to “my queen” in Wolof, a native language of Senegal. Despite it being both melodious and memorable, she claims that most people are too lazy to attempt pronouncing her given name. Still, it holds special meaning because her father, Ibnou, selected it to honor an African woman who helped raise him. The 33-year-old actress takes a sip of an Americano before revealing some of the less endearing aspects of her childhood, including disciplinary beatings and being called “Fatso” by her father and other family members. Her doe eyes well up and teardrops roll down her face and land on her glossy lavender pout. She brushes the tears away from her cheek with her index finger.
It’s noon at a chic French bistro in downtown Los Angeles on the ground floor of an old Nabisco factory. I listen intently as Sidibe expands upon harrowing incidents detailed in her new memoir, This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare, out May 1. It’s her first time discussing such experiences with a journalist, she tells me. And it is somewhat of a surprising departure from the bubbly persona she’s displayed during countless awards show acceptance speeches—which are always appropriately poignant, but also punctuated by Sidibe’s quick wit, impromptu dance moves, and infectious, adorably snort-imbued laughter.
It’s a side her fans rarely get to see, but one that might help explain how she wound up winning so many prestigious accolades for her first film role, as the emotionally raw but uplifting title character in 2009’s Precious. “At that point I kind of had a lot of practice acting,” she says. “I grew up pretending I was okay when I wasn’t.”
Sidibe is quick to insist, though, that the last thing she wants is pity. “For a long time, my father was dead to me,” she says. She spent about three years writing her memoir, and toward the end of the process began seeing him in a more sympathetic light. “I didn’t want to justify his actions, but it’s interesting to see what’s behind them,” she says. “The six-year-old in me is still pissed, but I don’t think I am a victim. I don’t want people to shed tears for me. He beat me, but we have all been through shit.” It’s an emotional thing to process, but she’s not embarrassed to speak out. “I thought I would be,” she says. “A lot of people will write a book and pretend that whatever they are writing about they are done with, and now they are perfect. I’m not perfect. I am just as fucked up. I am who I am, and all of this shit in my life will be a struggle forever…but I’m fine. Well, I’m becoming fine.”
Sidibe had only acted in four plays—one in junior high and three in college—when her Precious audition tape landed on director Lee Daniels’s desk. Regardless, he offered her the role on the spot. “I knew I struck gold,” he says. “I had never seen anything like her. We were down to the wire, shooting in three weeks. The casting process was unique, because we put other girls through a Precious boot camp, but when I saw her tape, I knew she was the girl. Gabby was such an enlightened soul, and she didn’t let her physicality block her light. She was smart and not damaged. That liberated the cast and crew to do better work.”
Before the film was released, Daniels invited Sidibe over to his apartment. She recounts in her memoir overhearing a speakerphone conversation between the director and a prominent fashion magazine editor about having her on the periodical’s cover. From behind a door, she listened to the editor say that she was too overweight and dark to be the cover girl.
“It really devastated me,” she says. “I guess I thought that going from literally nothing to the lead in the movie would show people that I wouldn’t be just fat anymore, or at least that’s not the first thing people would think of me, that I’m not too fat or too black or ghetto or nappy—that wouldn’t be part of my narrative anymore, but it was.”
Daniels argues that their conversation was out of love—that he himself was 250 pounds then, and the editor he was speaking with was also on the larger side. “To call somebody fat and black when we couldn’t be bigger or blacker—I think that when you are that, and you are saying that, it’s said with utter love. There was not hate, diss, or shade. He was talking about putting her on the cover, and it was a mission for him to do that.”
On the set of Precious, Daniels vividly remembers a two-day shoot featuring a Swedish model. “When this girl came on the set, the crew ogled her. Everyone was gawking and treating her like the star of the movie,” he says. “The reality was that Gabby was the star, and I said, ‘Hold the fuck up, you all. This is the star of our movie. She is responsible for us being here. Get a clue and treat this girl with some respect.’ I remember that being a defining moment in my relationship with her. That was unsettling to me, because I realized the world she walked around in every day.”
For a period in high school, Sidibe stopped eating lunch at school for fear that other students would judge her. She became bulimic in college. “I always wanted to throw up because I was so sad,” she confides, adding that she’s also struggled with panic attacks and depression and has contemplated (but not attempted) suicide. “I really liked challenging myself to not eat for three days,” she says. “Sometimes I would eat a slice of bread and drink a bottle of water just to throw it up.”
Eventually, through dialectical behavior therapy and guidance, she learned how to battle her eating disorders. And in May of last year, Sidibe underwent laparoscopic weight loss surgery. After 11 years of considering it as an absolute last resort, she finally decided it was the best choice. A bariatric surgeon had recommended the treatment to help her fight diabetes. In preparation, she hired a trainer, started eating healthier meals, and lost 15 pounds. The weight fluctuated, but it was a start. Post-surgery, she wrote two chapters of her book “high as fuck” on liquid Oxycodone, she says. She was determined to finish it no matter what.
The operation shrunk her stomach and helped decrease her appetite. She’s no longer diabetic, and has experienced significant weight loss and a major body transformation. Fans have been noticing. She shrugs off some of the more careless comments on her recent Instagram selfies. “You don’t get to talk about my body if you like it or not; it’s my body,” she says. “And yeah, I have been struggling with weight my entire life. I realize that as long as I have a body, it will be a struggle.”
Even though she’s feeling great these days, there are still haters online who are quick to criticize her looks. The unsolicited commentary came to a head during the second season of Empire, the Fox hip-hop drama in which Sidibe plays Becky, a former assistant to Terrence Howard’s Lucious Lyon, who is later promoted to vice president of A&R. During the episode in question, Becky partakes in a racy rooftop sex scene wearing a black bra, her legs exposed and wrapped around J Poppa, portrayed by actor Mo McRae. “I wasn’t gyrating on top of him or anything, but it was awkward filming at first—what we shot but didn’t air was a lot worse because I’m a sexual deviant,” she says with a laugh. “It was only a big deal, though, because I happen to be in this body, this body that I have had my entire life and career. You all knew I was fat then; don’t turn on the TV and still be surprised I am fat. It implies that people with bigger bodies don’t find love and aren’t worth loving. Why don’t I deserve it? Because I’m not skinny? I love my body and I deserve love. We all do at any size.”
Empire, whose second half of its third season premieres on March 22, was a serendipitous opportunity for Sidibe. Originally the role of Becky was written for a skinny white woman, but Daniels wanted to work with Sidibe again, and co-creator Danny Strong was down: “The first time I saw Gabby was in Precious. She was amazing in it and got an Oscar nomination. I was blown away by her work,” says Strong. “I thought it was a killer idea when Lee wanted her. I love her. She’s funny, sweet, and she has a great attitude. So many actors complain so much, but she’s just a gamer. She shows up, knows her lines, and just nails it, and she’s really fun to be around.”
Sidibe and Jussie Smollett, her Empire co-star and one of her real-life best friends, met five years ago via Facebook. They didn’t meet in person until years later, the day before their first table read for the show. Sidibe instantly remembered him and showed him the Facebook message he’d sent suggesting he be “the He-Man to my She-Ra,” she says.
“I think Gabby is more perfect than anyone realizes—she’s smart and funny and has the biggest heart imaginable. We are like two crackheads in a pod,” says Smollett, who plays singer-songwriter Jamal Lyon on Empire, with a laugh. The first scene they shot together was for the pilot. Smollett had to sing Lyon’s song “Good Enough,” but he was extremely nervous. Sidibe pulled him aside, calmed him down, and helped boost his confidence. When his father passed away the day before the first season aired, the cast was staying at the W Hotel in Hollywood for the premiere. In search of comfort, Smollett knocked on Sidibe’s door. “I will always remember sitting, not saying much,” he says. “She was just there, but the way she was there—in a way that was not fleeting—really helped me through it. We should all be so lucky and blessed to have a friend like her.”
It’s now 12:30pm, and the server has delivered our meals. Sidibe and I both ordered the salade de chevre chaud, which we had believed would be a spinach salad with goat cheese. She quips that I am so not Jay Z for ordering the same thing as her, an allusion to a passage in her book in which she argues that Jay Z and Beyoncé would never order the same dish, and that any man who does so is to be denied a second date. I reply that it might have helped had Sidibe still spoken Wolof (the Senegalese language she learned from her father, which incorporates some French). Sadly, what sits before us is a ginormous mound of warm goat cheese and toasted baguettes with the smallest frisée salad imaginable. “You can’t win for trying,” she says smiling.
She takes a small bite and then dives into a story about how she was a phone-sex operator for three years, and that she always turns on her sex voice when she orders room service. She doesn’t mean to, but it comes out naturally, she says. Sidibe doesn’t think it’s a big deal that she pretended to orgasm on cue for random strangers over the phone, but soon enough, our conversation veers toward more complicated subjects, like when politics and rape culture collide. “At this point, are we going to be able to fix society? We fucked it up enough with Trump. It’s over. He’s not my president,” she says. “But you really have to be aware in Trump’s America, okay? I think about freshman orientation in college when it’s like, ‘Ladies, look to your left and look to your right. One in four of you are going to be raped, so be careful.’ Fuck that. You need to tell them to stop raping us. I don’t get that narrative of making us responsible if we are raped. After we are assaulted, putting us on trial. It’s just problematic, man.”
Although Sidibe hasn’t experienced sexual assault, she recalls being told as a child that boys who were nasty to her had crushes on her. “What the fuck? That’s low-key rape culture and that doesn’t work anymore,” she says. “We need to make boys responsible for that shit. Instead what we do is say, ‘Boys will be boys,’ and that’s not okay. But if it really happened to me, I think I would fucking murder someone.”
Sidibe looks down at her sporty Apple Watch, the one she uses daily to calculate her steps and lap-swimming strokes, and realizes we are nearly half an hour late to our nail appointment at Base Coat, so we pay our bill and then hop in her car to drive to the salon.
We’re talking about kids—Sidibe’s not sure if she wants them, but she has friends who are freezing their eggs—when she pauses and realizes she can’t parallel park. She only recently moved into her Los Angeles home and still isn’t confident driving. No problem. We swap seats so I can park her rented Nissan, and then head into the salon. She’ll be attending the premiere of the horror flick Get Out tonight and wants to match her outfit to her nails with the perfect chrome gel. As she navigates her way to the manicurist’s station, she knocks over all the nail appliances next to the foot soak. “This is so me!” she says, chuckling. Poking fun at herself seems to be a steady source of comic relief for Sidibe.
Born in Brooklyn, Sidibe was mostly looked after by her mother, Alice Tan Ridley, an R&B and gospel singer who appeared on the fifth season of America’s Got Talent. Ridley worked at a local school taking care of special-needs kids, and in her spare time sang in subway stations and at the famed Cotton Club. At the beginning of fourth grade, Sidibe’s mother separated from her father and moved the kids to a brownstone apartment in Harlem, where they lived with Sidibe’s aunt.
At six years old, Sidibe decided she wanted to be a therapist. By 10, she was reading psychology books and studying therapy techniques. “I was bullied, but there are people that I fucking bullied, too, because it hurt,” she says. “Being bullied didn’t shape who the fuck I am. It shaped some of my emotions and some of my tenderness and why I don’t let people support me, but that shit also started at home. My first bully was my older brother. He said horrible things to me and I said just as bad things to him.”
Sidibe closes her eyes as the manicurist begins a soothing aromatherapy hand massage. She appears to enjoy it, but asks not to have her feet done because she’s ticklish. She lies back and takes a few moments to scroll through numerous text messages. After all, she has makeup, hair, and a dress fitting in an hour. Despite the seemingly glamorous trappings, Sidibe says fame hasn’t changed her as a person, even as her profile has increased. In addition to Empire, she’s had significant recurring roles on The Big C and American Horror Story, and recently made her directing debut with a short film called The Tale of Four, based on the characters from Nina Simone’s song “Four Women.”
Recently a dinner date informed her that he could only choose from a few items on the menu, because most of the options were out of his price range. It was a noteworthy moment for her, having realized that she hadn’t looked at a price tag in years, despite having grown up with modest means. “I remember going to IHOP with my mom, and I would get the same thing because it was $11 and everything else was $16,” she says. “I was like that for a long time, even after fame and having a little bit of money, and then it just stopped.”
Sidibe’s not sure if she feels happier having money. She recalls reading a quote by Jim Carrey in which he expressed how he wished everyone could get rich and famous and have everything they’d ever dreamed of so that they could see money is not the answer. “I get sad because that’s still in my blood,” Sidibe says. “I still have fucking issues. When I didn’t have any money, I worried about it. Now that I have money, I worry about it. The struggle is definitely real.”
Our nails have dried and Sidibe asks if I’d like a ride home. I take her up on the offer but counter with the suggestion that I drive. Maroon 5’s “Don’t Wanna Know” is blaring through the speakers as she adjusts her favorite Yankees baseball cap. The windows fog over and Sidibe isn’t sure how to fix the problem. “This is the point where I would just pull over and cry if I were driving,” she says with a laugh. As we make our way toward my apartment, she tells me she was born Muslim and became a practicing Christian at 19, but doesn’t observe any religion in particular anymore. She’s also been off Lexapro, her depression medication, for a few years now, but continues to see a therapist.
I tell her that I, too, have battled depression and body issues, and am about to have elective surgery in a few weeks. We bond over our mutual ability to find comfort in talking about the kinds of subjects most people try to avoid.
“Listen, I’m a solitary, selfish person. I have no kids and I feel bad about my selfishness,” she says. “But I hear people tell me about how my struggles have helped them, and I’m glad that my selfishness is helpful to someone else. I just think holding up a mirror to myself is weird, strange, and a little scary.”
A week or so later, I receive a text from Sidibe, inquiring about my upcoming procedure and checking in to see if I feel all right. Despite her protestations of self-centeredness, this is not the act of a selfish person; it is what a caring friend would do, the kind of friend who’d sit with you and be present, however you needed her to be, for hours—on set, in a hotel room far from home, or while riding with you in a car with a fogged-up windshield when she’s got a big movie premiere in a few hours that she should really be getting ready for. The truth is, we all should show a little more concern, bravery, and openness. We all should find a little more Gabourey Sidibe inside ourselves.
On the cover: Gabourey Sidibe photographed by Shxpir. Stylist: J. Errico. Hair: Lacy Redway at The Wall Group using Pantene. Makeup: Cassandra Garcia for Bobbi Brown Cosmetics. Manicurist: Roza Israel. Photo assistant: Matthew Hawk. Digital Tech: Andrew Lawrence. Custom dress by Xuly.Bët, earrings by Robert Lee Morris Collection, necklaces by Ready To Stare.