The following feature appears in the April 2017 issue of NYLON.
Gabourey Sidibe flashes a gold ring with her nickname “Gabby” engraved in cursive. Her first name means “the one with the beautiful cheeks” and her middle name, MaLingair, translates to “my queen” in Wolof, a native language of Senegal. Despite it being both melodious and memorable, she claims that most people are too lazy to attempt pronouncing her given name. Still, it holds special meaning because her father, Ibnou, selected it to honor an African woman who helped raise him. The 33-year-old actress takes a sip of an Americano before revealing some of the less endearing aspects of her childhood, including disciplinary beatings and being called “Fatso” by her father and other family members. Her doe eyes well up and teardrops roll down her face and land on her glossy lavender pout. She brushes the tears away from her cheek with her index finger.
It’s noon at a chic French bistro in downtown Los Angeles on the ground floor of an old Nabisco factory. I listen intently as Sidibe expands upon harrowing incidents detailed in her new memoir, This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare, out May 1. It’s her first time discussing such experiences with a journalist, she tells me. And it is somewhat of a surprising departure from the bubbly persona she’s displayed during countless awards show acceptance speeches—which are always appropriately poignant, but also punctuated by Sidibe’s quick wit, impromptu dance moves, and infectious, adorably snort-imbued laughter.
It’s a side her fans rarely get to see, but one that might help explain how she wound up winning so many prestigious accolades for her first film role, as the emotionally raw but uplifting title character in 2009’s Precious. “At that point I kind of had a lot of practice acting,” she says. “I grew up pretending I was okay when I wasn’t.”