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May 10, 2019

The Accidental Actress

A life full of obstacles led Jameela Jamil to The Good Place.

Paula Hendrickson
  • Sela Shiloni

On the surface, London native Jameela Jamil leads a charmed life — her first acting audition landed her the role of Tahani Al-Jamil on NBC's The Good Place.

But growing up deaf, having severe body-image issues, being hit by cars twice and enduring multiple surgeries, she says, are what truly led to her success.

Surgery at age 12 restored hearing to one ear, but self-hatred proved harder to correct. "I hated my skin color and my ethnicity, my weight and my curvy Indian hips. I became very self-hating because I never saw myself represented on television," the half-Indian, half-Pakistani actress says.

"Getting hit by a car that broke my back — which meant I spent a year in bed — massively changed the rest of my life, and made me someone who is very good at not taking anything for granted, and not taking anything too seriously."

Jamil was an English teacher and columnist when she auditioned, with no expectations, to replace the host of Channel 4's T4, which she describes as a British version of TRL. "I kept my teaching job eight months because I was sure they would fire me at any point."

In 2012 she became BBC Radio's first female host of The Official Chart and began making documentaries on the side. "I love to investigate other people's stories," she says. "I think that's what makes me an actor — and a radio and television documentary maker. I'm a very curious person."

Upon receiving a clean bill of health after a 2015 biopsy, Jamil quit her job to follow her dreams. She toured the world before settling in Los Angeles and being cast in The Good Place.

Jamil uses her platform to highlight important issues. In 2018, hostile social media posts about famous women and their weight inspired her to create the I Weigh movement (her @i_weigh Instagram account had 270,000 followers at press time).

"I decided to weigh myself the way men get weighed, which is in valued attributes, achievements, things I love about my life, things I'm proud of and struggles I've overcome."

In addition to her day job, Jamil continues to make documentaries and is voicing a character in Disney Junior's forthcoming all-Indian animated series, Mira, Royal Detective. She is also hosting the new TBS game show, The Misery Index.

"All of the things that have happened to me and led me to The Good Place, literally, are from being open to what comes in via the periphery. I never planned to get into radio, to become a writer, to become an actor. But I was open to trying and willing to make a fool of myself — even opposite Ted Danson, my hero. That's how I landed at The Good Place."

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 4, 2019

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