Why you should care
The Good Place actress uses her soapbox to rewrite the rules.
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The world first meets The Good Place’s Tahani Al-Jamil moments after her death. The actress who plays her credits her own reclaimed self to narrowly escaping a trip to the afterlife. At age 17, Jameela Jamil was hit by a car while running across the street. She was only fleeing a bee that day — but Jamil already knew well how to escape pain.
Jamil survived but was bedridden for a year. In near solitude, she spent her waking hours consuming the daytime TV shows that served as her education in acting. The characters and their stories helped Jamil, now 33, process childhood trauma for the first time. “[Daytime TV] helped me identify the evils in my life and start planning how to get away from them,” Jamil told Lewis Howes in a recent podcast interview.
It’s fitting that years later, her big break came on The Good Place, a show about characters constantly contemplating what a life well-lived looks like and whether it’s worthwhile to live with integrity. The comedy-dystopia series, written by Michael Schur (The Office, Parks and Recreation), takes place in the afterlife. The heavenlike utopia for those who have led righteous lives serves as a classroom for questions of morality and ethics to be explored. Since its 2016 debut, the show has racked up a slew of honors, including a Peabody Award this year. Jamil’s personal path to righteousness, meanwhile, involves using her growing platform to speak frankly about issues like racial beauty standards, representation in media, mental health and body positivity.
I’m Pakistani and a woman and from Britain. That is, I think, the holy trifecta of shame.
Her talking points run deep. Jamil grew up in London in a low-income family, spending brief stints in Spain and Pakistan with her Pakistani mother and Indian father. Born partially hard of hearing, she had seven operations before the age of 12. Her all-girls school in London, where she was one of the few students of color, provided little solace from her parents’ fraught relationship at home.
Jamil recalls relentless bullying, the beginning of what would turn into years of internalized shame about her race and appearance — shame that she’s only now broken free from. “I’m Pakistani and a woman and from Britain,” Jamil told Howes with a laugh. “That is, I think, the holy trifecta of shame.” Anorexic throughout her teenage years, she acknowledges the social anxiety and mental illness that shaped her self-image.
At 22, Jamil was working as an English teacher when she was approached by a producer in a pub about a broadcast role. She pivoted to become a presenter on T4, a British TV show, from 2009 to 2012. Jamil moved into radio after becoming “tired of being reduced to nothing more than my aesthetic,” she told Howes. She became the first female host of The Official Chart on BBC Radio 1; she also modeled and launched a clothing line. In 2016, Jamil had a breast cancer scare. Once again, confronting her mortality shifted her priorities. She left London for Los Angeles, hoping to work as a DJ and pursue comedy writing.
She heard Schur was looking to cast a British actress for a new TV show and her agents encouraged her to audition. Jamil’s talent for acting surfaced and she landed the role of Tahani, a character in whom she found traces of her own pain: Tahani is constantly seeking validation and attempting to prove herself, driven in part by lack of attention from her parents.
While Tahani desperately tries to improve herself and free herself from the pull of old habits, Jamila appears comfortable seeking change. “Maybe I’ll bring out a rap album; I don’t know. Or become a professional tango dancer,” she told The Cut. “If I had a trajectory I probably would never have been able to do all the fun things I’ve done.” She believes there is always space to reinvent yourself, a central question of The Good Place. The show conveys the message that “all is not lost, even for the most lost people you could ever imagine,” says Sydney Marks, a fan of the show.
Timid young Jamil wouldn’t recognize the boisterous energy she exudes today. She swears profusely during interviews and isn’t afraid to ruffle feathers by flying directly at the source, even if that subjects her to attacks. Jamil has engaged in more than a few social media spats — going after Cardi B and Khloe Kardashian for plugging weight-loss products — and slamming Avon UK for what she felt was body-shaming language. “Jameela Jamil seems to have been put on this Earth to strike fear into the hearts of marketers,” wrote Leah Prinzivalli in Allure.
They got Cardi B on the laxative nonsense “detox” tea. GOD I hope all these celebrities all shit their pants in public, the way the poor women who buy this nonsense upon their recommendation do. Not that they actually take this shit. They just flog it because they need MORE MONEY pic.twitter.com/OhmTjjWVOp— Jameela Jamil 🌈 (@jameelajamil) November 24, 2018
She’s not apologetic about it. “If you don’t ask, no one is just going to give you anything in this world, especially not as a woman, especially not as a Brown woman,” she told The Cut. Her blog, Diary of a Goon, features unedited streams of consciousness, and Jamil has made it clear she’s disturbed by the prevalence of eating disorders, self-harm, depression and anxiety in a social-media-driven society. “I’m afraid of having children because I don’t know what I’m bringing them into,” she told Howes. “It feels irresponsible … to not do everything in my power to clean up this dirty world before I bring a child into it.”
For now, Jamil is working on her own inspirational female-targeted comedy content. She feels compelled to speak, as the world she sees is still far from a good place.