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“I’m just here,” Jameela Jamil tells me, clearly relishing what’s about to follow, “to unmask all the villains. That’s what I came here to do.”
It’s a sweltering day in Los Angeles, and we’re sitting on a hotel patio, drowning ourselves in ice water. Jamil, one of three trailblazing women on TV appearing on a Glamour cover this month, has gotten herself worked up. The “villains” she’s referring to: misguided Avon advertisements, that app from Weight Watchers for kids, Kardashians and other influencers hawking diet aids, Piers Morgan and his mocking comments about Sam Smith after the singer announced they are nonbinary. All have been targets for Jamil’s obscenity-laden, often hilarious truth missiles. What’s complicated, though, is that she’s just as likely to defend these wrongdoers if and when they’re victimized themselves. (Well, maybe not Piers Morgan, whom Jamil has called “England’s biggest shit stain.”) Her social media movement, I Weigh, launched because she saw a degrading photo of the Kardashian sisters that featured their reported weights. With I Weigh, Jamil encourages women to discard scale numbers in favor of the whole person: their accomplishments, their relationships, their contributions to the world.
But about the Kardashians: “I don’t hate those girls,” Jamil says. “I just want them to stop selling laxatives, and then I will get off that dick.” She laughs, then keeps going. “That’s all I'm trying to do. I'm not trying to attack anyone. But if you have a lot of power and influence and money, and you’re using yours irresponsibly, and other people aren't aware that they're being sold a lie, I’m gonna step on that dick.”
When she’s not getting spicy on Twitter, Jamil is known as haughty English socialite Tahani Al-Jamil from NBC’s The Good Place—the kind of designer-clad woman who would never make a dick joke but would definitely name-drop the Kardashians. And while Jamil isn’t the first actor to speak out about oppressive beauty standards, she does have firsthand experience (see the time British tabloids lampooned her for gaining 70 pounds, which happened after she started taking steroids for her asthma). What really sets her apart, though, is that for all of Jamil’s gleeful calling out of offenders by name, she’s willing to take it on the chin if she screws up. Just one example: After she called changing one’s appearance a sign of “deep self-hating programming,” she later admitted she hadn’t considered that she was leaving trans people and gender-affirming surgeries out of the conversation. In the age of Twitter mobs, cancel culture, and notes-app apologies, Jamil plays both sides. She can morph from Queen of the Pitchforks to Humble Student in the blink of a scroll. She’s on a crusade against shame, the fuel that sends people to diet fads every minute, but she is also shameless herself in ways both refreshing and, to her critics, lacking in self-awareness.
Thinking is overrated, if you ask Jamil; she prefers raw survival mode. “I don't really do self-esteem," she says. "I don't have space for it in my brain. I feel like it just involves me still thinking about myself, which is tedious. And so I just don't think about myself…. I follow my instincts.”
The London native has been a lot of things in her 33 years—a model scout in England, a DJ, an English teacher—but nothing trained her for rapid-fire communication with no second-guessing like her time as a TV and radio host. After several stints on British reality shows and morning programming, namely on the teen pop-culture show T4, Jamil made history as the first solo female presenter of the BBC’s Radio 1 chart show in 2013. Then, improbably, she risked it all and moved to the U.S. in 2015 after a breast-cancer scare at the age of 28. She spent some time jetting around with her musician boyfriend, James Blake, on his world tour (“I need love as much as I need success,” Jamil says), before settling down in Los Angeles to work on some personal projects. Around that time Parks and Recreation cocreator Michael Schur was looking for a tall, imperious English Pakistani woman for The Good Place. Jamil, with no previous acting experience, was cast. The offbeat and deeply philosophical comedy about the afterlife will air its fourth and final season this fall.
Thrown into The Good Place with experienced costars like Ted Danson and Kristen Bell, Jamil says she battled imposter syndrome. “I think we all suffer from it,” she says, “but my way of handling it is to just not allow those thoughts in. I trust my instincts—but generally, I treat every day as if it's my last time being employed. So I just give it my all. And I trust the people making the show that they will fire me when the time is right.”
But Schur saw her as a natural talent right away. “Even if she didn't have her own sense of confidence about her abilities as an actor, she had a kind of poise in front of the camera that was immediate and effortless,” he tells me. Still, there was a learning curve. “She made mistakes and stopped herself in the middle of takes. We had to just go, ‘It’s okay, just keep talking. You don’t have to worry.’” By the end of the show, Schur notes, a lot of her insecurity “had burned off.”
Finding her footing as a comedic actress (and the fame that came with it) gave Jamil the last kick in the pants she needed to become the “annoying neighborhood patrol” online that fans know her as today. “I learned how to lose myself in a character and lose myself in a situation and to not be embarrassed,” she says. “Acting really brings out the child in you and kills the embarrassed adult. It’s contributed massively to my shamelessness, for better or for worse.”
Now, besides some voice-over work in the animated series Mira, Royal Detective, Jamil has no immediate plans to continue acting. She’d like to stay in the industry, though. “Otherwise, who’s going to watchdog it?”
For Jamil, activism—something she’s been involved in since she was 19, when she started writing letters to London papers about the size zero debate—has no room for ego. You’re in it to learn, not to rack up points to get you into the Good Place. “I'm calling people out in the same way that I've been called out,” she says. “I don't sit there and play the victim if I've done something wrong. I just take that as an opportunity to learn. I feel as though I’m being afforded the faith that I can do better.”
But Jamil’s particular brand of activist schooling can feel tone-deaf and vindictive to some critics. When she tweeted about Kim Kardashian West’s line of body makeup, saying she’d rather make peace with her “stretch marks and eczema,” several followers pointed out that Jamil, as a traditionally thin and beautiful woman, may not understand the insecurities of those with extensive scarring and the like. Jamil later made a video apologizing for her “preachy” tone. After Jamil called designer Karl Lagerfeld a “ruthless, fat-phobic misogynist” shortly following his death, model and Lagerfeld muse Cara Delevingne criticized Jamil for dwelling on his past mistakes. Jamil has insisted before that she’s “not trying to get anyone canceled.” And she rejects the idea that it’s unfeminist for a woman to call out another woman. “You’re not called anti-male if you criticize Kanye West or Donald Trump and you’re a man,” she says. “It’s quite condescending to imagine that women can’t take any criticism. And it’s dangerous because without criticism, we never know how to improve.”
A short, incomplete list of ideas and topics Jamil has been schooled on, from her perspective: intersectional feminism (“Just because I consider that all women are equal, and we are all together, does not mean that our experiences are all equal and the same”), nonbinary people (“I didn’t know about nonbinary people until a year and a half ago…my wording was much more gendered”), and that the struggle of black women in the U.S. is not the same as her own, as an English Pakistani woman of color (“I can't believe how black women have been left out of feminism. I just thought, mistakenly, I’m a woman of color, they’re women of color, we’re all in this together. We’re not. They’ve had a much harder time”).
“We all need criticism,” she says. “I need a shitload of criticism, and I’ve received it, and I’ve taken it on board, and it’s made me a better woman. It’s made me a better feminist. This is why I call myself a feminist in progress, because I never feel that I’m fully defined. I’m not fully formed. I’m always going to have new stuff to learn.”
These issues that set Jamil off, I learn, stem from her own painful experiences. She says she was raped but chooses to not share specifics because, “I don’t want it to become about me. I’m just explaining my workings out, where I arrived at compassion or mistakes from.” Perhaps those experiences will be shared in a collection of essays she’s currently writing about shame.
She also has the condition Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which affects her joints and connective tissue: “I was told I’d probably be in a wheelchair by age 21.”
And in her teens, she says, she followed any diet advice shared by a celebrity, drinking six to eight glasses of oolong tea a day “because Oprah said.” She says she binged, overexercised, and engaged in other forms of disordered eating. At one point her period stopped. She says she has permanently altered her metabolism. So this is why, when women like Cardi B and Khloé Kardashian (among many others) have promoted diet teas and meal-replacement shakes on their social media feeds, Jamil has felt compelled to speak out. Last November she posted a parody video of herself drinking a shake, claiming she’d lost 35 pounds in three days. Seconds later, she shows herself camped out on the toilet. The caption: “If influencers and celebrities were actually honest with us about some of these slimming/detox products.”
Her messaging is not subtle, but that’s the point. “Sometimes you have to use a bit of a shock tactic in order to break through the noise. We’re so syrupy and sugary and perfect and glossy and inoffensive,” Jamil says. “That’s not going to get anyone anywhere. We still have a booming diet industry. We’re in an epidemic of teen suicide, teen eating disorders. The nice way doesn't work. I have to get in people’s faces. I’m okay with pissing people off, as long as it creates change.”
When Jamil says that things like Photoshop should be banned, critics point out that this is hardly sticking her slender neck out. As a result, she’s continuously honing her position. Today she no longer aligns with body positivity, per se, though she still champions the work of leaders in the field, such as Your Fat Friend. Instead she’s embracing what she calls body neutrality, even ambivalence.
“I don't think about my body ever,” she says. “And because of that, I swear to God, I never would have been able to have this success that I have now. It opened up all this time because I spent hours a day thinking about my food.”
She continues to sell it: “Imagine just not thinking about your body. You’re not hating it. You're not loving it. You're just a floating head. I'm a floating head wandering through the world.”
Thinking about your body, Jamil insists, and taking measures to control its size leads almost inevitably to shame. Any kind of specific diet plan “creates a feeling of restriction. And restriction leads to rebellion. And it leads to obsessive tendencies with a lot of people.”
Later I push back. Is there a way to lose weight that’s sensible and healthy, if that’s what makes a person feel happy and confident? Would you tell everyone not to diet…ever? Jamil, who once had to lose weight after injuries from a car accident, doctor’s orders, says no. “I’m not here to tell anyone what to do. In the same way that I wouldn’t tell someone they have to gain weight, I’d not tell them to lose weight. It’s not really my interest. My interest is our mental health around our body. Because that’s the real fucker of the whole thing.”
Jamil is determined to not let perfect be the enemy of good. Last month she posed for the cover of U.K.’s Stylist magazine smashing scales with a hammer. The issue, which she guest-edited and packed with diverse writers like trans model Munroe Bergdorf and Poorna Bell, caught her some flak because nearly all of the fashion worn by Jamil isn’t available above a size 18. (Stylist’s editor-in-chief Lisa Smosarski defended Jamil, saying, “Anyone who sticks their neck out as much as Jameela does will inevitably be criticized by some—but it is only by a few brave women, like Jameela, speaking out can we create true, meaningful change.”) When I ask her about this, Jamil says, “I can’t achieve change overnight. I need to first talk about it and make it a big widespread conversation.”
Conversation is what Jamil is most dedicated to, above all else. Big, messy, sometimes imperfect shouts that cut through the noise and make us all think twice. This fall she’ll transform I Weigh, the social media accounts she started to get people to think of themselves beyond the scale, into a multimedia platform. It will be Jamil’s biggest test. Can she create a safe haven for marginalized people where they can see content made for them?
And if she does screw up, is that the worst thing in the world? “No one is born perfectly informed,” she says. “We all have to learn along the way. As long as someone’s doing something that is showing effective and true genuine effort to change their ways.”
Speaking up—even if it’s not perfect—is still hugely valuable. “I was taught, we were all taught, until now, Don't step out of line. Don't speak. Don't speak out. Don't get anything wrong. Otherwise you'll be banished forever. But I'm not banished. I continue to be lucky to rise.”
Hair: Robert Lopez; makeup: Katey Denno; manicure: Vanessa McCullough.
Originally Appeared on Glamour