Ziwe Controls the Chaos
Ziwe gets in front of the camera and she performs. We power through a full-day photoshoot where she takes pleasure in contorting her body and being particularly close to the camera. She crawls on the floor, holds her crotch, falls into the Victoria Beckham pose (you know the one). It's instinctual. Not many people look this good upside-down. Granted, not many people dare to try.
Ziwe is a mononym both by choice and by circumstance. As many people with "difficult" (read: non-Western) names have experienced, trimming her last name, Fumudoh, was just easier. Several hosts of comedy shows she performed at would butcher her name right after asking her how to pronounce it. "What's the point of even asking if you're going to say it wrong?" she asks. She poses the question as if she's yelled this 100 times and it never grows any less annoying. The irony is, her last name is phonetic.
But what was born out of convenience organically shifted into something powerful, a kind of period at the end of a sentence. Ziwe — full stop — joins the ranks of Beyoncé, Rihanna, Plato, Socrates. Cut to the present day, in the words of Beanie Feldstein in Lady Bird, her name is the titular role.
You may recognize the 29-year-old Brooklyn-based comedian from your Instagram feed. In the summer of 2020, she took over the platform with her hit livestream show where (mostly white) people failed miserably at answering the questions she threw at them like, "What do you qualitatively like about Black people?"
The show's original form took shape as a YouTube series called Baited with Ziwe, where she trapped her white friends into making "unwitting racial faux pas." The Instagram interviews had fewer bells, whistles, and white guests who were in on the joke. Amidst racial unrest at the height of lockdown, when too many white Americans were grappling with systemic injustice for the first time, Ziwe spent her Thursdays at 8 p.m. interviewing 'canceled' guests following their public missteps. She spoke to chef Alison Roman after her controversial interview in The New Consumer; Alexis Haines (née Neiers) after her "I wasn't wearing Louboutins, I was wearing little brown kitten heels, bitch!" proclamation; and internet personality Caroline Calloway after her, well, everything.
The show was often and accurately referred to as must-see TV in the time of lockdown. But Ziwe won't be confined to any kind of quarantine internet fame. She's been working at this for awhile now, and she's finally seeing the fruits of her labor find a home on Showtime with Ziwe — Baited's final form, which premiered on Sunday evening. "It's exciting and nerve-wracking," she tells InStyle. "It's really rewarding to see my dreams realized."
We sit alone in a small dressing room after hours of shooting and it immediately feels familiar to be around her (and yes, she's just as funny IRL). She talks fast and emphatically about her work. She is in love with what she does and it shows. The show is not just her namesake , it's also an extension of herself, her experiences, her trauma, and her community. And now, Ziwe has officially moved her brainchild from social media to the small screen, ready for new audiences to consume it, relate to it, question it, and play with it. How you interact with it is up to you.
The trailer alone for Ziwe felt so true to her voice and such an organic iteration of her work. She still sports colorful eyeliner that matches her outfits and dons a large fur hat that longtime fans will recognize. The trailer even features some crowd-favorite guests like playwright Jeremy O'Harris and actress Patti Harrison. She is giving Black barbie. She is giving '90s Naomi Campbell glamour. She is giving the camera that same all-knowing glare. The hyperdramatic editing mimics the style of her YouTube show, just with … a bigger budget.
As the Ziwe showrunner, she has her hands in everything from edits to writing. Rarely do you see young Black women with so much ownership over their likeness and so much authority over their ideas at this scale. It is, of course, what she deserves: Her credits include writing for Showtime's award-winning late night show Desus & Mero, voicing Kamala Harris on the network's Our Cartoon President, and writing for BET's The Rundown with Robin Thede.
"I have control issues. I like the idea of knowing everything about everything," she says, laughing. The precision in which she walks me through her day and job description lead me to ask if she's a Virgo. "I'm a Pisces [sun] but a Capricorn moon." The moon sign makes sense, Capricorns are notoriously ambitious (think Gayle King). "I think you see that in the fact that my show is like: Interviews! Music videos! Commercials! It's almost manic. It's all these different aspects of my personality. It's a variety show in its truest sense." The sun sign checks out, too. Pisces are usually esoteric and imaginative (think Rihanna).
It's true, she oscillates between smashing ukuleles with Phoebe Bridgers to singing a satirical pop song called "Stop Being Poor'' with friend and collaborator Harrison, to quizzing Fran Lebowitz about white feminism. It is such a beautiful medley of pure chaos. The Lebowitz interview makes me both laugh and itch. I couldn't fathom fixing my lips to ask the acclaimed author, "Is that standard for white women to come onto a show and dictate how it's supposed to go?" My discomfort is not because she's a white woman, but because she's Fran Lebowitz, the longtime, legendary author known for her wit, her sardonic commentary, her love for New York City, and her low tolerance for bullshit. She famously refuses to play games, detests a bait and switch and yes, slow walkers as well. Yet somehow she's found herself sitting across from Ziwe, a playful, quick-witted scammer of white women. I'm not sure about the pep in Ziwe's step, but it seemed fast enough.
"Fran is someone who has existed in the public space for 50 years. She's done every interview, she's had every conversation. I was really excited to ask her questions she's never been asked before," she says proudly and firmly. She knows getting Fran Lebowitz to do this kind of show is a feat. It's a testament to her power (and her persistent producers). She sits, smiling with her shoulders back and her head high, and it's earned. It takes gumption to ask celebrities difficult questions, especially with the protective nature of PR these days. But I have to imagine it really takes work to ask no-nonsense Lebowitz anything too salacious or silly.
Ziwe loves a challenge — the Capricorn moon doesn't shy away from an opportunity, even the risky ones. She's vocal about how badly she wants to interview Kim Kardashian about race and her latest political endeavors. I'm curious what she would ask. She won't tell me. She's manifesting that moment and saving the good stuff. Alternatively (and more likely), she'd also love to interview Chet Hanks, connoisseur of "white boy summer," son of Oscar-winner Tom Hanks, and not at all Jamaican despite what might be happening in this video. Chet, if you're reading this, you really would be 'an iconic guest.'
Ziwe's brand was built off of uncomfortable silences, hard questions, and of course that infamous, instantly memeable wide-eyed glare. Silence is a powerful tool in interviewing, and though her eyes speak volumes, Ziwe knows how to harness the quiet. She is well-versed in making people squirm. At the same time, it cannot be easy to grill Fran Lebowitz about what percentage of white women she hates, or sit and listen to Alyssa Milano talk about doing "tan face."
"I feel perpetually nervous. I don't know what they're going to say, I don't know what I'm going to say," she tells me. "I feel uncomfortable all the time. [But] I live with this discomfort. I've had awkward conversations about race my entire life," says Ziwe (and every Black woman ever, either hearing a sore explanation for some cultural misstep, or constantly having to brush off microaggressions, or just facing discrimination day in and day out. The list goes on but I'm over my word count).
Neither the Instagram Live nor Showtime show changes the fact that Ziwe is still a Black woman in America, specifically a first generation Nigerian woman. That can be a lot to carry, especially with the kind of show she's built with this large platform. "There was a time at the height of the pandemic where every single time someone did something racist people would slide into my DMs and say 'here's a racist thing,' when this is really traumatizing for me!" This afterthought of trauma sharing, especially without trigger warnings, is a perfect example of the privilege that Ziwe highlights with her well-intentioned but often misguided guests. Her comedy illuminates the deep-rooted difficulties that exist within the gray areas, the good white people, and the black squares on your Instagram grid. The things we sometimes have a harder time putting words to. She spotlights performative allyship and challenges her guests to move away from the verbal affirmations and into tangible actions. Sure, plug those Black authors. Now go read those books (looking at you Caroline Calloway)!
Ziwe aims to break down the binaries in racial discourse we (millennials) were raised on. "I never really had a comprehensive education about race until I took elective courses in college," she says. "Before that, it was 'shoutout to Martin Luther King.' 'Malcolm X? He wild.' There really wasn't any nuance to race even though it's in the foundation of America." A shift in our language about race and reality is well overdue. Ziwe is on a mission to do just that and of course make engaging, comedic content at the same time.
I tell her I lived vicariously through her conversations, wanting to ask some of those same questions to coworkers, strangers, even some friends once or twice over the course of my life. She quickly asserts that she is doing exactly the same. "I'm living vicariously as well! I'm one of those people that's in the shower and I'm like 'I should have said this!' I can't go back in time, but what I can do is have these conversations now."
Her real life conversations about racism don't mirror the Instagram Live conversations or the ones on her new show. Just like most difficult conversations, they're uncomfortable. But Ziwe the performer is actively empowering Ziwe the person (she makes a point to differentiate).
"The creation of this hyperbolic character is to re-parent my former self. There was a time in my life where I did not have the vocabulary to talk about race in any way that was comprehensive. The character in the show is just an amalgamation of all the lessons I've learned being an adult woman."
Her younger self may have not had the language or the tools to call a spade a spade, or, to put it bluntly, to call a racist a racist, but she's building those blocks for other people to use. "My character is a way for me to heal all the experiences that I've had in my entire lifetime. I hope the people who watch it can go back into their lives and these weird nuances and can call them by their name."
This show is just as much for her own growth as it is for her audience's. While you surely shouldn't expect Ziwe to be any kind of Mr. Rogers, there are lessons to be had. "I hope that my show introduces the idea that while talking about race and social issues is uncomfortable, ultimately you won't die."
First image: Versace suit and shoes. Falke tights. Misho earrings. David Yurman ring.
Photographs by Lelanie Foster. Styled by Becky Akinyode. Hair Styling by Cheryl Bergamy for Exclusive Artists using Contents Haircare. Makeup by Merrell Hollis. Beauty Direction by Kayla Greaves. Booking by Isabel Jones. Creative direction and production by Peyton Dix and Kelly Chiello.