ELLE (UK) - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs by CHRISTO­PHER PAR­SONS Words by CARINA CHOCANO

The pre­sen­ter and ac­tress is on a mis­sion to make a dif­fer­ence

Too old, too fat, too eth­nic: Jameela Jamil was al­ways told she wouldn’t make it as an ac­tor.

But from T4 pre­sen­ter to the break­out star of hit US sit­com The Good Place, she’s

proved ev­ery­one wrong. And now she’s on a mis­sion to make Hol­ly­wood a lit­tle more real

HERE’S A PAR­TIAL LIST OF THE ITEMS I con­sumed while on a pic­nic with Jameela Jamil: egg salad, chicken salad, French bread, ba­con, fruit salad, frit­tata, baked ap­ples and rice pud­ding with mango purée. The pic­nic was her sug­ges­tion and she’d planned to do all the shop­ping, un­til it oc­curred to her that choos­ing some­one else’s food might be ‘a dick move’. (I was ex­cited about the prospect, per­son­ally.) We had ar­ranged to meet out­side Los An­ge­les’s Erewhon Mar­ket, but when I ar­rive, clutch­ing a cou­ple of furry pil­lows and a blan­ket, she texts me to come find her in­side – she’ll be the one in the cheese­burger sweater.

Ob­vi­ously, even if she weren’t wear­ing a gar­ment fea­tur­ing a flap of felt cheese un­der a bun, Jamil would be hard to miss. For one thing, she’s 5ft 1O in flats – and ap­prox­i­mately seven feet tall in black plat­form boots and cut­offs. For an­other, she stars as phi­lan­thropist­so­cialite Ta­hani Al-Jamil on the hit Net­flix show

The Good Place, Michael Schur’s hi­lar­i­ous ex­is­ten­tial com­edy about the af­ter­life. She claims to be ‘an un­couth, dis­gust­ing and dis­ap­point­ing per­son’ in real life, but this couldn’t be fur­ther from the re­al­ity I’m faced with. In per­son she is, in fact, dis­con­cert­ingly lovely. She’s also an out­spo­ken ad­vo­cate for dis­man­tling im­pos­si­ble beauty stan­dards, so I feel bad men­tion­ing it, but her beauty does kind of jump out at you. I mean, peo­ple stare.

As it turns out, it’s not the eas­i­est thing to have a pic­nic in the mid­dle of LA on a Satur­day morn­ing, but the ef­fort (long hike, wrong shoes) proves worth it when we reach Pan Pa­cific Park, with its dogs and kids and groups do­ing Zumba. Jamil loves it here. She ap­pre­ci­ates how un­self­con­scious ev­ery­one is (ex­cept for the guy blast­ing mu­sic from his bike – he could stand to be a lit­tle more self-con­scious). Here’s what she doesn’t love: bugs. Jamil re­coils from any­thing that flies and was even hit by a car while try­ing to es­cape bees. Twice. Her prone­ness to ac­ci­dents is epic, as her cos­tar Ted Dan­son con­firms: ‘You don’t want to stand too close to her, be­cause she’ll throw you un­der a bus to get away from a bee.’

The first time Jamil was hit by a car, she was 17. The ac­ci­dent dam­aged her spine, and she wasn’t sure if she’d walk again. She ended up spend­ing a lot of time watch­ing sit­coms in bed (Dan­son’s Cheers was a favourite). Hav­ing re­cov­ered, she met a man at a pub who sug­gested she au­di­tion for a TV-host­ing gig. She went ex­pect­ing noth­ing, but wound up be­ing of­fered a role on a show called Mu­sic Zone.

She held on to her day job teach­ing English to for­eign stu­dents un­til her grow­ing fame be­came a dis­trac­tion. ‘It was a very weird time for ev­ery­one in­volved,’ she says.

Years later, while Jamil was work­ing as a DJ for BBC Ra­dio 1, her asthma got so bad that she was pre­scribed steroids. ‘Steroids make you eat trees and planes and cars,’ she says. ‘Any­thing you can find – you’re never not hun­gry, and I was on them for months.’ She gained more than five stone and ‘got roasted by the me­dia; ab­so­lutely roasted’, she says. ‘There were pa­parazzi out­side my house. Bear in mind I’m a ra­dio DJ.’ Some sug­gested she sign a deal with a weight-loss com­pany. In­stead, she went to the House of Com­mons. ‘I spoke about the word­ing and the mes­sag­ing in our tabloids, the way we treat women and what that did to me as a child,’ she says. Her ac­tivism led to a col­lab­o­ra­tion with the cloth­ing brand Sim­ply Be on a ‘burger-friendly’ name­sake col­lec­tion. Then, af­ter see­ing an im­age of the Kar­dashi­ans and Jen­ners that in­cluded each woman’s weight, Jamil started a move­ment on so­cial me­dia called ‘I Weigh’. ‘This is how women are taught to value them­selves. In kg. Grim,’ she wrote in her In­sta­gram Sto­ries. She posted a selfie and listed what she gives weight to, things like ‘great friends’ and ‘lov­ing my job’, adding, ‘I like my­self in spite of ev­ery­thing I’ve been taught by the me­dia to hate my­self about.’

For the most part, Jamil grew up in Lon­don, with shorter stints in Pak­istan and Spain. Her In­dian fa­ther and Pak­istani mother had ‘a very sad mar­riage’, Jamil says. ‘I had quite a lonely child­hood, and it’s taken me a long time to learn how to be around other peo­ple.’ She at­tended a pri­vate girls’ school on a schol­ar­ship and didn’t have a good time there, ei­ther. ‘I was a weird kid, to be fair,’ she says. ‘I was deaf for a large por­tion of my child­hood, so I used to have to stare at peo­ple to lip-read, and even when I got my hear­ing back [via surgery], I would still stare nat­u­rally. I was starey. And I am overly hon­est; al­ways have been.’

Be­tween the ages of 14 and 17, Jamil had an eat­ing dis­or­der. ‘I didn’t eat a meal for three years, and my pe­ri­ods stopped,’ she says. ‘Where did my teens go? Who took that from me? It was a lack of good mes­sag­ing from women,’ she says. ‘You had Kate Moss say­ing, “Noth­ing tastes as good as skinny feels.” Or a woman would gain weight for a film and then lose it for the Os­cars, and ev­ery­one would be like, “Oh, thank God Renée [Zell­weger] is back from her dis­gust­ing size 14 in Brid­get Jones’s Di­ary.” Clap, clap, clap. “Con­grat­u­la­tions, Renée!” And be­cause no one ever ques­tioned it, I thought that was the right way to think. Those were my role mod­els.’

Jamil is on a mis­sion to change this out­dated mind­set, and one way she’s do­ing so is by re­fus­ing to be air­brushed. ‘I’m just try­ing to be OK with my­self,’ she says. ‘I think it’s in­sane if you’re OK with be­ing air­brushed. We’ve been conned into think­ing it’s a good thing to be made to look bet­ter than we ac­tu­ally do. It’s a di­rect in­sult: “You don’t look good enough as you are, so we’re gonna fix you.”’

She also takes is­sue with the ex­pec­ta­tion that women fit a ho­mo­ge­neous mould of per­fec­tion. ‘The pa­tri­archy prof­its from con­di­tion­ing women to only think about our ex­te­rior, to spend all our money and time ob­sess­ing over our aes­thetic rather than build­ing what’s in­side,’ Jamil says. ‘We al­low our­selves to be abused by fam­ily, friends, strangers on­line, our­selves.’ So­ci­ety finds a va­ri­ety of men at­trac­tive, ‘from Mark Ruf­falo with


his dad bod, to Adrien Brody and Leonardo DiCaprio,’ Jamil says. But then, with women, ‘It’s like we all have to look like this sex-doll, teenage ver­sion of An­gelina Jolie, and ev­ery­one’s get­ting the same shit done to their face to look like that and wear­ing enough make-up to look like a mem­ber of the Ad­dams fam­ily. It looks great on In­sta­gram, but in­sane in real life.’ I nod and chew as she picks up steam, cul­mi­nat­ing in an as­sess­ment of the Kar­dashi­ans as ‘un­wit­ting dou­ble agents for the pa­tri­archy’.

In fact it was the con­stant me­dia scru­tiny that, in­di­rectly, led Jamil to the US. She had a breast-can­cer scare a few years ago, and it prompted her to make some changes. She quit her BBC ra­dio job, dumped her boyfriend and moved to Los An­ge­les. Peo­ple told her she was too old, too fat and too eth­nic to make it in Hol­ly­wood, but she knew it was time to move on. Be­sides, she was still a few years shy of 3O. She wanted to be a writer, but had no con­tacts. She stayed at a ter­ri­ble ho­tel and spent her days at a nearby restau­rant. At one point, she met a Ser­bian lin­gerie model in need of a flat­mate. The woman helped her get her bear­ings. Her new flame, English singer-song­writer James Blake, whom she’d known for only four weeks at the time, flew out to visit and never left. Even­tu­ally, she found her­self in a con­fer­ence room with Hol­ly­wood power bro­kers in­sist­ing she try out for The Good Place. The show was ba­si­cally a state se­cret, and all Jamil knew ahead of the au­di­tion was that Schur wanted some­one of her eth­nic­ity but also English and ir­ri­tat­ing. ‘I be­lieve I def­i­nitely check all three of those boxes,’ she says with a laugh. Even so, she had low ex­pec­ta­tions, as­sum­ing he would find her to be ‘a shit ac­tress’, but pos­si­bly like­able enough to hire as a writer. When Schur met Jamil, he couldn’t be­lieve she wasn’t al­ready a star. ‘Her pres­ence was un­de­ni­able, and her au­di­tion was sort of stun­ning,’ he says. ‘The char­ac­ter was de­scribed as hav­ing a Bri­tish ac­cent, and she asked me be­fore she read which spe­cific ac­cent I’d pre­fer – Ox­ford, royal fam­ily, east Lon­don, west Lon­don and so on – and demon­strated each of them with flaw­less pre­ci­sion. The idea that she had never acted be­fore seemed im­pos­si­ble.’

At this point, Jamil has un­doubt­edly hit her stride. The third sea­son of The Good Place, she as­sures me, is the fun­ni­est ever. She also re­cently com­pleted a two-part doc­u­men­tary for the BBC on the sub­ject of con­sent and she

The has a few more big- and small-screen sur­prises up her sleeve. But the first sea­son of The Good Place, she ad­mits, was dif­fi­cult for her to fully en­joy. ‘It was a very fun, very tense ex­pe­ri­ence, but I was so scared – un­til the end,’ she says. ‘We shot the fi­nale last, so you lit­er­ally walked away with a feel­ing of it end­ing. I’d been quite numb through­out film­ing, so at the end, I thanked ev­ery­one and was cool and col­lected about ev­ery­thing – bizarrely so, con­sid­er­ing I was on the Uni­ver­sal set where they filmed Spar­ta­cus and Juras­sic Park. And then, as I started walk­ing, I be­gan sob­bing un­con­trol­lably, all the way to the gate, and it’s, like, a 2O-minute jour­ney in a golf cart.’ Then she con­nects all the dots. ‘When I was 17, I had that car ac­ci­dent that hurt my back. Kids my age were at univer­sity, and my fa­ther had just left. I didn’t re­ally have any­one to talk to, and lit­er­ally every minute that I was awake, I was watch­ing Amer­i­can sit­coms. And to know that

that kid – who thought she would never walk again, who felt so de­spon­dent – was now in an ac­tual, real-life Amer­i­can sit­com, with Ted Dan­son, who I used to bloody watch on Cheers, it just hit me like a ton of bricks.’

Jamil reaches for a con­tainer of rice pud­ding and digs in. We’ve re­turned to the sub­ject of body pos­i­tiv­ity, which she says has been co-opted by cor­po­ra­tions and is now be­ing used as an ex­cuse for women to con­tinue to talk ob­ses­sively about their bod­ies. ‘It’s not that there’s any­thing wrong with it,’ she says. ‘I just want more of a nar­ra­tive that has noth­ing to do with our bod­ies.’ Thus, the im­pe­tus be­hind ‘I Weigh’. ‘It’s not a body-pos­i­tive move­ment,’ she says. ‘It’s a life-pos­i­tive move­ment.’

‘We’ve made progress, but there are still at­tempts to drag us back down,’ Jamil says. ‘Be­ing OK with your­self is the most amaz­ing mid­dle fin­ger to ev­ery­one.’ But she’s quick to clar­ify that car­ing about your looks is OK, too. ‘I wear make-up and short shorts and high boots some­times,’ she says. ‘But it’s an eighth of who I am. I’m not sit­ting here as an ac­tress who some­times en­dorses cloth­ing lines be­ing like, “Don’t care about the way you look.” Just don’t make it ev­ery­thing. It’s a piece of the pie – not the whole fuck­ing pie. Men are told to be­come so suc­cess­ful and smart that they get to date a Vic­to­ria’s Se­cret model. We’re told to be­come smart and suc­cess­ful and look like a Vic­to­ria’s Se­cret model. What is this bull­shit ex­tra home­work?’

The older she gets, the more aware Jamil be­comes of the way sham­ing works to keep women from step­ping into their power. ‘I’ve re­alised that of all the things I wanted, most of them were avail­able to me all along. I was just made to be­lieve they weren’t.’ Her book pro­ject, cur­rently un­ti­tled, is a compendium of ev­ery­thing she wasn’t told. ‘I was not given the in­for­ma­tion I needed as a young per­son to sur­vive this tu­mul­tuous life, and all I want is to be the voice that I didn’t have, in the hope that I might reach some peo­ple and re­mind them that we are ex­cep­tional, rounded crea­tures,’ she says. The Time’s Up move­ment showed her how women work­ing to­gether ‘can get shit done’, and fast. ‘We just need to keep fight­ing,’ she says. ‘More of us need to say, “You know what? I’m gonna love my­self.” We need to put sci­en­tists on the covers of more mag­a­zines – more va­ri­ety, like there is for men. There needs to be less break­ing women and sell­ing to women, and more nour­ish­ing them. And then we’ll be great. We’ll be equal.’ Se­ries three of The Good Place is cur­rently avail­able on Net­flix




SAY IT LOUD Just some of the re­sponses Jamil re­ceived af­terpost­ing her ‘I Weigh’ mes­sageon In­sta­gram

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