While red-carpet style has loosened-up considerably in recent years—ladies and gentlemen, Wesley Snipes in a maroon three-piece and ruffles!—the kind of man wearing that newly colorful or interestingly-cut tuxedo has not really changed. He is still, in all likelihood, a Chris: if not actually an Evans or a Pratt or a Hemsworth, then belonging to their strong-jawed, big-haired, egg-white-abbed genus. Brett Gelman is not a Chris. By his own admission, he is “a Jew in his early 40s who's bald with a giant beard and a man's body and face.”
So when the Fleabag actor realized that the show’s success would plant him in front of one step-and-repeat after another during awards season, he decided to be the change he wanted to see, so to speak—to remind the Bretts of the world that they are allowed to dress with the confidence of their Chris brethren.
The results have been, frankly, breathtaking. Because my man looks incredible! And not in a cookie-cutter beefcake way. No, Gelman is tapping into something specific, and stronger: the lineage of circa-’70s Jewish celebrities who were bold with their chest hair, heavy with their gold jewelry, and unapologetic in their embrace of their own sexiness. And while Gelman’s having fun with it, he’s also determined to set a new kind of example for Jewish celebrity and American masculinity in a time of both rampant anti-Semitism and toxic male aggression. (He is still a comedian: he’s calling this his “Jaddy” look, for reasons that will become clear.) I called him up just before the SAG Awards to talk about his glow-up.
GQ: It feels like this has really been a Brett Gelman coming-out party.
Brett Gelman: Well, thank you. It's felt really good. First and foremost, I'm very grateful to be on an incredible show with incredible people, and for the show to have such overwhelming support. And I've had this amazing team, between my publicists and my stylist, Mark Holmes, getting me out there and helping me define myself as this sexy Jaddy.
So, we'll get to “Jaddy” in a minute. But I'm curious: was this a conscious decision? You knew you were on a great show that everyone loves, and you're going to be out and about a little bit. Were you thinking, "You know what? Let's give this a try this year?"
Yeah. I've been giving it a try my whole career, and I've wanted to be put out in front like this my whole career, so it's just great when something Fleabag comes along—and Stranger Things as well, back in the summer—that helps to push me out there.
Did younger Brett think that he would be employing a stylist and just crushing it on red carpets?
Oh, of course younger Brett thought that. Younger Brett thought that he'd already have a star on the Walk of Fame by now. (Younger Brett's a very, very ambitious egomaniac.) But also, this is hard. I'm a classically trained actor, but when you are funny, you find even more opportunities. Those opportunities were in the Upright Citizens Brigade and the alternative comedy thing. However, when you're funny, people start forgetting that you can act. And so it took the recognition of Fleabag and Stranger Things, where I am being funny, but there are these other elements to it. So I was like, let's take full advantage of that and really make sure that I am seen as somebody who didn't just come in and whangdoodle a couple of jokes—but who really, really wanted to present two characters that are full human beings.
Was that just the most pretentious thing?
Oh, I love it, man. It's awards season. If not now, when?
And I also just wanted to present a different thing: that not everybody has to look like a Chris, not everybody has to look like Hitler's wet dream. [laughs] They can look like me and still be sexy.
So this is the time to ask you about the Jaddy. Who is it? What is it? Tell me everything.
Oh, my God. [I put a video on Instagram where] I'm filming my feet and I'm doing some sort of stupid chant where I'm going, "Jewish daddy, Jewish zaddy, Jewish daddy, Jewish zaddy. Jaddy, Jaddy, Jaddy." And that became Jaddy. And then I thought, how ridiculous to start some sort of hashtag under me, the way Tiffany Haddish did with #SheReady and Megan Thee Stallion did with #HotGirlSummer. How about my thing is Jaddy?
Is that daddy with a D, or zaddy with a Z?
With a Z. At first, it was with a D and then I changed it to a Z because a zaddy is way sexier than a daddy. Some people are going to be turned on by the word “daddy” and some people are going to be weirded out. Everybody is turned on by the word “zaddy.”
It's about pushing me as a more sexual, hot guy: I’m a Jew in his early 40s who's bald with a giant beard and a man's body and face. And I’m really taking pride in that and being like, "Hey guys, let's embrace our sexuality." And in embracing our sexuality, we can open ourselves up to other people's sexualities. We can be proud of who we are without being in competition with somebody else.
I don't think people like me are seen as sexy as much as they should be, so I wanted to really push that—both for my people, but also for my career. I feel like I keep getting the opportunity to redefine myself as an actor, and what it is I can do.
I feel like even the Chrises of the world are not necessarily eager to describe themselves as sexy. So it's not an insignificant thing, to claim that word.
No, they're not. And I do think that they're sexy, and I don't mean to knock the Chrises at all. They're all very talented, very handsome guys. But there is a public perception that beauty is supposed to be this certain thing, and I, in my own way, want to offset that.
I remember I was in an acting class, and I did this scene where I was this romantic guy. I was having a real hard time doing it, and I realized I was having such a hard time because I did not see myself as a sexy guy. And I remember the teacher being like, "What is your problem with embracing this right now?" And I'm like, "I just don't feel sexy. I don't feel like the kind of guy that looks like the type of person that this woman would be into." He's like, "Why is that?" I'm like, "Well, I don't look like Brad Pitt." And he was like, "Yeah, but there's lots of people that don't find Brad Pitt sexy. There's some people who find James Gandolfini sexy."
And that is the interesting thing. I've been re-watching the Sopranos, and I'm like, "Whoa, Tony Soprano gets laid a lot in this show," and nobody was questioning that. So it's been one of my personal quests: to make myself feel better about myself is to embrace my own sexuality, and really claim it for myself. The whole Jaddy thing is me claiming that publicly, so then I have to stand by it in my own life. And it's really helped my own self esteem, at the end of the day. There's a fine line between self deprecation and self-hatred, and I think comedians can really cross that line. You don't have to be disgusting or pathetic to be a humorous person.
So I think that really hits the zaddy half of the equation. But I wonder if you could speak a little bit to the specifically ethnic and extremely Jewish half of things. Because, as a Jew myself, I'm like, "Oh, this is a great thing to see out in the world."
It's a very strange conundrum that the American Jew is in, because we are oppressed and yet we're not. In New York and L.A., we're white, but in the middle of the country and the South, and especially Europe, we most certainly are not. And even though a lot of us are running the show, as our administration would have us believe, you don't see faces like ours on billboards. You don't see us being characterized in a sexy way. I think that we're a proud people, and we're a courageous people, and we're a people that are really good at picking ourselves up and dusting ourselves off and accomplishing things, but I do think that we can carry a lot of self-hatred with us, especially when it comes to our looks.
The caricature is of the nebbishy, anxious, neurotic Jew, right?
Yeah. And there is also something sexy about that. I don't mean to be controversial with this. It will be, but: Woody Allen, back in the '70s, was seen as a sex symbol. You believed he was breaking up with Diane Keaton and then having sex with Shelley Duvall. And then in the '70s, you had people like Elliott Gould, you had George Segal, you had Gene Wilder: people who really were being embraced by the culture as being somewhat sexy. But it's like those guys were being embraced as sexy despite their looks, because of their humor or their intelligence. But this look is good! This look is something that we can really use to hold our heads high, and really not feel less than our more gentile counterparts.
It's funny that you say that about not seeing faces like ours on billboards, because we are also truly blessed to be in this season of Uncut Gems.
Exactly! Whoa, what a Jaddy. We're not doubting that he's in that relationship with Julia Fox. We never doubt that Mr. Sandler is dating beautiful women. He's a hot commodity. That's one of the best performances of the year. That's the thing: that character has a lot of problems, but I am really impressed by his pride and his own go-get-’em attitude even though he doesn't really know how to wield it in the most constructive of ways. I think Uncut Gems is such a celebration of that.
I'm a fan of Jewish toughness, too. My father worked out at the gym for two hours every day. He was ripped. He was smoking joints and reading the Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding by Arnold Schwarzenegger in his chair at the end of the day. A joint in one hand, a vodka in the other.
And he was a tough motherfucker. My great-grandfather was a bootlegger for Al Capone. I got tough Jews in my blood.
Tell me about your chain.
I have two. I have one that is a $10 coin from the early 1900s, that my father wore around his neck, and it's gold, and he wore it every day. I like to wear that a lot to honor him. And then I have another, smaller medallion that I got for my bar mitzvah from my parents, which is an ancient Roman coin—a Constantine. When my mother gave it to me, she said, "Oh, we got you this. We hope you like it. It's a beautiful ancient Roman coin." I was like, "Oh, Ma, thank you so much." I loved it.
Of course, when I was younger, I was not so amped to rock the jewelry because you would get made fun of. And then as I got older, and I learned more about history, I learned who Constantine was, further illustrating that my parents were not history buffs: because Constantine was the Roman emperor who made Christianity the official religion of Rome.
What's the response to the whole Jaddy thing been like?
It feels really great. My dad passed away two years ago. And my uncle, who is one of my biggest comedic inspirations, and is very much like my second dad, who tells me my dad was rocking Prada, he's like, "I think your dad would have been so proud of all these Best Dressed awards." It feels good—first, because people are essentially complimenting my look, which is something that is very new for me in the last couple of years, and then secondly, I want to be taken seriously, and I don't want to just be seen as a clown and as a weirdo. I want to be seen as a serious artist. And that is a major function of fashion. Yes, of course, you take it all with a grain of salt, and you need to not take yourself so seriously, but in certain ways, you do. And I like that I'm being seen in a more serious context. It makes me feel freer to be even more flawed and make people laugh even more.
Originally Appeared on GQ