Jameela Jamil and Celeste Barber on Laughing Through the Bullshit
The comedian and actor-activist first met online, but their shared mission to drive self-acceptance through humor has united them IRL. As Jamil says, "We're just calling out the ridiculousness."
Social media can be daunting, but it can also help you find your people. Comedian Celeste Barber and actor-activist Jameela Jamil can attest to that because amplifying their frank, feminist voices online is what led them to each other. Barber caught Jamil’s eye after the comedian started issuing the “Celeste Barber Challenge” on Instagram, where she would parody “aspirational” beauty posts by scantily clad models or celebrities. Meanwhile, Jamil, who stars in the NBC comedy The Good Place, educates her millions of followers on topics related to self-acceptance and body positivity. As you’ll see here, finding humor in artifice is another thing that unites them.
How did you two first form your friendship?
CELESTE BARBER: We were talking about this yesterday, weren’t we, Jameela? When I was lying on top of you half naked.
JAMEELA JAMIL: Yeah! We found each other on Instagram. People kept referring us to each other.
CB: Right, we were initially just Internet friends. Then Jameela was on my podcast [Celeste & Her Best] and did a talk for my book [Celeste Barber Challenge Accepted!]. The day before I was supposed to officially meet her for my podcast, she was standing in front of me in line at Urban Outfitters in West Hollywood, but I didn’t realize it was her. There was a group of teenagers standing behind me going, “Oh my god, oh my god!” And, as I am known for my ego, I was thinking they were flipping out about me. I’m like, “Hello, hi! Did you guys want a photo?” And then my friend says, “They’re not freaking out about you, dickhead. Jameela’s in front of you.” And I was like, “Oh, that’s embarrassing.” Then Jameela walked out like the goddess that she is, the girls went running after her, and I went screaming into a pillow.
JJ: Well, if I had known you were behind me, I would’ve been starstruck by you and asked for a picture, so that’s how that goes! [laughs] But, yes, we’ve become fast friends. Going into this shoot, we knew we wanted to bring our worlds together. While Celeste and I don’t do exactly the same thing, we represent a similar message.
What’s interesting about both of you is how by questioning fame and “aspiration” you’ve become legitimately famous.
JJ: It’s about authenticity and humor. That’s what we were trying to bring to the world. I think what has made us popular on social media is the fact that people are gravitating toward what makes them feel good rather than what makes them feel ashamed of themselves. We never make people feel like they’re not good enough or they’re not fit enough. Also, it’s a choice. If something makes you feel bad about any part of your life, you don’t have to engage with it. I just follow people like [writer] Roxane Gay or Celeste, mostly comedians, and they make me feel happy when I look at my feeds.
CB: Yeah, it’s so liberating! When you go, “I’m a grown-up, and I’m not going to follow you anymore,” you feel good after you do it. I don’t follow any of the Kardashians, but I know if there’s a good photo for me to do a parody of them, about 10,000 people will send it to me in a day. People will say to me, “If you’re a real feminist, you should say that people can’t talk about that model or celebrity that way.” But that particular person I’m parodying has a multibillion-dollar industry behind her, supporting her, loving her, telling her everything she’s doing right. I’m just a girl who is fighting against that. I’m all right if people are like, “Oh, well, that’s not very nice.” The people I parody are OK with it. They are usually onboard. So, if they like it, I’m fine.
How do you decide whom you want to parody?
CB: My mindset is to find the humor in all of it. Sometimes it’s easy. Like the Gwyneth [Paltrow] one I did. As soon as I saw her post on Instagram [Paltrow was in bed, talking about her skin feeling “supersoft and glowy” thanks to Goop’s Overnight Glow Peel], I was like, “Oh, come on, Gwyneth.” When I have that kind of response, or when I have that feeling of “Imagine if I did that — that would be ridiculous,” that’s when I know. If they’re not wearing clothes, I’ll probably do it. When girls are in tiny bikinis and heels, sitting on some random bench accompanied by a Gandhi quote, I’m like, “What the hell?” Those are the ones where I go, “Oh, this is going to be fun.”
JJ: Right, and it’s not intended to be mean. We’re just calling out the ridiculousness because it’s presented in a way that isn’t ironic or anything. We’re not trying to say that they are ridiculous. We’re saying that it’s ridiculous that there’s just one stereotype of woman that we’re supposed to conform to.
CB: Yeah, exactly. I start the conversation, and other people can keep it going. It’s not my responsibility to mediate that.
What kind of responses do you get from the people you emulate?
CB: Love, support, kindness, reposting, messages like “This is fucking brilliant. I love you.” They get the world they’re in. People ask me to do it now.
JJ: I think that’s hilarious. I try to use humor as much as I can in activism too. For example, I did [what turned out to be] a viral video of me doing the most heinous poop that you’ve ever seen a woman do on a toilet with sound effects that will haunt you in your dreams. [The 45-second clip, which features Jamil downing a “diet shake” and then running to the bathroom, has clocked more than three million views. It was posted with the text “If celebs and influencers were actually honest with us about some of these diet/detox products...”] That video resonated more than any of my essays, podcasts, or serious chat-show appearances. I think using humor helps the medicine go down.
CB: We’re saying what other people want to hear; we’re just being clever about it. People are tired of being hit over the head and told what to believe in. I just want people to have a laugh, and, also, “Hey, maybe now you feel better!” I never started this to be a body-positive thing, but I’m so happy and proud that it has turned out that way and that I’m caught up in that movement.
It’s that adage about if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry. Speaking of which, Celeste, is it accurate that you had a bit of a cry following your hilarious shoot with Tom Ford this past September, when you were one of his runway models?
CB: I didn’t have a little bit of a cry; I stood in the shower at the hotel they put me up in and sobbed like a baby. It was one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done in my life creatively. He was an absolute delight. When I came in, I was immediately on his level. And I heard him talking about me when he didn’t know I could hear him, saying, “She’s incredible. Just keep the camera on her.” And he would just laugh and let me totally control it because he trusted me. That’s why I cried later, because I was like, “Wow, I really stepped into my power here, and I’ve been validated by the sexiest, gayest man in the whole wide world.”
You’ve both had serious health scares. [Jamil had an eating disorder when she was younger and was involved in a car accident when she was 17 that left her unable to walk for almost two years. Barber had emergency open-heart surgery when she was 25.] Has that caused you to reevaluate what you want to put out into the world?
JJ: For sure. It’s obviously a really upsetting thing to go through, but I would never take it back. I feel free because of what my body has been through. I [still] struggle with body dysmorphia, but it’s nothing compared with what it would’ve been if I hadn’t been forced to look at my body as this incredible machine that does so much for me, that I’m now so protective of. It’s something I owe to the struggles I’ve had, and I believe we can’t do enough to teach people about gratitude. I hope that other people don’t have to go through what Celeste and I have gone through to get that. Enjoy this life while you can. Also, we only get taught to think about the outside, never the inside, and it’s not right.
CB: Exactly. The inside is an afterthought. I look great, but I’m hungry. When I got sick, I had to have open-heart surgery, so all I could do was focus on the inside, and it was out of my control. When you do turn your attention inward, you can’t then turn your back on it. And you think, “This body’s pretty excellent, and I’m going to get on with it. We’re all dead in a minute.” When you have those sorts of scares, you’re like, “Wow, what am I going to do to make this life better?”
JJ: I agree. Most of my health problems came from what I did to myself while trying to be thin. I have a kidney that is always in trouble, and that’s literally because of all the detox and diet products I took. I have bone-density problems because I didn’t eat enough when I was in my teens and 20s. My heart is thinner than it should be because when you don’t eat enough, your body stretches muscle before it stretches fat, and your heart is a muscle. So, I feel like it’s my responsibility to educate people. That’s why I rally so aggressively — I’m living in the body I hurt because society told me that my size was the most important thing in the world, and it wasn’t.
What do your respective families think about your being so outspoken and visible? Celeste, you have kids. Do they ever say, “Oh, you’ve gone too far”?
CB: My family’s like, “Yes, finally! People can finally see what you’ve always been doing!” I’m very lucky. I’ve also retired my husband, so he is very supportive. He’s now a full-time dad. We have a 5-year-old and an 8-year-old, and he also has his 20-year-old daughters, so, you know, I’ve retired him from that job and put him onto the other job.
Do you have celebrity ideals or people you follow who are your confidants?
JJ: My top three are Celeste Barber, Jonathan Van Ness, and Sam Smith.
CB: Aw, yes! So happy I made the list! The industry, to me, is comedy and acting. I am known for Instagram, but where I want to be and what I’m getting more and more into is writing and acting, the stuff I’ve been trained in and doing for the past 15 years. The people I gravitate toward are Tina Fey, Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, Amy Schumer, those kinds of excellent women. But I’m exactly like Jameela when it comes to social media. I have a handful of accounts that I go to to make me laugh. And Jameela is definitely there, Gary Janetti, Overheard LA ...
OK, back to this shoot. What have been some of your best nights out?
JJ: One of my best nights out ever was a New Year’s Eve a couple of years ago with my mates. I never had a good New Year’s Eve, but this was a pajama party where everybody had to bring their own feather pillow, and instead of having to kiss each other at midnight, we had a massive pillow fight. I wish there were more things like that, with the focus on fun and human interaction rather than social pressure.
CB: This is going to sound so annoying, but mine was my wedding. We got married in Bali, and it was the best. We danced until 3 a.m. That was six years ago. In terms of industry events, I just go and do the work. It’s a pleasant surprise when it’s fun. I hosted the L.A. Fashion Awards last March. I was like, “Oh, this is going to be big!” But I don’t have that fear of “I have to look the best there.” I’ve never been given attention for how I look. It’s always been who I am, and I know that I’m funny.
Top photo: Barber in an Attico dress from Net-a-Porter and a Versace bolo tie, earrings, and ring. Jamil in a Lafayette 148 New York jacket, Jennifer Behr earrings, and an Elizabeth Cole bracelet and ring. Models in Jimmy Choo pumps (left) and Malone Souliers heels.
Photography: Ugano and Agriodimas. Styling: Penny Lovell. Hair: Robert Lopez for Solo Artists. Makeup for Barber: Adam Breuchaud for The Wall Group. Special thanks to Sora Davidson, Natalia Di Natale, Fred Herr, Isaac Kristian, Domonique Menser, Rachel Oliver, The London West Hollywood, Jazmin Akea Williams. For more stories like this, pick up the December issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Nov. 22.