Jameela Jamil, star of The Good Place, talks with Ellie Austin about why she is campaigning against female body-shaming.
Jameela Jamil was on set in Los Angeles a few weeks ago when she glanced at her phone during a break from filming to see that she had three missed calls. When it rang for a fourth time, she picked it up. On the line was the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, who was calling to tell Jamil that she'd chosen her as one of 15 women to appear on the cover of the British Vogue issue she was guest-editing.
"Edward [Enninful, editor-in-chief of British Vogue] had asked me to be part of his Forces for Change issue a while ago and we'd done the photoshoot under wraps in May but I had no idea that Meghan was the guest editor until that call," says Jamil, almost breathless with excitement. "She is the ultimate change-maker and rule-breaker and I am in awe of her."
During their five-minute conversation, the duchess congratulated Jamil on her work as an advocate for body positivity. "She said how invested she was in the subjects I talk about and how she follows what I'm doing on social media. I knew that she and Harry had highlighted my work on Instagram in the past but you never know whether it's actually them [or people who work for them]."
Jamil had already written an opinion piece for the issue, which also features the climate-change activist Greta Thunberg, the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and the New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern. However, she was unaware of who would be giving her article the final sign-off. "I used some pretty blunt language, but the duchess said she had personally okayed it. She's so cool. This cover proves that Meghan isn't in this for the glory. She's being bold and using her privilege to pass the mic on to other women."
Not that Jamil, 33, needs the help of a duchess for her voice to be heard. Over the past 18 months, she has become one of the internet's most prominent activists, holding both companies and celebrities to account for glamorising thinness, "weaponising" airbrushing against women and promoting dangerously narrow ideals of beauty. Jamil's toolkit consists of viral tweets, provocative sound bites and impassioned Instagram posts that draw on her own experience of mental illness, discrimination and abuse.
It's hard to believe that everything Jamil has endured over the past three decades could happen to one person. She was 14 when she became anorexic, 17 when she was struck by a car so badly that she was bed-bound for a year, 22 when she was date-raped and 26 when she had a nervous breakdown. There were other traumas along the way: numerous sexual assaults, repeated surgery to correct the congenital hearing loss she was born with, racist beatings and a breast cancer scare in her late-20s, while she was working as a DJ at BBC Radio 1. For most people, any one of these events would be life-altering but Jamil reels them off with the emotional detachment of someone reciting their weekend to-do list.
This is, she explains enthusiastically, thanks to eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing therapy (EMDR), an increasingly popular treatment for trauma that involves tracking a flashing light back and forth with your eye while thinking of a particularly distressing memory. Jamil gave it a shot a few years ago before leaving London for America and felt painful recollections from her past evaporate in what seemed like a matter of hours.
"For a long time I had severe PTSD," she says. "EMDR pretty much used a magic trick. It removed my trauma. I can remember horrific things and feel like they happened to other people. I couldn't have kept myself together without it."
As a result of the therapy, Jamil now feels able to talk about her past as part of her activism. "I don't use my trauma unless I feel it's necessary to bring context to my opinion," she says with the authority of someone used to defending herself. "I left school at 16, so I don't have credentials, just the life I managed to survive."
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It was her eating disorder ("I was existing on 300 calories a day and there was nothing I wouldn't do to be thin") that made her particularly alert to society's obsession with how much women weigh. Scrolling through Instagram last year, she landed on a photo of the Kardashians with their respective weights emblazoned across their chests. Incensed, Jamil asked women to send her unfiltered selfies, labelled not with their weight, but with a list of the achievements and relationships they were proud of. This marked the start of "I Weigh", an Instagram-based body-positivity movement that Jamil is now turning into a company aiming to help "young people [become] smarter and happier, not thinner and younger". Since its launch, she has refused to be airbrushed in photoshoots.
"I would feel very guilty being in an industry that is destroying the mental health of so many young people if I wasn't whistleblowing all the nonsense," she says. "I've been used as a vessel to make other people feel bad about themselves in the past. I've been airbrushed and thinned out and told not to tell my secrets."
We're talking on Skype after two failed attempts to meet in person. The first time, I flew to LA to meet Jamil for lunch, only to be struck down by a bug that left me unable to leave my hotel room. Jamil sweetly emailed me tips for recovery via her publicist, including a recommendation for charcoal tablets to settle my stomach (so LA). We rescheduled for a few weeks later, when Jamil planned to be in New York to speak at a festival but the event was cancelled when temperature hit 40C and a citywide "heat emergency" was declared.
As a result, Jamil, now a household name in America for her role in the smash-hit NBC sitcom The Good Place, makes time for our chat on a rare day off. "I'm so tired," she yawns, sitting on the floor of her unshowy West Hollywood apartment surrounded by piles of feminist books. Her boyfriend, the English musician and producer James Blake, potters around in the background, FaceTiming his family and looking for his keys. The Grammy award he won earlier this year sits on a shelf in the living room.
Scenes of domestic bliss are still relatively new for Jamil, who, at 29, decided she needed to leave England to be happy. Judged superficially, her 20s were years of huge success. In 2013, she became the first solo female presenter of Radio 1's Official Chart Show after three years as a presenter on T4, a Channel 4 scheduling slot for 16- to 34-year-olds. Alongside the likes of Nick Grimshaw and Alexa Chung, Jamil was part of a boisterous cohort of young British broadcasting stars known for their irreverent interviews with A-listers. But while her colleagues thrived in the spotlight, as a young woman of Pakistani-Indian heritage, Jamil felt pigeonholed.
"I wasn't being taken seriously on TV and I wasn't offered anything I found stimulating or interesting," she says. "I wasn't seen as someone who could be a comedian or make documentaries, so I thought, 'F*** this, I'm going to radio. If they can't see me, maybe they'll realise I have a value beyond my aesthetic.'"
Her arrival at Radio 1 coincided with Jamil gaining weight, a result of being prescribed steroids for her asthma. "I was nationally fat-shamed for months. Photos of me bending over outside my front door were put next to photos of me at my most anorexic on the cover of tabloid magazines," she says angrily. "I didn't feel embarrassed about my size. I felt embarrassed for my country. What difference did it make how I looked? I was on the radio."
A couple of years later, days after discovering that a lump in her breast was benign, Jamil quit the BBC to move to America and try to fulfil her dream of becoming a screenwriter. On a whim, she auditioned for The Good Place, a thoughtful fantasy-comedy about the afterlife, created by the team behind Parks and Recreation. Much to her surprise, she was cast in a lead role as a smart British socialite with a serious name-dropping habit. The Good Place launched in 2016, and last year was amassing 10m views a week after streaming platforms were taken into account. The show's fourth and final series will air in the autumn.
As Jamil's profile rose, her activism became an inescapable social media event. When the rapper Cardi B promoted laxative "detox" teas, Jamil tweeted: "God, I hope all these celebrities all shit their pants in public, the way all these poor women who buy this nonsense upon their recommendation do." When Karl Lagerfeld died earlier this year, Jamil called the designer a "ruthless, fat-phobic misogynist [who] shouldn't be posted all over the internet as a saint gone too soon".
Lagerfeld's close friend and muse, Cara Delevingne, replied: "Please keep your opinions to yourself and stop bashing people for attention."
Jamil's detractors (and there are a lot of them) accuse her of pushing a toxic brand of feminism that delights in crass, incendiary language and patronising takedowns of other women. They also question how someone as slim and conventionally beautiful as Jamil, who worked briefly as a model before going into presenting, has become the face of body positivity.
"That's so funny because for so much of my life I was never considered beautiful," she laughs disbelievingly. "My look came in five years ago. How many Pakistani women were on magazines or fronting beauty campaigns [before then]?"
Why does she think she provokes such a divisive reaction? "A lot of people who support a cause do it very performatively and I think that's perhaps why people don't support me," she says. "The irony is that people think I'm doing this for my career. I've definitely alienated people and lost huge campaigns. I have a huge Instagram following. Can you imagine how much I would make from selling toxic s*** to young people on Instagram? Honestly, I've probably lost millions over the past few years from having principles."
She has also won important battles. According to S. Bryn Austin, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, Jamil's "shrewdly crafted social media posts" have done more to expose the "corrupt and deceptive detox tea market … than a quarter century of well-intentioned but unglamorous communications from the Federal Food and Drug Administration."
Part of Jamil's shtick is that she doesn't care what people think of her. She's undeniably robust, but I find it hard to believe she's never hurt by the backlash to her opinions. "My profile expanded so fast because of my TV show that I'd never have survived if I was crying tears based on people's preconceptions of me," she says firmly.
Her go-to response to criticism is that she's a "feminist-in-progress" and that people have to be allowed to mess up in public if we're going to advance as a society. "When someone has said something ignorant, if they are willing to learn and atone, we should let them," she says. "It gives other people motivation to change."
In 2013, Jamil wrote a blog post that took aim at pop music's sexualisation of women. In it, she accused Miley Cyrus, Nicki Minaj and Rihanna of "doing everything other than having a live smear test on stage" to sell records. "They have deluded themselves into thinking it's 'feminism' if you get your fanny out on 'your terms'," she wrote.
Fast-forward six years and Jamil is uncomfortable with the tone she used to talk about these high-profile women. "I've made so many mistakes," she says, explaining that for a long time her view of female sexuality was informed by the abuse she experienced in her youth. "I've been raped and I blamed women for how men objectified and sexualised me, even when I was a child. I saw it as making men think they have a right to us. I was taking aim at the wrong targets."
She still takes issue with what she perceives as the music industry marketing sex only at the male gaze but these days she aims her disdain for "the system" rather than the individual artists caught up in it.
"Since [Britney Spear's] Baby One More Time, music videos have sexualised really young women. It's the woman dancing in a thong bikini while the man is just sitting there in outdoor clothes. It sends bad information and men end up being bad in bed because they think the woman is going to behave like a porno and do all the work for him. Madonna was the best at portraying sexuality; it felt like a party with loads of different sexualities involved."
Jamil is so "consumed" by her activism that she sleeps for only three hours a night. "I get all these messages from stressed-out dads who want to know what on earth to do [to help their daughters]," she says. "I can't stop thinking about what young people are going through."
She's particularly passionate about proving to mixed-race girls that they belong in every sphere of public life, something she wished she'd had instilled in her as a child living in South London.
"I grew up with no one who looked like me," she says. "I could only relate to black people, so thank God for Halle Berry and Whoopi Goldberg. I didn't see many Indian or Pakistani women on magazine covers. I saw how erased we were and internalised it. I thought, we're not sexy, not attractive and not heroes or leaders."
Although she believes the entertainment industry has now come full circle ("If anything, I've received some extra opportunities because I'm diverse and I'm not afraid to admit that"), Jamil still thinks society as a whole has some catching up to do.
"I'm massively mortified by the way people in England nit-pick everything Meghan does," she says, returning to the topic of her recent editor. "Let's just hope this is an adjustment period and that things are about to improve, because if Meghan was a white woman, all the bold things she's doing would be celebrated."
We talk days after President Trump told four non-white Democratic congresswomen to "go back and fix the totally broken and crime-infested places" they came from.
"Horrifying," Jamil says wearily. "As someone who isn't from either of the countries they've lived in, I'm so offended, so hurt, so scared of what this is going to enable in people who have already been quite racist."
According to estimates from the US Census Bureau, 2013 was the first year that more infants under the age of 1 were from ethnic minority rather than white backgrounds. It's predicted that by 2045 the majority of Americans will be from minority backgrounds. Can Jamil ever see a woman of colour in the White House?
"I don't know," she says. "I do think it's time for a qualified woman to take over." Her face lights up. "I'm a massive fan of AOC [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez]. I'm really hoping she'll run for president one day. I would leave my whole career behind to be her campaign manager. She'd be down with my controversy."
One topic of conversation where Jamil does exercise caution is her family. Her parents, to whom she no longer speaks, had a difficult marriage and subsequently divorced. Her mother, Shireen, is a former model and prominent domestic violence campaigner. In 2015 Jamil successfully campaigned for Shireen's law to be passed, which ended the time limit on when cases of domestic violence could be reported.
Jamil has spoken in vague terms about being around addiction and mental health issues from a young age, while also experiencing bullying at the private girls' school where she was on a full scholarship.
I ask what she makes of recent research that suggests anorexia is a metabolic disorder as well as a psychiatric one. "I'm not a scientist, so I wouldn't be at liberty to say, but the power of nurture is astonishing," she says in a tone that suggests she isn't about to attribute her experience of the disease to genetics. "My family were not helpful in that they were incredibly fat-phobic. Jutting hip bones were seen as a sign of peak brilliance both at home and at school. It didn't matter that I did well academically or was a good swimmer. All I thought was important about me was that my jeans hung off my hip bones."
Hearing this, it's impossible not to ache for the young Jamil and all the other brilliant girls who have wasted years of their lives prodding imaginary cellulite and pinching at their stomachs. No wonder it has made Jamil angry.
"Being an opinionated, intimidating woman doesn't have to end your career and I'm proud of that," she says as we're winding up. "I hope what I'm doing inspires other people to tell the truth."
Written by:Ellie Austin
© The Times of London