Gabourey Sidibe On How Stylists Shield Stars From Harsh Realities Of The Red Carpet

Photo: Courtesy of Fox.
Gabourey Sidibe is as no-B.S. and straight-shooting when she's off-duty as her Empire character, Becky, typically is on the small screen. It's something we learned recently when we chatted with Sidibe about her role in Lane Bryant's fall 2016 campaign (a continuation of the brand's "This Body" ads), which was Sidibe's first-ever fashion campaign.

Ahead, the actress (and burgeoning director) gets frank with Refinery29 about her personal style evolution, how having a stylist has body-image-preserving benefits, and the striking contrast between her wardrobe on-screen and IRL.

How has your relationship with fashion changed over the years?
“At the beginning of my career, I didn’t care about clothes much. I hired people to care about clothes, because I cared about clothes so little; I cared about fashion so little. At this point in my career, eight to 10 years later, I still don’t care about clothes, I still don’t care about fashion, and I still pay other people to do that for me — because when you go on red carpets, you can’t just wear things that make you feel good and pretty. You have to wear things that the Fashion Police won’t have a problem with, so you won’t end up on some worst-dressed list. That’s way too much to think about.

"But I separate my job from my real life. And in my real life, beyond my work life, I really care about what I wear. My own personal style is very Brooklyn. It’s currently very, very African, because I’m half Senegalese. I just did this project where I was directing [a Refinery29 Shatterbox Anthology short]. I made a decision, months in advance, to wear Biggie Smalls Y-shirts to represent Brooklyn. It’s where I’m from and who I am, and I guess I thought it’d make me seem more approachable. I wore African kente-cloth skirts with the shirts, no matter what, every single day. It’s who I was, it’s who I am currently, and it’s who I will be tomorrow. I will always be a half-African woman from Brooklyn. So I wear those things that make me happy; to make me feel good in my real life. But as far as red carpets and stuff, that’s very much somebody else’s deal.”

Is it too early in the morning for selfies with a Mayfair filter? 👸🏿

A photo posted by Gabby Sidibe 👸🏿 (@gabby3shabby) on

Even though you’ve gladly handed off your on-duty style decisions, there’s been a lot of talk about limited red carpet choices if you’re not sample-sized. What’s your take?
“I’ve heard stories of some women that weren’t able to get this brand or that brand or that designer to fit them. Honestly, I have never had that problem — that I know of, at least. Now, that’s the thing about having a stylist — if a brand ever said I couldn’t wear their dresses because they don’t carry my size, I don’t know about it. I have zero idea about it. I don’t need to know.

“I want to walk down the red carpet in a dress that I want to be wearing. The last thing I want to do is end up with a dress that feels like, ‘Uh, well, this is the best I could do because nobody else would dress me,’ or know that [a certain designer] doesn’t like my body. But I know that that has happened to other people.”

Beyond when you’re on the red carpet, off-duty, or in director mode, how would you describe your small-screen wardrobe on Empire?
“We have a really, really wonderful, talented, genius costume designer, Paolo Nieddu. He was actually our costume designer on the pilot, but he wasn’t able to do the whole first season. So, while filming the first season, every day I would go into work and it’d be a complete fight over what I was going to wear. I hated most of the options, and I ended up just bringing clothes to work. But Paolo came back for season two, as well as season three. He has a very specific look for all of us.

“My character, Becky, is kind of fashioned after a young, corporate Oprah. That’s really, really helpful to have as a reference. I can look at an item and am like, ‘Oh, nope. Becky wouldn’t wear that, because Oprah wouldn’t wear that.’ I love all the clothes they get for me; it’s beautiful stuff. My favorite thing to do is go in for a fitting, because I know I’m going to get to wear super-cute clothes that I love. They also do a lot of custom-made things for me, too. Michelle Tan has made me a few dresses that I love. I’m convinced that one of them, this little trench coat-like dress, makes me look like Michelle Obama.”

Do you ever request certain designers or styles?
“Paolo anticipates my every wish. Sometimes he’ll fit me in things, and we’ll love it so much that I’ll be like, ‘Oh, my God, this piece is great, can I have this in yellow, too?’ and then it will show up in yellow. I always have ideas of what Becky would wear. But sometimes they’re better off not listening to me: If I suggest a Biggie Smalls T-shirt or a Yankees hat or denim overalls, the answer is no." [Laughs]

The plus-sized fashion market still has a ways to go, but it’s certainly evolved over the years. What do you wish you’d had a chance to wear (but couldn’t find) as a teenager?
“When I was in junior high school, all the girls in my class had these really fun bras. They had Looney Tunes characters on them, Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse. I grew up in Harlem and Brooklyn, and I went to school on the Lower East Side, and so they probably got their bras from Delancey Street. But there was never a Mickey or Minnie Mouse bra that could fit me, and I remember hating that. That was the first time I realized I couldn’t be like other girls, because the same clothes were not available to me in my size.”

What would you tell your junior high self now about fashion or body image?

“I know that my junior high self would not listen. I don’t think she would care. I remember being really upset about not being able to have the same bras as everyone else, but also being like, ‘Well, I wasn’t super into bras anyway.’ If I had been able to, I would probably feel forced to wear my bra — I didn’t wear bras until I went to college. I was really bad at wearing bras.”

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