WCSU

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

May 8, 2017

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.

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.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Gabourey Sidibe, was so convincing in her first movie role that her performance was nominated for an Oscar. And a lot of her fans, like me, wondered if she was really like the character. In that 2009 film, "Precious," Sidibe played a teenager who's sexually abused by her father and physically abused by her mother. She's overweight, illiterate and has no friends, doesn't speak much. And when she does, it's the mumble of someone who doesn't want to be seen or heard.

But Gabourey Sidibe? She's funny and smart and lively, as you're about to hear. That comes across in the subsequent role she's played in the TV series "Empire," "American Horror Story," "The Big C" and "Difficult People." Turns out she's a good writer, too. Her new memoir, "This Is Just My Face: Try Not To Stare," has just been published. She writes about growing up in Brooklyn with a mother from the South and a father from Senegal. Her aunt co-founded Ms. Magazine.

But Sidibe had to deal with a lot of fat shaming in school and a lot of anxiety and depression. She never expected to be an actress. I'll let Sidibe tell her story.

Gabourey Sidibe, welcome to FRESH AIR. I was so happy when I saw you in other roles after "Precious" (laughter) and realized that you weren't Precious, that you were so full of energy. So how did you become Precious? And I don't mean how you were cast, I mean how did you turn off that kind of life force that you have and become somebody who's been, like, so wounded by life that she's almost, like, turned herself off?

GABOUREY SIDIBE: Yeah. The thing about Precious is she's hiding. You know, she's hiding within herself. She is, you know, there's no safe place for her. She's not safe at school. She's not safe, you know, on her way to school. She's not safe at home more than anything. And so she's hiding. And there's a lot of pain there. And I think that is the most human part of that character.

And that's the most human part of me and the most human part of you and of everyone. We all can identify pain because we know pain. And so all I did was I channeled my own pain. And because it is - I would channel my pain between action and cut. And as soon as cut was called, I would get out of it because it's too painful a place to stay. And so I somehow can, you know, access it and then shoo it away the second I don't need it anymore.

GROSS: I interviewed Lee Daniels after "Precious." And he told me that he'd called a casting director and said, I'm looking for a 350-pound black girl. And there was silence on the other end of the phone. And he didn't - he approached people at McDonald's and at RadioShack asking them to audition. He set up a Precious camp in which people who looked like they could play the part were given some training in how to act.

And it just - it wasn't working out until he found you. And he knew right away because you are so lively and everything that he knew right away that it was you and that he was grateful to cast somebody who hadn't lived Precious's life, that he felt that it would somehow be exploiting somebody if they'd actually been Precious. But he didn't feel that way about you. Did he talk to you about that?

SIDIBE: Absolutely. He was so grateful. I think a lot - yeah, I think a lot of why I got the role is because I wasn't this girl. And he 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. And I - because even though, look, a lot of what Hollywood is are interviews. It's this, you know? It's being able to go into a room and not be super emotional and be lively and be interesting to talk to.

And that might not happen with someone who filmed a huge chunk of their life. There is an emotion tied to it that you can't turn off. I can turn it off because that's not - I don't go home that way. I didn't grow up - I wasn't raised that way. And so yeah - that would be exploitative, absolutely. And so I think a lot of the reason why he cast me is because he knew that I could turn it off.

GROSS: One of the most amazing stories in the book is that your mother five years before you were given the role of Precious, your mother was offered the role of Precious's mother which is played by Mo'Nique in the final movie but this is before Lee Daniels took over and became the director.

It was a different director. Your mother sings. Your mother had become kind of famous subway performer in New York, and she was offered the role. It's like serendipity. Gee, I mean, what are the odds of that? That is so strange.

SIDIBE: You don't know what the odds are (laughter). You know? There are a lot of things. I almost called the book a psychic told me so.

GROSS: Right.

SIDIBE: Because there are a lot of serendipitous things in the book. Yeah. Psychics have told me that I was going to be - well, also my mom and the whole thing. And then - yeah, my mom was offered the chance to audition for the role of Mo'Nique - I'm sorry for the role of Mary, and she didn't take the opportunity because she thought that Mo'Nique should do it instead. And this is five years before I auditioned, and I, in fact, only read the book because my mother gave it to me.

GROSS: But you also say in your book that she didn't take part of the mother because she didn't want to play somebody who was an abusive mother.

SIDIBE: That's right.

GROSS: And she didn't want people to confuse the character with her.

SIDIBE: Absolutely. My mom started teaching kids when she was like 12 years old or something. My aunt, like, opened a daycare center in a school. And so my mom's always been a teacher, and she didn't want any one of those kids that she taught and helped to raise to think that that's who she was.

And I would tell - you know, acting is acting, and who you are will still remain to be who you are. You know, that part won't change it. It will change your wallet, you know? It'll change your life. It will open opportunities for you, but it's not going to change your character. But she was too, you know - she was too concerned with the way the public would look at her...

GROSS: Think of how crazy it would have been had she played that part, and you were Precious (laughter).

SIDIBE: Oh, I wouldn't have done it.

GROSS: Because...

SIDIBE: I don't work with my mom (laughter). I mean, like I'm just as interested at work, you know - with working with my mom and acting as I would if we both worked at Walgreens. I would definitely work in a different Walgreens.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SIDIBE: And it's not that I don't - I mean, I love my mom. I just think that there is a, you know - (laughter) no, I don't need to work work with my mom.

GROSS: Yeah. OK. So speaking of your mother, you write about her a lot in the book. And she perform - I don't know if she still does this - but she sang in subways.

SIDIBE: She still does, yes.

GROSS: She still does?

SIDIBE: Yeah.

GROSS: Gosh. And she would often take you when you were a kid, and you'd be doing what while she was singing?

SIDIBE: So we - she - so she was a teacher up until - she was the teacher of my school up until the fourth grade. She went on sabbatical and started singing in the subway and found that she made more money singing in the subway than she did working for the Board of Education. And so...

GROSS: Because teachers are so well paid.

SIDIBE: Yeah (laughter). The money - it's horrible. It's so bad. My mom would take my brother and I down to the subway while she sang. She'd sing, you know, five hours or so, and I would sit on the bench either like somewhere in eyesight or definitely in earshot or something, and I would do my homework or I would read the - or I would read books. I would go - when - there's still Penn Station in New York City. My mom would perform there, and there was a bookstore nearby, and so I would just wander around this huge train station.

And I would go and sit down at a bookstore, and I think that they knew my mom because they would just let me pull a book off the shelves and read it without paying for it. And then every now and then, I'd ask her for money. I really need this new "Clue" book or I really need this new "Nancy Drew." Can I have money to buy it? And she would always give - I - she made sure that I was always able to bury my nose deep in a book, and that's what I did while she sang to crowds and crowds of thousands of people every day.

GROSS: So she was on "America's Got Talent." Is that a result of you getting famous because of "Precious"?

SIDIBE: Yeah, probably. I think that - yeah, I think so - which is great too. I think that, you know, when I - the day Lee - Lee Daniels - cast me in "Precious," I said to him, you know, my mom - my mom gave me the book because she read the script because of, you know, she - you know, I guess somebody else wanted her to audition. He's like, wait a minute. Who's your mom? She's not that singer, is she? And I was like, yeah, that's her. And so he - like, she already had, like, fan - and he was like, I loved her. I did want her in my movie. I think he was producing at the time, but somebody else was going to direct.

GROSS: Oh, I see.

SIDIBE: But the film was always his. And so I think that part of why - even though he'd already cast me - I think part of why Lee liked me was because of my connection to my mother. And I think that part of - in turn, part of why "America's Got Talent" liked my mom - other than her, like, talent - was her connection to me. And so I think that it was something - I think I was able to give her something, and she was definitely able to give me something as well. We kind of switch off a little bit.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Gabourey Sidibe, who's written a new memoir, which is called "This Is Just My Face: Try Not To Stare." And she starred in the movie "Precious." She's in "Empire." She was in "The Big C." She's in "Difficult People," "American Horror Story." We're going to take a short break, then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is actress Gabourey Sidibe. Her new memoir is called "This Is Just My Face: Try Not To Stare."

So you write a lot about your mother in your book. You also write a lot about your father. He's from Senegal. His father was a politician who was mayor of the third largest city in Senegal. Your parents got married for the green - green card. You know, your father needed a green card. He offered your mother $4,000. She took it, although she told you it wasn't really for the money. She just wanted him to have a green card. And then they fell in love after the marriage is how you describe it.

SIDIBE: Yeah, I don't think she ever got the money. I think he offered it.

GROSS: Oh, oh, didn't get the money.

SIDIBE: (Laughter) I'm not sure if she got any of it. But yeah - but they were friends. And he did offer her money. But they got married, and I think she mostly married him because they were friends, and she cared for him. And she wanted to - she thought she was doing him a favor. And yeah, a year after - a year after they were married, they went to - he took her home to Senegal to meet his family and to meet Africa the way, you know, a little black girl from the South in 1952 has never seen Africa. And she fell in love with him, and he fell in love with her. And they decided to just, I guess, have a family. And pop, here I am.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So in talking more about your father though, there were a lot of problems that he posed when you were growing up. He was very stern and maybe hit you sometimes. And you write that it was to make the point that you belong to him - that you were - that the children were his property.

SIDIBE: I think that culturally - culturally speaking, I am - I'm black, and you're white. And so - and I've gotten this question from - from some people who happen to be white. I don't like to say Caucasian. It offends me. (Laughter). I'm just joking.

(LAUGHTER)

SIDIBE: I - yeah, I actually was - I was spanked by both my parents. There was someone who wrote an article about - she was like, you were abused. And I was like, I wasn't abused. And she was like, I was abused. And I was like, you were abused. I wasn't abused. But she still wrote and said that I was abused. And I was like, you - I'm seeing that people - even though I've said, these are my words, and this is my truth, people still see me and my truth through a filter of their own. Does that make sense? So I say all this to say, yes, that is true. My father would spank us. My mother would spank us too, but it seemed like for my father, that it was - my mom would say, you know, that's not a reason to spank them. And he's like, yes, it is. I can spank them if I want. So there were things like that. But I was, you know, hit by both my parents. I wouldn't liken it to abuse at all. But culturally, people of color get spanked. And that's just the way that we discipline our children - right or wrong. It's just the way it happens.

But, yes, my father was stern, but I - and I - you know, I spent this entire book trying to see my father, trying to really understand who he is. And at the end of the chapter where I wrote that, I go, you know, it must have been really, really hard for this African man with his African values and his - his African raising to work as a cab driver for, you know, 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. You know, we were a different country. And I think it took us a long time to see each other, you know? I think it took a long time to see each other. But, you know, I wouldn't say that my - my father is, you know - he's not abusive. And even now, like, my dad has kids that are, you know, much younger. He's got, you know, a ton of kids. And watching him, like, kind of be like an older dude, and he's just, like, more relaxed now. And it's like - but my brother and I were the first children. And so - and he thought he had to be really strict on us because we were living in Bed-Stuy.

You know, he lived in a part of Africa where his - you know, his father was the mayor. And, you know, they would leave the doors open at night - just wide open at night. He lived in a safe place. And we moved his family. And we - we were living in a very unsafe place. And he thought that discipline was - was part of keeping us safe, and it was. Like, there - I wrote a story that got edited out about how he would let me go get the mail just because I needed some independence. And I was, like, 6 years old. I was 4 or something maybe. And my brother had so much independence. He was only 11 months older than me, but I - if I wanted to go check the mail, he would walk me to the door, and he would watch me walk down the hallway. And the elevator was around - he would tell me, don't get in the staircase. Do not get in the staircase. Even if it was three floors, don't get in the staircase because bad things can happen to girls in the staircase. And he would wait for me to get on the elevator. I'd have to tell him I'm in the elevator because he couldn't see me. I'd have to yell, I'm in.

And then I'd go down. He'd give me - he's like you have one minute. Don't go anywhere. I'm counting one minute, and he's very stern in this way. And then I get the mail, and I'm hurrying. And I get back in the elevator because I'm not allowed to take the stairs. And as soon as the elevator opens on the third floor, I'd have to yell I'm back so that he can hear me. And then he's like, OK, come. But, like, that was him. He was very stern, but he had to keep me safe because a little girl like me was not safe in the building that we lived in.

GROSS: So another thing about your father which you write about a lot in the book is that in Senegal where he's from, there's still - or at least there was then polygamy. And your father unbeknownst to you and your mother until it became knownst...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...Had a relationship with another woman who was his cousin who he also married, and they had a child together and that ended your parents' marriage.

SIDIBE: Yep.

GROSS: So were you pretty astonished when you found out?

SIDIBE: Yeah. I was pretty surprised, but also not at all surprised because I knew that that was part of the Senegalese man practice. My grandfather had several wives and several families. And, you know, it's - I mean, the idea that it probably - it was probably like dumb of, like, my family to think that my dad who was raised to do this would not do this, that he would somehow swim against, you know, the current.

And, yeah, it was a surprise, but I think that 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, but that didn't - you know, it might have worked if my mother was also Senegalese. But she was not, and we were not. And so - and there's this weird way of like, you know, we were the foreigners in my dad's life. And we were the foreigners in my dad's upbringing and his entire value system. It was us - like, my mother, my brother and I - we were the foreigners and so we had to go.

GROSS: So that family was broken up...

SIDIBE: Yeah. Our family was broken up. Yeah, the American family is broken up.

GROSS: So another thing about your father. Your father's Muslim and wanted you to be a good Muslim woman and be a good Muslim wife. I don't know if you practice any religion at all right now, but I'm wondering how it's feeling to to live in a climate where Muslims are being demonized.

SIDIBE: I'm heartbroken over it. Ninety percent - maybe more - 90 - probably 95 percent of my immediate family is Muslim. I was - I can't quite say that I was raised Muslim, but I remember up until 5 or so I would pray, you know, with my dad. I had my own, like, my own mat - my player - my own player - prayer rug. My brother Ahmed did, too. And we spent time in Senegal, and there's a mosque nearby the house. And every morning at 5 in the morning you would hear the call to prayer.

And it's actually a beautiful practice. It's giving of yourself to a higher power - no matter what you call that higher power. Living your life as close to what you think that higher power wants you to be is a really powerful thing. And we, as America, we are offended and are afraid of it, but not because - not - really not for any other reason than the fact that it's brown people. It's - what's happening in this country is racist, and it's horrible. And the reason why America was built is so that we would have the ability to choose who we pray to, whether we do or don't, you know?

To pray to this God or that God or this religion and that religion or no religion at all, that's the reason why we built this country. But that - and that is still very much what we do in this country unless you're brown.

GROSS: My guest is actress Gabourey Sidibe Her new memoir is called "This Is Just My Face: Try Not To Stare." After we take a short break, we'll talk about how she first started playing roles as a phone sex operator. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with actress Gabourey Sidibe She was nominated for an Oscar for her screen debut in the 2009 film "Precious." She starred as a teenager who's been sexually abused by her father, physically abused by her mother and shamed by her classmates for being fat. Gabourey has since co-starred in the TV series "Empire," "American Horror Story," "Difficult People" and "The Big C."

In her new memoir, she writes about growing up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn with an African-American mother from the South and a father from Senegal. She also writes about dealing with depression and anxiety about her weight. The book is called "This Is Just My Face: Try Not To Stare."

So you write in your book that you started noticing you were fat at age 6. What changed at age 6?

SIDIBE: I think I just started realizing what people were saying. You know, what - you know, other kids were saying. You know, at 5, everybody's kind of like - everyone's still a kid at 5 years old. Like, anything's possible. I'm going to grow up and be Superman. But around 6 - there's some weird shift that happens in the universe when you're 6 years old where you're like, maybe I can't fly.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SIDIBE: I can't fly - and your nose is too big. You know, it's, like, that weird thing where, like, I realize this thing about myself - I'm not magic, so now I have to pick you apart. And I have to pick myself apart. And I think that was the age where people started calling me Fatso and you-this and you-that, blah, blah blah. That's what helped me to notice.

GROSS: You write that you prayed to God that God would make you less sensitive...

SIDIBE: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Because of the way you were being mocked in school?

SIDIBE: Absolutely. I - I didn't know then that I was having panic attacks, that I was dealing...

GROSS: You were having panic attacks at age 6...

SIDIBE: Um...

GROSS: ...Or 10?

SIDIBE: I don't think I was praying to God to make me less sensitive then. I started praying to be less sensitive around fourth grade - fourth grade, I think, with the dissolving of my parents' marriage. I just was - I was at a live nerve. You know, I just was, you know, unhinged.

And I realized that when someone would say something mean to me, which was often, I would cry for hours, and my chest would close up. And I'd (imitating labored breathing) - and I would really feel kind of like I was dying - like I can't believe this comment, you calling me a fatso, is going to kill me right now. Why am I dying? And that wasn't until fourth grade for sure. And that's when I started to pray, OK. 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. (Whispering) Don't cry.

And so I would pray to God that I could be less - I just thought I was being sensitive because that's what people told me - oh, you're just a baby; you're being too sensitive; you're taking things to heart too much. And I thought that that's what it was. Nobody noticed that I was actually having a medical condition, that I was having - like, I was dealing with a mental disorder. And I was dealing with depression and anxiety, and nobody noticed. And it continued through elementary, continued through junior high. It continued in high school. I noticed that it was - they were more prevalent on the way to school. And so I switched schools, and it happened even more. And I was like, this isn't tied to being called fat anymore. There's something else going on, and that's when I went to a doctor and said something.

I realized while writing it - wow, is that why I was crying so much? Is that why my chest would close up and feel like my heart was beating too fast? I was having a panic attack at 9 damn years old, and nobody saw me. And I remember my teacher Mr. Malov (ph), who was really sexy, he was my science teacher and my homeroom teacher. My mom came to school for, like, teachers night or whatever. And he was like, so she's great, and she's really smart, and she's really funny, and everybody likes her. But if somebody says something mean about her, she starts crying. And she cries for too long. And he, like, said, she cries for too long, (louder) as if I could do something about it - I could not (laughter).

GROSS: The worst thing when you're a kid and you're crying, in my opinion, is when your parent or an adult says, stop crying. It's like...

SIDIBE: Are you serious?

GROSS: ...No, you're not controlling it. It's an involuntary response. You don't want to be crying.

SIDIBE: Absolutely.

GROSS: And so it's just - you're being criticized for doing something out of your control, which makes you cry more.

SIDIBE: Cry even more.

GROSS: Yes.

SIDIBE: And it's like, do you think - I'm not in control of these emotions, fam. I'm not doing this (laughter). I'm not - I don't want to - I'm embarrassed. I don't want to be doing this.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, here's the thing. I'm thinking, like, if you cried for three different periods in school, like, when you're a kid and you're crying, that is, like, majorly embarrassing. So to add to the panic, to add to the discomfort, to add to the feeling that you're being shamed, you're crying, which is just going to lead to more shaming. So that must have been awful to be crying in school.

SIDIBE: It was the worst. It was like a cycle that I couldn't get out of. And you know what? Kids don't - like, they're not nicer to you because you cry. They're not.

GROSS: No.

SIDIBE: They know where to get you. They know what the thing will - what the thing to say is. They know how - they want you to cry.

GROSS: So what stopped the cycle for you? You said you went into therapy. What helped you stop that cycle of depression and panic?

SIDIBE: I think, one, the first thing was being allowed to know - being able to call it depression, being able to call it anxiety was the first step. And I cannot tell you how many people told me that I wasn't feeling what I was feeling, that I was just...

GROSS: The kind of cheer-up type of things? Things are...

SIDIBE: Cheer up, yeah.

GROSS: Things are fine. Cheer up.

SIDIBE: Oh, things are fine. You know, tomorrow will be another day. You're just feeling gloomy, whatever. Or, you know, you need to go to church and, you know, take this to Jesus. And it's - you know, I wasn't allowed to be depressed because, you know, like I said, people see everything through a filter of them, of their own selves. And it's like, you can't be depressed because somehow that has something to do with me. And it's like - no, it doesn't. This is my brain. This is my body. These are my emotions. It's got nothing to do with you. You don't want me to get help for whatever reason you don't want me to get help. But I'm out here, and I need to get help.

And so being allowed to call it that and being allowed to go and fix it was everything. And you know who gave me that me allowance? I did. I had to give it to myself because I looked around, and I realized, you know, I have parents, and I have family and certainly people that care about me. But they don't see me. They don't see how I can't fall asleep at night because my mind is racing. I have a therapist. The last line of my book is a shoutout to my therapist. And she's really special. She's really, really special. I'm so glad I found her. But it's really just a shoutout to therapy in general. Get therapy.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is actress Gabourey Sidibe. She has a new memoir, and the book is called "This Is Just My Face: Try Not To Stare." We're going to take a short break. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is actress Gabourey Sidibe. Her new memoir is called "This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare." And you probably know her from the film "Precious," which was her first acting job. And it was - she just got so many awards for it. And then, she's since been in "Empire," "The Big C," "Difficult People," "American Horror Story" and, of course, now she's got the memoir.

So you say in your book that during your period of depression when - before you had it under control, before you found the right therapist, the depression in your early 20s went along with a period of promiscuity that you call your hoe phase.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And then, after that, your therapist suggested you get a telemarketing job. And you did, but it was phone sex (laughter).

SIDIBE: Yeah.

GROSS: And so...

SIDIBE: I telling and marketing

GROSS: Yeah.

SIDIBE: (Laughter).

GROSS: So, like, that's theater really. Like, was that good practice for becoming an actress?

SIDIBE: Absolutely. It was good practice for this interview right now.

GROSS: Wait a minute, what are you saying to me?

(LAUGHTER)

SIDIBE: I'm saying you're real sexy...

GROSS: What are you telling me?

(LAUGHTER)

SIDIBE: And so what it is is, you know, so - yeah, phone sex is - I think 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 to you and that they're still interested in you because you cannot make money when they hang up.

GROSS: Oh, they pay by the minute.

SIDIBE: Yeah, they pay by the minute. They pay by the minute, and I get paid by the minute. There's a base pay as long as you work in an office, which is different from doing phone sex from your house. That's your house. I'm not going to pay you to sit in your living room, but I'll pay you for the minutes that you're on the phone.

GROSS: So you had to kind of improvise...

SIDIBE: Absolutely.

GROSS: ...With an improvising partner on the other end of the telephone who is just talking about sex.

SIDIBE: Or any of the - you know, a lot of, like, phone - OK, so there are a lot of different lines that filter into one company, and there are like - I don't know if you've ever seen like, call local singles in your area. They're party lines that will then, if you fall down a rabbit hole, you'll talk to a phone sex operator and not know that she's a phone sex operator. If it leads to sex, it leads to sex.

But a lot of people called because they wanted company. You know, there were people that were living in different countries, in different time zones. You know, the person that they're missing is in an area code where it's 3 in the morning. And it's 3 in the morning for me, too. But you're calling from 4 p.m. in the afternoon. And you just want to talk to somebody because you're alone.

GROSS: So what kind of conversations would you get into?

SIDIBE: For...

GROSS: Some I'm sure you cannot talk about on the radio.

SIDIBE: Well, yeah, there are - some men call and they want to be submissive to a dominant woman. Some men call to talk to a college girl when they're like 60 or whatever or 40. They just want to talk to a young girl. But then, there are guys that just want to talk about their favorite beer, and they want to talk about their favorite TV show. There's this one guy I was...

GROSS: Did they want you to be sexy as they were talking about their favorite beer?

SIDIBE: Not really, I mean, it would be by default (laughter) you know. But I wouldn't have to - I wouldn't, you know - you know, I wouldn't be like well, I like a sexy Budweiser. I'm not going to - no, it didn't have to be that. It could also just be a straight up conversation.

GROSS: Did you have a persona or a, like, sexy voice that you used?

SIDIBE: (Laughter) Are you saying that my current voice isn't sexy?

GROSS: I did not say that.

SIDIBE: (Laughter) You should hear me order room service.

(LAUGHTER)

SIDIBE: Yeah, so my persona was Melody, who was also girl 1,266 because I was the 1,266th employee. And so if I talked to you and you really liked me and you ever wanted to talk to me again all you have to do is call back and dial 1266 for Melody (laughter). But also there were different voices for different characters and different lines that came through. So there was like the horny housewife or so. And so her voice was a little slower and a little more sultry and a little bit deeper. And then, a dominant woman was even deeper and very, very like...

(LAUGHTER)

SIDIBE: ...Very, very strict and would only speak with purpose. And if I'm ever quiet on the line that meant that I want you to make a different decision.

(LAUGHTER)

SIDIBE: But then, there was like the submissive girl and she was kind of like a lost girl in the woods and she just needed you to tell her to do everything. And then, what do you want me to do? And then, what do you want me to do? And I'll do anything you want.

GROSS: When you were doing the phone sex, when you were the person on the phone, did you like the invisibility of it? Like one of the things I've always loved about radio is that, like, you're invisible. People make you up visibly however they want to, especially before the days of the internet when anybody can access your picture whenever they wanted to.

But did you like that invisibility where somebody could imagine you however they wanted their fantasy to look like?

SIDIBE: It was kind - I mean, it was kind of amazing. It was really interesting that there were a lot of things fighting with each other, positive and negative. I once went on a job interview - I went on like two or three job interviews before I got this job. And I remember feeling like, oh, I didn't get the job because I'm black or I didn't get the job because I'm fat. It's something about my appearance - it makes me unemployable. And so going to this company where, unless otherwise specified, if you picked up the phone and you're a girl on the phone, you're a 100 percent white, unless - there are different lines. There's, like, the black girl line, there's Latino girl line and there's Asian girl line. And other than that, you are white.

GROSS: So a lot of people assumed you were white.

SIDIBE: Well, yeah, based on my voice, and I also would make my voice a little bit whiter. So (laughter) - but also - but like we couldn't hire you if you had no ability to make your voice white. Now - because that's what the men on the phone wanted to talk to, that's who they wanted to talk to. Now the company was ran by 95 percent plus-sized black women.

GROSS: That's hilarious.

SIDIBE: It was - I mean, it was so - I mean, it's so interesting that, like, we - vocally you have no value unless you are white. But if you're - but you're only smart enough to work here if you're a black woman. And we were all plus-size and none of - you know, these men would not normally be into us. And if they were it's like it's a fetish or whatever. You know, if - we wouldn't - you know, we're not seen as being, you know, we're not seen as being beautiful and worthy of love in this weird way.

GROSS: Yeah, can I say there's a lot of fat-shaming surrounding sexuality.

SIDIBE: So much, so much, like, an insane amount and it's just like - and it's - I mean, these are not my - absolute - as a, you know, fat, black girl these are obviously not my opinions of myself and people who look like me, but it's the world that I have to live in, their opinions, which sucks. And so it's very strange to go from undesirable, into the office, you clock in and your voice is the most - and just, oh, I love you so much. And I'll call you every day. I love you so much. But they think I'm white. And they think I'm young. And they think I'm, you know, this thing.

But - I mean, I say in the book, like, you think you're talking to Megan Fox. But you're talking to Precious, you know? And it was really weird - just, like, look how dope and fierce and amazing and smart and genius we are to fool you into thinking that we're the opposite because the opposite is what you want. But really, I'm here all along. I'm still here.

GROSS: Did your ability to keep men engaged and fulfill their fantasies verbally give you sexual confidence? Did it translate into the real world of your life?

SIDIBE: Nope.

(LAUGHTER)

SIDIBE: Nope.

GROSS: Fast answer.

SIDIBE: (Laughter) No. I think for a little bit - I mean, I was like 21, 22. And it was, like, yeah, I did talk about, like, having a hoe phase. And it wasn't until like after - you know, what? That is misogynistic of me because if I were just a 21-year-old boy, I would just be a 21-year-old boy. I wouldn't be, like, a hoe. But - and, like, it wasn't, like, too many men or anything.

But, like, I remember thinking ha, ha, ha, I'm so sexy. And if I, like, met a guy or something, I'd be, like, you know what I am for a living? I'm a phone-sex operator. Like, it made - like, it gave me some sort of sexual clout. It did not. It did not.

And it did not make me more - like, you know, when I would be reading, you know, we would get, like, nudie magazines and, you know, Cosmo lists about, like, the best way to do, you know, this or that or whatever. And I would read them off. But in a way, I don't think I took anything in. And it didn't make me any less awkward while having sex in person.

GROSS: I want to mention, along these lines in terms of, like, fat shaming surrounding sex, when you did the scene on "Empire" where it was a lovemaking scene - not explicit at all - there was...

SIDIBE: We both had clothes on.

GROSS: Yeah. I mean, there was some really nasty tweets about that.

SIDIBE: Yeah.

GROSS: I don't even know what to say.

SIDIBE: I wasn't necessarily blown away. But I was really, really proud of myself. But I wasn't necessarily surprised by the mean tweets because, you know, I kind of get them quite a bit. And thankfully, at that time, I was writing the recaps for each "Empire" episode for, I think, Entertainment Weekly. And so I knew people would have something to say. And so I decided to say something about it. And I think before it came out, like, some, like, (unintelligible) or something - somebody had written an article about why it was (unintelligible). And I was, like, you don't - I don't need you to talk for me because there's value in my own voice. And I knew that. And so I wrote something.

And I was, like, you know, it's strange that people are so shocked to see someone like me have a make-out session. Like, do you think that I don't deserve love or that I don't get love? I mean, like, you - I said to someone, you watch Maury. People - big people have relationships all the time. Like, what are you talking about? And it was kind of groundbreaking. The thing is, like, I and Mo McRae, who played Becky's love interest, were both dark-skinned people. And there's never been a love scene between two dark-skinned people, let alone one of them being plus size on primetime television, where it was not a joke, you know?

GROSS: Is that true?

SIDIBE: Find it (laughter). I remember the DP - our DP Jody came over after we shot. And he's, like, that's beautiful. He's, like, I've never seen anything like this. I'm so grateful to be a part of this because it was a big deal. And for people to say, oh, that's disgusting or, like, this is irrelevant, like, how - and I can't even text back or whatever. And it's, like, so you are much more comfortable seeing me and my body be raped in Precious by my father than this tender, lovely moment of just making out?

It wasn't explicit at all. But, like, are you saying that I don't deserve love just because of the body I'm in? I wouldn't say that to you. That's horrible. I wouldn't do that to you. I deserve love. People like me deserve love because we are human. Why would you take that away from me?

GROSS: Because of Twitter (laughter).

SIDIBE: Because Twitter. Somebody was, like, what's your favorite thing about Twitter? And I was, like, Twitter. And they're like what's the worst thing about Twitter? And I was, like, Twitter.

(LAUGHTER)

SIDIBE: Twitter is horrible and amazing.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here.

SIDIBE: OK.

GROSS: And then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Gabourey Sidibe. And she has written a new memoir which is called "This Is Just My Face: Try Not To Stare." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Gabourey Sidibe. She's written a new memoir called "This Is Just My Face: Try Not To Stare." And she starred in the film "Precious." She's in "Empire." She was in "The Big C." She's in "Difficult People," "American Horror Story." So you wrote your book yourself. It's not ghost written, and it's - it reads very much like your voice...

SIDIBE: Oh, thank God.

GROSS: ...Like a well thought-out version of your voice.

SIDIBE: (Laughter).

GROSS: Like a writerly (ph) version of your voice. But I learned in your book that when you were young, you wrote a 13-season TV series...

SIDIBE: Jesus.

GROSS: ...About a boy band - not actually - nothing that was ever produced because...

SIDIBE: (Laughter).

GROSS: This is just you as a - how old were you when you wrote this?

SIDIBE: I would love to say that I was really young. I started writing it when I was around 17. And I stopped writing it, like, when I was 23, which is probably too old (laughter).

GROSS: No, that is still really ambitious, 13 seasons.

SIDIBE: Yeah. I wasn't like, you know...

GROSS: Did you think you'd be a writer?

SIDIBE: Not for real I don't think, no. I don't know if I knew I'd be a writer just from doing those. I think - maybe I thought I could write for a TV show one day maybe, maybe.

GROSS: That is writing. So the...

SIDIBE: Yeah, I know (laughter).

GROSS: The series was about a boy band modeled on *NSYNC.

SIDIBE: No. It was - no, it wasn't a boy band modeled on *NSYNC. It was *NSYNC.

GROSS: Oh, OK.

SIDIBE: Yeah. It was straight up *NSYNC. I - so yeah - so OK - so let's explain. I was a huge fan of *NSYNC. They were, you know, my - that's what I - they were my extracurricular activity, you know? I think that when you're young you're on, you know, a soccer team or a volleyball team or a basketball team or you're, you know, under the bleachers making out and, you know, doing drugs or whatever, doing teenage things. And I didn't do either of those.

I thought I was a writer, and so I wrote a TV series. Here's how it worked. It would run six times a day. I'm sorry - six weeks - six days a week. So it would run from Monday through to Saturday. There was no Sunday episode, and it ran every single week except for - and it ran between March 5 and September 3 so that's six months. And there's an episode each day.

GROSS: I love how you had it all figured out.

SIDIBE: Oh, yeah. I was very serious. And so - and I did this for 13 seasons. So what happens, though - it's about - it wasn't necessarily about *NSYNC. It was me and my best friend and the five members of *NSYNC in different ways. (Laughter) Oh, my God. I'm like, you know what? I'm all - I'm in - I'm just as embarrassed as I am really impressed like, you know - I really, really did this.

And, like, before we go off and like bother Joey Fatone and think that I, like, actually, like, wrote about it, you know - I, as a writer, especially if it's, you know - if you're writing on your own, each character is just you. It's just you. Like, that's what I did when I couldn't afford therapy. I wrote. I would have really, really bad days, and I'd go home, and I'd write a better day. And so it wasn't necessarily about *NSYNC. They were just the scaffolding.

GROSS: So you are a very successful actress. It's not what you dreamed of being. You know, you thought you'd go into business - or you were trying to get as far away from your mother's singing career as possible. How surprised are you that you have this really flourishing, you know, career as an actress now?

SIDIBE: Still a surprise every day. Like, really I'm just - you know what though? I - right before I auditioned - no, it was after my audition and after the callback for "Precious," I was about to go upstairs and meet Lee for the first time at his office. And I thought I was going to audition the third time and I just - I was 24 years old, and I was just praying that my life would begin, that whatever it was that I was supposed to be, whatever path I was supposed to be on, I knew instinctively that I was not on it. I knew instinctively that I just - that I was running in the opposite direction.

And I didn't know that, you know, being downstairs in some office in Tribeca, New York City, that that was the path. And so I was just praying that that - not that I would get the role, but that my life would begin and I would be on the path. And here I am because no matter what - you know, it's the idea of like you laugh, you know, you plan and God laughs, you know? Whatever I was running from, whatever I thought I was running to, that's not my path or at least it wasn't my path then. I mean, to be a first time actress at 24, that's pretty old, you know, to be a first time actress? Like, people start acting when they're like teenagers.

And yet, there I was because that's what my intentions were. It just happened too quickly. So, yeah, I'm surprised all the time, but I also know that this is my path. And I'm really grateful that I'm on it.

GROSS: Well, Gabourey Sidibe, congratulations on finding your path, on your acting career and on the new memoir. Thank you so much for talking with us.

SIDIBE: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Gabourey Sidibe's new memoir is called "This Is Just My Face: Try Not To Stare." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, I'll talk with novelist Mary Gaitskill who first became known for her collection of short stories "Bad Behavior" about people whose relationships and sexual relationships were outside of what was defined as normal. She has a new collection of essays, and we'll hear from Julia Turshen whose new cookbook "Small Victories" is intended to help people who are insecure about their home cooking. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.