British Broadcaster Turned LA-Based Actress Jameela Jamil is on a Mission to get Women Loving Themselves Again
…and it couldn’t feel more timely
Photographer Benjamin Askinas
Stylist Gioconda Sirolli
Hair stylist Robert Lopez
Make-up Jameela Jamil
Special thanks to The Standard Downtown
Jameela Jamil is furious. There’s a sky-high pink billboard on Times Square, advertising appetite suppressant lollipops, “flat tummy” shakes, and slimming tea. It’s marketed directly at women, proudly declaring “1.5 million babes and counting”. It’s part of a wider, perverse trend of marketeers body-shaming women and peddling “diarrhoea gummies” and “diarrhoea tea”, as Jamil so eloquently calls it. “They call it ‘slimming’ tea but that’s all that happens,” she explains graphically. Earlier this year, Kim Kardashian was called out for advertising the same brand on her Instagram feed. “There’s a lot of toxicity, and there are a lot of women doing men’s work and breaking other women’s confidence and I don’t like that shit,” Jamil says. “I think I’ve referred to them as ‘double agents for the patriarchy’.”
Despite the upswell around women’s rights campaigns, such as #MeToo and #TimesUp, women continue to be objectified and taught that our value as humans is somehow linked to the number we see on the scales.
Indeed, Jamil was told she was “too old, too ethnic and too fat” to land a job in Los Angeles. She was 29 at the time. Three years later, she has the third season of hit Netflix afterlife-based “deadcom” The Good Place airing this autumn, playing Tahani Al-Jamil, the well-heeled, name-dropping Brit, alongside US comedic stars Kristen Bell and Ted Danson. While she won’t go as far as to say it’s a ‘fuck you’ to everyone who doubted her, she does think, “It’s definitely a victory for those of us who are in our thirties, who are brown and who aren’t size zero.”
Jamil fibbed about having any acting experience to get the part (claiming she’d done theatre as it’s harder to track down), but in a country where Trump is president, qualifications can be a mere trivial detail. Besides, “Being in England means covering up your feelings so much because we’re such repressed people, and so I think there’s an actor in all British people,” she quips. The hardest thing about the transition to acting was trying not to get star-struck in the one-on-one scenes, “where you just can’t stop the internal monologue ‘Jesus, fuck, that’s Ted Danson!’, ‘Jesus, fuck, that’s Kristen Bell!’ I still feel sometimes, just soaked in my own inferiority,” she says with self-deprecation. Her braying Tahani character is an amalgamation of a million London It-girls. “Every time I’ve ever DJ’d at, like, an Ugg Boot party, I was always studying various different versions of Tahani without realising it.”
Recently she’s crossed back over into talk shows as a frequent guest anchor on NBC’s Last Call with Carson Daly, making her a woman of colour interviewer in a late night TV field that is almost exclusively white and male dominated.
“[Modelling agencies] would give you tips like to eat one red pepper a day and the kind of things you should never ever tell a 15-year-old. They suggested that I try smoking.”
Jamil was born in London to an Indian father and Pakistani mother, though she doesn’t feel “massively connected to my roots”. While it’s her heritage and she has “love and respect” for both countries, her parents moved to the UK when they were young and were quickly Anglicised. “I think that comes down to moving to England in a time that had extreme racism, truly extreme racism, so I think it was either kind of having to stick within your community or you would have to sort of adapt to your surroundings, so my parents never taught me and my brother Urdu or Hindi.” She says that she feels culturally British, and really misses good tea, and the Brit sense of humour. Growing up she spent time with her grandmother in Marbella, which she feels gave her a “Mediterranean, European upbringing” too. “I can still get fed or laid in Spanish, which are, you know, the main two priorities,” she says in her typically straight-talking way.
Aged 14, Jamil developed an eating disorder, along with many of her classmates. She sketched self-portraits imagining herself as a skeleton and barely ate a meal for three years. “I feel so sad for that girl, and I feel so desperately protective of all other girls now.” It was the 90s, pre-social media. “We had to seek out the toxicity, but now it’s everywhere. It jumps out at you, even when you’re not looking for it. It’s crazy.” She feels that she owes it to her younger self to try and protect young women from being triggered in the same way, and has won legions of fans with her spontaneously conceived ‘I Weigh’ social media campaign, which asks women to share what they believe they weigh in meaningful life experiences, skills and passions as opposed to simply “fucking KG”.
She’s also very particular in how she will be photographed. No Photoshop on the skin, or any alteration to the shape of her facial features (not something PHOENIX condones either). She does her own make-up. She prefers to wear her hair down. She is not a sample size. If magazines don’t like it, they can lump it. “If people don’t agree to not airbrush me then I will send in an old relative of mine in my place and they can just make her look like me. Why should I get up early for hair and make-up when you’re going to change my face afterwards anyway? It’s really offensive and bizarre!” And, she notes, it’s not something that ever happens to male talent. “We love so many different types of men; why do women all have to look like one prototype? We all have to look like this young sex-doll version of Angelina Jolie. We love Adrien Brody, we love James Franco, we love Mark Ruffalo, and Idris Elba, and all of these different types of men. I think it’s really weird.”
“What I wanted to do was get away from talking about bodies and just talk about women’s lives, because I think we’re so interesting and we’re so smart, so strong, and so resilient.”
As a teenage model she was actively encouraged by her agency to be anorexic. “They would give you tips like to eat one red pepper a day and the kind of things you should never ever tell a woman, or 15-year-old, a growing child essentially. They suggested that I try smoking, or to do what everyone else does, which is just exist on a little packet of Haribo. Just disgusting advice to give a child,” she says.
At the age of 17, while crossing the street one day, Jamil was hit by a car, which damaged her spine, and she was unable to walk for a year. The experience shook her out of her unhealthy relationship with her body. “For a long time I thought that I might not recover and that this was just my life now. I’d already had a difficult childhood and teens, and it was just so sad to think that I might have lost my opportunity to have a good life. It upset me all the time, especially as I’d had such a miserable eating disorder in the years leading up to the accident. I thought of all of the restaurants I could’ve gone to and all the time I spent just sitting in my house, hating myself, crying in front of my mirror. I felt like such an arse! I was so angry with myself and so ashamed of myself for wasting so much time. It wasn’t my fault though, being the victim of my culture and my society, but I really made a promise to myself that if I got better I would spend the rest of my life working to get away from that mindset and just appreciate everything as much as I can.” She considers it a blessing in disguise, one that taught her permanent gratitude for a healthy body.
She tried to go back into the fashion industry as a model scout. “I thought that I could go in like a Trojan horse and that we could bring curves back.” It didn’t go according to plan. “God, it was just so depressing! I watched a 12-year-old be told off about her diet and I just walked out. I just quit. I watched this stunning little 12-year-old be told that she wasn’t taking it seriously, that she was eating too much. I felt like I couldn’t change anything.”
She moved into presenting, first for BBC Radio then TV on Channel 4, which she admits is a strange career choice for someone who is “sort of low-key”. She describes herself as a “sloth”. “I barely bathe, I barely leave the house. I always organise dinner parties so I can find a way to be social within the comfort of my own house. I’m almost never out of my pyjamas.” She would go to work events to DJ, slipping in and out for her set, and was painted by the press as a party It-girl.
“People assumed that I was more of a Delevingne than I actually was.”
She doesn’t drink or do drugs, her only vice is decidedly beige. Or should that be caramel… “I can’t live without caramels. I literally have 20 of them in my mouth, 20 at least because I’m just like this creepy little old lady who’s just always got caramels on her.” She’s a self-confessed sugar demon, but keeps it in check as her family has a history of diabetes, and she doesn’t exercise, saying she manages to injure herself every time. “It’s like being made of plasticine. Any position that you bend my flesh into it just stays and I have to make peace with that. It feels like Final Destination every time I try to exercise,” she quips. “Can pathological laziness be a vice?”
When she’s not fighting the good feminist fight, Jamil says spooning, love and comedy are the things that make her happy. “Really, truly wonderful comedy, the love between me and my boyfriend and my wonderful friends, and spooning are my three number ones.” She’s been dating British musician James Blake since 2015 and they live together in LA.
She claims to be “horrific at flirting” and has only ever kissed six people (including her on-screen kiss with Manny Jacinto in The Good Place). She thinks people assume she’s confident because of the way she dresses and presents herself, but says it’s all a defence mechanism: “an armour for the fact that I’m a serial erection-killer. I just have a devastatingly unsexy personality and so I have to fake it with my clothing or the way that I do my hair and make-up because as soon as I open my mouth, erections are dead.”
For a woman so keen to build up the virtues of others, she’s brutally self-effacing. I ask how she gets through her passion-killing tendencies with her boyfriend. “I don’t know how. I don’t know what’s wrong with him and why he loves me, but he does. I think he was quite a nerdy, unpopular teenager, and I think there’s a part of me that makes him feel safe. He just gets me. It’s really rare. My boyfriend is a wonderful, lovely, empathetic person.”
As a woman in her thirties she says she’s starting to think about if she’ll have children, which is why she’s so keen to start a positive movement with ‘I Weigh’. “I’m terrified of bringing them into this current climate so I’m trying to clean it up.” She’s careful not to call it “body positivity”, when for her it’s more about “life positivity”. “What I wanted to do was get away from talking about bodies and just talk about women’s lives, because I think we’re so interesting and I think we’re so smart, so strong, and so resilient.”
Someone has to say it. Jameela Jamil is the vociferous, outraged ‘big sister’ figure us girls need fighting our corner in the public domain. If only she’d give herself a little credit.
“There’s a lot of toxicity, and there are a lot of women doing men’s work and breaking other women’s confidence.”
Hannah is an award-winning journalist and writer. She founded PHOENIX Magazine in 2010.