Tiffany Haddish GQ article

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Some people are better at being themselves than others are. They’re the ones at home instantly in any untried environment, the way a cloud looks just right no matter where it is in the sky. They seem to keep slightly better rhythm with the beat of the universe than other people—noticing things faster, making connections more quickly.

They’re people like Tiffany Haddish, who has been on this whale-watching expedition for ten minutes and is already its undisputed captain—a turn of events no doubt surprising to the disputed captain, i.e., the man commanding the vessel and ostensibly hired to lead the tour. Gleeful in mutiny, Haddish’s fellow passengers beseech her to hijack microphone duties from Captain Nick. Only one or two of them recognize her as a professional comedian and newly minted movie star; to the majority of middle-aged white people on this boat, she is simply a confident woman with three free hours to search for whales off the coast of Los Angeles. A woman whose commentary they enjoy.

“I don’t know that much about whales!” Haddish protests. Her voice is pleasingly scratchy, with a low hum underneath—the auditory equivalent of a palliative scalp massage. She declines the offer of the mic, but she doesn’t need it anyway. Strangers on the boat are clustering near her to catch pearls of observation as they drop from her lips.

“AAH, THERE’S A WHAAAALE! THERE’S A WHAAAALE! RIGHT THERE!” she shrieks, at a decibel level appropriate to signal the start of Armageddon. Haddish is the first person on the boat to spot the 40-foot gray mass emerging from the abyss of Santa Monica Bay. “I’m always paying attention,” she declares as passengers compliment her lookout skills—another disgrace for the captain.

Indeed, over the course of the day, Haddish proves a rigorous, insatiably curious observer—perhaps why she preferred to take the tour, rather than lead it.

“They have this—this kind of stuff,” a guide says, struggling to explain the physiology of a whale’s mouth.

“Like brushes?” Haddish suggests.

“Exactly, like brushes, thank you,” says the guide. Haddish nods.

“That’s a fisherman’s boat, right?” Haddish asks, pointing at another vessel. “What they fishing for?”

“Why is some of the water super ripply and some of it not?” Haddish asks, and, along with everyone on the boat, is visibly disappointed when no one can exactly tell her.

“Now jump out the water, whale!” she yells at a whale. “Let me see that body!”

The January morning is sparklingly sunny and dreamily warm, even by Haddish’s standards as a Southern California native. Though most people on the voyage have never heard of Tiffany Haddish, the details of her presence surely suggest to them that she is someone exciting. Flung on the deck is her large Gucci shoulder bag containing a full gallon jug of water with lipstick on the rim—Haddish’s water bottle. Her denim jacket bears marks of intentional spray paint, and she’s also wearing intentional Uggs. Her hair is a glossy panel of pristine, shoulder-length black—a wig, explains Haddish. It gleams in the sun as she dances in the breeze at the bow of the boat.

“It’s pinned in!” she exclaims. “Let the wind blow!”

By the end of the tour, the white women on the boat will feel so close to Tiffany that one of them will simply reach over and feel her hair without asking permission. Haddish will handle this sudden invasion of her space with charm and grace.

“I just appreciate who you are,” another white lady tells her now. She has not seen Girls Trip,last summer’s film that launched Haddish, who’d been steadily if unobtrusively working in comedy for years, suddenly onto the A-list—but she finds herself lost in a reverie of Tiffany. “It’s the real deal,” the woman adds, “and I love it.”

“I just could only be myself,” says Haddish quietly, as if taking the passenger into her confidence. Everyone smiles.


It took less than one minute on the boat to confirm that Haddish connects with people very easily—a quality that led to her being cast in Girls Trip. She learned of the script—which follows four college friends as they re-unite at ESSENCE Festival, an annual African-American music festival—not from producers, or her agent, but through a grapevine of behind-the-scenes crew members who remembered her fondly from the set of 2016’s Keanu, in which Haddish starred opposite Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele.

“The transportation department, set [decoration], props,” she lists. “Who else sent me something? Sound. People was sending me the script like, ‘Don’t tell anybody I sent you the script. I read it and it’s just like you.’ ”

Haddish recalls that she was the only lead actress required to audition for her character, who, in contrast with the others boasting first and last names, is listed in the credits merely as “Dina.” And yet it is immediately evident upon viewing that Haddish is the spark that caused the movie to explode into the biggest comedy hit of 2017. Her performance is so good it is jarring. The skill with which she inhabits comedy-cherry-bomb Dina is uncanny—almost as if Haddish really is Dina, and the other actresses have been hired to portray her “friends” in an elaborate Truman Show-style hidden-camera documentary. Her delivery is so natural that her fellow actors can sound stilted by comparison, like they are reciting lines from a fable. You learn quickly to seek her out at every moment, even in the background. In one early scene, she remains the center point even as she walks out of frame—stomping angrily, muttering to herself, and completely out of focus, with her back turned to the camera. Tiffany Haddish is to Girls Trip as Daniel Day-Lewis is to There Will Be Blood.

But it’s what Haddish did after the film’s release in July that made her a phenomenon. She demolished its promotional tour with unprecedented skill. Take, for instance, her appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. It begins like every five-minute interview segment: The celebrity emerges from backstage and walks to her seat as the house band plays a fleeting introductory fanfare. But when Haddish arrives at the chair next to Colbert’s desk, she does not sit; she begins dancing. She sways, and bops, and thrusts her hips in time to cymbal smacks. She does the running man in stilettos. The warm smile on Haddish’s face suggests to viewers that this is not Kaufman-esque performance art but a woman experiencing joy. She dances uninterrupted for nearly 30 seconds, which is way longer on TV than it sounds. Stephen Colbert visibly falls in love with her, and then has no idea what to do with himself, because the only thing conservatively dressed white men can do around Haddish is smile and clap somewhat nervously. Colbert does that.

Just when it seems like Haddish might not ever stop dancing—like CBS Corporation executives might be forced to fire Colbert and change the name of the program to The Late Show with Tiffany Dancing—Haddish points at the band and takes her seat. The crowd cheers. And they aren’t cheering for Girls Trip—they’re cheering for Tiffany Haddish.

Being this very much yourself can be incredibly lucrative if you’re really, really good at it. Oprah good at it. Ellen good. Stern good. Propelled by the success of the movie, Haddish’s winning personality spontaneously generated new opportunities for her to display it. An appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, where she shared an anecdote about taking Will and Jada Smith on a Groupon swamp tour, spawned a partnership with the coupon website, which led to Haddish starring in a Super Bowl commercial as herself.

“Beyoncé’s at the bar, so I said to Beyoncé, ‘Did she really bite you?’ She was like, ‘Yeah.’ I was like, ‘She gonna get her ass beat tonight.’ ”

The problem with becoming famous for being yourself is that you can never step out of the role.

“The thing that builds and builds is exhaustion,” says Haddish, leaning on the boat’s taffrail and scanning the bay for bottlenose dolphins. “Giving so much of yourself to so many different people—and then people love you. They want to hug, they want to talk to you, and sometimes you just feel like, man, sleep.”

Tiffany Haddish may, in fact, be too good at being Tiffany Haddish. Too good at seeming like one of your friends who became famous. At times, she treats her new fame like she is on a group text with the world. Part of her wants to abide by the celebrity code of discretion, but a much more irrepressible part of her loves to tell good stories.

Like this balls-to-the-wall insane story she can no longer stop herself from telling about Beyoncé. Last December, Haddish met Beyoncé Knowles-Carter at a party. Beyoncé walked up and said, “I’m Beyoncé”—the understatement of the century—and the two women had a brief, pleasant exchange. But that’s not the story.

“There was this actress there,” continues Haddish, keeping her voice low, “that’s just, like, doing the mostest.” One of the most things she did? “She bit Beyoncé in the face.”

Haddish declines to name the actress.

(“I absolutely cannot comment on any of this, as I have no knowledge,” said Beyoncé’s representative, Yvette Noel-Schure, when GQ sought confirmation from the singer.)

“So Beyoncé stormed away,” Haddish says, “went up to Jay-Z, and was like, ‘Jay! Come here! This bitch—’ and snatched him. They went to the back of the room. I was like, ‘What just happened?’ And Beyoncé’s friend walked up and was like, ‘Can you believe this bitch just bit Beyoncé?’ ”

“And so then…,” she continues, “a lot of things happened.”

According to Haddish, she and the actress continued to cross paths throughout the night, culminating in a brief standoff. The actress, at one point, told Haddish to stop dancing, which—good luck making that happen.

“And then Beyoncé and Jay-Z walked by me, and I tapped Beyoncé.”

Haddish says she told Beyoncé, “I’m going to beat somebody ass at your party. I just want to let you know that.” Beyoncé asked her not to—told her to “have fun” instead. (Haddish leveraged this moment into a selfie with Beyoncé.)

“Near the end of the party,” says Haddish, describing her final run-in with Mrs. Carter sometime later, “Beyoncé’s at the bar, so I said to Beyoncé, ‘Did she really bite you?’ She was like, ‘Yeah.’ I was like, ‘She gonna get her ass beat tonight.’ She was like, ‘Tiffany, no. Don’t do that. That bitch is on drugs. She not even drunk. The bitch is on drugs. She not like that all the time. Just chill.’ ”

Haddish held this story in for as long as she could. Weeks. When people asked about what happened when she met Beyoncé, she tried to remain vague: “I’m not at liberty to say,” she would explain. But Haddish is feeling good in this particular moment on this particular whale watch, and because her personality is perilously infectious, when Tiffany is feeling good, the whole world in her immediate vicinity gets better. She’s exploring the open water with no cell service. (Later, on land, Haddish will open her phone to realize it has logged hundreds of text messages and missed calls.) She’s already seen some whales, more dolphins, and tons of sea lions, to whom she called, “Arf arf!” The sun is intoxicating, and the wind is riffling her wig and gently cooling the piping hot Cup O’ Noodles in her hand. (“Cup O’ Noodles is only two dollars!” Haddish whisper-gasped when she saw that Cup O’ Noodles was only two dollars.) Right now Tiffany Haddish is too happy to keep a tale this juicy bottled up inside her any longer.

“There’s people out here biting Beyoncé!” she says, incredulous.


Haddish does a lot of things no other celebrity does, that everyone loves when Tiffany does them, and one of those things is regularly thank Americans for paying their taxes.

“I wanna say thank you to anyone who paid taxes between 1990 and 1999,” gushed Haddish, arms outstretched, one minute into her host monologue on Saturday Night Live in November, “because if you wouldn’t have paid your taxes, I wouldn’t have been standing here today.”

Haddish’s birth father, an Eritrean immigrant, left Haddish’s family when she was 3. Her mother remarried but, when Haddish was 8, suffered a traumatic brain injury after being involved in a serious car accident. Haddish’s mother spent three months in the hospital. She returned home, Tiffany says, with an entirely different personality: mean, volatile, and abusive.

“I swore she had a demon in her. It’s so scary.”

When Haddish was 13, she and her siblings were placed in foster care; she spent almost two years living in group homes and with foster families until her grandmother gained custody of the kids. Money remained tight, so they technically remained in the foster-care system (hence the taxes line). When her foster-care subsidy ran out, Haddish left home. As a young adult, she became homeless three times, living in her car.

“I think that was God teaching me a lesson over and over,” she says. And, as often happens when Haddish reflects on the profound hardships of her life, she cuts up, laughing. “I wasn’t paying attention the first two times.”

Perhaps as a consequence of these periods of insolvency, Haddish has an incredible memory for dollar amounts—money coming in, money going out—and she speaks about finances frankly. When I ask about her paycheck for a 2005 appearance on an episode of That’s So Raven, she recalls the amount instantly. “That only paid like 795 bucks. But the residual checks are certainly nice. I got one for two cents the other day. They could’ve just held on to that till it accumulated at least to 35 cents.”

She brings up residuals again when our conversation turns to Netflix—specifically Mo’Nique’s call for a boycott of the streaming service in light of what the comedian described as “gender bias and color bias” in the paychecks offered to various comics for their stand-up specials. (A reported $20 million for Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock. A reported $11 million for Amy Schumer. And $500,000 for Mo’Nique, she says.)

 

“My business run different than her business,” says Haddish. “I don’t live her life. I don’t have that husband of hers. I’m looking at how [Netflix has] opened up so many opportunities for black females and comedy. When my people are dying, that’s when you gonna catch me protesting. I’m not gonna protest because somebody got offered not the amount of money they wanted to get offered. If you don’t like what they’re offering you, just no longer do business with them. If I protest Netflix—what about all the black shows that are on there? What about all the other actors that are working on there? All the Indians, the Hispanics, the Asians. My show, The Carmichael Show, airs on there right now. It ain’t on NBC.”

Haddish was a series regular on the three-season NBC sitcom, created by comedian Jerrod Carmichael.

“I play Carmichael Show on a repeating basis. I just turn it on and let it play. I’m like, ‘Hey, let’s collect that residual check.’ ”

She is as confident and specific with her counsel as a spam e-mail, and she can be unnervingly persuasive—even when her advice is to drink poison.

Curiously, for someone so willing to discuss deeply personal topics like childhood trauma (Haddish estimates that the stories told in her stand-up act are “75 percent” autobiographically true—“like the movie Big Fish”), virtually no information is known about Haddish’s life now that she has, by all accounts, made it. She is 38. She makes frequent reference to the fact she is single—a maneuver equal parts joking and evasive. Her Instagram posts, while lively, are almost entirely work-related and thus fail to answer the question: What happens after you get everything you’ve ever wanted?

“I’m mostly taking care of my family right now,” she says, and then breaks down exactly how: “I just got my mom out the mental institution. Once you start making it in the business, you start meeting all kinds of people that”—she leans in conspiratorially—“definitely have mental problems. And they link you up with the best psychiatrists. Literally all my money goes into my grandmother and my mother. I got a two-bedroom apartment and moved my sister in so she could be monitoring [our mom]. I got nurses for my mom. My grandma bumped her head and had to have her brain drained, and she’s dealing with Alzheimer’s. I’ve got meal services coming to the house for her and for my mom.”

She mentions receiving food-service recommendations from stars “like Barbra Streisand, Rosanna Arquette, all these really famous people.”

“When you order three meals a day, and they’re all organic, all natural, good food, that shit is expensive as fuck.”

How much does a celebrity-approved meal service cost?

“Five hundred dollars a week. For one person.”

One of the most striking parallels between Haddish’s personal and professional lives involves her newest TV role, opposite Tracy Morgan on The Last O.G., airing on TBS this April. Co-created by Jordan Peele, the series stars Morgan as an ex-con who returns to his Brooklyn neighborhood to find his girlfriend, Shay—now going by Shannon, portrayed by Haddish—living in a bougie renovated brownstone with a white man and 15-year-old twins. It’s Morgan’s TV homecoming—his first full-time network gig since a violent 2014 automobile crash that killed his friend, comedian Uncle Jimmy Mack, and left Morgan comatose with a traumatic brain injury.

“Tracy told me about his therapist and how he’s helped him so much,” says Haddish. She asked Morgan’s doctor to recommend a West Coast colleague “who can help my mom, who has the same kind of brain injuries and damage that Tracy has. He was like, ‘This one is the best one.’ Guess where my mama going?”

 

Haddish loves goals like Pelé loves goals. She derives comfort and purpose from explicitly designating them.

“One day I’ma jump off one of those into a beautiful ocean,” she avows to our boat as it chugs past a so-called superyacht that our guide says belongs to the owner of the L.A. Rams. “Superyacht, gotta remember that. Setting it right now.”

“Everything I said I wanted to do, I’m literally doing,” she says of her private life.

“My goal,” wrote Haddish in her memoir, The Last Black Unicorn, “is to get enough money to buy a duplex. I want to put [my mother] in one of the units and hire a full-time nurse to take care of her.”

“But I never said I wanted to have a bunch of babies and have a husband,” she says in person. “Never heard me say that in the book!”

An offshoot of Haddish’s goal-oriented nature is that she enjoys soliciting and giving life-improvement tips—a trait that makes her a captivating, natural spokeswoman. She is as confident and specific with her counsel as a spam e-mail, and she can be unnervingly persuasive—even when her advice is to drink poison.

“A teaspoon of turpentine will not kill you,” says Haddish with the breezy confidence of an unlicensed doctor. “The government doesn’t want you to know that if you have a cold, just take some turpentine with some sugar or castor oil or honey and it’ll go away the next day.”

I didn’t think humans could consume turpentine.

“Honey,” begins Haddish, “back during slavery—let me teach you something, okay?”

Per Haddish, in the absence of 19th-century medical care, slaves drank turpentine—an oil distilled from pine resin, today commonly used as a paint thinner—as a cure-all for various ailments. When I note that slaves were not known for their excellent health, Haddish flips my argument into evidence: That’s because not all the slaves had access to turpentine.

“There’s worms inside your body,” says Haddish.

How—

“There are worms inside your body.”

Haddish explains that she learned about the alleged medical benefits of turpentine on YouTube and purchased some on Amazon a few months ago.

After her first dose, she says, “everything just felt so much better, clarity-wise.”

You were light-headed from drinking poison.

“But I was killing the game onstage!” she says, laughing. “My thought patterns was coming quick, quick, quick. Girl, you just look it up. Just do the research.”

I do look it up, because I’m genuinely worried America’s brightest new star may be inadvertently poisoning herself to death. I send Haddish information from the U.S. National Library of Medicine outlining the dangers of turpentine poisoning, but when we talk again a few days after our whale watch, she is unconcerned. “The government wrote it,” she says of the research. “Honey.”

She vows to update me on her health following her next doctor’s appointment. The other thing Haddish says about turpentine: It will make your body pass “the best doo-doo of your fucking life.”


Haddish’s performance in Girls Trip was so strong it generated Oscar buzz—rare for a role in a pure comedy. She was not nominated. She was, however, called on to announce the nominees in a live pre-dawn telecast. It did not go as planned. Clips of Haddish reading off the event’s teleprompter went viral, as she bungled several names. (In Tiffany’s mouth, Daniel Kaluuya’s surname was “Koolyay,” “Kahlua,” and, finally, “Kalellujah.”)

“That’s my natural reading skills right there,” says Haddish, watching the water from behind sunglasses. “I felt so bad. ‘Cause I have feelings.”

As if her climb to success weren’t remarkable enough, Haddish estimates that up until about age 16, she remained at a “first- or second-grade reading level”—an experience she recounts in The Last Black Unicorn. The mega-best-selling book made headlines after it was published, when it was revealed Haddish worked on it with a surprising collaborator: controversial writer Tucker Max, known for his breezy accounts of lewd, misogynist behavior. While it’s commonplace for celebrity memoirs to be written with the assistance of a silent ghostwriter, Max—who co-founded a self-publishing business that, for a fee of $25,000, allows aspiring authors to dictate their books through a series of phone interviews—touted his involvement, going so far as to publicly call the memoir “My first new book of short stories in years.”

“You know how white people do,” Tiffany writes in her memoir. “They just encourage and cheer anybody who lets it all hang out and just don’t give a f—k.”

Haddish participated in multiple interviews with Max, though much of the book’s content was familiar to fans of her comedy, overlapping as it does with her 2017 stand-up special. She says she had been attempting to write her life story for years but had trouble translating the hyper-fluidity of her speech to the page.

“I do have esteem issues when it comes to reading and writing,” she says. “I always feel kind of self-conscious about letting people read something that I wrote, because the last thing I wanna hear is ‘You spelled everything wrong.’ ” She laughs. “Tucker Max helps fix those types of situations.”

Haddish says that Max recorded conversations with her and helped “organize [the book] and make it make sense.”

While it’s obvious from conversing with Haddish that she is a verbalist of well-above-average skill, even now she speaks of mastering reading in the present tense: “the better I get at reading…” She says she used to be able to recount long passages of text verbatim—“like a stenographer”—but the aptitude is fading in inverse proportion to her literacy. (“Like, ‘Oh, I can read this? I don’t have to know it that well.’ ”) She credits her still “pretty damn good” memory with helping her internalize dialogue in scripts.

Incidentally, Haddish admits that despite her faltered reading, one of the Academy event organizers immediately asked if she would be willing to reveal nominations again in the future. (She garnered praise online for her honey-dripping pronunciation of Call Me by Your Name.) The nominees did not seem offended by Haddish’s errors. In the words of one, tweeted after the ceremony: “Tiffany Haddish can mispronounce my name any way she wants! WOOOOOOO.”


Haddish is observant, perceptive, and no fool. When she appears in public as the biggest, loudest, dancingest version of herself, it’s not because she knows no other way to be but because she knows that this is the version that makes people happy. Those looking for the secret formula behind Haddish’s charm offensive might find it in these lines from her book: “You know how white people do. They just encourage and cheer anybody who lets it all hang out and just don’t give a fuck.”

She has made herself aspirational not for her wealth but for her delight. Actors devote such effort to emphasizing the difficult aspects of their job that when Tiffany behaves in a way that suggests what the public has always believed—Being a movie star is fun!—is true, it feels like bold, suspicion-validating candor. People do not begrudge her success, because she visibly relishes it. (And if Haddish should ever discover that she’s coming on a little too strong—too loud, too happy, too out of control—she’s equipped for that, too. She turns on the calm voice she learned working in customer service for Alaska Airlines, shifts smoothly into a lower gear until equilibrium is restored.) The truth is that Haddish’s work is just as demanding as her counterparts’, and her counterparts enjoy at least as high a quality of life as Haddish. They’re just emphasizing different aspects of the job.

The trick now is for Haddish to sustain authentic-seeming wonderment as her career enters turbo drive. She has a first-look deal with HBO. She’s taking meetings with Paul Thomas Anderson and Judd Apatow. She’s in talks to do a Mob movie with Melissa McCarthy. Even Dorothy got used to Oz by the end of the second act.

Back on the boat, a woman asks Haddish her name.

“Nice to meet you!” says Haddish to the stranger. “Give me a hug.”

“What a pleasure to have you on this boat,” says the woman.

“It’s a pleasure to be on this boat,” says Haddish, initiating eye contact and smiling. And the bankable thing about Tiffany Haddish is that she seems to really mean it.

Caity Weaver is a GQ writer and editor.

This story originally appeared in the April 2018 issue


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