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In Her Shoes: Gabourey Sidibe

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 because we are so tired. Eventually, we say, I’m done shrinking. I’m going to grow. I’m going to grow taller than you. I’m going to grow so tall you won’t be able to climb me. We have to because they’ve been shrinking us since the day we were born.

LPW: No, I hear you, and I completely agree. When you talk about the shrinking, I’m curious what it was like after the role and all the award shows and all of that. Did you find it difficult to adjust to Hollywood? Did you feel like people expected you to shrink who you were?

SIDIBE: Absolutely. I felt like I needed to be so small and I needed to be so grateful and I needed to be so humble. But at the same time, I needed to not look like I won a contest to be there. I didn’t win some raffle ticket or guess the correct number of Skittles in a jar to be in these spaces. I was the lead actress in a film and was good at that, which is why I’m in these spaces. I was not convinced of it at the time, and it took me years to stop feeling like an impostor.

LPW: Even though the film was such a huge success and it got all these Oscar nominations, including Best Actress, you still felt that way?

SIDIBE: Yeah, because I was literally a phone-sex operator the day before I was an actress. That’s a ridiculously hard transition, and I was in a really different place. So to be convinced that I now belong in this place, like at the same event as Brad Pitt, that’s hard to believe. I’m still from where I’m from. I look around my family and my friends who don’t get to experience this, who don’t get to have people look at them differently. And I have survivor’s remorse for it. It took me a while to be convinced that I belong in those spaces. Even now, I struggle with it a bit. Impostor syndrome rears its ugly head whenever it wants to. It’s because I’m so used to not fitting in. I don’t just not fit because I’m a Black girl; I also don’t fit because I have a bigger body, because I don’t have soft hair, because I’m not light-skinned. There are a lot of reasons why I might not fit in different spaces. Using my confidence to be like, No, it’s okay. Your hair is good enough. Your skin is great. You’re beautiful. You belong. Get in line with Brad Pitt, sit next to him. I fake it, I fake it a lot.

LPW: I don’t think faking is a bad thing, though. There’s a sermon that I listen to, and he was talking about borrowing confidence. And I thought that was such a weird thing to say but then I started to think about it and it made sense. Sometimes you need it because you just innately may not have it and you may not feel confident enough and have to borrow it from somewhere else — some other place or some other moment in your life. That’s an experience that Black women feel so often.

SIDIBE: You fake it till you make it. That’s a phrase for a reason because you’re right, borrowing confidence works. Sometimes I get to believe it, which is wonderful.

LPW: Now that some time has passed from that role, do you feel like the needle for leading actresses in films has moved at all? I specifically find it interesting because I talk so much about diversity and inclusivity in the fashion industry, and it’s often a conversation that I think people assume things are better than they are. I’m curious from your point of view in Hollywood if you think that that needle has moved at all.

SIDIBE: It hasn’t moved as far as it could; it could move a lot further. We do have some of the best actresses that we can think of today — Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Angela Bassett, and Taraji P. Henson. We have those names, but I wonder if those are the names that come to my mind because I’m a Black woman. I wonder if those names come to mind to white people. We all have this inclusion-and-diversity conversation so much, but we’re the ones having it. Do you think someone’s asking Emma Stone? That’s the problem: We’re the only ones having it. Interviewers and reporters ask me all the time, like,Do you think Hollywood is being more inclusive and diverse? What should we do to make sure that more Black leads happen?” Go ask Quentin Tarantino, go ask Emma Stone.

LPW: All you have to do is say, Well, what would you do?

SIDIBE: Yeah. What are you doing?

LPW: What is frustrating about it is that it’s continuously a conversation, but then it feels like, Why are we just talking in circles? Especially for Black women, we just start preaching to the choir, preaching to ourselves, talking about it so much, when we’re not the people who need to be.

SIDIBE: No, we’re Black, we’re art, that’s the job. I’ve done it. If you want Black people to show up, I’ve shown up, I’m Black. What are you going to do with me? We’re talking in circles, and it’s still not our door to open.

LPW: A lot of what we do in fashion is so incredibly subjective, which is part of the problem of why I think inclusivity hasn’t made the strides that it should, because we are deciding if someone’s cool enough for an opportunity or if they look good enough, which you can’t put metrics around. There isn’t a formula of two plus two equals four when it comes to finding someone that you want to have on a cover or someone that gets a big campaign. That’s what made it a lot harder in fashion to break down to people, that it’s not just about your taste or your perspective or your opinion. It’s the fact that all of these things are so subjective.

How do you feel about that in Hollywood? I’ve read about people having a certain idea of who they want for certain parts, but then how do you move past that? Their idea is probably centered around their community, and if that community is not inclusive, then your idea is not going to be including somebody that you may never have thought of or wanted to give a part to.

SIDIBE: We’re still asked to be the prostitute or the crackhead. When white writers and directors are saying, I’m writing a role, and it’s a really strong woman, a businesswoman, and she’s really beautiful. Even now I’m saying these words, and even I am picturing a white woman. As long as they don’t say race, we know that the character is white, right? It’s just the way people think of Black people, and it’s unfortunate. We’re always second bananas. We’re not the lead or the star unless we’re the ones writing and directing it ourselves. Even when we do, they make fun of it and then we make fun of it also. It always feels like the alternative and not the norm. I don’t know what will bridge the gap between being the second thought and being the first.

LPW: The second thought. That’s a phrase for you.

SIDIBE: Even now and then people say, You know what, let’s go Latino for this. That’s a choice. What you would go for, the obvious choice, is white, but if you must think outside of the box, Let’s go maybe Asian, maybe Black. We’re all lumped in the second choice, not the first.

LPW: Do you feel that that’s presented weird competitive energy between Black actresses that maybe you’ve gone out for parts with? That crabs-in-a-bucket mentality is very prominent in fashion, where people have long felt like there can be only one Black girl in this space and that she’s got to do all the things that we need. How do you feel about that? There have been more people trying to come together and understand what the real issues are, but I’m curious.

SIDIBE: Whenever I audition for something, if I don’t get it and it goes to another Black actress, I am usually happy for that person. I’m very competitive, but not here, not in this space. I’m more competitive with myself than other people. But I’ve known Black actresses with that mentality, the like, I don’t talk to other people in the audition room. Or like, I’m not telling you what I’m auditioning for because it’s a secret. It’s super-petty. Those people that I have seen do that are not in the same room, perhaps because of the pettiness.

Alfre Woodard throws this party every Oscar season called Oscar’s Sisters, and the party is for Black women that are actresses, that are creators and storytellers that either have won, were nominated, or should have been for Oscars. And it is a joy. It is my favorite party every year, and there will be Angela Bassett, Alfre Woodard, Tracee Ellis Ross, Taraji P. Henson, and Lupita Nyong’o. There’s no press, and it’s just a moment for all of us to sit among each other and say Hi, I love you, and I respect your work because we do spend so much time being in that competitive space. The “it’s gotta be me or you; there can only be one of usmentality. We absolutely deal with the crabs-in-a-barrel mentality. We didn’t build that barrel, though.

LPW: Absolutely. We played into it way too much, 100 percent.

SIDIBE: We don’t need to at all. I’ve known plenty of Black actresses that every time we see each other, every time they see each other, every time they’ve seen other Black actors, there’s always love. It’s always love and no competition at all. But then some people are like that. Some people do have that mentality. I’m not one of those, thankfully. 

LPW: It’s not even productive. We want all these things to change, we have to be supportive of each other to also facilitate that change. So I’m right with you for sure.

SIDIBE: Although what’s for me is for me, and what’s for other people is for them.

LPW:  Oh, I 100 percent agree with that. A lot of that thinking also has been heightened because of social media.

SIDIBE: Oh yeah, because that mentality is not just for people in the industry anymore; it’s for regular people. People are like, Oh man, they went on vacation over there, or like, Oh, she got a sugar daddy. Social media has amplified everything. And it’s bad for us. We should get off of it. I won’t.

LPW: I can’t because of what I do. But you have to constantly remind yourself that you are seeing curated highlights of someone’s life, and you are seeing what they want you to see. Your mind plays games on you when you start to see other people’s lives. I see that so much in fashion and young actresses that I talk to and people that we shoot — it can be a lot of pressure that can make it feel incredibly competitive.

SIDIBE: I was just commenting yesterday that nobody who follows me on Instagram knows who I am. They don’t know who I am; they know me in my posts. No one’s watching me when I’m shuffling through the kitchen at four in the morning trying to feed a cat or whatever. You only see me when I’ve got the makeup on and the hair is done and the outfit is perfect. But you didn’t see me put on my bra, and my bra is also a part of my journey. And so people only show what they want. You’re right, it’s curated.

LPW: I do want to talk about your podcast because I’m very excited about that. If I Go Missing the Witches Did It is a paranormal-comedy podcast, so tell us about it. Also, congratulations on it.

SIDIBE: Thank you. I love doing it. I mostly listen to podcasts right now, but I don’t listen to scripted podcasts. I didn’t even know that they were a thing until I started doing If I Go Missing, the Witches Did It. That is a long title. That’s a mouthful, but it’s worth it. Jenna, that’s my character’s name, she’s a cute, smart Black girl who also has her own bouts with impostor syndrome and saying and doing the wrong thing and reacting in the wrong way. And then she happens upon a coven of witches and trouble ensues.

LPW: How does acting differ from you doing this podcast? How different is the process?

SIDIBE: It’s definitely a different process. Most of my work was just me in a booth with a director, so there’s no one else to talk to. There are no other actors to play off of. There’s no visuals, like when I’m acting on a set, I get the physicality of that character because I’m wearing their clothing. If they work in an office, I’m at their desk, or I’m holding their paperwork and I’m walking and talking. There’s an actual scene happening that you can get lost in. It’s a little harder to get lost in a recording booth with just you and a script.

I enjoyed the story, and I loved doing it but if I didn’t think that this story was cool, I wouldn’t be that into it. I probably would have hated it. I was doing two episodes a session, so I was getting the story within the same cadence of an audience and it felt just like watching TV. It felt like learning a character and learning a world and it being revealed to me the exact way it’s supposed to, which made it fun. I learned I can go different ways. I realized how emphasis and inflections can make a difference. I stopped hating the sound of my voice while recording. I really loved Jenna as a character, and she’s not at all perfect. She is almost the anti-hero.

LPW: Those are the best characters, though.

SIDIBE: They’re the most interesting. She makes so many mistakes, and I’m always yelling at her. I was really thoroughly entertained while recording this, and that’s the best kind of work, even though it’s different, than actually filming on set. The story is all I need to enjoy it. I don’t know if that makes any sense.

LPW: No, it totally makes sense. And you were also on American Horror Story, so what attracts you to this kind of paranormal, witchy stuff?

SIDIBE: I just really love the idea of magic. Have you ever saged your room or your home?

LPW: I do.

SIDIBE: That is technically witchcraft because your intention is to clear your space. Maybe it’s to bring your ancestors around or get rid of something that’s negative. That’s just really a wish. You know, like I wish it felt better. I wish I felt better. We can all be witches. It’s right here for us. If you study enough, you could probably be an actual witch. Witchcraft isn’t just turning people into frogs. It’s not whatever those witches got hanged for in Salem because they were not witches; they were just women, which is awful. I love the idea of setting an intention and doing something to make sure that that intention comes to fruition.

LPW: I love that we’re ending this by telling people to become witches.

SIDIBE: You can do it. When I was shooting American Horror Story, I cannot tell you how many witches I ran into. So many because we were shooting in New Orleans, and they all get a bad rep. No one’s eating children like the Brothers Grimm tried to convince us they do. Sometimes it’s just to become a millionaire.

LPW: Yeah, I’m not mad about it.

SIDIBE: Witchcraft is just a wish. Do it. It’s that easy.

In Her Shoes: Gabourey Sidibe