Actress Gabourey Sidibe On Anxiety, Phone Sex And Life After 'Precious' As a young woman, Sidibe struggled to find work before landing the film role that would change her life. "This is my path, and I'm really grateful that I'm on it," Sidibe says of her acting career.
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Actress Gabourey Sidibe On Anxiety, Phone Sex And Life After 'Precious'

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Actress Gabourey Sidibe On Anxiety, Phone Sex And Life After 'Precious'

Actress Gabourey Sidibe On Anxiety, Phone Sex And Life After 'Precious'

Actress Gabourey Sidibe On Anxiety, Phone Sex And Life After 'Precious'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/527392123/527432835" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Before landing her first film role, Gabourey Sidibe struggled to find work. "This is my path, and I'm really grateful that I'm on it," she says of acting. Anthony Harvey/Getty Images hide caption

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Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

Before landing her first film role, Gabourey Sidibe struggled to find work. "This is my path, and I'm really grateful that I'm on it," she says of acting.

Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

Growing up in Brooklyn with a mother from the South and father from Senegal, Gabourey Sidibe spent much of her youth feeling anxious. She was mocked for being part-African and for being overweight, and she worried she would never find her true calling.

As a young woman, Sidibe struggled to find work and ultimately took a job as a phone sex operator where the rule of business was to sound "100 percent white." Then, when she was 24, she auditioned for the role that would change her life.

The film was Precious, director Lee Daniels' movie about an overweight, illiterate teenager who has been sexually abused by her father and physically abused by her mother. Sidibe remembers getting a callback for the role. "I was just praying that my life would begin," she says. And in many ways it did: The actress landed the title role and earned an Academy Award nomination for her performance.

This Is Just My Face

Try Not to Stare

by Gabourey Sidibe

Hardcover, 246 pages |

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Sidibe has since played roles in a number of TV series, including Empire, American Horror Story and The Big C. She says she finally feels she's doing the work she was meant to do: "This is my path, and I'm really grateful that I'm on it."

Sidibe's new memoir is This is Just My Face: Try Not To Stare.


Interview Highlights

On why she thinks she got cast as Precious

I think a lot of why I got the role is because I wasn't this girl. [Daniels] really did think that he would be exploiting someone who was a lot like her, because it's not about being that exact character, it's not about living that exact life; it's about understanding it and being able to mirror it.

On her mother's decision to quit teaching and become a busker

She was a teacher at my school up until the fourth grade. She went on sabbatical and starting singing in the subway and found that she made more money singing in the subway than she did working for the Board of Education. ... My mom would take my brother and I down to the subway while she sang. She'd sing [for] five hours or so and I would sit on the bench, either somewhere in eyesight or definitely in earshot or something, and I would do my homework or I would read books.

On her parents' marriage, which her mother initially entered into to help her father get a green card

I think she mostly married him because they were friends and she cared for him and she thought she was doing him a favor. A year after they were married, he took her home to Senegal to meet his family and to "meet" Africa. ... And she fell in love with him and he fell in love with her and they decided to have a family. ...

It must've been really, really hard for this African man with his African values and his African [upbringing] to work as a cab driver for 12 to 14 hours a day and come home to American children. We were children and we were a family that he did not understand. We were a different country. I think it took us a long time to see each other.

On her parents getting divorced after her mother learned her father had a secret family in Senegal, where polygamy is widely practiced

I was pretty surprised, but also not at all surprised. My grandfather had several wives and several families. ... It was probably dumb of my family to think my dad, who was raised to do this, would not do this, that he would somehow swim against the current. Yeah, it was a surprise, but I think my dad, like a lot of men, wanted to have his cake and eat it too. He wanted to have his first wife and his second wife also. It might've worked if my mother was also Senegalese, but she was not, and we were not. ... We were the foreigners in my dad's life ... so we had to go.

On how people dismissed her childhood anxiety and depression as her being too sensitive

I didn't know then that I was having panic attacks. ... I started praying to be less sensitive around fourth grade ... with the dissolving of my parents' marriage. I was like a live nerve. I was unhinged and I realized that when someone would say something mean to me, which was often, I would cry for hours. My chest would close up and I would really feel like I was dying. ...

That's when I started to pray: You cried from history, through math, into gym. You cried for three hours today. We can't do this anymore. We can't cry for three hours, and you know that tomorrow they're just going to call you a fatso again and you know it's going to make you cry, so please don't cry. Don't cry. ...

I just thought I was being sensitive because that's what people told me. "You're just a baby. You're being too sensitive. You're taking things to heart too much." I thought that that's what it was. Nobody noticed that I was actually having a medical condition, that I was dealing with a mental disorder. I was dealing with depression and anxiety and nobody noticed.

On what it was like to work for a phone sex hotline

It was good practice for this interview right now! ... You think that phone sex is about getting the caller off, but it's about keeping the caller on. It's about leading with your personality and making sure that they're still listening and they're still interested in you, because you cannot make money when they hang up. ... They pay by the minute, and I get paid by the minute. ...

[The company wouldn't] hire you if you had no ability to make your voice white, because that's who the men on the phone wanted to talk to. ... The company was [run] by 95 percent plus-size black women. It's so interesting that ... we were all plus size and these men would not normally be into us, and if they were it's a fetish or whatever. ...

So it's very strange to go from undesirable, into the office, you clock in, and [they say,] "I love you so much. I'll call you every day." ... You think you're talking to Megan Fox, but you're talking to Precious. Look how dope and fierce and amazing and smart and genius we are to fool you into thinking that we're the opposite.

Radio producers Sam Briger and Mooj Zadie and web producers Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Nicole Cohen contributed to this story.