The Stunning Transformation Of Gabourey Sidibe

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Actress Gabourey Sidibe catapulted from college plays to the big screen when director Lee Daniels hired her to star in the 2009 film Precious. Since then, she's had a vibrant career in shows like American Horror Story and Difficult People. And she's also been a great role model for plus-size women, with a steamy love scene on her hit show Empire.

She's confident in herself and comfortable in her own skin, but it took a long time for her to get there. She is now letting fans in on her struggles in her funny but poignant memoir, This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare.

And that's not the only transformation the Brooklyn native, who turns 34 in 2017, has been going through. Sidibe's also being candid about her weight loss and fitness journey, slimming down after gastric bypass surgery. Here's a look at her life.

She grew up listening to her mother sing for their supper

Gabourey MaLingair Sidibe was born on May 6, 1983 in Brooklyn, NY. Her first name means "the one with the beautiful cheeks," and her middle name means "my queen." Her father is a cabdriver from Senegal, while her mother taught special education early in her life.

Entertainment is in Sidibe's blood. Alice Tan Ridley, her mother, has been singing on subway platforms on the side for 30 years, trying to build a career. Ridley finally got featured on America's Got Talent at age 57, and made her first record at age 63.

While Sidibe has singing talent herself — she told The Guardian in 2010 she used to "sing Mariah Carey's songs for quarters at recess" — she initially wanted no part of show business. In a 2015 interview with BuzzFeed, the actress said that "watching her struggle made me want to get a 9-to-5 job," because she didn't want to fret about where her "next paycheck was coming from."

Overcoming childhood abuse

The actress told Nylon in 2017 that her father, Ibnou Sidibe, beat her and called her "fatso" when she was young. She admitted that her childhood gave her "a lot of practice acting," saying, "I grew up pretending I was okay when I wasn't."

"For a long time, my father was dead to me," she shared with the magazine. She said she's tried to move on, saying that "the six-year-old in me is still pissed, but I don't think I am a victim." She confided that her "first bully was [her] older brother," and that "he said horrible things to me and I said just as bad things to him."

Her weight was an issue from an early age

She has battled her weight all her life, telling Oprah Winfrey that her first diet was at age six. And not only did her father say that she was fat, but so did her mother. Sidibe said in a 2014 speech at the Ms. Foundation's Gloria Awards and Gala, that her mom "had been a fat girl at my age herself, understood me perfectly," yet "she berated me because she was so afraid of what she knew was to come for me," making her feel unsafe, even at home.

She swallowed her feelings by eating even more, sardonically noting, "Nothing says, 'You hurt my feelings. F*** you!' like eating a delicious cookie. Cookies never hurt me."

Her talent helped her deal with bullying as a kid

When Sidibe appeared on Andy Cohen's Watch What Happens Live in 2016, a caller asked for help because her adolescent daughter was being bullied in school due to being overweight. Sidibe said on the program's online after-show (via People) that she got through school bullying by being able to sing and entertain others. "I knew every song on the radio, so I sang a lot," she said. "And it was really weird cause like older classes — like the senior girls — would come find me in school and have me sing their favorite song, which is weird."

While she didn't want to do that for a living, it helped her in school. She encouraged young people to find their own passions. "Junior high school sucked for me. High school sucked for me," she also shared, but that "the second you decide to feel great about yourself is when you feel have to figure out what about yourself you love."

Inspired by Gloria Steinem and aunt Dorothy Pitman Hughes

Her parents split up when she was in the fourth grade, and Sidibe, her brother, and her mother went to live with her aunt, civil rights and feminist activist Dorothy Pitman Hughes, in Harlem. Sidibe said in a 2014 speech at Steinem's 80th birthday party (via Salon) that she derived inspiration every day from a legendary photo of Hughes with Steinem, saying that "every day, I had to get up and go to school where everyone made fun of me, and I had to go home to where everyone made fun of me," but she "found strength" when she looked at the iconic photo.

"Side by side they stood, one with long beautiful hair and one with the most beautiful, round, Afro hair I had ever seen, both with their fists held high in the air. Powerful. Confident," she revealed. "And every day as I would leave the house," she said she would "give that photo a fist right back. And I'd march off into battle."

Childhood taught her how to handle failure

Sidibe told Andy Cohen in a 2016 interview that her childhood prepared her for her life now, saying (via People) "I gotta be honest with you — I went through school and I didn't realize how much it really prepared me for real life," she said. "I'm still dealing with the haters. It is rough."

And she revealed to Us Magazine, "The best advice I've heard is to shake hands with rejection. In life, you will fail more than you win, so get used to it and keep moving forward."

She wanted to be a therapist from an early age

Sidibe was studying psychology at Mercy College in New York City because the subject was a passion for her from age six. According to her interview with Nylon magazine, by the time she was 10, she was "reading psychology books and studying therapy techniques."

She also underwent therapy to help with her own issues, telling Andy Cohen (via People), "I got a lot of therapy in my life. I champion for therapy — therapy is everything."

Learning about acting by working a sex hotline

In her 2017 book This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare Sidibe talks about how when she was 21, her therapist at the time suggested she get a telemarketing job to pay the bills (via Glamour). But, she says, for some reason, "As soon as my therapist suggested 'telemarketing,' I heard 'phone sex.'"

Sidibe learned quickly that the job was really about keeping the callers on the line long enough to ring up the bill. She also had to pretend to be white on the phone, because, she wrote, "The average caller is a white male" who wanted to talk to a white woman. "According to what I had already seen at this company, the average talker was a plus-size black woman," Sidibe shared, "That's right, white dudes! You might think you're talking to Megan Fox, but you're actually talking!"

Sidibe worked at the phone sex business for three years, until she started work on Precious. She said she learned a lot on the job that would benefit her acting career. "I took what I learned about secrets, shame, and pleasure, and applied it to the real world around me," she said. The actress "learned how to flirt" and "to ask for what I wanted." She shared, "I'm not afraid to say anything to anyone. I'm not afraid to be anyone" because of the phone sex work. She also said, "My patience taught me to survive, and my intelligence helped me say yes to acting when the opportunity was presented to me."

Landing Precious

Sidibe had dabbled a little in acting, but wasn't very serious about it, when she heard about the opportunity to play the part in the movie Precious, based on the novel Push, by Sapphire. Precious Jones is an obese, illiterate New York teenager who has had one child by her father, and is pregnant with the second. While not a happy story, it does become a more hopeful one. And, one especially close to the heart, for a young actress with a real history of an abusive father.

It had taken months to find the right person to play Precious, and it was Sidibe, who showed up late but "blew everyone away," according to The New York Times. She "cried real tears" in the audition. Explaining her portrayal of the character, she said, "I kind of had in my mind that she wasn't the ugliest person in the room, but she felt like she was."

Alternative looks and a flourishing career

Even though celebrity shock jock Howard Stern once called her the most "enormous, fat, black chick I've ever seen," and that "she's never going to be in another movie," Sidibe has landed numerous plum roles since Precious.

She appeared on The Big C, several iterations of Ryan Murphy's American Horror Story, Difficult People, and the 2011 movie Tower Heist. She currently co-stars in the hot FOX series Empire as Becky, a one-time assistant at the record company, who worked her way up to vice president of the company.

The Los Angeles Times wrote that the role was originally supposed to be a "boyish, petite white girl," but that Sidibie got the part. She relished the chance to play the role. "I enjoy the fact that out there is some little girl that is exactly like I was and she doesn't see herself on TV," she revealed. "She sees herself in me on Empire. If it has to start with me, why not?"

Dealing with the haters

The actress continues to break barriers in Hollywood. Sidibe's character Becky had a rooftop sex scene on the show Empire in 2015. It was treated matter of factly on the drama, but some people trashed her for it. She regularly blogs about the show for Entertainment Weekly, and said, "I, a plus-sized, dark-skinned woman, had a love scene on primetime television. I had the most fun ever filming that scene even though I was nervous," she said. "But I felt sexy and beautiful and I felt like I was doing a good job."

She noted, "I keep hearing that people are 'hating' on it. I'm not sure how anyone could hate on love, but that's okay. You may have your memes. Honestly, I'm at work too busy to check Twitter anyway. #Booked. Hope you enjoy next week's show!"

Social media trolls can still get under her skin

Despite the fame and fortune — and years of therapy — Sidibe can still be sensitive when people say insensitive things. She wrote in 2017 for In Style about her outfit for the NAACP Image Awards, and how "as soon as I put the outfit on and saw myself in the mirror, I knew it was my soul mate. (Yes, I called an outfit my soul mate. I'm single and over 30. If I want to settle down and live my life with an article of clothing, I can! Just be glad it's not 75 cats.)"

The actress said, "I put 100 percent of my confidence into this gorgeous outfit. I wore it with gold hoop earrings and a big curly wig teased to look like an Afro." She had a great time rocking her look at the event. Unfortunately, "because I'm a mix of vain and humble, flawed and flawless," she made the mistake of reading what others had to say about it on social media before she went to the "after-after-party." She said, "I couldn't just stop scrolling. Another person hated my hair. Then another. A few more. Uh-oh. A lot!" She wrote, "My invisible righteous crown tumbled down and fell to the floor mat of that hired car," and she just went home to feel terrible, missing the party.

She thought about it the next day and realized that "the comments hadn't ruined my night. I ruined my night. Those people who hated my hair are invisible," she said. "They don't really exist in my world. I exist. And I alone let them shape my reality."

Gastric bypass for her health

While she has been a role model for women of a certain size, her life changed in 2016 when she found out that both she and her brother had diabetes. She was just 32 at the time of the diagnosis. So she made a decision that would change her life. In 2017, she admitted to People that she had undergone weight loss surgery the previous year.

"I just didn't want to worry," she said in the magazine. "I truly didn't want to worry about all the effects that go along with diabetes. I genuinely [would] worry all the time about losing my toes." She also said that she did care about her health, saying, "It's been my body my whole life, and I didn't want to be afraid anymore. And I've been feeling like that for some time."

Suffering from bulimia and other mental health issues

In Sidibe's 2017 book, she talks about how "she faced depression, anxiety and bulimia" after her parents divorced. "The bulimia stuck around for about three years," she wrote in her book (via Radar Online). "Throwing up made me feel high. I felt a release around my head like a halo that made me feel lighter physically and emotionally."

She told Nylon that when she was in high school, she would avoid eating in front of others, and that in college, "I always wanted to throw up because I was so sad," revealing that she "also struggled with panic attacks and depression and has contemplated (but not attempted) suicide." Sidibe told the magazine, "I really liked challenging myself to not eat for three days," and that "sometimes I would eat a slice of bread and drink a bottle of water just to throw it up." Successful therapy helped change her life for the better.

But it's still not always easy. The actress admitted to the magazine, "I have been struggling with weight my entire life. I realize that as long as I have a body, it will be a struggle."

​Her first book shows she is an amazing writer

Entertainment Weekly readers who check out her blog on her show Empire or who read her Instagram account know that Sidibe is also a talented and funny writer. In 2017, the rest of the world discovered this, with the release of her memoir, This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare.

When she announced in 2015 that she was working on the book, Sidibe shared in a statement (via Vulture), "I've been writing since I was a child and have always had so many stories to tell that are too long, shady, and impolite to share in interviews." She joked, "It brings me much joy to add Published Writer to my résumé of Actor and part-time Foot Model."

She has been compared to Mindy Kaling and David Sedaris. Sidibe knows that she's got an amusing style, but notes in the book that we don't all have the same sense of humor, and that if we did, "we'd all be making out with each other all the time and we'd never get anything done."

No longer at war with herself

Sidibe has said that she tried for years to lose the weight, but nothing stuck for good. She told People she even "outlived" her first trainer, who died of cancer. Sidibe shared, "I really, really tried — I gave a valiant try" to lose weight. "So I'm glad that I finally realized that the surgery wasn't the easy way out. I wasn't cheating by getting it done. I wouldn't have been able to lose as much as I've lost without [it]," she said. "I spent years trying to lose this much weight, and I didn't do it. I wish I'd done it sooner." She told the magazine that she now works out regularly by swimming and riding a big tricycle, has a nutritionist, and is eating better.

"It has taken me years to realize that what I was born with is all beautiful," she wrote in her book, according to People. "I did not get this surgery to be beautiful. I did it so I can walk around comfortably in heels. I want to do a cartwheel. I want not to be in pain every time I walk up a flight of stairs." While she won't reveal a specific weight loss number or size, saying, "It's got to stay with me because if too many people are involved, I'll shut down, and I won't get anything done," she is significantly thinner than she was before the 2016 surgery.

"There's nothing ugly about me. Anyone trying to convince me that I am — and it's usually me — is wasting her time," she told the magazine after her surgery. "I was in a war with my body for a long time. If I'd started treating it better sooner, I wouldn't have spent so many years hating myself. But I love my body now."

Sidibe has a bright future

Not only does Sidibe have a thriving acting and writing career, and is going on her very first book tour for Try Not to Stare, she is trying her hand at directing. In 2016, she helmed a short film called The Tale of Four, which gets its plotline from the Nina Simone song "Four Women."

The actress continues to be a role model as she loses weight and ups her fitness level, her sense of humor always shining through. "Listen, I'm a solitary, selfish person. I have no kids and I feel bad about my selfishness," she shared with Nylon. "But I hear people tell me about how my struggles have helped them, and I'm glad that my selfishness is helpful to someone else...I love my body and I deserve love. We all do, at any size."