When you hear the word “boss,” who comes to mind?
“Oprah,” says Tiffany Haddish, sitting with me in an empty back room at the Midtown Manhattan hotel where she’s staying. “Jennifer Aniston. Ellen. Melinda Gates. Dave Chappelle. David Letterman ... To me, they’re bosses. They have companies going, but they also use their positions to help others.” Haddish is in New York to film the comedy Here Today with Billy Crystal and is also getting ready for the release of her new Netflix special, Black Mitzvah, which came out on her 40th birthday, December 3.
The title isn’t just a clever name — Haddish started studying the Torah after learning as a teen that her father was an Eritrean Jew. As soon as we finish our talk, her rabbi, Susan Silverman (sister of Sarah), is coming to meet her at the hotel for a Hebrew lesson. Haddish was throwing herself a bat mitzvah on her birthday too, so she was feeling the pressure to perfect her delivery. “It’s hard — harder than Japanese!” she says. “But I’m getting it. I’m getting it.”
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This isn’t her first mitzvah. Haddish estimates she’s attended over 500 bar and bat mitzvahs during the 11 years she spent as an “energy producer” at an events company in California. She got the gig when she was just 16. “My job was to break the ice,” she says. “To bring the kids out and orchestrate the event to keep it all moving in an orderly fashion.”
For the first 10 years Haddish held the job, she says she had to work extra hard to fight off jealousy. “All these girls and boys had mamas and dads who were willing to throw them a party that’s basically a wedding,” she says. “I wanted that. I wanted to dance with my dad and have my mom light a candle with me.”
Haddish’s father left the family when she was 3. When Haddish was 8, her mother got in a car accident and was not the same afterward, becoming abusive. Haddish and her siblings were placed in foster care when she was 13, and she was homeless at several points as a young adult.
She says her feelings of jealousy dissipated when she turned 26 and reconnected with her father. Haddish says she essentially started looking at her life from a position of “It could have been worse.” “My mom could’ve died when I was born, and my dad could’ve gotten killed a week later. I could be moving around having no brothers or sisters. Those people in my life make me rich, and even if they hurt me sometimes, they make me grow. They did the best they could. I’ve forgiven my mom for a lot of stuff. She was sick, so I can’t really be mad. But 15-year-old, 12-year-old, 10-year-old Tiffany...is mad.”
These days Haddish is the adult version of an energy producer, working especially hard to keep bettering herself personally and professionally. “Turning 40, I’m much more in tune with who I am. I’m a grown woman. And I have a better understanding of where I’m going.” Learning Hebrew for her bat mitzvah is just one of the things she’s working toward on the side while expanding her Hollywood résumé. (Besides voicing a number of characters in some of the sharpest animated movies and shows, she also hosts Kids Say the Darndest Things on ABC and hosts and produces Tiffany Haddish Presents: They Ready on Netflix.) Taking care of her family is another project — her brother, mother, and grandmother currently live with her in her house in Los Angeles.
“I’m always setting goals, and when I accomplish them, I’m like, ‘OK, five more,’” she says. When Haddish got her final paycheck for acting in 2017’s Girls Trip, she achieved a major milestone — she paid off her mortgage and got herself fully out of debt. “And then I went all-the-way, full-out shopping,” she says with a smile.
Now, stop for a second. Guess what Haddish bought on her “all-the-way, full-out” shopping trip: Another McQueen gown? A designer bag or three? No, she bought a microscope. (Well, technically, a microscope and a bunch of petri dishes.) Haddish says she’s always been interested in science, in discovering what’s happening on a microbial level. When she first got her microscope, she says, she stayed up for three days straight looking at samples of everything.
When she had a date over to her house, she’d offer him something to drink, and the moment he went home, she’d stealthily swab the cup he’d used to check out the bacteria inside his mouth. “I like to look at germs,” she says. “Put them in the refrigerator and see how they act, put them in the sun ... I look at all the juices. I had to move my lab to my bedroom once my grandma and brother moved into my house,” she says. “And I have a section in the refrigerator with a note that says, ‘Do not touch anything in this drawer!’”
She’s recently been studying the soil on her property to grow more robust plants and has considered buying a travel microscope for the time she’s on location to see “what’s going on” out there. When she shared this idea with her friend, the comedian Kevin Hart, she says he replied, “‘You’re going to do what? When do you have time to see what’s going on?’ I said, ‘Man, you make the time when you’re curious. You make the time.’ And he was like, ‘Tiffany! Focus! Focus.’” She laughs. “Like, ‘OK, Kevin, you’re probably right. I should focus. But there’s a lot of guys trying to date me, and I need to know if they got germs!’”
Haddish’s co-stars use words like “magical” (that’s Byrne) and “one-of-a-kind” (Hayek Pinault) to describe her. In person, she is all those things. “But if people come to my house to hang out, I’m really quiet and chill,” she says. “I’m just looking at my germs.”
Photos: Robbie Fimmano/Walter Schupfer. Styling: Julia Von Boehm. Hair: Ursula Stephen for Starworks Artists (Haddish), David von Cannon for Starworks Artists (Hayek Pinault), and Harry Josh for Statement Artists (Byrne). Makeup: Keita Moore for The Only Agency (Haddish), Genevieve Herr for Sally Harlor (Hayek Pinault), and Hung Vanngo for The Wall Group (Byrne). Manicures: Deborah Lippman for Starworks Artists. Set design: Todd Wiggins for The Magnet Agency. Production: Bo Zhang for Creative Production Group.
For more stories like this, pick up the January issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Dec. 20.