Jameela Jamil: ‘I won’t become a double agent for the patriarchy’

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The former presenter turned The Good Place star on why she refuses to stay silent about the aftermath of #MeToo, unhealthy body ideals and the tabloid media

When British celebrities make it big in the US, they go through a by now familiar process of becoming Hollywoodified: they get thinner, more groomed, less fun, all the while insisting that their occasional deployment of a quaint British swearword proves they havent changed a bit. This is not Jameela Jamil.

We cannot talk in here, its too fucking crowded, Jamil, the former T4 presenter turned US sitcom star, declares, looking around the private members club. Id suggested it because its near what is now her home in West Hollywood, which she shares with her boyfriend of three years, the musician James Blake. But as we walk through the club she decrees it a bit you know, whatever, you know what I mean? All around us, people are wearing the regulation outfits of LA beautiful people: long dresses with sandals, or designer jeans with vintage T-shirts and expensive trainers. Jamil, by contrast, is wearing an absurdly short and tight dress with chunky heels. Her hair and makeup look endearingly unpolished.

I like to do it myself, because I dont like being contoured, she says, referring to the makeup trick that creates the illusion of a thinner face and higher cheekbones, popularised by Kim Kardashian, who well get to in a minute. Also, I invariably get made up to look a different ethnicity whiter. If the former breakfast TV presenter Cat Deeley looked born and bred in Santa Monica five minutes after landing here to present So You Think You Can Dance, Jamil still looks like a London girl on her way to Camden Market.

Most British people still know Jamil best from her time as a presenter on Radio 1, and her three-year stint on pop culture show T4, from 2009, where she was a fun and lively interviewer who, for example, informed Russell Brand live on air that interviewing him was a nightmare. But in the US she has become a bona fide star, thanks to her role in NBCs The Good Place, made by the people behind Parks And Recreation. Set in the afterlife and co-starring Kristen Bell and Ted Danson, The Good Place is one of those rare shows that manages to be very smart and extremely silly, in which extended discussions about Kierkegaard and Plato (as the characters try to figure out if theyre good or bad) rub up against jokes about Blue Ivy and James Franco. Jamil is very funny as Tahani, a Little Miss Perfect socialite who namedrops for Britain: I havent been this upset since my good friend Taylor was rudely upstaged by my other good friend Kanye, who was defending my best friend, Beyonc. The show has just finished shooting its third season.

After a breast cancer scare at the age of 28, Jamil decided she would no longer wait to do the things she wanted to do. So she moved to LA in 2015, originally hoping to find work as a screenwriter. To her surprise, her manager convinced her to audition for The Good Place instead and, even though she had never acted before, she got the part. Initially, she begged the shows creator, Michael Schur, to rethink his decision, because I didnt want to make an absolute tit of myself in front of the entire world.

Dress, Adam Selman at Desperate LA; cuff and ring, Leigh Miller Jewelry; shoes, the palatines. Photograph: Ramona Rosales for the Guardian

Like Tom Haverford, the character in Parks And Recreation played by an Indian-American actor (Aziz Ansari) but portrayed on the show as simply American, Jamil, whose parents are Indian and Pakistani, plays a character who is defined by her Englishness; her ethnicity is not an issue. Similarly, the two young male leads are played by an African-American (William Jackson Harper) and a Filipino-Canadian (Manny Jacinto), and in neither case is their ethnicity a bar to them having on-screen romances with women from other backgrounds. Its not so much colourblind casting as colour-neutral, an extreme rarity in mainstream US TV.

There was a moment when we were filming season one when I realised I was in a scene with two other women from south Asian backgrounds, and it wasnt commented on in the show or anything, Jamil says. And we were all shocked by this, for our race to not be fetishised in some way, and we were shocked by how shocked we were.

Meanwhile, Jamil has taken on another high-profile role, that of an extremely vocal critic of celebrity culture. She started an Instagram account called I Weigh on which women post images of themselves and say how much they weigh not in kilos, but in the qualities they like about themselves (Good friend, Bad singer, Loving sister, and so on.) She made headlines earlier this year when she criticised Kim Kardashian for promoting something called an appetite suppressant lollipop. Fuck off. You terrible and toxic influence on young girls, Jamil wrote on Twitter. Kardashian later deleted the post.

On her blog, Jamil often takes the extremely unusual step for a celebrity of calling out journalists and fellow actors by name: Some awful woman called Heidi Parker for the Daily Mail Online has written an article, appearance shaming a heavily, heavily pregnant Jessica Biel, begins one typical entry. She wrote a smart take on the Aziz Ansari scandal, after the comedian was accused of having pressured a date into having sex, and linked a lack of interest in female consent with the rising availability of porn. (As it happens, Jamil shares a manager with Ansari.)

She has plenty of reasons to be critical of the British tabloid press: when she started on T4, the papers criticised her for being too thin. Then, when she gained weight after taking steroids for her asthma, she was criticised for being too fat; the tabloids published unflattering pictures of her bending over in the street.

In The Good Place. Photograph: NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Outside my house! To pick up my keys! And then photos of my arse are in magazines its so invasive, it should be illegal. But it really opened my eyes, because when I was a size 6 or 8, they only took photos of me that would make me look good, posing on the red carpet or whatever. As soon as I was a size 10, they only want photos of you looking bad, like, with your mouth open or eyes closed. No one tried to take my photo when I was running when I was thin, only when I was fat, she says, just getting started.

She was considered fat at a size 10? Yes! Seriously, come on. But what really upset me was that they never documented any of my professional success, such as that I was the first woman to host the chart show on Radio 1. It was always about my failure to fulfil some Victorias Secret prototype.

Jamil now has a rule: that she doesnt want any images of herself to be airbrushed. In this, she is one of a new generation of women speaking out against the artifice of celebrity photography: last year, Lupita Nyongo criticised Grazia magazine for removing her afro ponytail; and Solange Knowles complained when the Evening Standard magazine removed her crown of braids. But I tell Jamil shes the first person Ive encountered who forbids any retouching.

Stylist: Anna Su at Art Department. Hair: Robert Lopez for Solo Artists/Oribe Haircare. Above: top, H&M; shorts, Vivetta; ring and bracelet, Leigh Miller Jewelry. Opening photo: jumpsuit, Urban Outfitters; necklace and ring, Leigh Miller Jewelry. Photograph: Ramona Rosales for the Guardian

Really? she says, surprised. I dont know any woman whos truly happy with how they look, because theyre always aspiring to this perfect aesthetic, and I just find it really toxic and Ive had enough. I did a tweet recently about a tabloid that described Queen Latifah as looking like a beached whale can you imagine? I can, and I add that disrespecting Queen Latifah with her decades of success seems absurd, like disrespecting Oprah Winfrey. Jamil cocks a slightly sceptical eyebrow. I mean, to be fair, Oprah does a lot of weight-loss endorsements, so part of Oprahs industry is her weight-loss fluctuations, so thats different.

The sad truth is that many of these articles and magazines are written and edited by women.Even if a woman edits the magazine, a man owns the company and I think its scary to men how independent women can be, says Jamil. Its not in the patriarchys interest for us to be multifaceted. They want us to worry about how we look, because it slows us down and were then less likely to overtake them. Also, it benefits me to show what I really look like, because then theres no value in tabloid photos of me. People are used to seeing my wrinkles and spots and under-eye circles, so the paparazzi cant catch me out, she says, placing heavy sarcasm on the last three words.

Jamil with her boyfriend, James Blake Photograph: Kate Green/Alpha Press

Its easy to be bold about showing your true face to the world when it is as naturally gorgeous as Jamils; in person, her big brown eyes, long, messy black hair and curvy figure make her look almost cartoonishly beautiful. And on her Instagram account, she posts plenty of flattering selfies. Im all for wearing nice clothes and enjoying yourself, but thats just a fraction of the things Im interested in, she says. I make sure I put my writing out there and my campaigning, and I hope the image Ive projected is a rounded one. She is looking down and speaking more quietly than before, as if shes still figuring it all out. Does it really help girls and women to be told to feel better about themselves when the person doing the telling looks like a model? Jamil winces a little, because she doesnt see it like that. She talks about her unsexy personality and total clumsiness, which would come across a little like Miss America insisting theyre actually super-dorky because they wear glasses had Jamil not experienced so much bullying about her appearance as a child.

Whether about her weight, or her skin colour, the bullying went on for as long as she can remember. By the age of 12, she was 5ft 10in and big for her age, her face covered in acne and braces, and at her private all-girls school in London (she was on a scholarship), it was relentless. They called me the Fat Paki, she recalls.

But thats not even a pun!

I know, its like my early rap name.

As recently as 2016, she was racially abused in London. I was in Notting Hill the day after the referendum and someone said, Go home, Paki! The day after! I was like, How long have you been waiting to say that, mate? she says, both amused and furious.

When she was 14, Jamil developed an eating disorder that she now sees as an attempt to gain some control over a life that felt chaotic, and to fit in with the girls at school ,although it didnt help. She credits a major accident with changing the course of her life she was 17 when a car hit her, damaging her spine. She was stuck in bed for a year and thought shed never be able to walk again without a Zimmer frame. Theres something about not being able to move that gives you a new respect for your body, and I honestly think that accident saved me.

Throughout all this, Jamils home life was difficult; her parents were unhappily married and divorced when she was very young. She was also sexually assaulted by strangers twice.The first time happened when she was 12 and walking along Oxford Street when a man grabbed her by the crotch. At 3.30 in the afternoon in front of John Lewis, for Gods sake, she near shouts. When he wouldnt let go, she had to run down the street and throw herself against a wall to shake him off, then run away. When she was 15, she was dragged by a stranger into a car in Belsize Park! The most affluent part of London! and was saved only because a stranger saw her struggling. I never considered those experiences traumatic until now, because I thought they happened to everyone and were normal. And now I realise that maybe thats true, but it shouldnt be.

This realisation has emboldened her to speak out against the movie industry. Jamil feels some things have improved, thanks to the #MeToo movement: weird and sleazy producers no longer suggest meetings at 9pm and men dont even try to hug, let alone kiss her, at the end of a meeting. But the situation is far from perfect. Jamil is close friends with Daniele Bernfeld, a movie executive who was viciously assaulted by the actor Emile Hirsch in 2015; Hirsch was given a fine and sentenced to 15 days in jail. But hes never stopped working meanwhile, my friend has PTSD, Jamil says with palpable fury. Hirsch is now making Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Quentin Tarantinos film about the Charles Manson murders a film about the death of a woman, Sharon Tate, directed by a man who has admitted he knew that Harvey Weinstein assaulted women, co-starring a man who assaulted a woman.

It is so dark. How dare any of the people involved in that movie wear Times Up pins to the Golden Globes? Can people just not hire men who have almost killed women? she says.

And yet, there are plenty of women who, at the very least, play down male violence. Not long before Jamil and I meet, Germaine Greer, for reasons known only to her, told an audience at the Hay festival: Instead of thinking of rape as a spectacularly violent crime and some rapes are think about it as non-consensual, that is bad sex.

Bloody, bloody Germaine Greer! Jamil shouts, startling everyone around us. Rape is not bad sex. She just needs to get in the bin and live there and set up shop there. And the older French women! she adds, referring to the letter 100 French women, including Catherine Deneuve, signed, condemning the #MeToo campaign for its hatred of men and sexuality.

I wonder if older women look back and realise theyve experienced trauma and want us to stop talking about it, because they dont want to think about it. But were just trying to stop it happening to the next generation of girls, she says.

Does Jamil ever worry that being outspoken might hurt her career?

Oh, I dont care about that. I cant not say this because then you become a double agent for the patriarchy, which has always been my greatest fear.

And yet one awkward fact remains: that her manager is Dave Becky, who is not only Ansaris manager, but also the former manager of Louis CK, who admitted to sexual misconduct last year. Becky was accused by two of CKs victims of telling them not to talk about it, and later issued a public apology.

Hes no longer Louis CKs manager, she says with a nervous laugh. But I decided to be with him because he represents so many women I admire. (Becky also represents Amy Poehler, Issa Rae and Natasha Lyonne.)

And neither he nor Schur ever warned her off talking about Ansari?

No. Never.

Almost every feminist is familiar with the idea of making a compromise to get on in the modern world, and if you work in the entertainment business you are more familiar than most. And if there are certain elements Jamil is still figuring out, no one can doubt her courage in doing this just as she embarks on her Hollywood career.

Her boyfriend, James Blake, has been a huge source of support. They knew each other in London, but got together when they moved to LA at the same time. Living with him has been very settling for me, she says. And in turn her campaigning has been eye-opening for Blake: Hes seen the impact of making yourself a voice of reason to the people youre lucky enough to reach.

There is an obvious irony in that it took coming to LA, in many ways the global epicentre of body neuroses and abuse enablement, to turn Jamil into a warrior on behalf of womens self-image and safety at work. But she says it was being here that pushed her over the edge. And, put like that, its depressing that more women havent had that reaction, too.

I just cannot stay silent any more, I cant, she says. I dont care if Im going down Im going down in flames. Im fine to not work in this industry. But Im not fine to not say something.

The Good Place returns to Netflix in the autumn

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Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/jul/28/jameela-jamil-wont-become-double-agent-patriarchy

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