Gabourey Sidibe’s bubbly, laugh-out-loud personality bursts from every page in this memoir, full of stories about growing up in Bed-Stuy, her depression and eating disorder, her time as a phone sex operator, her start in acting, and her complicated family–Sidibe’s mother is a subway singer, and her father is a polygamous Senegalese cab driver. As a memoir, it’s all over the place, but because Sidibe’s life is so genuinely interesting, this compulsively readable book feels like a slumber party with a good friend instead of your typical celebrity vanity project.
You can read my full review below.
This Is Just My Face: Try Not To Stare by Gabourey Sidibe
- publisher: Houghton Mifflin
- publication date: May 1, 2017
- isbn: 978-0-544-78676-9
- length: 256 pages
It’s safe to say that This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare is the first celebrity memoir I’ve ever purchased, and maybe even the first I’ve ever read. I do follow celebrity culture, but I’ve never been very interested in what celebrities have to say beyond their short blurbs in fashion magazines. The average celebrity’s life is so extremely different from my own that their memoirs might as well be written in Cyrillic for all I’ll relate to them.
But Gabourey Sidibe is different.
Sidibe is definitely a celebrity–she now appears on Empire and multiple seasons of American Horror Story–but I’d never realized how unusual her path to her success has been. Discovered at the age of 24 when was cast from among hundreds of girls for the starring role in Precious, an indie movie about a teenager trapped by extreme poverty and incestuous abuse, Sidibe recounts how fame didn’t protect her family from being evicted from their Brooklyn apartment; she writes about walking red carpets in dresses from mall retailer Torrid alongside women wearing ultra-high-end couture.
Precious went on to be nominated for numerous Oscars, including a lead actress nomination for Sidibe herself–but you get the sense that Sidibe has never quite lost her outsider status.
She opens the book with anecdotes about how much time she’s spent agonizing over mean tweets and Instagram comments from strangers–something I’d never even imagined a celebrity would do, but that in hindsight, makes sense. Self-flagellating over social media is, unfortunately, a pretty normal thing to do; Sidibe just has more ammunition than most. Her hurt is palpable on the page, instantly elevating This Is Just My Face from “Celebrities! Just Like Us!” to something far more interesting and true.
The memoir isn’t written linearly, something that could be both frustrating and charming. The effect is like talking to an extremely excitable but interesting friend. At times, you kind of want to interrupt for clarification–but to do so would throw off the flow. Conversations are rarely told in chronological episodes; instead, there are through-lines, and This Is Just My Face is the same way.
Sidibe’s complicated relationship to her parents is one such through-line. Her anecdotes are startlingly honest: she’s open about her distaste for her father, who entered into a green card marriage with her mother and then promptly engaged in polygamous relationships with women in New York City and in his native Senegal; she’s open about her frustration with her beloved mother, a subway singer whom Sidibe thinks should spend more time being happy. Most painfully, she’s open about how much her fame and income have poisoned her relationships with relatives who now always seem to have their hand out.
But just as she’s honest about the hard times, she’s also honest about the good ones. She’s especially good at finding the humor in her time as a phone sex operator, where her quips sharpen the emotional power of her anecdotes. (In one of the best parts of the book, she recounts the stories of people who called phone sex lines just for conversation, particularly troops stationed abroad.)
The memoir concludes with a chapter about the notebooks upon notebooks of self-insert *NSYNC fanfiction Sidibe wrote as a teen and 20-something; this chapter directly follows an anecdote about how emotional she felt while meeting President Obama. Somehow, the revelation of how much time she’s spent writing fanfic isn’t surprising, since This Is Just My Face feels like the work of someone who somehow stepped right into her own daydreams.
Going from a 24-year-old struggling psychology student and phone sex operator to getting an Oscar nomination? Meeting Oprah? Mo’Nique? The President of the United States? That’s amazing, and Sidibe never seems to forget it.
This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare feels more like a heart-to-heart conversation than words on a page. It’s a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, and a refreshing take on what memoir can be. 4/5 stars.
I purchased my own copy of This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare and was in no way compensated for this review.