Tiffany Haddish in New York recently. Tyler Perry said that when he cast her on a TV show, he quickly realized she was “bigger than what we were doing. I knew that eventually she would hit.”CreditCreditHeather Sten for The New York Times
LOS ANGELES — Tiffany Haddish almost had hot vacation sex last month.
After a whirlwind year catapulting to fame and winning an Emmy, she went on holiday to Greece, one of the dwindling number of places she can still go unrecognized. There, she met a gorgeous man, and though he spoke only Greek to her, it was clear from their frisson and the way he touched her arm how the night could go.
“But then I got scared,” Haddish, who is 38, told me during an interview early in October in Santa Monica, “I need at least a month to get to know a dude.”
She paused, searched my eyes and let out a raspy giggle. “You would’ve did it?!” It wasn’t exactly that. I was wondering if the Greek fella had any inkling of what he had missed. This was, after all, the woman who, in her breakthrough role in the 2017 summer smash “Girls Trip,” introduced a wowser of a boudoir trick — it involves citrus — to the wider world.
“Girls Trip” was to Haddish what “Bridesmaids” was to Melissa McCarthy and “The Hangover” was to Zach Galifianakis. She became the kind of instant star — stealing the show at the Oscars, on “Saturday Night Live” and with Trevor Noah — that made people wonder where she had been all of their lives. Warm, wickedly funny and endlessly relatable, she was an emissary of realness who punched through the gauzy divide separating celebrities from everyone else.
She took Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith on a public swamp tour booked with Groupon. She proudly wore her white Alexander McQueen gown over and over because it cost so damn much. She reported back from a schmancy Hollywood party that a woman — she would not say who — had actually bitten Beyoncé’s face. Amid the ugly sexual abuse scandals hitting Hollywood, Haddish was like enriched oxygen, providing giddy, much-needed relief.
Her longtime friends and allies were not at all surprised. Tyler Perry, who wrote the forthcoming film “Nobody’s Fool” specifically for her, said after casting Haddish in his television series “If Loving You Is Wrong,” he quickly realized that she outshone the part. “She was bigger than the room, bigger than what we were doing,” he said. “I knew that eventually she would hit.”
This fall, along with “Nobody’s Fool,” Haddish has headlined two other movies, the dark comedy “The Oath” and, with Kevin Hart, “Night School,” which was a box office hit and critical flop. Its director, Malcolm D. Lee, suspects that some people might have expected someone closer to Dina, her “Girls Trip” character. If so, their reaction could be a bellwether of how smoothly our honeymoon with Haddish transitions into a longer-term thing, and whether getting there requires taking vastly different roles, or sticking to the tried and true.
Hart thinks Haddish should ignore any conversation about what she should do next and dig into her moment as a comedy star. “Everybody wants change immediately,” he said. “Why?”
Perry — who so adores Haddish that he recently gave her a Tesla — said it would be tragic if people missed out on seeing her dramatic range. And Lee worries that she might burn out. “She’s very giving to her fans, very gracious and loving,” Lee said, “And that does take a toll.”
Haddish has already weathered some blowback. Tracy Morgan, her co-star in the TBS series “The Last O.G.,” got all tetchy this summer when asked about her burst of success; then Katt Williams suggested her fame was linked to her looks, and basically undeserved. Haddish responded by going high. She told The Hollywood Reporter that Morgan was probably tired of hearing her name, which she understood, because she was, too. “I love me some Tracy,” she said. She lightly ribbed Williams on Twitter, saying she was looking forward to seeing him at the Emmys.“I just want to shower you with REAL love, cause you need it, and I love you,” she wrote.
I wondered where all the love came from. What, I asked her, was the source?
“My uterus?” she replied. “My empty uterus?”
We were sitting in the courtyard of a recording studio in a nondescript building just off the Santa Monica Freeway, where Ms. Haddish was doing voice-overs for “Lego Movie Two.” Since demand for her went through the roof, she has been fighting fatigue with naps and five-hour energy drinks. She still looked great. Publicity shots were planned, so she had fixed her hair, put on eyelashes, and worn a cute red-and-blue outfit sent over by Tory Burch. A few days earlier, to celebrate the box office success of “Night School,” she posted a video to Instagram of her more au naturel self: barefaced and gorgeous, wearing an orange hair bonnet and sweats, skipping along the sidewalk of her neighborhood in South Los Angeles.
About that love-thy-neighbor business. Ms. Haddish’s first instinct after getting disrespected is to cuss the insulter out, but she said she holds back because she deeply believes in the golden rule. She cannot expect to be met with understanding and compassion unless she gives love out, a lesson she somehow internalized despite a brutal childhood.
She was born in Los Angeles, and her father, an Eritrean refugee, left the family when she was a toddler. Her mother, an accomplished entrepreneur, remarried and had four more children, but when Haddish was 8, her mother got into a horrible car accident. Her head went through the windshield, and she was left severely brain damaged, with a very limited vocabulary, which frustrated her to the point of violence. Haddish believes it led to her schizophrenia. (She also believes Kanye West’s controversial embrace of Donald Trump could have roots in his 2002 car crash. “You could be suffering brain damage,” she said. “Look at football players.”)
Haddish became the de facto head of the house, and discovered during her tweenage years that she could head off her mother’s outbursts by making jokes. “At that point it was not about being funny, it was a defense mechanism to avoid getting punched in the mouth,” she said. Much of high school was spent away from her siblings in foster care, where she was molested.
But she was also curious and driven, and the class cut-up. Forced to more or less raise herself, Haddish checked out tons of how-to audiobooks from the library: how to be a good person, a good wife, a success, a harnesser of feminine energy and might. She won a high school drama competition, attended a Laugh Factory Comedy Camp for at-risk kids, and began working as a party starter at bar mitzvahs.
Much of this is in her memoir, “The Last Black Unicorn,” which took its title from a childhood nickname inspired by a persistent wart that began growing out of her forehead. In the book, she details her tumultuous marriage. (She once called the police to tell them she was about to commit murder. She is now divorced, and her ex is suing her over comments in the book.) She also wrote about the outlandish, vengeful pranks she pulled on a cheating boyfriend. (She pooped in his shoes and sent his entire family videotape copies, wrapped in Christmas paper, of him and his side girl having sex.)
But Haddish left one devastating episode out, something she only revealed last summer. When she was 17, she said, she was raped by a man who told her he was a police cadet. She reported it to the police, she told me, but nothing was done.
“I can’t fix it, and there’s nothing funny about it, so I didn’t put it in the book,” she said, her husky voice cracking. “I got my power stolen. You gotta claim that back.”
We sat in silence for a few moments, or near silence, as she choked back sobs. Flashes of the attack hit her out of the blue, triggered by a song or a smell; she still cannot eat at the California burger joint she and her attacker went to together.
Haddish found solace with girlfriends who had also been sexually assaulted, and tried to imagine her hymen growing back. But she grew leaden with despair. She had heavy, inexplicable vaginal bleeding, was reeling from a storm of unprocessed trauma, and living out of her Geo Metro, which made entertaining cosseted adolescents at bar and bat mitzvahs excruciating, especially when daughters danced with their dads.
“I literally wanted to kill myself,” she said. “I felt like everything in my life and everybody that came around was out to hurt me.”
Then, one night when she was 21, her stepfather told her she should buck up because she ought to have been dead. She said he told her he had snipped her mother’s brakes before the crash, and that Haddish and her siblings were supposed to have been with her. Haddish still does not know if he was telling the truth, or lying to get her out of her funk. Either way, it worked. “I was like, ‘I must get revenge!’” she exclaimed, slamming her hands onto the table we were sitting at. She hatched schemes to get her stepfather imprisoned, plotting to date a police officer and then a lawyer, until her grandmother told her she had to let God handle it. (She said her stepfather was never prosecuted. Efforts to locate him were not successful.) “His life was going really great when I was trying to get revenge,” Haddish said. “As soon as I stopped doing that, life started kicking him in the ass.”
Meanwhile, her life steadily improved.
At the urging of a therapist, Haddish started doing stand-up comedy. The bleeding slowed, and her depression lifted. Even her crotchety mom started giving her kudos, in her own special way. After Haddish got her first big break, performing on the television show “Bill Bellamy’s Who’s Got Jokes?,” she said her mother turned to her and crowed proudly, “My coochie makes stars.”
Haddish also reunited with her father and finally got to dance with him, at her wedding. He had agonized about abandoning her, saying maybe he could have protected her. “I said, ‘Well maybe then I’d be a lame-ass bitch,” she recalled. After their dance, she zipped to the bathroom to pray. “I just said, ‘Thank you so much for that experience and please send loving energy and my apologies to all the bat mitzvah girls I was hating on,’” she said. (Her father died last year.)
Her dogged pursuit of success involved a formula she said she learned from assorted books, including the Bible. She knew what she wanted. She had faith that she could do it. And she took action, enrolling in acting classes, doing tons of comedy, going on endless failed auditions, and finally getting cast in TV shows (“Real Husbands of Hollywood”) and movies (“The Janky Promoters”). She still is pushing to claim new ground and stars in the 2019 mob drama “The Kitchen” with McCarthy and Elisabeth Moss.
“I executed a plan and I’m getting the results, like when you decide to bake a chicken,” she said. “My career is a delicious roasted chicken.”
Now, over a year into her fame, lots of things about her have not changed, at least not yet. She loves sex, but her faith in guys had been lastingly shaken, which was a big reason she did not hook up with the amorous Greek. “I can’t trust these men,” she said.
Aside from the occasional splurge, she doesn’t like buying super pricey clothes or handbags. She has no plans to leave her South Los Angeles home, which she adores and bought way before “Girls Trip,” even though her fancy friends are urging her to move almost anywhere else. And she said a big chunk of her money goes to covering her family’s medical bills and day-care costs, refurbishing her grandmother’s house for accessibility, and paying for top meal plans, nurses, physical therapists and psychologists for her mother, whom Haddish moved out of a mental institution earlier this year.
Haddish’s new goal is create an empire, though she is not sure exactly how to go about it, or if it will be in the entertainment business or what. But she wants to have 40 or 50 people working for her who will be able to buy houses, put their kids through school, and pass their money down. “The end goal,” she said, “is to create intergenerational wealth and spread joy, and make sure everyone who works with me can spread the same thing and have it trickle down.”
In the meantime, she is dabbling in music and trying to make a rap album.
She is also considering a return to Greece.
“Sometimes, you’re like, ‘Whoever want it, come and get it,’” Ms. Haddish said. “But nobody wants you when you’re like, ‘ANYBODY?’”
She draped herself across the table, stomach down, posterior up, and looked slyly over one shoulder. “Anybody?” she continued, at a holler. “No takers. Please, please sir. No? O.K.’”
She promised me she would work it into a comedy bit.
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