PAPER People: Jameela Jamil
PAPER People 2018

PAPER People: Jameela Jamil

Story by Vrinda Jagota / Photography by Ben Hassett

PAPER has always been a place of opportunity, a place that spotlights new talent and people who are doing tremendous things. We've spent over 20 years bringing you the Beautiful People issue, which identified amazing people who were doing things differently and using their creativity, ideas and success to transform culture and create new opportunities for artists, audiences and fans. This year, we have decided to rename the portfolio and call it exactly what it is: PAPER People. — Drew Elliott, Editor-in-Chief

On NBC's The Good Place, Jameela Jamil shines as Tahani, an often condescending "philanthropist" who organizes charity events largely for the attention they bring. But despite her flaws, the character is endearingly energetic and passionate, someone who is clearly eager to make people like her. Jamil shares that same charming exuberance, but rather than channeling it towards throwing the most extravagant parties, the British actress uses it to fuel her political activism. After launching a campaign on Instagram called "I Weigh," which defines women by their achievements rather than by their weight, she announced that she will no longer allow magazines to photoshop her body. In an industry that reproduces so many limiting ideas of how women should look, speak, dress and think, it is so refreshing to see an actress speak her mind.

How did you start your "I Weigh" campaign?

Now that I'm on The Good Place, they asked me to get proper social media channels. I preferred Twitter [and] I didn't really understand Instagram. But after the show, I got [an Instagram]. It's been a revelation as to what's happening online about weight loss ads and slimming teas and gummies and lollipops, all of which make you shit your pants -- they don't make you lose weight or give you a healthier lifestyle. You just shit yourself. I saw pictures of celebrities with their weight written across them. Successful, talented, amazing businesswomen. In particular ones with the whole Kardashian family. There was a post that had written each woman's weight and was asking, "Who do you think is the thinnest? What do you weigh?"

I clicked on the comments and it was just tens of thousands of girls freaking out that they were the same height as whatever Kardashian but they weighed more, and how fat and disgusting they think they are. I just sort of snapped. I've been thinking about this shit since I was 14-years-old. I've been surrounded by this dialogue since around that age when fat-shaming tabloids came into play and "thinspiration" websites tried to cash in on the low self-esteem of women. I was just like, "How is this still happening 20 years later?" We are world leaders, we cure cancer, we make people with our bodies, we have independence, and we're still talking about a number on a scale that doesn't mean anything?

So I posted what I think I weigh. And it was my relationship, my job, the fact that I am independent, the fact that I am an activist for women's rights. This is how I value myself. I'm not going to value myself by how society values me, which is how much flesh I have on my bones only in the places where men would like to see flesh. I didn't ask anyone to send any back, but they did. It turned into this whole movement. We have over 50,000 followers on Instagram and it's rising every day [Ed. Note: there are 113k followers at time of publication]. We haven't reached out to any celebrities and they've been sending their posts. It's a revolution against shame.

Women are just expected to be less.

Even in 2018, men are programmed to grow up and become successful and to do well in life so they can marry someone who looks like a Victoria's Secret model. Women are only encouraged really to be the model. It's so depressing.

What do you think is missing from mainstream body positivity movements?

Body positivity was originally born of a great intention, of bringing marginalized women into the mainstream. But now, it's a catchphrase for marketing. It's used for even really slim white women with abs showing off their body. It's an excuse to still obsessively talk about women's bodies. What I like about "I Weigh" is that, despite having the word "weigh" in it, it is a life-positive movement. I'm never going to tell you how to feel about your body. It's not my place. You're going to have to figure that out for yourself. But, what I can do is remind you that it is not the most important thing about you. Even since starting the "I Weigh" campaign, I have become less concerned with the way I look. I put it out into the world and it came back to me tenfold. The women who I have helped have helped me too.

You've said no to airbrushing, too.

You're allowed to remove stains on a wall behind me, but you are not allowed to touch my body. If you have a problem with me, that's your problem not mine. It's literally one of the worst things that's happened to women. It has sold us the lie and reinforces it and causes us to hate ourselves. We have a social responsibility to not perpetuate the lie that probably broke us when we were teenagers and is now breaking other vulnerable young women. It would abolish tabloid shaming if people just knew what we looked like. It wouldn't be a shock to see that someone has wrinkles because we would have seen it on the cover of a magazine. I hope celebrities who are reading this right now think about that. We created a tabloid culture because we sold lies to the people and the people wanted to see pictures of us looking like normal human beings.

Sometimes marginalized people have internalized self-hate, which I think is hard to blame someone for. At the same time, women with a lot of privilege have a responsibility to uplift other women. Do you think female celebrities also have a responsibility to end patriarchy?

We have so many double agents for the patriarchy. It makes me so angry because they pretend it's empowering. They talk the talk but they don't walk the walk. It's literally only empowering to their bank accounts. To be clear, I'm totally down for women enjoying their sexuality and their sexiness. I'm partial to a short skirt and I like wearing makeup and high heels. I think we do have a responsibility to show it's one facet of who we are. Women should be allowed to be multifaceted. Let's show that off. Let's not just take money from men to show things men want to see that don't really help women in any way.

I saw your blog post about Aziz Ansari and consent. I thought that was a really important conversation, too.

Thank you, I just made a documentary about consent for the BBC. It comes out in September. It's a two-part documentary.

What was the process like?

I was approached by the BBC because they read my blog post. I didn't want to attack men, and my blog post didn't. I feel like some of the posts about it paint all men with one brush and I find that really unhelpful. Men are not all bad, some of them are programmed to be ignorant by culture, by society, by Hollywood, by pornography, by their parents. That doesn't make it women's fault, but let's get this conversation out in the open. It's so weird how fine we are with sex, but not talking about it. The documentary explains consent. We talk about instances where the line was crossed on a date and why. We have experts and sex therapists and even lawyers talking to us about what consent is, what needs to be changed, and what needs to be taken more seriously. I spoke to a lot of rape survivors. There was a man who was willing to have sex with someone but didn't want to have sex without a condom. And the man he was on a date with just did it anyway. That is rape.

I don't think I've ever until now sat down and thought about what I like or what I want. Until very recently, I've navigated sexually around what the man wants. What I think the man will want me to do or be. I've never really asked myself, "What do I want?" I'm just trying to be good in bed because I'm competing with porn.

It all ties together. Women are taught to be thin, taught to speak less, to diminish ourselves.

To be submissive. We have to perform. In music videos, women are always naked and men are wearing outdoor winter layers. We're dancing for them, they're not doing shit for us. No man is doing the dishes in the video. Or being thoughtful or learning a dance routine for us.

Your role in The Good Place was your first time acting after being a TV host. Was there a steep learning curve? How did you decide you wanted to act on the show?

Oh, I definitely didn't want to act on the show. I never thought that I had any business acting. Especially not in a comedy by [The Good Place creator] Mike Schur. I don't have delusions of grandeur about myself. I didn't think that was in my cards. But I really wanted to meet Mike Schur and my agents really pressured me into going to the audition. I was only refusing because I didn't think I was good enough. I had never really had to learn lines before. I found the whole thing really surreal. They kept on pressuring me to go, so I almost kind of wanted to prove to them that it would be really humiliating and I wouldn't get the part, but I did get the show, and thank god because I've learned that it's something that I love doing! I would never have known that if it hadn't been for that weirdo Mike Schur giving a newcomer a role. What a crazy move! He's such an amazing boss and he's got such a wild imagination, and he's changed my life. My life was in a really bad place around the time I got this show, and I had run out of money, and I didn't know what I was doing in life and he gave me this avenue I never saw for myself, and now I'm so happy and I'm having so much fun. And I have this platform that I never would have had, which I can use to help women.

How do you relate to your character Tahani? Do you like her?

I do now. I didn't at first. I used all of the people that I thought were the biggest dicks in my life to pour into her. She was how I would exorcize all of my anger demons. I really didn't like her because she was this amalgamation of all the worst people I had ever met. But then Mike Schur had this bloody way of making me fall in love with Tahani by telling me her back story. All people suck because of their back story.

I liked the parts of her story where she's always being compared to her sister and she felt like she wasn't good enough. I found that very relatable and understand that.

I think a lot of people are able to relate to her, which is weird because she's by far the most unrelatable character on the show. A lot of us have experienced sibling rivalry and being underestimated when we were younger. It either breaks your confidence or it makes you a vain, self-obsessed narcissist. Your motivations are corrupt because everything you do is to prove to people that you're worth something. She's made it helpful in this industry because I'm surrounded by so many strange, narcissistic people and I now understand them. I've grown morally since being part of the show.

The show blurs the idea of absolute good versus evil. Maybe people don't belong neatly in one category. Maybe there's a reason.

It asks the question, "Who can possibly be perfect?" It's impossible. That's why I love the concept of the Medium Place.

I read that Mike wanted your character to be either Middle Eastern or Pakistani. Do you feel that Tahani's race is part of the show?

No, I don't think it is at all. I think he just included it because he's trying to make a point, which is that you can have loads of people from all over their world in a show and people won't turn off their televisions. Diversity is actually really easy and no one has to be a caricature of their country. It doesn't have to be the main focus of their narrative.

Photography by Ben Hassett
Styling by Mia Solkin
Hair by Robert Lopez for Solo Artists/Oribe
Digital Tech: Carlo Barreto
1st Photo Assistant: Roeg Cohen
2nd Photo Assistants: Eric Hobbs and Chris Moore