Actress Jameela Jamil on Her Unusual Journey to the Top

Alicia Menendez sits down with Jameela Jamil, who stars in hit sitcom “The Good Place,” to discuss her unusual journey to the top.

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ALICIA MENENDEZ: You have the type of story that if it were written as fiction would be unbelievable. You grow up without full hearing and yet somehow become a radio D.J. You accidentally become a host. You then accidentally become a columnist. You have then achieved fame in the U.K. and decided it is time to move to the U.S. to pursue a career in writing and then somehow, although you are not pursuing acting, get cast in one of the most important sitcoms happening in America right now. Who are you?

JAMEELA JAMIL, FOUNDER, I WEIGH MOVEMENT: I don’t know. I have no idea. I should be stopped.


JAMIL: Memorized my life.

MENENDEZ: Well, it’s unbelievable.

JAMIL: So when I was 17, I was hit by a car into another car, broke my back. And that changed the rest of my life because it gave me this certainty that we can’t really have plans. There’s no point really in having plans. Because one day if you walk across the road and then that’s it, your whole life changes and you can’t walk again or some people can never walk again. So I think I stopped living my life with a plan and with a particular direction and just moved in the direction of happiness. I’m making the most of every single day which makes me sound so disgustingly cheesy but it is true. Once you lose the ability to urinate alone, you start to take things less for granted. So I think that it’s left me open-minded. I think some people can be quite tunnel visioned in this world and in this industry in particular. They have a certain idea of how everything is going to go. And I think so I just been quite malleable and quite open to things. I’ve been in the right place at the right time. I think luck plays a huge part in it. And I’ve just been willing to take risks and humiliate myself constantly, sometimes, which I do actually quite frequently. I’m bad at things on air in front of lots of people but I’m willing to do the first time.

MENENDEZ: Well, because you’re trying to try. Yes.

JAMIL: But I always jump straight in at the deep and I have no idea how to host and my first audition landed me one of the biggest hosting jobs in the United Kingdom. And then I started out in radio and Rob then giving me the kind of one-year training run that you’re supposed to get when you pop up for other people. I got given my own show straight away and then made history as the first woman to ever take up an official show. So I’ve never been ready for — I mean I’ve never acted before and now I’m on “The Good Place” of the Ted Danson.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Who would you say is the most famous person in your phone?

JAMIL: It’s not about who you know, enlightenment comes from within.


MENENDEZ: The show The Good Place for all of its humor, gives us some very dark deep existential questions. What have you learned being on the show?

JAMIL: I learned that I need to pay more attention and be a better person to make sure that my motivations aren’t corrupt. I think that’s a part of all of us that sometimes, even without realizing, do good things for the — not for the sake of it but doing it because it will make you feel like a good person. We call it moral desert on the show. And I think that also it is a great reminder at the time where it feels like everything is so divisive in politics and in the news and they’re all being turned against each other and fear-mongering about one another, this show is about four people who have nothing in common who come from very different places who have no choice but to work together in order to get to a better place, which is kind of a really wonderful analogy for the rest of the world. Divided, we will be conquered and we are literally being conquered. And if we want to be more like the show, a silly NBC network comedy, we would put aside our differences and just work together, we could actually change the world. And so that’s what I really like about it.

MENENDEZ: Talk to me about why you decided to make that leap from your career in the U.K. to moving to L.A.?

JAMIL: Well, England is amazing. But England has kind of a quite low ceiling for women still. I think there’s really very few of us who managed to continue to work off their 30s and there still isn’t enough diversity, not as much as they should be. I think they’re getting back to the way behind America. And so I kind of felt like my options are very great content where it was sort of at that time — I think things are changing now but four years ago, it was sort of I felt like the walls are kind of closing in on me and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. And I had health scare again. I get this like kind of cyclical, every decade I get a huge health scare that makes me think about my life.

MENENDEZ: The breast cancer scare?

JAMIL: It was the breast cancer scare, yes. And it took a week for them to give me back my biopsy results which is so long when it is happening to you. And I thought during the whole week about everything that I wished I would have done if it’s cancer. And if it isn’t cancer, I’m going to go and do all of those things. So I made a list. And one of them was to book a one-way ticket to Los Angeles and quit my job and quit my relationship, quit my life. Just move there, with no plan, no visa, no contacts, nothing, no friends here and I just did it.

MENENDEZ: They say of comedians that very often their humor comes from a very dark place. Even though you are not a comedian, you obviously now are a comedic actor. And so I wonder for you, is there a darkness that you access in order to get to your comedy?

JAMIL: I think normally humor comes from an inability of feeling like you have anything else to rely on to make people like you. And so for me that was being Pakistani in a time where England was still quite racist and I think it was being more overweight than society thought I should be. And also coming from a poor background, getting a scholarship to a very wealthy girls’ school where everyone within, very few people were of any ethnicity. I was very much that outside of my whole life and I didn’t really have friends probably until about 19-years-old. So I think that loneliness and also spending my hours that I should have been spending with other people my age, I spent watching comedy. So I think it has become comedy is my friend and therefore, comedy is how I approach all friendship. And that’s probably where my comedy comes from, loneliness and darkness and sadness.

MENENDEZ: Well, you alluded to this but you spent three years suffering from anorexia in which you did not eat one proper meal —


MENENDEZ: — entire three years.


MENENDEZ: It is then that car accident that kicks you out of that. Not everyone will be hit by a car and have that be the turning point —

JAMIL: No, not everyone is as lucky as me.

[13:45:00] MENENDEZ: I mean what a life-altering experience.

JAMIL: Yes. It’s the best thing ever happened to me. I highly recommend it.

MENENDEZ: You understand about how dark that sounds?

JAMIL: Yes, yes. No, I highly recommend it. You know, just little milk that reminds you that you are human and everything that you have can be taken away from you. You’re not special. You’re not privileged. Anything can happen. At least, if you look at the current, this can happen all the time. You have to be careful with yourself. You have to respect your body and it taught me to respect my body. Because once you buy for things I’ve taken for granted like walking or bending or sitting up by myself was taken away from me, I realized that “Oh my God, I’ve been treating my body so badly, speaking about my body so badly.” We all do it. We all say terrible things about our bodies, to our bodies, and to other people constantly. It’s all I hear. And now that I started the I Weigh Movement and I myself have become so sick of the toxic language around the way that we talk about our self-image, I feel like I’m seeing it more than ever before. And we just have so much self-hatred and I think that’s kind of the thing I most want to do with my platform.

MENENDEZ: So tell me about I Weigh.

JAMIL: So I Weigh is a movement that I started. It’s not a body positive movement. It’s a life positive movement because I think there are enough people working within body positivity. And I would like to focus myself on getting away from the body and just looking at the whole picture of a woman. We’re so multi-faceted. And what’s so interesting is so many of us do impress and wonderful and incredible things. So many women is so much funnier than people know. And we are reduced to nothing more than a silhouette and normally aesthetically pleasing to a man. Those are the kind of confines of which were given to exist. We have to have big breasts and a small waist and a big bottom but no size and no arms, no cellulite and we have to never age ever. We have to always look prepubescent and yet men are shot in H.D. and they get celebrated for getting older and, you know, sculpt and pepper hair. You don’t say that about women. So we’re so shamed. And I decided I am tired of being valued by my weight, like my physical weight. I don’t want my worth to be represented on a weighing scale. I think that we are — I Weigh the sum of all my part, you know, and I deserve the right to be acknowledged for that. I’ve lived a whole life here. I’m not just a facade. I’m not just an outside. And I want to celebrate women and I want them to celebrate themselves and everything that makes them up. I want them to be proud of themselves. There’s so many things that we do that are amazing. You don’t need to look like a teenage sex doll to be valid in this world. If you do, fine. If that’s what you like, that’s great but that shouldn’t be the one requirement we’re given. Also, it’s so narrow for us. We’reonly getting one look and that look changes every 10 years. Can you imagine a world in which we said to men every 10 years I got to look like this now? And if you don’t, you’re nothing. They would tell us to F-word off. That’s what they would do. There’s no way that they would take that, tolerate that from us.

MENENDEZ: You have plenty of experience with airbrush, airbrush that is not of your choosing. You have been made to look both less ethnic, slimmer. How do you stop that?

JAMIL: I say do not ever airbrush me now to all magazines. I think I’ve always said it for a long time but I didn’t command enough power. And also, I think I was less OK with the word no and for being strongly opinionated. I think we need to — in times it has given me this sense of like I’ve never ever had before. But now I’m just like damn it, this is my life, don’t change my face. It’s rude when someone changes my face. It’s crazy to me that without asking me if I want to change the shape of my nose and change the color of my skin and lengthen my body. That’s a direct insult from the editor of the magazine and (INAUDIBLE) to me that I’m not good enough. And then the young girl who doesn’t look like me because I don’t even look like me, who sees that image then think she’s not good enough. This is ridiculous. So I now ban all airbrushing. I would like to move to change the laws on airbrushing. If I could, I would get rid of all of it. And God help us with these Photoshop apps. I think they are a nightmare because — and I think that they are increasing the numbers of surgery that are happening now, cosmetic surgery. I think numbers are rising because you’re seeing yourself, you’re always – I think Facetune is one of the apps. You’re always Photoshopping yourself and you look in the mirror. How can you be happy with something when you’ve been looking at complete flawlessness? And you look in the mirror and you can see human normal flaws and age. That’s going to make you then want to match what you see in the app and then you have to go out and have painful, expensive, sometimes dangerous surgery. What are we doing? What kind of time is this that we’re spending on thinking about these things? You spend a little bit time on your looks, find a suit I made yesterday?

MENENDEZ: Brushed your hair?

JAMIL: Was it yesterday? Brushed my teeth yesterday but I’m here. I make an effort, wearing some makeup, that’s fine but it’s one-tenth of who I am. And that’s all I want, is just life positivity. I Weigh is who you are, not what you look like.

MENENDEZ: As you alluded to, we are in a moment of cultural reckoning and that was on full display in these past few weeks as Brett Kavanaugh was considered for his nomination to the Supreme Court. We’ve spoken openly in the past about being a survivor of assault. And so I wonder for you watching what has unfolded in the past few weeks how you process the disbelief that has been posed towards the survivors that have come forward.

JAMIL: As a victim of several different cases of sexual assault, I find it very triggering, very painful to watch and I think so to a lot of my friends because we’ve all been there. We’ve all been given doubt. And also, I pointed out this week that in the same week in which a woman who’s just speaking out about sexual assault and the way she’s being treated in many different areas as someone to be suspicious of, someone to not believe, just been kind of villainize by certain people. And then you have Roman Polanski on the other side — on the other hand who with this week we’re hearing that he’s got a new film coming out. How is this — what is this gender imbalance here that a woman who’s accusing someone of sexual assault, life is being torn apart. And then Roman Polanski is off making movies, hanging out with celebrities, eating at the best restaurants, living his life free.

MENENDEZ: Will you tell me as a survivor, what message does it send?

JAMIL: It sends the message that we’re not supposed to speak out. And that if we do, we will be villainized and we will be doubted and we will be shamed and asked about what our part — we don’t have a part to play in sexual assault. We are just victims. And all I could ever beg women to do because I’ve buried so much of my sexual assault for so many years, each one took 10 years from the date of this whole thing ever tell anyone of anyone about them. You have to speak out. You have to say something. Not just the fact that there may be something can be done about it but also it’s very emancipating to release that shame and put it out into the world away from yourself. It’s important to tell someone and have people look after you. Don’t do what I did which is swallow it for so long. It ate me alive and made me afraid of sex and afraid of people. I suggest you go and get help. I think NDR therapy in post-traumatic stress disorder — MENENDEZ: What is that? JAMIL: NDR is a special therapy for PTSD that I think is incredible and it really helps me with overcoming my sexual assault. But I think you need to reach out to people and you need to go to the law and we need to keep fighting. It’s been so inspiring to see that this is going on as long as it is. And that even at that higher level where one could be quite well protected and people could be silenced, we are still listening to women. We need more of this and women need to know that you have the right to speak out. It is not your fault. You did nothing to encourage it. You did not deserve it and you must say something.

MENENDEZ: I am envious of how unapologetic you are. And I walked into this wondering if that was a need or if that is learned but what I’m hearing is that it’s been a process.

JAMIL: Yes, yes. I was — I had huge anxiety and depression in my 20s. I had a nervous breakdown at 26 until I was about 27 but I had to hide because I was still a live T.V. presenter which is probably where my acting comes from, being able to hide a nervous breakdown but I was mad. And —

MENENDEZ: Was there something that triggered it?

JAMIL: Yes, but it’s too personal to say. But it was kind of a big event in my life within my personal life that sort of just was the straw that broke the camel’s back. And so that kind of — it’s also around that age that I think you start to really process the things that happened to you, you know, in your childhood and in your youth.

MENENDEZ: One true line that runs through all of the work that you’ve done is that you have been a public person and in the public eye —


MENENDEZ: — for a very long time. No one and nothing can prepare you for that.


MENENDEZ: What has the process of becoming a public person been for you?

JAMIL: Trial and error, so much error. I was not born for this industry at all. And I don’t think before I speak and I can act emotionally rather than intellectually sometimes, which is a nightmare if you’re on Twitter and I say the wrong thing and my ignorance can be problematic. And I’m trying to grow from it and learn from it and old mistakes you’ve made, like a tattoo when you’re famous and they never go away. And all I can ever do is continue to learn and openly apologize and beg forgiveness of those that I offend if I didn’t know something. But I hope people know that I don’t come from a place of malice, just probably some internalized misogyny sometimes or some internalized shame on my own pain that’s pouring out. It’s hard to live in an industry where people want to invade your privacy as much as they do, which is kind of why I kind of just become an open book because I’m tired of trying to hide everything that all the time. I think my willingness to fail is the one thing that I hope will make me a good role model to young people that it’s OK to fail as long as you keep trying. MENENDEZ: Jameela, thank you so much.

JAMIL: Thank you.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane Amanpour speaks with New York Times reporters Robin Pogrebin & Kate Kelly about Brett Kavanaugh; and author Yuval Noah Harari. Alicia Menendez interviews actress Jameela Jamil.