Jameela Jamil: 'My Career Is Not Reflected By The Size Of My Body'

Oct 5, 2018
Originally published on October 5, 2018 10:04 pm

The NBC sitcom The Good Place is back for its third season, and fans will be happy to know Tahani al Jamil is as "conceited, but deeply kind, insecure, [and] vainglorious" as ever — in the words of Jameela Jamil, the actress who plays her.

But Jamil's personal story couldn't be more different from her character's. While Tahani is a selfish socialite who does massive charity events largely so she can name-drop celebrities, Jamil is a disability rights advocate and strong voice against body-shaming and impossible beauty standards for women.

"I am encouraging women to stop thinking about their bodies for one minute, and think about their achievements, think about their lives, think about their dreams, and their goals, and their happiness," she says. "And how to grow that rather than just shrink themselves."


Interview Highlights

On why her advocacy is deeply personal

I have experienced disability in my life — you know, I was deaf as a child, and I was hit by a car and broke my back when I was 17 and couldn't walk for over a year and a half ... I was also a very heavy child who got bullied and teased endlessly because of my weight and developed an eating disorder because of that at 14, in which I didn't eat a meal for three years and stopped menstruating. So then I got hit by a car, gained the weight back and then some — I basically gained a Spice Girl — and then, you know, it kind of slowly came off after a couple of years. And then I developed asthma, which made me go on steroids, which made me eat trees and cars and people — and I gained a lot of weight. And I had just made history as the first woman ever to host "The Official Chart" on BBC Radio 1. But the day it was announced that I had that job on the radio, it was only announced, really, that I had gained five dress sizes ... And then I had paparazzi parked outside my house for months hurling abuse at me about my weight, hoping that I would react and cry or hit one of them.

On finding self-worth in her accomplishments and not her looks

When I was being nationally fat-shamed, I held my own and it was actually still to date the most successful year of my life. I won the most awards I've ever won that year, I was in a very happy relationship that I entered into at that weight, I earned the most money I've ever made. So I was living it up at that size, so therefore it wasn't like that was a low point in my life, and now everything's great. That was an amazing time and I never took a weight-loss deal, so I think because of the fact that I thrived in that time, my career is not reflected by the size of my body, by the amount of flesh on my bones. And I'm really glad that I made all those decisions back then because I can back it up now that I'm not a hypocrite; I've lived through this.

On how The Good Place became her first acting gig

I had signed to 3 Arts as a comedy writer, and I was sort of running out of money ... I heard about this audition from my manager who said they were looking for a very annoying, very tall, Pakistani woman with an English accent ... It was as if someone had met me and had written it for me, and I was vaguely offended, actually, when my manager said, "You'd be perfect for this!" So they sent me up for it, I never thought I'd get it, but I went along anyway cause it's a great experience and even humiliating myself in front of Mike Schur could make a really funny column or something. And that very strange man, Mike Schur, gave me a job despite the fact that I had no idea what I was doing.

On how the show handles diversity

There was one episode in which there was me and two other South Asian actresses on the show — none of whom were playing South Asian people with South Asian accents, we were just playing people. We constantly talk about this whenever we're on screen together, that it's so nice to have more than one [of us] on set at a time, and also for that not to be the staple part of our character. It is really quite sad how remarkable it is, but I hope more people kind of see that we haven't bombed because there are brown people on television, and they will follow suit.

On the book she's currently writing

It's about shame. It's a revolutionary approach to shame and how to kill it ... I've spent the last three years on an elimination diet of shame — just cutting out bit, by bit, by bit every part of my life that brings it near me. And it has given me such a sense of self, and such a strength, and such a sense of perspective — especially in such a such a daft industry as show business, you really need to keep your head screwed on your shoulders because people get really very carried away with stuff that doesn't mean anything at all. And so it has helped me have a real grounding, and knowledge of my own value, and a protection around myself from toxicity.

This story was produced and edited for broadcast by Alyssa Edes and Mallory Yu, and adapted for the Web by Alyssa Edes and Petra Mayer

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "'THE GOOD PLACE' THEME")

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The NBC sitcom "The Good Place" is back for its third season. The show is about four people who have died and gone somewhere. One fan favorite is the character Tahani Al-Jamil, who name-drops celebrities with Olympian precision.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GOOD PLACE")

JAMEELA JAMIL: (As Tahani Al-Jamil) I haven't been this upset since my good friend Taylor was rudely upstaged by my other friend Kanye, who was defending my best friend Beyonce.

SHAPIRO: Season 3 finds these characters back on Earth trying to change for the better with mixed results.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GOOD PLACE")

JAMIL: (As Tahani Al-Jamil) It's not about who you know. Enlightenment comes from within. The Dalai Lama texted me that.

SHAPIRO: Jameela Jamil plays Tahani. And a warning here that our conversation does include one big spoiler from the end of the first season. This is Jamil's first acting role. The show's creator, Mike Schur, took a chance on her. And as Season 3 begins, I asked Jamil what this experience has taught her about acting.

JAMIL: Don't eat everything at craft services because I had to keep all of my dresses open at the back for most of filming. So it's basically like I'm wearing...

SHAPIRO: Is that actually true?

JAMIL: It's like I'm - no, it's actually true. It's like I'm wearing an apron - just beautiful aprons for most of the show. So stay away from craft services. It's not your friend. Second of all, of course, like, watching the show I'm literally watching myself learn how to act. So I would say, learn how to act before you go to an audition. That would be the best advice I could give someone else. But if not, try to be in something with Ted Danson, who you can learn everything from.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. How did you begin acting anyway?

JAMIL: I had signed to 3 Arts as a comedy writer. And I was sort of running out of money, so thinking about going back into hosting, which was my original career back in England. Along came the audition...

SHAPIRO: You say hosting. You were a radio DJ and a TV also - yeah.

JAMIL: A TV and - yeah, I did both for about nine years in England for the BBC. And so I heard about this audition from my manager, who said they were looking for a very annoying, very tall Pakistani woman with an English accent. And...

SHAPIRO: Was that actually the description they gave?

JAMIL: Yes.

SHAPIRO: Very annoying, very tall.

JAMIL: Yes, Pakistani woman with an English accent. It was very specific casting call. It was as if someone had met me and had written it for me.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

JAMIL: And I was vaguely offended, actually, when my manager said, you'd be perfect for this. So they sent me up for it. I never thought I'd get it, but I went along anyway 'cause it was a great experience. And even humiliating myself in front of Mike Schur could make a really funny column or something. And that very strange man, Mike Schur, gave me a job despite the fact that I had no idea what I was doing.

SHAPIRO: You know, the show seems to have diversity built into its DNA without being about a minority experience per se. The cast includes a lot of non-white actors, and that's not the main feature of their characters. Is this something that you've discussed with the cast and creators?

JAMIL: I haven't discussed it so much with the creators. But when there was one episode in which there was me and two other South Asian actresses on the show, none of whom were playing South Asian people with South Asian accents - we were just playing people. We constantly talk about this whenever we're on screen together, that it's so nice to have more than one on set at a time, and also for that not to be the staple part of our character. It is really quite sad how remarkable it is. But I hope more people kind of see that we haven't bombed because there are brown people on television, and they will follow suit.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Off screen, you do a lot of activism.

JAMIL: I do.

SHAPIRO: You are vocal about body shaming. You advocate for disability rights. As a stereotypically beautiful woman, you're an unexpected messenger for that message.

JAMIL: Well, I have experienced disability in my life. You know, I was deaf as a child. And I was hit by a car and broke my back when I was 17 and couldn't walk for over a year and a half. So I've had experience with disability. I was also a very heavy child who got bullied and teased endlessly because of my weight and developed an eating disorder because of that at 14 in which I didn't eat a meal for three years and, you know, stopped menstruating.

So then I got hit by the car, gained the weight back and then some. I basically gained a Spice Girl. And then, you know, it kind of slowly came off after a couple of years. And then I developed asthma, which made me go on steroids, which made me eat trees and cars and people. I gained a lot of weight. And I'd just made history as the first woman ever to host The Official Chart on the BBC Radio 1. But the day it was announced that I had that job on the radio, it was only announced really that I'd gained five dress sizes. That was all that I was reduced to.

SHAPIRO: Do you mean in the tabloids?

JAMIL: Yes, in the tabloids. And then I had paparazzi parked outside my house for months hurling abuse at me about my weight, hoping that I would react and cry or hit one of them. And I was - you know, there were photographs of my bottom on the front cover of magazines put next to very skinny photos of myself. So I have definitely lived through the various different types of damage that come from this obsession with our weight. And one thing I do know from experience is that shame is never the way to get anyone to lead a healthy lifestyle. It always leads to eating too little or too much or exercising too little or too much. And there's never an attention towards mental health or self-love in advertising. And I think that's what needs to change. And I think we need to be more careful. There needs to be more policing especially around diet culture.

SHAPIRO: So how do you get away from the really kind of easy, lazy narrative of, oh, well, now she can experience self-love because she's tall and thin and beautiful and looks great in all these dresses?

JAMIL: Well, I'm lucky that I - went it happened, when I was being, like, you know, nationally fat shamed, I held my own. And it was actually still to date the most successful year of my life. I won the most awards I've ever won that year. I was in a very happy relationship that I entered into at that weight. I earned the most money I've ever made. So I was living it up at that size. So therefore, it wasn't like that was a low point in my life and that now everything's great. That was an amazing time. And I never took a weight loss deal.

So I think because of the fact that I thrived in that time, my career is not reflected by the size of my body, by the amount of flesh on my bones. And I'm really glad that I made all those decisions back then because now I can back it up now that I'm not a hypocrite. I've lived through this. I've always stayed true to the same message.

And all I'm campaigning for isn't body confidence. I am encouraging women to stop thinking about their bodies for one minute and think about their achievements, think about their lives, thinking about their dreams and their goals and their happiness, and how to grow that rather than just shrink themselves.

SHAPIRO: That must make it all the more challenging for you to on a daily basis inhabit this character whose value resides in beautiful dresses and getting texts from the Dalai Lama.

JAMIL: Well, I think the good thing is that we're constantly only making fun of her.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

JAMIL: So therefore, the messaging is actually really clear that we are against that thought process and think she's completely ridiculous.

SHAPIRO: She is ridiculous and also stunning.

JAMIL: Yeah, she's gone to hell because of, like...

SHAPIRO: Well, OK, fair, fair.

JAMIL: ...She's in hell because if we couldn't make that messaging around that lifestyle and those priorities more clear - that they are bad - then the fact that - look at where she's ended up. Look at what - the plight that she's now in.

SHAPIRO: In this season of "The Good Place," Tahani has a book that is facetiously titled "Get Out Of The Spotlight."

JAMIL: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: And I understand you are also writing a book in real life.

JAMIL: I am writing a real book in real life. I hope it's not as...

SHAPIRO: What can you tell us about it?

JAMIL: ...Conceited as hers. It's about shame. It's a revolutionary approach to shame and how to kill it.

SHAPIRO: Can it ever truly be killed?

JAMIL: Well, we'll find out, but I believe so. I've spent the last three years on an elimination diet of shame, just cutting out bit by bit by bit every part of my life that brings it near me. And it has given me such a sense of self and such a strength and such a sense of perspective. Especially in such a daft industry as show business you really need to keep your head screwed on your shoulders 'cause people really get very carried away with stuff that doesn't mean anything at all. And so it has helped me have a real grounding and knowledge of my own value and protection around myself from toxicity.

SHAPIRO: Jameela Jamil, thanks so much for talking with us today.

JAMIL: Thank you very much for having me.

SHAPIRO: She plays Tahani on NBC's "The Good Place," which has just begun Season 3.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "'THE GOOD PLACE' THEME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.