Living the Life

Styling by Karyn Pappas; hair by Danielle Irene/Artists By Timothy Priano; makeup by Joe J. Simon for Giorgio Armani Beauty/Artists By Timothy Priano; dress by Lane Bryant; necklace by R.J. Graziano.Photo: Andreas Laszlo Konrath

At a photo shoot on lower Broadway, a whole mess of stylists and publicists are hovering over Brooklyn-born, Harlem-raised Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe, adjusting her outfit, her costume jewelry, her lushly swooping hairpieces. Sidibe is a good sport about it, rolling her eyes only when the song changes on the sound system. “Is this Taylor Swift?” she groans. One woman in the retinue, meeting her for the first time, gushes, “You look totally opposite to your character.”

“Thanks,” says Sidibe dutifully. “I’m actually … not her.”

The confusion is understandable if you’ve seen the film in which Sidibe stars. As Claireece “Precious” Jones, the obese, abused, 16-year-old hero of Precious (based on the sexually graphic 1996 novel Push, by Sapphire), the 26-year-old actress gives one of the most moving and primal performances in recent memory. The film (opening November 6 after playing the New York Film Festival) has been a festival standout since Sundance, where it won two major awards, followed by the top prize at the recent Toronto Film Festival.

To play the part, Sidibe (pronounced SIH-deh-bay) entered a nightmare. A shutdown bunker of an adolescent, Precious is already a mother of two children (one of them with Down syndrome) by her father, clocked over the head with pots and pans by her abusive mother (played with startling ferocity by Mo’Nique), mocked by boys in the streets of eighties Harlem, barely able to talk intelligibly, or read or write the simplest words. And yet she has a deep need to open up and thrive, which she begins to do with the help of a teacher and an all-girl crew of peers at an alternative school. As director Lee Daniels explains it, “Sidibe grew to be herself by the end of the movie. Not even herself, but a fraction of herself. To play Precious, she had to unwork all her confidence, and speak lower, slower, and gutturally. Only in the fantasy sequences”—when Precious dissociates from rape and abuse by thinking about runways and red carpets—“do you see who Sidibe is, bubbly and giggly.”

Which, according to Sidibe, is miles from how she’s been portrayed in the press so far. “They try to paint the picture that I was this downtrodden, ugly girl who was unpopular in school and in life, and then I got this role and now I’m awesome,” says the actress. “But the truth is that I’ve been awesome, and then I got this role.”

Sidibe gets her notable oomph from her mother, Alice Tan Ridley, a former special-ed teacher who’s gained some local fame singing R&B in the subways (her Senegal-born dad is a cab driver; her parents split when she was young). She spent her adolescence hanging around outside MTV’s TRL studios with her best friend, Crystal, to get a glimpse of ’N Sync, and singing Mariah Carey songs to schoolmates for quarters at recess. (Carey has a small part in Precious. “We giggled a lot,” says Sidibe. What’s Carey like? “She’s a girl.”) In 2007, after attending several local colleges and working office jobs, one of her directors at Lehman College, where she’d had bit parts in a few shows, got her the Precious audition. Daniels, who saw hundreds of audition tapes from across the country (350-pound actresses don’t grow on trees), was blown away by Sidibe. “She is unequivocally comfortable in her body, in a very bizarre way. Either she’s in a state of denial or she’s so elevated that she’s on another level,” he says. “I had no doubt in my mind that she had four or five boyfriends, easily.”

Ah, yes, her weight. When Sidibe was 11 years old, an aunt offered to pay for a cruise if she lost 50 pounds. Friends and family continue to pressure her about it. “I still hear it from people who don’t know that they’re pretty close to hurting my feelings,” she says, “people who care about me, like this one friend. I was eating a light potato chip, and she eyeballed me like I was the most disgusting thing she’d ever seen. She says, ‘Every time you want to put something disgusting in your mouth, think of the designers who won’t make a dress for you because you’re fat.’ ”

But at some point, says Sidibe, “I learned to love myself, because I sleep with myself every night and I wake up with myself every morning, and if I don’t like myself, there’s no reason to even live the life. I love the way I look. I’m fine with it. And if my body changes, I’ll be fine with that.”

It hasn’t stopped her from landing a second movie role. She’s about to start shooting Yelling to the Sky, a Sundance Lab film with Don Cheadle. “I get to play a bad girl who beats other girls up,” says Sidibe, clearly thrilled to be playing a non-victim this time. “And I get to make out with a boy—I wrote that into the script.” Daniels wants to cast her as a bad girl, too—in a musical—to capture the sassiness you only glimpse in Precious. “Like Rizzo from Grease, except hard-core,” says Daniels. “She has a formidable voice.”

Sidibe in a scene from Precious.Photo: Anne Marie Fox/Courtesy of Lionsgate

After Precious, hard-core would be a snap; it was as tough to make as it is to watch. Daniels remembers filming a scene where local boys knock Precious to the ground. When Sidibe didn’t get up after the scene, “I go to hug her,” says Daniels, “and she is in tears, laughing. I’m like, ‘Why?’ and she said, ‘I’m a fat girl on the floor, what the fuck do you think?’ ”

Sidibe doesn’t remember saying those words, only that she was deathly sick that day, pushed to the breaking point, and pissed that one of the boys hit her in the head and not the lower back. Still, she says she never forgot that Precious was a character. “They were talking to her, they were not talking to me,” says Sidibe of her onscreen abusers. “I know I’m not a piece of shit or some random fat girl. I’m Gabourey Sidibe.” She pauses. “I just said my name in the third person!”

And, of course, Gabourey Sidibe is more likely to bitch-slap a boy than the reverse. Is she still juggling four or five boyfriends? “Yes, but I don’t want to get serious enough to call them boyfriends,” she says. “This one guy, I’ve deleted his number. I would text him at 7 p.m., and he’d be like, ‘I’m at BBQ’s.’ But the thing is, you don’t go to BBQ’s with your boys, you go with a girl. Then he’d call me at eleven. I’m like, ‘Why don’t you call me at six when you’re ready to go to BBQ’s?’ ” Her voice quickens with a touch of rage. “Don’t, don’t, don’t! I’m not a regular girl. I just got off a plane from France. You need to check yourself.”

Living the Life