As a T4 presenter, her sardonic wit used to make Sunday hangovers bearable. Now, Jameela Jamil is using her new role as a US comedy queen to kick-start a body positivity movement.
‘What you’re trying to say is, “What the fuck am I doing here?”’ says Jameela Jamil, with a laugh down the phone from LA. I’ve been scrambling around for a tactful way of saying how surprising it was to see the British presenter and DJ pop up all of a sudden on an American sitcom. And not just any sitcom, Parks And Recreation creator Michael Schur’s The Good Place, one of the smartest and buzziest comedies to come out of the US in years.
Jamil just assumes every other actress in LA with the casting call requirement – a British woman of Pakistani descent – ‘must have died’ when her manager sent her to audition for the role of brilliant-awful socialite Tahani in The Good Place. A year earlier, she had left London after a breast-cancer scare gave her the push she needed to quit her Radio 1 job and relocate to Hollywood to pursue a long-held ambition of comedy writing – ‘so I would know that by the time I was 30, I had grabbed life by its balls’.
With no acting experience, she thought the audition would be, at best, an interesting experience and an opportunity to meet Schur, a comedy writing legend. Schur had different ideas and signed Jamil up to a seven-year contract. ‘You don’t presume that life could be so ridiculous that you would start a new career at 30 years old… as an actress,’ she says.
But it’s not just Jamil’s reinvention as a comedy star that’s drawing headlines. With The Good Place going into its third season, the former presenter is also using her mushrooming platform to air some undiluted views about feminism and body image.
Earlier this year, a searing blog post she wrote about consent following the Aziz Ansari furore (‘women must learn that no is a right, not a privilege’) went viral. Shortly after that she became so incensed by an Instagram post showing the Kardashian family with their corresponding weights that she kick-started a new body positivity movement, inviting women to share their real ‘weight’ (for instance, ‘I weigh: lovely relationship, ￼ great friends, wonderful husband, financial independence’). The Instagram account @I_Weigh now has 26k followers. You get the sense this is just the tip of the iceberg…
You went into The Good Place with no acting experience. How did you style it out?
‘I think you can see in the first three episodes that I don’t really know what the fuck I’m doing! But spending 16 hours a day with talented actors [Ted Danson and Kristen Bell], you learn what to do by osmosis.’
Were you nervous?
‘Well, all of the jobs I’ve ever done I’ve never been prepared for. I didn’t know after my first audition that I’d end up on T4, and I didn’t think after one audition I would get my own show on Radio 1. I got very, very lucky, but I was also thrown massively into the deep end. There’s no time to think about how scared you are.’
How did the expectations of starring in a US sitcom measure up to the reality?
‘It’s a much bigger beast than I could have imagined. I’ve been on TV for ten years, but English budgets are so much smaller – you can find yourself pissing in a ditch on location. I wasn’t prepared for having my own trailer with a fake fireplace in it. And the catering! I’m not one to worry about gaining weight, but my costumes were fitted a month before filming and all the food here is laced with corn syrup – so I sort of ate my way out of all my clothes. It was stressful for the costume department.’
Your character Tahani in The Good Place is a former London socialite. Did you model her on anyone specific?
‘Oh, for sure. All the London socialites! Any time I DJed at a party, the people who would turn up have bled into Tahani. It was fun to exercise the things that annoyed me about some people I’ve met… who I won’t name [laughs]. It’s also great showing a different side of English people to the ones who normally appear on American sitcoms – that oppressed passive aggression we’re so good at.’
Tahani is an excessive name-dropper. Do you have any great name drops of your own from living in LA?
‘I did get to meet Jay-Z, as he worked with my boyfriend [the musician James Blake]. He was very sweet and professional.’
Who was your favourite interviewee?
‘Mariah Carey. She starts with confidence, moves past arrogance and then goes straight into legend. I loved her.
I also had to give Kim Kardashian a manicure once on T4. I’m terrible with anything to do with beauty and she’d just had a thousand dollar manicure that I then destroyed.’
‘I had the ability to urinate on my own taken away from me for a year. My brother had to carry me [to the bathroom] to wee.’
The #IWeigh campaign has really gathered steam. Have you been moved by the response?
‘Yeah, I’ve actually cried several times from the things women have written to me! It’s something I’ve wanted to do for so long, but couldn’t work out how to do it. I’ve been talking about body positivity for ten years now – when I first started, then when I gained all that weight at Radio 1 because I was on steroids for asthma. It’s been quite heartbreaking too, as I’ve received thousands of messages from women saying they’d love to take part in the campaign, but can’t find anything nice to say about themselves. You think, “God, you’re so polluted by this idea of not being good enough because someone told you you’re not.”’
You were in a car accident when you were 17 and told you might not walk again. Do you think the process of watching your body then fully recover made you feel we should all be kinder to ourselves?
‘For sure. It’s a big part of why I don’t ever get facials or manicures. I had the ability to urinate on my own taken away from me for a year. My brother had to carry me [to the bathroom] to wee. There’s something about being able to finally function by myself, to be given the gift of carrying on with life, that is so sacred to me. When I was lying there being told I might not be able to walk again on my own, I wasn’t thinking about what my body had looked like my whole life, I was thinking about my life in its entirety.’
Are there things you give less of a toss about now you’re in your thirties?
‘I continue to use age as a gateway to perspective. When I was younger, I used to only be able to stand up for other people, but now I’m good at saying no. I’ve [also] made a lot of changes, unfollowed toxic people on Instagram. That’s something I’d urge women much younger than me to do. I wish I’d learned to do that years ago, but I’ve definitely toughened up with age.’
Jameela Jamil’s #IWeigh campaign can be found on Instagram under @I_Weigh.
Seasons one and two of The Good Place are available on Netflix