About midway through our afternoon together, spent drinking coffee and outsized bottles of water at Chateau Marmont, Jameela Jamil mentioned the name Gwyneth Paltrow. My brain clicked into autopilot, working out for itself what it was that Tahani, Jamil's name-dropping, eternally damned character on The Good Place, would have to say about Paltrow.
“It's like I told Gwyneth last week as we were being stung by bees to rid our bodies of totally real and not-at-all imaginary toxins, 'It's the little pricks that hurt the most.'"
Or, maybe: “It's just like that time when my good friend Gwyneth tried to convince me and our other good friend Cameron to put jade eggs up our vaginas, but I was the only one who just... couldn't get it to fit."
But, of course, Jamil said neither of those things. She looks like Tahani, and she sounds like Tahani, but she is not Tahani. She had only mentioned Paltrow, who happened to be sitting at a table close by, to illustrate how utterly bizarre the privileges of fame are, how they contribute to a general malaise unique to everyone touched by celebrity, and ultimately lead to a cognitive dissonance that Jamil is aggressively eager to elucidate, in order, she says, to help dismantle it.
“I honestly don't know if I've met more than five happy famous people… Fame comes with its perks," she said, lightly gesturing toward the quietly vibrating luxury of our surroundings. “It certainly does! And the lifestyle is perfectly nice, and you get to come to the Chateau for a bottle of water, and Gwyneth Paltrow is right over there, and it's very nice, but they're all miserable." Jamil laughed, shaking her head. “They really are!"
Jamil includes herself in the category of unhappy famous people—or, rather, she once did. Things changed for her several years ago, but only after, as she explained to me, fame—and the invasive attention that comes with it—came close to destroying her.
“Fame led me to a complete nervous breakdown," Jamil said. “I mean, life led me to it, but fame amplified it, because it made life so weird and unbearable. Having that much scrutiny and having people always wanting to know your business and having photographers stay outside your house—that constant invasion of privacy—and having the inability to be authentic ever because you're never sure if anyone wants to be your friend because of who you are or because of, you know, what you mean to them. You're surrounded by constant motivation and agenda."
“Fame," Jamil wanted to make clear to me, as we sat together on the periphery of the Chateau Marmont's sun-dappled patio; Paltrow sitting just a few feet away; Justin Theroux was there too, a bit further off, working on his laptop; the air was scented like honey and grapefruit; and, in front of us sat a dish of plump, perfect olives, given to us on-the-house after they'd arrived a few minutes slower than expected, “is ugly."
Jamil has been famous for most of her adult life (she has been ugly for precisely none of her entire life), but most Americans have only been familiar with her for the last two years, through her embodiment of Tahani on The Good Place, that rare network sitcom that has achieved both critical and popular acclaim (because, who doesn't like a good determinism plotline, or a recurring role for the least known Hemsworth brother, Larry?). However, prior to that, Jamil had been in the public eye in England for over a decade, known for her work as a radio DJ, television show host, and writer. And it was while at the height of her career in Britain that she reached a critical moment in her perception of the world around her, one that made clear the deleterious effect fame had on her well-being.
“There was a massive turning point for me when I was 26," Jamil said. “I started in this industry when I was 22… and I just got more and more objectified and scrutinized over my looks." This scrutiny made her feel ill at ease, but perhaps worse for Jamil was the way in which she was subjected to the type of inane questions that are solely directed at female celebrities, the kind that make clear that a woman's value is premised primarily on her appearance. Jamil said, “I was feeling empty and bored, but I didn't feel like I had any right to resist that and be asked things like my male colleagues were asked."
“I honestly don't know if I've met more than five happy famous people… they're all miserable. They really are!"
The insidiousness of her industry's rampant sexism and superficiality became crystal clear for her after Jamil gained weight due to taking medication for her asthma, and was then incessantly fat-shamed by British tabloids. Jamil explained this treatment was particularly disconcerting for her because of the protection she felt she'd earned due to the professional heights she'd reached. She said, “I'd achieved so much in my three or four years in the industry, and I'd worked so hard, and I'd done it without famous parents or without any contacts or any money and I'd done it by myself using my brain—working really hard—and then I realized, All I am to them is just fat on bones."
This realization was not something that sat quietly with Jamil; it was not something she was willing to let pass without a response. She told me, “It broke my heart and really broke my spirit for a minute, because I realized that we've not moved on as much as I'd thought we had and, in fact, we're making a concerted effort and moving backwards, and that's when my activism really started."
Jamil's activism is a direct offshoot from her experiences all those years ago; it is both very personal and something that she hopes will become a worldwide movement. Following her experience of being publicly shamed, she said, “I made sure I would be on social media as much without makeup as with makeup, and dictate what I'd wear in photo shoots and never, ever, ever let anyone ask me about beauty on the red carpets. And I started to take control of my career. Because otherwise this just lasts forever. You just get demeaned and undermined forever if you don't take charge and ownership over your mind and body and spirit."
This stance has evolved and strengthened over the years, recently seen in Jamil's I Weigh campaign, which encourages women to assess their value in metrics other than pounds, and also in her commitment to refuse retouching and Photoshop on all her photo shoots; Jamil believes that Photoshop is a dangerously manipulative tactic that has altered our perception of ourselves in a fundamental way.
She said, “When you're Photoshopped you're setting yourself up for a fall, because you can't live up to a digitized image… Stop Photoshopping your images. I really think it's so gross. I think it's a disgusting crime to Photoshop your images and put them out there in the world without announcing that's what you've done. It's a lie, you're lying to your fans, and your followers, and people who look up to you. You're an asshole. I really believe that. You're an asshole. You're allowing the insecurity that ruined your life to pour back out into other people. You are recycling that self-hatred. You are recycling that insecurity, and you should stop."
Jamil laughed then; she was fully aware of how strident she sounded, and said, “I know I'm really severe about that. But I didn't eat as a teenager for three years because of people elongating their legs and thinning out their images… We have to rebel against this, we have to see flaws."
Skeptics of Jamil's enthusiasm for an unfiltered life, though, have wondered: What exactly are her physical flaws? I asked Jamil how she responded to people who protest that it's unfair for a woman who must know that she is universally considered beautiful to be leading the charge for a Photoshop-free world. She responded by kicking off her canvas espadrilles, and waving her decidedly un-pedicured feet in the air, indicating their imperfections, pointing out a specific toe as particularly unattractive. And she said, “My ass looks like a map of the world. I don't have a lack of gravity. I get spots. I have crooked lower teeth; I've never gotten my teeth whitened. I have cellulite."
And, well, I am sure that's all true. Of course, I didn't see Jamil's cellulite or stretch marks (though she has made a point of posting images of both on Instagram), and her skin was spot-free and luminously clear on both days I spent with her. But, no, her teeth are not the blinding white Chiclets of most Hollywood actors, nor are her feet going to be a top performer on WikiFeet. (Or maybe they are? I don't know exactly how WikiFeet works.) But then, at this photo shoot, Jamil specifically requested that her feet not be photographed. And she wore a normal amount of makeup for a shoot like this (i.e. a lot), and made sure she hit her angles as surely as any Kardashian would do. And anyway, this picking apart of Jamil's physicality, whether due to a search for imperfections or as proof that she has virtually none, feels uncomfortably like part of the problem, and certainly beside the point.
And that point is that the newfound ubiquity of image enhancement and the average person's familiarity with FaceTune and how to hit their best angles, is, on a very real level, disturbing, or at least a disturbance, an indication we've crossed a Rubicon of sorts, and entered a place where the constant proliferation of images of ourselves is not only normal, but welcome, and comes with an unspoken imperative to make sure those images are as beautiful and flattering as possible. But beautiful to whom? Flattering in whose eyes? Jamil had an answer for that: “Straight white men. That's what we're taught. Just make sure you're physically desirable to straight men, and then you are allowed in the room. And if you're not physically valued by straight white men, then you're just taking up space in the universe."
It's an important conversation to be having, and Kristen Bell, who plays Eleanor, the immoral center on The Good Place, believes in her co-star's mission. Bell said, “I think there's nothing wrong with wanting to look good, but Jameela truly understands and lives what it means to 'feel' good. It's important for everyone consuming media, especially young girls, to understand the game it is. To understand what Photoshop is. To know when you are being sold an image that's been altered. Jameela is widening the perspective and conversation, and I think we are all better for it."
This struggle to maintain control over our public images is one that is frankly exhausting, wholly unsustainable, and now shared by just about everyone who has an Instagram account (so, just about everyone). It also leads to the kind of internal dissonance once associated only with the very famous, those elite and celebrated few who have to navigate the complexities inherent to being both person and persona. This is no easy task, of course—just ask Marilyn Monroe or, for that matter, Lindsay Lohan. And it often leads to what Jamil had spoken of to me, that peculiar tragedy, that ugliness, of fame; she said, “Most [famous people] are miserable, and it's the saddest thing, it's so weird to only show the highlight reel of your existence on social media."
And though it's not just famous people anymore whose social media platforms serve as highlight reels; it's not just famous people who need to reconcile their public and private lives; it's not just famous people who worry about leaving the house without makeup, lest an unflattering photo be captured and shown to thousands of people, still Jamil is convinced that changing this aspect of our culture must come from its most celebrated members. She said, “It starts with famous women and with magazine editors and people who are doing the Photoshop. It's going to have to begin with us, because we started it, we're going to have to stop it. So then everyone will have to stop when they see we are accepting of our humanity and our gravity and our age, and then they will stop. They follow our lead, there's no denying that."
“Fame led me to a complete nervous breakdown. I mean, life led me to it, but fame amplified it, because it made life so weird and unbearable."
In the entire time we spoke, over the course of a couple of days, and for hours at a stretch, Jamil's consistency and commitment to her overarching message decrying Photoshop and image manipulation was unwavering. It's clear that this isn't merely a matter of aesthetics for her or something that she preaches yet hesitates in personally practicing; rather, this is an ethical philosophy, one that has been formed by trial-and-error, by close observation of the world around her, and an understanding that an end to the lie of Photoshop must be worked toward universally—it is a categorical imperative. In other words, Jameela Jamil is downright Kantian.
And while Jamil's call to activism started long before she moved to America and landed her role on The Good Place, it's hard not to listen to her talk about the ways in which she wants to change the world and not hear within her plan some echoes of Kant's Kingdom of Ends, a philosophical thought experiment in which a utopia of sorts is attained once people act accordingly to moral laws that serve the goal of ensuring each individual person's maximum well-being. People's collective happiness, then, is the end goal, not a means to an end; virtuousness leads to happiness, not the other way around.
And yet, despite the clear and simple appeal of Kant's moral equation, the whole idea of living a purely virtuous life according to universal maxims feels quite reductive (like, we can basically agree that punching people is bad, but there are exceptions, because punching a Nazi will always be good). It also feels like it will only lead to a lot of virtue-signaling, rather than actual virtuous living.
And virtue-signaling is bad; it's a big part of why Tahani—a person who'd raised millions and millions of dollars for charity, but just couldn't shut up about what a great person she was—ended up in the Bad Place. More than just being a sign that maybe a person's motives aren't so pure after all, virtue-signaling is also tedious and tends to alienate the very people who might otherwise respond to the message being shared. Even when most of us want to do the “right" thing, we balk at the idea that there's only one right way to do things, that there's no room for flexibility, no understanding that maybe it's not so simple for everyone to live a life of perpetual altruism, or, say, stop caring about unflattering pictures of themselves on Instagram.
I asked Jamil how she responded to people who resist her pleas for a Photoshop-free world, who wonder why they should have to listen to her, why they need to be told what to do. Their questions for her really seem to be: Don't we have free will? Can't we be trusted to do what's right for ourselves?
“I think it's a disgusting crime to Photoshop your images and put them out there in the world without announcing that's what you've done."
“It feels a bit like Stockholm Syndrome when people cling to that," Jamil said. “I'm not telling people not to exercise. I'm not telling them to stop bathing or stop brushing their teeth. And I believe in healthy eating and putting good fuel in your engine. But when you're clinging to the right to be able to spend hours and hours of your day thinking about your looks, is that definitely coming from you? Is that purely coming from you and not coming from outside conditioning that that's what you should be doing all day? How you should be spending your money?"
Jamil has no patience for those celebrities who use their influence to sell the sort of products that propagate a patriarchy-endorsed vision of femininity. She wants people to understand that, though she has very strong views on the evils of Photoshop, she also knows that her personal belief system was spurred on by her unfortunate experiences, and she wants to spare other people that same trauma, yet help them go in what she is emphatic about being the right direction.
Jamil said, “I just want women to ask themselves [where their ideas on beauty come from] when they feel like I'm telling them what to do. I'm not trying to tell people what to do, and I'm sorry if it sometimes comes across that way. I'm just appealing to people to not be like I used to be. Because I wasted so much of my life and so much of my time and I was really, really miserable and in the darkest place ever. So I come from no place of judgment, just of experience and knowing there's no happy ending there."
And Jamil wants people to have a happy ending, she is just certain it can't happen without transparency.
“I just want to make sure everyone knows what the truth really is," Jamil said, “because then we will have the power to make decisions with actual knowledge. We're making decisions based on lies. And it's really dangerous that this is how we make decisions about ourselves and our lifestyles and what to spend our money on and I think that's really scary. And I don't want to be complicit in it. We have to make being human trendy. No one's going to earn any money doing that, but so what? How much money do these companies need? And at what cost?"
That Jamil focuses on capitalism's role in preventing the advancement of women to a place of true equality is interesting. It is perhaps the clearest indication that the reign of the Kardashians, whose burnished status was reliant on praising them for being good businesswomen and monetizing their physical attributes, has peaked, because more and more women are demanding more accountability from their celebrities, and don't want to be sold weight-loss teas and appetite-suppressing lollipops by “feminist" heroes.
And yet there still exists a type of dissonance, not dissimilar to the one that existed for me as I sat there at the Chateau, after Jamil had left, thinking about how easy it was to speak of fame's ugliness, but the fact is all I could see around me were beautiful things (I wanted to make a dress out of the wallpaper in the ladies' room).
“I'm not trying to tell people what to do and I'm sorry if it sometimes comes across that way. I'm just appealing to people to not be like I used to be."
When talking about her refusal to be Photoshopped, Jamil said to me, “I'm about to shoot a swimwear campaign without any retouching, which will be the rare opportunity to see cellulite on the side of a bus or building. I'm not a Victoria's Secret model."
And, no, she's not, but then again, being a Victoria's Secret model is not the most popular goal for women these days. Rather, the things that are becoming easier and easier to commodify are things like inclusivity and positivity—an embrace of the “natural." It's the Glossier “no-makeup" effect, the same thing that has shifted beauty marketing into its latest iteration, in which “empowerment" and “self-care" are espoused—and can be purchased for the low, low price of whatever a face mask costs these days.
So while Jamil expressed surprise at the fact that many of the people who have best embraced her rhetoric are precisely those people who she'd deemed her opponents—"I feel so supported by the press, even though I criticize them for being one of the things that have derailed women"—it's clear that one of the reasons Jamil's message is now being endorsed and why she's allowed and even encouraged to forgo Photoshop in editorials and ad campaigns, is because those people in power are aware that this is what is selling right now, that Jamil and her campaign are relevant, while those people endorsing waist-cinchers are not.
“I really believe we can take the power back. We just need to be woken up."
But that doesn't mean Jamil's messaging isn't sincere—and it certainly doesn't mean that it's wrong. Because, yes, there is something more than a little unsettling at the ways in which there are doubtlessly infinite brands who are salivating at the idea of making “being human trendy," but that doesn't diminish the very real value in starting a conversation in which we're questioning the intent behind all the images around us, and asking ourselves why we're okay with being captives to a narrative that doesn't respect our personal agency, and why we can't just work together.
It's a message that The Good Place deals with head-on, and it's what Jamil says is the most valuable lesson of the show: “It teaches empathy; the show encourages teamwork and people from all different walks of life and all different backgrounds and all different parts of societal class structure to put aside their differences and come together for a better future for all of them. The messaging there is so clear for all of us to see that rather than being so divisive and so at war with one another so constantly, all we're doing is slowing down our progress. No one is going to get to a better place if we don't work together."
Just before Jamil left me, sitting alone together with my nonfriends Gwyneth and Justin and a few remaining olives, she said, “I really believe we can take the power back. We just need to be woken up. And there are way way more people than just me doing this. There are loads of amazing activists in this world. Those women need to keep going, and we need to join each other. We need to make space, not take space. We need to allow each other in and try to learn to become better at that."
Kant, at least, would agree.
- PHOTOGRAPHER: LINDSEY BYRNES
- VIDEOGRAPHER: DANI OKON
- LINE PRODUCER: ALEXANDRA HSIE
- PHOTOGRAPHER ASSISTANT: JOSHUA COBOS
- PRODUCTION ASSISTANT: ALISON YARDLEY
- PRODUCTION ASSISTANT: CAMILA PRISCO PARAISO
- STYLIST: DANASIA SUTTON
- STYLIST ASSISTANT: OLIVIA GABAREE
- HAIR STYLIST: ROBERT LOPEZ FOR ORIBE AT SOLO ARTISTS
- MAKEUP ARTIST: SIMONE SIEGL USING CHANEL BEAUTY
- NAILS: GLAM SQUAD SKY HARRIS