JAMEELA JAMIL [00:00:00]
Hello and welcome to another episode of “I Weigh” with Jameela Jamil. I hope to find you well, I’m fine. Had a road trip with some friends and my dog and my boyfriend and I finally got off social media, which really just feels like people screaming at each other. There’s no jokes anymore. It’s just screaming. And that felt really good. And I’m sleeping so much better, and I have so much less anxiety, so highly recommend. I’ve been talking about doing so for ages, but hadn’t really committed for like a full kind of week. And now that I have, I don’t see myself going back because I can’t believe how much I was just doom addicted and losing my humanity and capacity for empathy, which is exactly what a phone is designed to do. That’s what looking into that blue light does. So take a step back. I’m very excited about today’s episode because I got to interview a real hero of mine from back in the day. I was a kid who grew up very obsessed with famous actresses and rom coms and fashion. And, you know, I was immersed in the era of heroin chic, which was this absurd and reductive term for beauty, for a beauty type that was coined by the fashion industry, where basically in order to be beautiful, you had to look as though you didn’t consume anything other than heroin. You had to be completely emaciated. You had to have a look that was of explicit famine and anything bigger than that. You were a failure. You were fat. You were ugly. And you were bad and wrong. So because all of the actresses and models all seem to have that aesthetic, there were almost no variations at the time. I think not any, I thought this, but a lot of people felt that, well, if they all look like that, then that must be what’s normal and I am not normal. There is something wrong with me. My metabolism is too slow. My diet isn’t working. I’m a failure. I’m bad. I’m wrong. I’m ugly. I am other. And it was so healing to be able to talk to a woman who was in the midst of that, who was part of perpetuating that culture without intending to because she herself was caught up in it. It was so interesting to hear her tell me the truth about that time and how she was both subliminally and blatantly pushed into that aesthetic that wasn’t naturally what her body type was. It was a fascinating insight into that era and that era of fame and paparazzi culture and the beginning of like intense female shaming over their aesthetic like nothing we’d ever seen before. And she was so open and so honest with me. And I can’t believe that it’s impacted her for another 20 years since she became famous. But I don’t know if I’ve even said who this is, but you must have clicked on the name. I’m talking about Debra Messing, the star of “Will and Grace”, absolute comedy icon. Yeah, she’s just incredible. And I love the fact that she uses her platform to talk about all of these things and to shed light on important issues. And she really considers her platform to mean that she has an obligation to be transparent and to help people. And that really, really resonates with me. And so she came on to talk to me all about her mental health, all about the kind of breakdown that she had through the height of fame and what was really happening behind-the-scenes. And I think that you will enjoy this. I hope you will anyway. She’s a really warm, remarkable, intelligent woman, and she’s had such an interesting journey. And I’m so glad that she’s still around and able to talk us through all of these things because none of us knew any better. And even me, as someone who’s always talking about how much bullshit comes out of Hollywood. It was healing for my inner 13 year old to know that I wasn’t crazy, that that wasn’t necessarily normal or fair as an aesthetic to put out for all women. Some women are very naturally skinny, and that’s great and wonderful and fine, but not all women. We shouldn’t all have to look like that. And so it was fabulous getting to talk to her about all of it. She also has a wonderful new podcast called “The Dissenters”, which is out now where she interviews people that she enjoys the work of, people who are using their platforms to try to change the world. And she’s had wonderful guests like Sophia Bush, Glennon Doyle. She’s also got me on it, which was lovely. That was first time I got to meet her, I was a bit starstruck. So, yes. So anyway. Please enjoy the wonderful Debra Messing. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but hello. Welcome, Debra Messing. Welcome to “I Weigh”. How are you?
DEBRA MESSING [00:04:44]
I am so fantastic. How are you?
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:04:47]
I’m so good. It’s so exciting to have you on this podcast. It’s quite surreal because I’ve grown up watching you. In fact, in one of my most formative years, I would say that was the year that I broke my back and I was bed bound and I was super sick as a teenager. Anyway, one of the things that used to carry me through was your show “Will and Grace”. And you were a massive hero of mine, especially as a young, queer kid who didn’t feel safe to come out for another like 10 years. That show meant so much to me. It made me feel less weird and less alone and just taught me so much about the world. So thank you for that. And it’s wild that you’re here.
DEBRA MESSING [00:05:29]
Well, thank you for those beautiful words. It’s, you know, it, just laughter is, is medicine. And I, that’s what I’ve been looking for during this quarantine time. And I’m just so, I’m just so glad that, you know, we were there to make you laugh during obviously an incredibly difficult time.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:05:51]
Oh, for sure. How is your quarantine been going? You alright?
DEBRA MESSING [00:05:55]
Oh, it’s been-. It’s been nuts. It’s been insane. I, you know, I’m in New York City. I don’t have a backyard. I don’t have a balcony. You know, it’s New York City. So it’s small. So it’s kind of like “The Shining”. A little bit. I, I, you know, I’m not really sure if I will become homicidal, but, yeah, it’s, it’s been, it’s been wild and very up and down been triggered. It’s triggered my depression and my anxiety at different points. And I have found a way to sort of keep things a little bit more stable. I’ve discovered piano.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:06:45]
DEBRA MESSING [00:06:46]
Yeah. I played the piano when I was a little girl. Not well. And somehow I just felt this impulse to teach myself how to play the piano. So I bought like 10 books and I have an app. And now I’ve been playing every single day and I’m getting better. And I’m actually taking a, a music theory class through the Berk-, the the Berklee School of Music in Boston.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:07:15]
Oh, my God. Oh, that’s so annoying. That’s so, you’re so annoying. That’s such an annoying answer. I haven’t picked up any fucking skills, nothing. Nothing.
DEBRA MESSING [00:07:29]
I didn’t say I was good, but I am, I am saying that it is, it is surprisingly soothing to me. And I think it’s because it’s like a different language. And so I have to concentrate so much.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:07:42]
Yeah, it’s amazing.
DEBRA MESSING [00:07:44]
That I can’t think about what’s happening in the world while I’m doing it.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:07:47]
I, I’m not, I’m, I’m purely jealous. Like, I don’t actually look down on you. I look up to you. And therefore I’m trying to spit up at you because I’m furious. Because I’ve watched every single press interview, anything I do. It’s been four months now and everyone is like, “So any new skills”? No. If anything, I have devolved. I’ve devolved. I’ve gotten less skills then I came into the quarantine with. My fuckin’ social skills are gone. They are gone. Like I, I don’t want to leave the house. I have something that you and I spoke about over the phone that, is that I… Because I spent so much time in the house sick as a kid, I am not always great with leaving the house and I’m not great with socializing. And I know that that’s something that you yourself have struggled with.
DEBRA MESSING [00:08:38]
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:08:38]
And I’m super grateful that you’re willing to talk about that on this podcast. Can you talk to me about your kind of history with agoraphobia and depression and anxiety?
DEBRA MESSING [00:08:47]
Yes, sure. You know, I was officially diagnosed with depression when I was 31, at basically at the height of “Will and Grace”. Which, of course, is ironic because it’s the moment in my life when I, you know, have reached my dreams and I get to laugh every day at work. And I’m working with people who I respect and love. But what I was not prepared for was having people jumping out of bushes to take pictures of me and sitting outside my house. You know, I didn’t have a garage, so I just felt very vulnerable. And in order to sort of make myself feel more comfortable, I started to go grocery shopping at 1:00 in the morning thinking like, OK, you know, no one’s gonna be there. But inevitably someone would follow me, you know, around the grocery store. And I just felt it was a very powerful thing to experience having people know you and you don’t know them.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:10:04]
DEBRA MESSING [00:10:05]
And so that really was hard for me. And I was getting ready for a movie and I had to wear a bikini in it, which I, you know, was traumatized that I had to wear a bikini. And so for the first time in my life, I went to a personal trainer and I remember I, I drove up outside his house and I opened my, my car door and I got out and six men jumped out of the bushes with long lenses on their cameras. And I hit the ground like my instinct was their guns. They’re going to kill me.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:10:53]
Well, they are fucking huge. I mean, it’s, it’s really wild how massive the cameras are. And they’re these giant black, they kind of look like, like a sort of bazooka or something.
DEBRA MESSING [00:11:03]
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:11:03]
And also, they deliberately jump out of the bushes when we are out and about in the street. So, you know, like on the red carpet, they will wait for you to be ready and they will wait for you to be composed and, and smiling and happy. But the whole point of the candid photograph is to have you look A, is rough and human.
DEBRA MESSING [00:11:21]
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:11:22]
And also unhappy, startled, crazy. All of these are the looks that you’ll give when someone has jumped out of a fucking bush at you. And it’s a group of men which also, as women, we are programed to think high danger when six strange men jump out of nowhere in a group. All who know each other with what looks like a weapon.
DEBRA MESSING [00:11:40]
Yeah, absolutely. And, and I was hiding behind my car door and just sort of realizing, you know, OK, they’re not guns, they’re, they’re cameras. And I, like I started to shake and I stood up trying to compose myself. And, you know, these photographers, they were like, oh, we’re sorry, Debra. We’re sorry. And I, and I just, it, it was a moment that was, it changed me. And, and at the same time, all of a sudden, I was, I was invited and expected to do all of these photo shoots for magazine covers, which again, on one hand was, was like a fantasy. You know, I was being a princess. They were dressing me up. And I, I was basically being told I was pretty. Which I never really believed. So here were, here were people telling me, you know, you are worthy of the cover of this magazine. But it was always a source of intense stress because I would arrive and they would only have sample sizes in all of their clothes. And sample sizes were size zero size 2. And I was a size 8. And so, you know, they were like, OK, well, you know, we’ll, we’ll leave the back open and, OK, we’ll tape the back to your body. And it was always this problem solving that had to be done. What are we going to do with Debra’s body? Because she doesn’t fit into the clothes. And I always sort of laughed it off and was like, oh, OK. Well, you know, sorry, guys. You know, trying to be amiable.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:13:27]
Almost, like apologetic. Right? I used to be so apologetic.
DEBRA MESSING [00:13:32]
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:13:32]
Ten years ago, I would, and then I would find myself making so much fun of my thighs. My discernibly thin thighs, by the way. But because they weren’t thin enough to fit into a size zero, I would make so much fun of myself. And I would sit there in the mirror, secretly to myself, just feeling hot with embarrassment and imagine-, like imagining these conversations going on in their heads about what an inconvenient whale I think that I am.
DEBRA MESSING [00:13:59]
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:13:59]
It’s only really now that now when something doesn’t fit, I will purposefully shove it over my ass in the hopes that it’ll break. Which often it does, and it’ll explode open. I will come out and I will say, shame on you, not shame on me. You had my fucking sizes sent to you a month ago. Why? Why on earth would you bring me Baby Gap?
DEBRA MESSING [00:14:21]
Exactly. Exactly. That’s, that’s the thing that is most most outrageous is that they’re given our sizes and our dimensions and they still, they still ultimately say we couldn’t find anything in your size.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:14:35]
DEBRA MESSING [00:14:36]
So that’s a much larger conversation. But you know-.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:14:39]
Which we will have. Yeah. Go on.
DEBRA MESSING [00:14:40]
Yes. And all of that sort of made me feel like I just wanted to stay home. I felt safe. I felt safe at home. I was with my, my new husband and my dog. And I just felt like anything outside of my house was dangerous. And so finally, I, I, I was crying all the time. And one day I was supposed to go, I think it was like I was doing the cover of “Allure” or “Harper’s Bazaar” or something, and I was on the floor of our, of our living room sobbing. And I was saying to my husband, I can’t, I can’t go. Please don’t make me go. I was so exhausted at that moment that I felt like, I felt like I, my life wasn’t my own. And I just begged him. I was like, I can’t go. I can’t go. And for the first time ever, he picked up the phone and he called my publicist and my representatives and said, she’s on the floor sobbing. You know, she can’t go. And they were talking back and forth. And then he got off the phone and he came over and he put his arms around me. And he’s like, honey, you have to go. And I just broke into tears and he’s like, I will take you. And, you know, they said to him, listen, thousands of dollars were spent to to pay for the photographer and the hair person and the makeup person. And you can’t just cancel. You can’t. And. And that’s when I started to really feel depressed.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:16:16]
You feel no control, and I think that something that I’ve spoken about before in this podcast is that when you are presenting this image of someone who can cope and when you are pretending to be someone who is all right with situations that your body is screaming on the inside that you are not OK with, there creates this kind of dishonesty, right?
DEBRA MESSING [00:16:35]
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:16:36]
Dishonesty with yourself and dishonesty with everyone around you. And that kind of presents itself as this, it creates this numbness, this detachment from yourself, from your instincts, from your women’s, from your woman’s instinct, in particular. And so I think that can also contribute to this feeling of detachment and depression. And like your body, your life isn’t your own.
DEBRA MESSING [00:16:54]
Yes. Yes. And I think it was you know, it was just profoundly confusing to me because I felt objectified. And at the same time, all of these things were things that supposedly I was supposed to be happy for, happy about and grateful for. And, and, and it’s that I felt schizophrenic because there were moments when I would be full of joy. And I would feel like, oh, my God, this is so incredible and special. And then the next second I would feel like I, I just want to be in bed. I just want to go to sleep. I just want to, just want it all to stop so that I can just hear my own voice again instead of hearing everyone else’s voices about what they need from me. And so I found this therapist and she said, OK, I’m going to put you on medication. And it was the first time I was ever put on medication. And it, it got me through.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:18:00]
So you just had to kind of survive through it. And then did you find that after the show, you know, we have cy-, we film in cycles, so you’ll film for six, seven, eight months, and then you come off for a couple of months.
DEBRA MESSING [00:18:11]
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:18:11]
Would you just collapse during those couple of months off or would you then have to shoot films?
DEBRA MESSING [00:18:18]
Most of the time I try, I tried to just do nothing, but inevitably I always ended up working. It, it’s, I have, I have a very weird relationship with work because I feel like for 25 years I’ve been saying I want to retire. And my, my agents actually joke with me, I’ve been with them for 25 years. You know, they’re like, you are the only client we have that every single time you’re offered a job, you’re like, oh, really?
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:18:58]
Yeah. No, but I understand. Like, I can, I can understand how it might sound ungrateful to someone who doesn’t exist within your kind of experience, but it’s, you’re traumatized. I mean, you have PTSD from this industry, from fame. And also, you know, it felt like from the outside anyway, from my little perspective, in my little bubble, in my living room in London, that you just came out of fucking nowhere. It was, I had not heard of you. And then you were everywhere. And you are what everyone was talking about. And everyone was obsessed with you and your loved life and your marriage. And this, that and the other on your body. And there was this kind of ownership. And you looked slightly different to other people on television because of your hair and your, you know, your, your-. You were just so beautiful. And you were also, you know, you were, you were making this show that created this completely new dialog in the world. And so it was such a huge moment in media and in our society. The way that that show went on to change the way that so many people looked at gay people and into like straight and gay friendships and relationships.
DEBRA MESSING [00:20:06]
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:20:06]
And love. And so I, I, I, that was it. As soon as you, as soon as you arrived on the scene, it just felt like you were everywhere consistently for about a decade.
DEBRA MESSING [00:20:18]
And I think as women we are, we are raised with this idea that we are meant to make things easy for other people.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:20:29]
DEBRA MESSING [00:20:30]
We’re not supposed to make waves. We’re not supposed to speak up. You know, people are the most happy with us when we are flexible and.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:20:45]
DEBRA MESSING [00:20:46]
And stoic and, and I think because, because everyone was talking about me and looking at me, I, I wanted to be able to, to speak and to talk about things that were authentic to me and that were real because I was, I was keenly aware that I was in this very unreal bubble of glamor. But I do think that, that discovering that “Will and Grace” had social import and political import. I think that is what saved me.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:21:26]
DEBRA MESSING [00:21:26]
I think knowing that, that there was meaningful representation happening and, and to get the feedback. It, it, it made me feel like there was purpose behind our show. Obviously when we all start shows, we’re like, OK, we just want to make people laugh. That’s our job. We want to make you laugh. But this became obviously something completely different. And whenever, and I think it’s, it’s still is the same, actually. I think whenever the, the industry, the business feels overwhelming or alienating to me, I inevitably focus back on the things that are important to me that, you know, whether or not it is, you know, HIV or feminism or racial justice or social justice or, you know, any of those things, because they’re mine. They’re my opinion. And I can put my energies into it. And I’m not accountable to anybody in Hollywood in regards to, to that part of my life.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:22:51]
You mentioned earlier that you had never thought of yourself as beautiful, which feels very silly to me, having objectively watched you from the outside, looking really beautiful all the time. Why did you not think you were beautiful? May I ask?
DEBRA MESSING [00:23:08]
OK. Well, before I go into it. What, to be, to clarify, what you have seen mostly has been the illusion that many of us have created. You know, hair professionals, makeup professionals, famous stylists, you know, people with amazing lighting. And you know, it, it is an illusion. And so I’m able to, you know, stand on a studio, you know, a set where I’m doing a photo shoot and look in the mirror and say, wow, I look really beautiful. And I can say that with, because I feel like I’m being objective and it’s not really me. It’s this thing that we have all built together and we have sort of succeeded in building the thing that was required for the day. But in terms of who I am and, and how I perceived myself, I grew up in a, in a, a rural suburb in Rhode Island. I lived on four acres of land next to, you know, a horse farm. We’d run over and watches the horses being born. And 8 miles from the nearest gas station. So small, small. 18 farms, you know, in our community. And I was one of three Jews in the entire school and I knew that I was different from a very young age. And I knew that the thing that made me different wasn’t good. So I had big features and I had kinky curly hair and, you know, all the other girls had, you know, straight silky blond hair or, you know, had little noses and looked like, you know, did Cheryl Tiegs of the, you know. That was the ideal beauty at the time. And, and I did, you know, I didn’t have a straightening iron.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:25:17]
DEBRA MESSING [00:25:18]
So. You know, and, and tragically, when I was like 12, I thought that if I got a perm, it would make my hair look like the Breck girl in the commercials. And so just imagine, just imagine what I looked like. I looked like, you know, a poodle. So anyway, I think just from, from a very young age, I just knew immediately what was beautiful and what wasn’t. And I was not in that category. I think as I grew up and became a woman, I. I think the way I described myself was striking. Not beautiful.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:26:05]
DEBRA MESSING [00:26:05]
And I think that’s accurate.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:26:08]
I mean, I find you beautiful. I think it’s also objective, subjective. I think that-.
DEBRA MESSING [00:26:11]
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:26:12]
It’s the eye of the beholder, etc., you know? So I think lots of people find you very beautiful. And I’ve also been up close with you when you’re not really wearing makeup and you look great. So, but I also do think I agree-.
DEBRA MESSING [00:26:24]
Well, thank you.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:26:24]
And I’m a big advocate for making sure that people know that we have teams that help us look the way that we do. And we don’t always look the way that we, that you think we do. In fact, anytime anyone asks me how my hair looks like this, I’m like, I’m wearing a fucking piece. So all my, I’m in my 30s. Are you insane? How much dark-? How many dark green vegetables do you think I have time to get down my body that that would be my hair in my 30s. So I’m a big fan of that transparency.
DEBRA MESSING [00:26:56]
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:26:56]
But also, I think you know that you’ve told a story that I’m going to ask you to tell again and your great make a speech from a couple of years ago where you also talk about the fact that the industry in itself, once you got here, even when you were becoming successful, reinforce the idea that you were not beautiful. Would you tell me about that moment that occurred while you were filming with Keanu Reeves? It was “A Walk in the Clouds”?
DEBRA MESSING [00:27:20]
“A Walk in the Clouds”.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:27:21]
DEBRA MESSING [00:27:22]
“A Walk in the Clouds” was my, was my first film.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:27:24]
Love that movie.
DEBRA MESSING [00:27:27]
And he had just finished “Speed”, so he was the biggest star in the world. And so this was my big break. And Alfonso Arau, who directed “Like Water for Chocolate”, was our director. And we had three weeks of rehearsal up in Napa Valley, which is unheard of. And it was a love fest. You know, the, the director would, you know, every morning, “Bella, Bella”. It was a love fest. And then the first day we’re on the set and we get to the scene where Keanu and I have to kiss. And it is a profile shot, 50/50 shot, and we come in just to kiss and he screams “Cut”! And he’s like, her nose is ruining my shot. How quickly can we get a plastic surgeon in here?
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:28:20]
DEBRA MESSING [00:28:24]
And I just immediately just froze and there were all these titters of laughter amongst the 80 crew members because they were like, oh, he’s obviously joking. And then he just sat there and didn’t say anything else and was just slumped in his chair, really pissed. And nobody said a word for like three solid minutes. And, and then everyone got really uncomfortable. And I just, I just shrank down to nothing. I just felt so humiliated. And, you know, it was my first job and I was bright eyed and optimistic. And I felt really confident because I just graduated with my master’s degree in acting and I felt like I had the skills and, and I’m being told that my nose is ruining his movie. And I need surgery before he can continue shooting the movie. And. I remember calling my agent in New York and saying, I’m not, I’m not made for Hollywood. You know, I’m going to come back and I’m only going to do theater because in theater anyone can be beautiful.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:29:48]
DEBRA MESSING [00:29:49]
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:29:50]
So how did you keep filming with this man after that? Like, did everything just go back to normal? And he just sorta-?
DEBRA MESSING [00:29:58]
No, no. He was. He was really. He was. He just wasn’t happy. And I saw them talking about lighting, trying to light my nose and-.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:30:11]
DEBRA MESSING [00:30:12]
Yeah. And Keanu just being such a beautiful soul, you know, took me aside. And he was like, do not listen to them. Don’t. And that meant the world to me.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:30:26]
DEBRA MESSING [00:30:26]
For him to be on my side and-.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:30:29]
I fancy him so much. I got such a crush on him still. It’s just ongoing. Such a big crush.
DEBRA MESSING [00:30:35]
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:30:35]
So nice to hear that he’s also really nice in those moments.
DEBRA MESSING [00:30:38]
Yeah. And then I, you know, I was supposed to shoot a scene where, you know, I’m in bed with someone and Keanu walks in and catches us. And it, it, it’s not, it wasn’t a nude scene or anything. And I came in to get ready at 5:00 in the morning in the costume designer came in and said, OK, I’ve got your lingerie for the, you know, the dressed version. And there is a full body makeup woman in your trailer waiting for you for the nude version. And I said, what? And she said, we’re doing it both ways, you’re gonna be naked in one and the other one you’re going not. And I was like, wait a minute, wait a minute. No, no. No one told me that. What? No. And she was like, this is what the producer said. And I, I ran and I went to the producers because before I came there, I was told by the producers that every actress who ever worked with Alfonso Arau was required to sign a nudity waiver saying that they were OK with doing nudity and I wouldn’t sign it. And they called me and said, we promise you this movie is not an R rated movie. It’s a PG movie, PG-13. You are not going to be nude just to, just to allay him and his ego, you know, just sign it. And so I ran to these people and I was like, you know, they’re telling me I have to be naked. You know, you promised me that I wasn’t going to have to be naked. And they said, in the American version.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:32:23]
Oh, my God.
DEBRA MESSING [00:32:26]
I said, what? He said, we, we only said in the American version. We didn’t say that you wouldn’t be naked in the European version. And I-.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:32:36]
And you know, that for people who don’t know, they can sue you.
DEBRA MESSING [00:32:40]
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:32:41]
They can technically sue you. If you don’t, then take your clothes off. This has happened to many friends of mine who’ve been forced into practical pornography on set, which is something that they personally haven’t consented to because they’re afraid of being sued by the network.
DEBRA MESSING [00:32:56]
And meanwhile, this is my first movie, so I’m a nobody. I’m getting, I’m getting scale. So I’m getting $1,600 for 80 hours of work. And the idea that they could sue me for millions of dollars, that, you know, I don’t have. The whole thing, and then I tried to call my agents and finally they were like, you know, you have two options. You can leave and that will definitely hurt your career. Or you do it. And so obviously, I felt like I didn’t have a choice. And I showed up on set after being, having makeup put on every inch of my body by a complete stranger, by the way, which is just a nut, a nutty experience. And then showing up and the director, you know, said, get into the bed. And so I got under the sheet and he walked over and he acted as if he was, you know, sort of fixing the sheet. And then he lifted it up, scanned my body, my naked body, and then dropped the sheet like it was a dirty tissue and walked away and i, I, you know, I, I was I was numb at that point, I was just in shock and we shot it. And when it came to the movie, all you saw was my naked back, which was how it was written in the first place, which, which told me that the whole thing was a power play. There was never any need to shoot it nude because it was never going to be in the movie.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:34:42]
He just wanted to humiliate you.
DEBRA MESSING [00:34:44]
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:34:44]
About every single part of your body and your face.
DEBRA MESSING [00:34:47]
And that’s, that’s why I said, OK, I’m, I’m, I’m not pretty enough to be in Hollywood and I’m not strong enough to, you know, deal with these kinds of people. So change of course.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:35:03]
Bloody hell. And the worst thing about this is the fact that this is not even a rare story. This is the story of Hollywood. This is what everyone went through. I’m so lucky that I got here in 2016 as “Me Too” was erupting.
DEBRA MESSING [00:35:17]
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:35:18]
So lucky, so lucky with my timing.
DEBRA MESSING [00:35:21]
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:35:21]
And thank you to all of you for making this a safer place for someone like me to walk into, because I would not handle any of that very well at all. I think I’d literally shit myself. I’d literally shit myself, shit my pants right there. And on that note, let’s go to quick break. So we’re talking about the the ways in which you’ve been made to feel uncomfortable in this industry and the way that people make you feel as though you are not beautiful. And then after all of that, in spite of the fact that you’ve thought that you should just quit Hollywood and you should just become a theater actor or I don’t know, like someone wearing a mask because you’re so traumatized. Just apply for the next Chewbacca role. Maybe.
DEBRA MESSING [00:36:11]
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:36:12]
You end up finding “Will and Grace” or “Will and Grace” finds you. You become this huge superstar. You go through, you know, I do want to talk about the sample size that we touched on earlier, because I do think the eating disorder factor of this industry is hugely important. And it’s so rare to get to talk to someone in your position who was around at the height of it, however bad it is now. It is nowhere near as wild as it was when you were coming up. This is when, you know, we just watched Jennifer Aniston and Courteney Cox shrink in front of our eyes. We saw Ali McBeal listed as the, Calista Flockhart, who played Ally McBeal, who was just so untraditionally thin.
DEBRA MESSING [00:36:52]
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:36:52]
Skin and bones, truly, and not to body shame her in any way, but that was her physique. And that physique became the physique of the 90s. And suddenly all of the actresses had it. Everyone was teeny. Everyone wanted to have a flat chest, no bottom, big thigh gaps.
DEBRA MESSING [00:37:08]
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:37:08]
And that’s what you came into, having not been necessarily a naturally very, very skinny.
DEBRA MESSING [00:37:13]
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:37:14]
DEBRA MESSING [00:37:14]
No. Yeah, exactly. I was, I was. When I started “Will and Grace”, I was a size 8. And what happened was every time I would go in for a fitting, I couldn’t fit into clothes. You know, 80 percent of it I couldn’t fit into. And I would leave feeling, just hating my body and hating myself. And, you know, I loved my costume designer. You know, she, she would always say, don’t worry. OK. And and she would talk to her assistant and say, OK, can you call over and get a larger size? And so every time I didn’t fit into something. OK, call and see if they have that in a larger size. And that was just sort of the the thing that was on repeat all the time. And so, of course, I thought my life would be so much easier for every-, and it would be easier on everybody trying to do their job if I just lost weight. And so I started doing yoga every single day and I did one of those, you know, meal delivery services. And I started to get smaller. And I was, then I was a 6. And they were like, you’re losing weight. You look amazing. You look amazing. And, you know, and obviously, these are all people who are, you know, feel like they’re just complimenting you. And of course, what you hear as a woman, you know, is, oh, this is making them happy. So I should do more of it. And then I was lucky enough to be invited, you know, on the red carpet to the Emmys and the Golden Globes. And that was the same time that Ally McBeal was at its height and Calista was the It girl. And Portia de Rossi also was, you know, so, so slim. And she’s spoken openly about her anorexia. So it’s all within sort of the same theme. And I just I, I would try to fit into these gowns and of course, they were sample sizes and it was like, OK, we have to let out the seams, et cetera. And this, this was supposed to be the greatest moment of my life, being nominated for best actress in a TV show I loved. For an Emmy and walking on the red carpet. And I walked out and I immediately felt so incredible. And then I was standing next to all of these other actresses who were half my size. And I felt fat. And I felt ugly.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:40:00]
DEBRA MESSING [00:40:00]
And I looked back at those pictures and I was beautiful. And I feel I, I mourn the fact that that was my interpretation of reality. And, and that was the torture that I put myself through, because ultimately, I ended up getting down to a size 2 and I was way too, way too skinny. But, but, you know, going in for those fittings, I fit into everything. I fitted everything. And-.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:40:32]
And you get congratulated for it.
DEBRA MESSING [00:40:34]
Yes. Yes. And and all of a sudden, I literally could fit into anything that was high fashion because I fit into it. And so all of a sudden, it just, everything seemed to open up to me because I was a 2. And so for, for a while there, I was maintaining that. And then I got sick. My body just could not hold out. I was, my adrenals crashed. I was exhausted. And it just became clear to me that, you know, I couldn’t be healthy and a size 2 at the same time.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:41:11]
Yeah. And also, eating disorders were not just normalized. They were very much congratulated. I remember because, you know, you’re talking about the fact that that was your take on yourself and the situation. We as the viewers, like me looking at all of you as like a teenager because all of you were so skinny. This is not me placing any blame on you at all, please understand that.
DEBRA MESSING [00:41:32]
Yes, of course.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:41:32]
But me looking at all of these actresses are so skinny. And because no one looked different. No one was more than a size 2 or 4. I was like, oh, that’s normal. And I’m abnormal.
DEBRA MESSING [00:41:44]
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:41:45]
Because otherwise, they would be showing someone who was a little bit bigger than a size 2 and that was my conditioning up until I was in my late 20s. Until I realized this is fucking bullshit and-.
DEBRA MESSING [00:41:55]
And forever, and forever, when you did see a woman who was a normal size, a size 12, a size 14, which is normal size in America.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:42:07]
DEBRA MESSING [00:42:07]
They were, they were comic character actresses.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:42:10]
Yeah. Or it was Bridget Jones, who wasn’t fat.
DEBRA MESSING [00:42:12]
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:42:13]
And she was made to be like the whole, entire narrative around her was how fat she was. And Kate Winslet. They were like, oh, she sank the Titanic. She was a fucking size 6. Gemma Arterton was a size 6 to 8 in Bond. She was a Bond girl. And there was a photo of her laughing. So she had a slight double chin and they wrote, “Who ate all the spies”? And they wrote like a picture about Renee Zellweger when she’d started losing weight after her film saying, “Too fat for love”. Like these were “Beached whale” was written across Queen Latifah’s photographs. Like it was the height, it was also the beginning of fat shaming that you were around for.
DEBRA MESSING [00:42:48]
Oh, my gosh. I will tell you a story. I had given birth and this was about 8 months after. I was not back to my original weight. And my husband and I decided to go on our first vacation. We went, we went down to Mexico and I was walking around, like, wrapped in caftans. And I wouldn’t get into the pool unless I, like, sat on the edge with the caftan and then I would slowly lower myself in. So at no point anyone would see me in my bathing suit. And I remember him saying, honey, what are you doing? And I said, I don’t know. I just feel, I just I feel like there are photographers. I just, I just feel like I’m going to be photographed. And he’s like, honey, look around. There’s, there’s no place for a photographer to be. You’re safe. And, you know, I was like, OK, I, you know, I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer, so I’m just going to relax. And we landed back in Los Angeles and the phone rings and it’s my publicist. And she said, honey, I just want you to know. There is an article in the “National Enquirer” where you are in your bathing suit. And the title of it is “Will and Gross”. And there are circles, they circled your thighs. They circled your stomach. They circled your neck. They circled your arms. And dissected you and talked about just how huge you were. And in addition, they had on the same page other actresses who had bounced immediately right back and were in bikinis. And so they would say, Deborah eight months after giving birth and X and X and X actress eight months after.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:44:44]
Yeah, you had failed. You’d failed the snap back challenge.
DEBRA MESSING [00:44:49]
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:44:50]
That’s so toxic, the way that we, we use actresses and famous models to pressure all women into thinking that they have to immediately return to their size when they’re nursing the human being that they made in their body. When they’ve got bigger priorities.
DEBRA MESSING [00:45:05]
Yes. I mean, I said, look, it, it takes nine months to make a human. You, you know, for you to think that it will take any less than that to get your body, you know, stabilized with all the hormonal changes and everything. It’s, you know, it’s torture. It’s literally torture.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:45:24]
And it shouldn’t be what you’re focusing on. You’ve just made a little person.
DEBRA MESSING [00:45:28]
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:45:29]
Enjoy it. You’re on maternity leave. And I. I’m so sorry that happened to you. I didn’t know that. I must have missed those particular fat shaming pictures but I saw everyone else’s.
DEBRA MESSING [00:45:38]
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:45:38]
And it was just.
DEBRA MESSING [00:45:38]
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:45:38]
It was such-.
DEBRA MESSING [00:45:39]
And that, that was the one that really rocked me.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:45:42]
DEBRA MESSING [00:45:42]
That was, because I remember crying in the car telling my husband and I, and I remember saying, I told you. I told you. I felt it. I knew someone was taking pictures. I knew someone was watching me. And so, you know, there is that sort of paranoia of like there are people out to hurt me, to humiliate me, hiding in the bushes. And I, I can’t live my life freely without, you know, and, and feel like I’m not going to be.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:46:15]
DEBRA MESSING [00:46:18]
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:46:19]
Truly. So where are you at now with your body image? Do you feel like you’re still traumatized or are you in a better place? Or?
DEBRA MESSING [00:46:25]
Oh, I’m in, I mean, I’m in a much better place.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:46:29]
DEBRA MESSING [00:46:30]
I. I am bigger now than I’ve ever been in my life. I feel OK about being larger than I was when I was 25 because that is normal. I, I do still have, you know, flare ups of triggering moments when I have to dress up for a special occasion. And then the whole “what am I going to wear” thing happens.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:47:04]
Yeah. You were telling me on the phone that people, designers, even though you are the Debra Messing, like guaranteed A-list star, people are definitely going to take your picture and pay attention to you. And designers say we won’t dress you because you’re not a certain size.
DEBRA MESSING [00:47:18]
Yes. They say we, you know, we don’t, we literally don’t have any clothes in your size. And I’ll be like, but I’m nominated for Best Actress. And they’re like, nope, sorry. We’re, we’re, we’re, you know, if you were, if you were 2 or 4, we would be able to make it work.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:47:34]
Yeah. I once bought a wedding dress because no one would dress me for an event. And I was nominated for Woman of the Year. And I was like, fuck this. And I knew I was going to win. So that’s it, I’m going to just, I found a wedding dress that fit andI bought it. It was 3,000 pounds.
DEBRA MESSING [00:47:51]
Oh, my God.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:47:53]
I own an actual wedding dress that I wore to the Glamour Awards.
DEBRA MESSING [00:47:58]
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:47:59]
Because even the most feminist fucking designers wouldn’t dress me because I was a size 8, as in UK 12.
DEBRA MESSING [00:48:06]
That’s the other thing that is so punitive is that if you, if you sort of walk the line and you keep your body small, then you never have to pay any money to wear gowns to any of these places.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:48:22]
DEBRA MESSING [00:48:22]
If you, if you are bigger than a 4, now you have to pay out of pocket every single time you’re on a red carpet.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:48:30]
DEBRA MESSING [00:48:30]
And that’s thousands and thousands of dollars. So it literally is an economic hardship if you’re not able to maintain yours, your weight. But now, thank God for Christian Siriano.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:48:44]
DEBRA MESSING [00:48:45]
Christian Siriano. You know, we, we made him one of our Dissenters on our podcast. You know, he is, you know, the fashion designer of inclusion. And he loves women of all sizes and men of all sizes. And it is such it’s, it’s, it’s so refreshing. And I am so grateful that he is. He’s shaming others, he’s shaming other fashion designers to expand their, you know, their offerings.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:49:22]
Yeah, I talked about this when Billy Porter was on the podcast that the best thing about Christian Siriano is that he’s not only shaming people, he’s not only getting all the biggest names because everyone’s now going to him because we’re like, we need to fucking eat. Please, God. I’m need to eat, call Christian. And, and he tripled his income in his first year as a fashion designer-, sorry, for the first year of opening his sizes up. Tripled his income. When we’re seeing house after house after-, fashion house after fashion house closed down.
DEBRA MESSING [00:49:51]
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:49:52]
So he is not just shaming. He’s winning. He’s laughing. He’s laughing all the way to the bank.
DEBRA MESSING [00:49:56]
That’s right. He’s like, you know, they have to wear clothes too. I mean, someone’s got to dress them. You know, it’s, there’s, there’s this, this billion dollar industry that, you know, because of, you know, this elitist idea, you know, that has been perpetrated by fashion magazines about what, what classical beauty is. You know, that has, has led to all of this.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:50:23]
So how did you manage to get better? After being that heavily traumatized around your body, around your face, around leaving the house, around mental health and like having people so interested in your relationship and you have a kid and then you break up and all of this. Like how have you managed to restore your sense of self to get to where you are today? Which from everything I’ve seen, I’m not saying that your life is perfect, but you are a very strong and powerful human being who seemed very, very self-aware and conscious. How have you gotten to this place of stillness that you seem to have found comparatively?
DEBRA MESSING [00:51:05]
I think, I think it’s really about finding purpose. When I became global ambassador for Youth AIDS and HIV AIDS through the NGO Population Services International, I started traveling through sub-Saharan Africa with them, oh, 11 years ago. And it changed my life, just bearing witness to the poverty, to the lack of healthcare, to just the, it, it was so eye-opening to me and I felt inspired and compelled to use my platform to try and help. And as soon as I, I was given that opportunity, something shifted in me. I think it was perspective. It’s like, you know, what? If I’m 10 pounds overweight, that’s not important when we’re talking about children in cages on the border. You know, there are so many things that are, you know, there’s so much pain in the world. And I feel like as long as I have this platform and I can help raise the voices of people who are not being listened to. Having that focus has, has really helped me sort of get back on track because, you know, I get veered off all the time.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:52:38]
DEBRA MESSING [00:52:39]
All the time. You know, I’ll, I’ll catch my reflection in the mirror and I’ll be like, oh, my gosh. Oh, OK. And, and I’ll be shocked into, oh, I’m not 25 anymore. But then I’ll, I’ll just get right back to the matter at hand and then I’ll be like, who the fuck cares?
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:52:58]
Yeah, it’s a perspective shift, isn’t it? And also-.
DEBRA MESSING [00:53:00]
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:53:00]
You’ve, you’ve had therapy and on medication-.
DEBRA MESSING [00:53:03]
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:53:03]
Is that something that you still use?
DEBRA MESSING [00:53:05]
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:53:07]
DEBRA MESSING [00:53:07]
Anxiety is the thing that, you know, I, is the main thing that I’m always trying to, to keep under wraps. And I think a lot of it is learning about self care. And I think also it’s learning your, your boundaries. You know, I’ve learned that I can’t walk through Times Square. If I walk through Times Square, my anxiety just goes through the roof and I, I start having a panic attack.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:53:36]
DEBRA MESSING [00:53:37]
And so it’s like, you know what? I know that about myself. So make an adjustment. Go around Times Square. You know? And, and I think it’s about personal responsibility is, is learning about the things that make you feel safe and learning the things that trigger you and, and actively and intentionally making life choices to make sure that you are, are supporting your health.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:54:05]
For sure, but also sometimes within reason. So, for example, with your agoraphobia, in case, because I don’t know what mine’s gonna be like, or my friends is gonna be like when we leave lockdown and we start going back out into the world. But I think it’s also important to have someone there who can advise you on when you are protecting your boundaries or when you are shielding yourself to the point where you are not able to continue your life. So anyone out there listening to this-.
DEBRA MESSING [00:54:29]
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:54:29]
Some things about leaving the house are good. It just depends on where you go. And to just make sure you have someone to advise you along the steps of the way.
DEBRA MESSING [00:54:37]
And, you know, hopefully everybody has a friend in their life who, who really knows them and can mirror back to, to them and say, you know what? I think that you’re not in the best place. I think you should, you should just go for a walk.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:54:53]
Yeah, I agree. I really agree. Oh, thank you so much for coming on to talk to me about all of this stuff and being so candid. I’m so sorry for all the shitty ways in which you have been treated and traumatized by this industry. We didn’t even have time to go through all of them. There is so much more. Because you are very busy, going up and helping other people. Will you quickly tell me what your podcast is about so people can-.
DEBRA MESSING [00:55:20]
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:55:20]
People can go and listen to it?
DEBRA MESSING [00:55:22]
Yes, it’s called “The Dissenters”. And it is really all about inspiring and empowering people to recognize thatm that they are capable of enacting change. So we chose 20 dissenters from all different areas of life, people who became accidental activists. They never intended to. They saw an injustice and they just took one step towards helping. And it changed their lives and it changed our lives. So it’s really just, it’s a podcast about heroes.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:55:54]
Indeed. And it’s a wonderful podcast. And I’m so excited for everyone to listen to it.
DEBRA MESSING [00:55:59]
You are on it. You are one of our Dissenters.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:56:02]
I am, I am a Dissenter. And I was thrilled to get a chance to meet you then. And you’ve been a delight to get to know. And you are so generous. And while I want to be respectful of your boundaries, I hope you don’t retire ’cause it’s such a joy having you around. Before you leave, Debra, will you tell me what do you weigh?
DEBRA MESSING [00:56:26]
I weigh my activism. I weigh my role as mother. I weigh my patience. I weigh authenticity. And I weigh seeking joy.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:56:55]
And I’m going to add in for you, unsolicited, your ridiculous resilience.
DEBRA MESSING [00:57:00]
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:57:04]
We’re still here, man, we’re still here.
DEBRA MESSING [00:57:06]
Fuck it all. Fuck it all.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:57:09]
Oh, this is so great. My inner teenager is doing the biggest happy dance and is so excited that I got to have this conversation with you. It’s been very healing for me. And I’m sure a lot of people who grew up watching all of these people and not knowing what was really going on behind-the-scenes. And thank you for being such an authentic and honest role model. Lots of love.
DEBRA MESSING [00:57:33]
Lots of love to you.
JAMEELA JAMIL [00:57:35]
Thank you so much for listening to this week’s “I Weigh”. I would also like to thank the team, which helps me make this podcast. My producer, Sophia Jennings and Kimmie Lucas, my editor, Andrew Carson, my boyfriend, James Blake, who made the beautiful music you are hearing now. And me, for my work. At “I Weigh”, we would love to hear from you and share what you weigh at the end of this podcast. You can leave us a voicemail at 1-818-660-5543, or e-mail us what you weigh at [email protected]. And remember, it’s not in pounds and kilos, it’s your social contributions to society or just how you define yourself in life. And now we would love to pass the mic to one of our listeners.
I WEIGH COMMUNITY MEMBER [00:58:14]
I weigh being a daughter and a sister. I weigh my creativity and determination and who I am as a violinist and aspiring hairstylist. And I weigh my turning body image and social anxiety and my journey towards being better in the future.