In Her Shoes: Gabourey Sidibe

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Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photo: Paras Griffin/Getty Images for Tyler Perry Studios

On this week’s In Her Shoes, the Cut’s editor-in-chief, Lindsay Peoples Wagner, talks with actress Gabourey Sidibe about her breakout role in Precious and building a career in Hollywood as an Oscar-nominated Black woman. The two also discuss impostor syndrome and faking confidence in their respective industries in a world that isn’t kind to Black women.

The Cut

A weekly audio magazine exploring culture, style, sex, politics, and more.

To hear more about Sidibe’s experiences and her new scripted podcast, If I Go Missing the Witches Did It, listen below and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. You can also read the full transcript below.

LINDSAY PEOPLES WAGNER: Hi. I admire you and your work, so I’m very excited about this.

GABOUREY SIDIBE: Oh, thank you. I’m excited about this too. I love podcasts. It’s all I listen to.

LPW: Oh yeah. So back in 2009, Lee Daniels’s film Precious changed so much for me and so many young Black women. Watching that film, and watching as an outsider, it was like, Oh, wow, she’s nominated for an Oscar. It felt like it changed overnight. Tell us the backstory of how you broke into acting and what your life was like before that.

SIDIBE: Oh God. 2009 feels like so long ago, but it also feels like it was last week. Before I was an actress, I was a wayward sort of young adult. Precious was my first ever audition, so the day before that, I was a phone-sex operator.

LPW: Yeah, I read that.

SIDIBE: To be fair, I worked for a film sex company, but my official job at that point was a monitor. I started as a talker, and after two months, I was promoted and then eventually became a monitor. So my job, day in, day out, was to listen to phone-sex calls for quality insurance and to make sure the rules were being followed and what have you. And that was my life at the point. I had been there for three years and I knew women who were at that company for 15, 20 years, which is a long time. I don’t know what people think phone sex is, but it’s exactly what I said. It’s phone sex. It’s with random strangers and people who are paying for it. Not everyone is nice. There are very few phone calls that you might enjoy doing, and it can be very degrading work and I couldn’t imagine doing it for much longer.

When I auditioned, I had just started going back to school. I had to drop out of school for a while because I was poor and also stupid. I had finally gone back, literally the week before I got Precious, and so at that time I felt wayward and that I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I kept trying things, but all of it was about survival. Going to school, the phone-tech job, the monitoring, I fell into that. But it’s all about survival, and I survive in a very different way now.

LPW: I love that you talk about survival because that is the story of a lot of women of color and specifically Black women, like, How do I get through this? How do I get past this? I’ve heard you say in a lot of interviews before that people thought since you got Precious as your first role, that you were really lucky, but you felt like you’ve been an unlucky person. Is that because you feel like you’ve had to survive differently? Or where do you think that that thinking comes from?

SIDIBE: The word survive around being a Black woman is heavy. It’s an albatross; it’s like it’s an anchor around our neck in a way. And for so long, I was like, I don’t want to be your survivor. I’m not your survivor. I’ve had hardships in my life the same way everyone has, and I would not categorize myself as a lucky person at all. I read something yesterday that said, Do you know how many couches and floors I slept on to be called lucky? I was like, Oh my God, yeah, that’s it. For whatever reason, I got this strange audition, and it catapulted me into a different life completely. My life was not the roughest, but it wasn’t the greatest. It’s very different from the way I live now. So yes, I would say that I probably survived a lot of things.

LPW: When you say your life is so different now, and I don’t mean the external money things, how do you feel that you’re different as a person and your humanity?

SIDIBE: When I think of how different my life is now, it’s not even really about money. The biggest thing is the way I live and the way I think. When I was living with my mom and my brother and growing up, literally sucking dick over the phone for a job, I did not think I could do much in life. I didn’t have as much self-worth as I have now. I had very few experiences. I was still very young. The idea that I might be able to walk into the Hermès store or walk into a museum and feel like I’m not being watched because I might steal something — not that that doesn’t happen randomly now — but I had no idea that I could live without fear. Not just fear of racism or being called fat or any of that, because that still happens, but the fear that I don’t belong in this space.

I didn’t belong in any spaces when I was like 24. I always felt like I was an inconvenience to every store, like Chanel or Target. I felt like I better be on my best, best, best behavior so that I don’t get kicked out or so that I’m not followed or so they don’t put whatever stereotype they think that I am on me, even though they do. Now I take up space. That may not even have anything to do with what I do for a living; it could just be that I’m older or that I’m tired. But certainly, what I thought of the world and what I thought of my place in the world is so different today than it was then.

LPW: I find this so fascinating because I think you can be a Black girl anywhere and you feel that in so many different ways. We’ve never met or talked before this, and, exactly what you were saying, I’ve felt it in so many ways in my life as a Black woman and so have many of my friends and peers and family members. Even when you get this huge role and you’re able to be at the fancy parties and do all the things and go to Hermès and go to Chanel, it feels like Black women are only applauded when we’re doing the entire most and outworking everyone. But that’s at our own expense. It still feels like there’s this sense of not belonging, but then having to understand our own identities and redefining that is a process that happens over time because it is incredibly complicated and fraught as a Black woman in so many spaces. I hear so much of what you’re saying. I identify with it and hear from young Black women to older Black women.

SIDIBE: Anywhere in the world being a Black woman, we are oppressed. I hate saying that, though. I was explaining to my fiance, who’s Jewish, that at some point in history, our literal hair, Black woman’s hair, was illegal. We had to be covered up …

LPW:  Yes, I’m nodding yes.

SIDIBE: Our hair, the way it grows out of our head that we have nothing to do with, we did not create that; it’s the natural way that we are. And that’s just one of the ways that we’ve been told that we don’t belong on this earth, not in this city, not in this store, not in this country. We don’t belong on this earth, we have been told. Maybe I’m here and it’s not about the money because I think we also get tired. I love those protest photographs of Black women pushing guns out of their faces and Black women cussing out cops, and love it so much…

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