The world is truly Gabourey Sidibe’s oyster. Since her debut role in 2009’s Precious, Sidibe has continued to expand her empire with films, a book deal, and of course, a role on Empire. It hasn’t always been easy for the Brooklyn native, who wrote in her memoir (via The New York Times) that her “body sometimes feels like a tragedy, but [she’s] trying very hard to change [her] mind about that.”
Sidibe might not fit the traditional celebrity mold of tall, tiny, and blonde, but her sense of humor, insistence on being seen, and down-to-earth attitude have made her unstoppable — and an incredible role model for fans across the world. “The second you decide to feel great about yourself is when you feel great,” she told Andy Cohen on Watch What Happens Live in 2016 (via People). “It’s not the fame. It’s not money – it can’t come from some outside source … You have to figure out what about yourself you love.”
But her confidence didn’t come quite as easy as it sounds. This is the transformation of Gabourey Sidibe.
Gabourey Sidibe came from humble beginnings
Gabourey MaLingair Sidibe was born in Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, New York, according to The New York Times, where she lived in an “upside-down household” with an older brother, a “warm, Southern mother and stern African father” who practiced polygamy. Her middle name means “my queen” in Wolof, according to Nylon, and her father chose her first name in tribute to “an African woman who helped raise him.” While she wears the honor of her name proudly, Sidibe did not have a great relationship with her father and when her parents divorced, she lived with her mother and brother in a room at her aunt’s house. Her mother, Alice Tan Ridley, pursued singing — she would go on to appear on America’s Got Talent, according to Nylon — and they later lived in a “studio apartment … where all three shared a bunk bed,” per the Times.
Sidibe is also a descendant of activist royalty. Her aunt is Dorothy Pitman Hughes, a cofounder of Ms. Magazine who traveled the country giving “speaking tours to galvanize grassroots support for women’s issues” alongside Gloria Steinem, according to the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery website. The iconic image of the two women together shaped Sidibe. “In the morning on the way out to the world, I passed by a portrait of my aunt and Gloria [Steinem] together,” Sidibe shared at the 2014 Gloria Awards, according to Entertainment Weekly. “I didn’t know that I was being inspired then.”
A difficult childhood shaped Gabourey Sidibe
Gabourey Sidibe considers herself strong, but her strength comes from years of learning from a rough childhood. “I gotta be honest with you — I went through school and I didn’t realize how much it really prepared me for real life,” she told Andy Cohen on Watch What Happens Live (via People). “I’m still dealing with the haters. It is rough.” Worse than the schoolyard bullies she faced was abuse from her father whom, she told Nylon magazine, gave her “disciplinary beatings” and referred to her as “Fatso.”
“For a long time, my father was dead to me,” she told the outlet in 2017, adding that writing her memoir that year helped her examine things differently in regards to his Senegal culture and customs. “I didn’t want to justify his actions … the six-year-old in me is still pissed but I don’t think I am a victim. I don’t want people to shed tears for me. He beat me, but we have all been through sh*t.”
Gabourey Sidibe had very different plans for her career
Although acting is clearly her calling, Gabourey Sidibe grew up with very different plans in mind. According to Nylon, she knew she wanted to become a therapist and “[read] psychology books and [studied] therapy techniques” while she was still in elementary school. She went on to study psychology in college, and around that time she acted in, as she told Mo’Nique for Interview magazine, “little school plays and things … but it was mostly for fun.” When asked if she thought she’d pursue an acting career, Sidibe replied, “Not ever.”
While in college, Sidibe’s therapist suggested she try telemarketing as a job… which led to a brief foray working as a phone sex operator, according to Stylist. “Everyone at the interview looked like me … it felt like all the outcasts ended up there,” she told the outlet in 2018. “I was there for three years and it was the most money I had ever made as an average person.”
Her career as a therapist didn’t pan out, but Sidibe’s passion for therapy is still going strong. Sidibe used a 2016 appearance on Andy Cohen’s Watch What Happens Live to advocate for mental health (via People). “I got a lot of therapy in my life,” she told Cohen. “I champion for therapy — therapy is everything.” Perhaps it was this knowledge base in empathy and emotional intelligence that helped her craft an effortless portrayal of Precious in her first film role… but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Gabourey Sidibe's debut in Precious was a breakout moment
Gabourey Sidibe had only dipped her toes into the world of theatre when the opportunity of a lifetime came around. According to The Guardian, Sidibe’s mother, Alice Tan Ridley, was offered an audition for the mother character in Lee Daniels’ movie Precious, but she wasn’t interested. However, she was interested in the idea of her daughter trying out for the lead role. “I don’t know why I cut school to go to the audition,” Sidibe told the outlet in 2010. “I’d never taken an interest in theatre.”
As Daniels told The Guardian, Sidibe “broke [his] heart” and won the part over hundreds of other actors. Based on the novel Push by Sapphire, Precious follows a 16-year-old girl of the same name who struggles to find her way in New York City with her abusive mother, a pregnancy, and poverty. “I don’t know what it’s like to be Precious, but you know what? — she’s not an alien to me,” Sidibe told The Guardian. “I’ve had to deal with difficult things in my life because of how I look.”
The raw and intense film won the Grand Jury and Audience Awards at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, sparking a year-long ride through film festivals and award shows for Mo’Nique, who portrayed Precious’ mother Mary Lee Johnston, as well as Sidibe, who was nominated for Best Actress at the 2009 Academy Awards and Golden Globes.
Tower Heist showcased Gabourey Sidibe's comedic side
The pressure was on for Gabourey Sidibe’s second role, considering her debut put her in competition with Hollywood veterans like Meryl Streep and Sandra Bullock at the 2010 Oscars. After a role in indie film Yelling to the Sky, Sidibe’s next big flick was 2011’s Tower Heist, an ensemble heist flick starring Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy. The movie’s comedic tone was quite the departure from her somber first feature, but Sidibe told Black Film that one aspect of the script in particular convinced her to take on the role of Jamaican maid Odessa.
“The convincing thing was being able to crack a safe and getting a gun,” she told the outlet. “It sounds a little crazy and I’m not gun crazy but there’s something very powerful about … a weapon; and being the only girl in on this heist.” Audiences might have been surprised to see Sidibe bust out her comedic chops, but it actually wasn’t her first time cracking jokes. A year earlier, she hosted Saturday Night Live in an episode Entertainment Weekly called “one of [the show’s] better weeks.”
American Horror Story took Gabourey Sidibe's career to the next level
Gabourey Sidibe ventured into television with her role as Andrea Jackson in Showtime’s The Big C in 2010, but her role as the “Human Voodoo Doll” witch Queenie on FX’s American Horror Story: Coven in 2013 took her celebrity to the next level. A role on the show’s third season was a dream come true for Sidibe, who starred as a member of a witch coven alongside actresses like Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates, and Emma Roberts. “[The show] has been my favorite show since it first aired, and somehow I ended up on it,” she gushed to Parade in 2010. “I can only speculate that I did something nice for someone once and so my prayers were answered.”
In addition to getting to stab herself to inflict pain on others, Queenie also gets, as Parade put it, “kinky with a Minotaur,” a scene that challenged her as an actor and helped her realize she made it. “I felt like I was doing something important to the story and that, in turn, I was being taken care of emotionally,” she told the magazine. “I felt like a real actor with real talent and that I was being trusted with this story and this scene because of that talent.”
Gabourey Sidibe became an Empire fave
In 2015, Gabourey Sidibe took on the iconic role of Becky in Fox’s Empire, a drama about a hip-hop exec whose family is fighting to be next in line for his multi-million dollar music empire. Sidibe’s character starts off as an assistant to Terrence Howard’s character, but quickly works her way up the ladder, thanks to her zingers, sass, and confidence. “I would never choose to be blond myself, but I dig the fact that Becky does,” Sidibe told The Los Angeles Times in 2015. “I’m serving like Marilyn Monroe.”
Ironically, the role was originally intended for a “boyish, petite white girl,” according to showrunner Ilen Chaiken, who told the Times that Sidibe brings an “unexpected … degree of intellect and insight and nuance” to the character. The show, which ended with its sixth season in 2020, was trailblazing for not only its rich Black storylines, but for the opportunities it afforded Sidibe who let the sparks fly in a sex scene with co-star Mo McRae. “I was really happy to be part of something that’s never been seen on primetime television before,” she told People of the scene in 2015. “You don’t notice it because you don’t have to notice it, but there’s never been someone of my skin color, my size, with somebody else of the same skin color in a love scene on primetime television.”
Gabourey Sidibe was candid about her experience with weight loss
Gabourey Sidibe has never shied away from discussing her weight in interviews, although she’s also the first person to firmly state she loves herself and call out a culture that polices others on their bodies. It’s only fitting that her 2017 memoir This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare has a chapter entitled “MYOB,” which is an acronym for “Mind your own body.”
“It’s important because I don’t happen to have the kind of body that we usually see on television and in films,” she told NPR of the chapter’s mantra in 2017. “I am plus-size, I have dark skin and I am 100 percent beautiful, but I get a lot of flak.” A year before the book’s release, Sidibe got laparoscopic bariatric surgery after being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, according to People, although she “tried for more than a decade to lose weight naturally” before making the decision. “I truly didn’t want to worry about all the effects that go along with diabetes,” she explained to the outlet.
However, just because Sidibe has lost weight doesn’t mean she thinks it’s suddenly become anyone’s business but her own. “This has been my body since I was 5ish, you know,” she told NPR. “It’s been a 30-year thing of other people putting their stuff on my body. But it’s mine, so I will police it, thank you.”
A memoir allowed Gabourey Sidibe to share more than ever before
In 2017, Gabourey Sidibe took her story into her own hands with the release of memoir This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare. The title’s inspiration? Resting b*tch face. “People say I have it, but I don’t feel the need to smile for no god damn reason,” Sidibe explained to Stylist in 2018. “I’m not mad at you, I’m not a b*tch, this is just my face.”
After a highly buzzed-about speech at 2014 The Gloria Awards — in which she stated, “When you ask me how I’m so confident, I know what you’re really asking me: how could someone like me be confident? Go ask Rihanna, a**hole!” (via Vulture) — Sidibe decided to give writing a try. “There was a lot of freedom in writing, it was like verbally throwing up and coming to terms with my feelings,” she explained to Stylist.
For the first time, the actor wrote about her childhood, her father, and money intimately, and her candidness paid off. The book nabbed spots on Best Of 2017 lists from the likes of Glamour, Entertainment Weekly, and Cosmopolitan, with The New York Times calling it “a book you will want to give your daughter.”
Gabourey Sidibe couldn't stay away from Queenie
The American Horror Story franchise has treated Gabourey Sidibe quite nicely. In addition to her role on Coven, she portrayed Regina Ross in Season 4’s Freak Show, and returned as Queenie in Hotel… only to get murdered in the very same episode. “Death doesn’t really mean anything over at American Horror Story,” she joked to Collider in 2020, pointing to the fact that Queenie made a second return in Season 8’s Apocalypse in 2018. “Everyone’s death is quite poetic and usually ties into something else and everything is very cyclical in that universe.”
While Sidibe — and the fans — can’t get enough of Queenie, the actor, who directed two episodes of Empire during her run on the show, is especially interested in returning to Ryan Murphy’s universe as a director. “There’s so much room to play, there’s so much room to learn,” she told Collider. “I’m still a very young director and so I’m still learning and I think the lessons that I would get from American Horror Story are just so valuable.” We would love to see it, too!
Gabourey Sidibe has never been happier
Gabourey Sidibe has continued to expand her footprint in Hollywood with roles in Difficult People, 2020’s horror film Antebellum, and CBS All Access’ adult animated series The Harper House. With each and every role, Sidibe continues to challenge misconceptions and stereotypes people have based on how she looks. “The narrative surrounding Black women is that we are ‘magic,'” she told People in 2020. “That all sounds like a good narrative … The problem with those words is that they dehumanize us … For my survival, I need to be thought of as human.”
Although she told Nylon that she considered herself “a solitary, selfish person” in 2017, it seems like Sidibe has finally met someone who changed her tune. In November 2020, the actress got engaged to boyfriend Brandon Frankel, an entertainment and tech marketing professional according to his Instagram. “[He] made up a song for when I put my bonnet on at night,” she wrote in an effusive Instagram post announcing their engagement. “The second I look a bit stressed and overwhelmed, he jumps into action to take over what he can for me … He is the partner I thought I was too independent to need.” Aw!
With a body of important work behind her, and more to come, we can’t wait to see where life – and love – takes Sidibe next!
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