The Awesome Evolution of Gabourey Sidibe

There’s no one in Hollywood quite like Gabourey Sidibe. At the age of 26, Sidibe was cast in Lee Daniels’ film Precious with no acting credits to her name. Previously, she'd had parts in college productions of The Wiz and The Vagina Monologues, and that's it. Still, Daniels immediately knew he wanted to cast Sidibe. After seeing her moving Precious, we all knew why.

Though she began her career as a newcomer, Sidibe has lasting power. Since Precious, she’s gone on to star in Empire, American Horror Story, and Difficult People. She’s written a memoir. Most recently, she made her directorial debut. Her short film, The Tale of Four, which is part of Refinery29's Shatterbox series, is now available to stream.

Sidibe is also a delight. Her off-screen presence as much a part of her legacy as her acting, writing, and directorial work are. Sidibe proud of who she is, and her outspokenness has rendered her a pioneer in the body positivity movement. Her sense of humor permeates all of her media appearances — and all of her tweets.

Here’s how she became the powerhouse she is today.

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In 2009, we all met Gabourey Sidibe for the first time.

At the age of 26, Sidibe was cast as the titular Precious in Lee Daniels’ Precious. The movie was grim, difficult to watch, and very important. Precious was a functionally illiterate teenager living under the rule of an abusive mother, who was jealous that Precious had bore two of her father’s children. Eventually, she's awakened to other possibilities through the intervention of a kind teacher ands social worker.

"Precious's story is a fiction," Sidibe told the Guardian, "but it's also a truth. There are lots of Preciouses out there and not all of them are as lucky as her. She has a light of hope in her that we see in the film even when she's in the heart of darkness. Others may not be so lucky. But who knows if she's going to get out of her world. We hope she will, though, don't we?"
Here's how Sidibe got to star Precious.

The story of how she came to the part — for which she was eventually nominated for an Oscar — is truly extraordinary. Sidibe’s mother, Alice Tan Ridley, became a New York legend for her singing performances in the Times Square subway station. Lee Daniels was a fan of hers, and asked her to audition for the part of Precious’ mother. Instead, Ridley said her daughter, Gabby, should be in the film.

Daniels was weeks away from the shoot and still hadn’t found his Precious. So, after watching hundreds of audition tapes and touring the country, Daniels and his casting director saw Sidibe. "I did the first audition for Billy Hopkins [the film's casting director and Lee Daniels' partner] and he didn't speak for 30 seconds. Two days later Lee said to me: 'I want you to be in my movie.' The audition was on Monday and by Wednesday my life had changed,” Sidibe told the Guardian.
After a small role in another indie film, Sidibe was cast in another big-budget film in 2011.

She played Odessa, a Jamaican maid and expert safecracker, in the comedy caper Tower Heist, which also starred Eddie Murphy, Ben Stiller, and Alan Alda.

In one scene, Odessa flirts with Eddie Murphy's character. According to Sidibe, the interaction was entirely improvised. "I think I’m a funny person and my mom thinks I’m funny but the biggest test of whether or not you are funny is being in a scene with Eddie Murphy," Sidibe told BlackFilm.
Showtime/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
Her TV career was especially taking off.

For three years, Sidibe appeared as Andrea Jackson on the Showtime show The Big C, which follows a high school teacher, Cathy Jamison (Laura Linney), diagnosed with terminal cancer. Andrea is Cathy’s student with whom she has a very close relationship.

When The Big C ended in 2013, Sidibe was cast in Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story, and appeared in three seasons.

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She also had the opportunity to teach Kathy Bates to twerk. Really.

The show also allowed her to develop relationships with other industry stars, like Kathy Bates, her co-star who apparently wanted to teach her how to twerk.

"I just started to teach her. Every now and then, I’ll see her sitting in her chair, not paying attention, and I’ll just walk over and twerk on her. She doesn’t see it coming. I do weird things like that,” she told Vulture.
2015 was a big year for Sidibe.

In 2015, Sidibe reunited with Lee Daniels to appear in his show, Empire. The role of Becky Williams, the assistant who becomes head of Empire's A&R, was written for a petite white girl. Instead, it went to Sidibe.

"She has a few degrees and worked her way up to be Lucious' assistant, but like most assistants, she's probably too smart to be an assistant. All of her quips come from her being literally the smartest person in the room," Sidibe told the Los Angeles Times.

That same year, she also was cast in the comedy Difficult People. She's still appearing in both of those shows.
In April, her memoir came out.

Her memoir, This Is Just My Face: Try Not To Stare, was chock full Sidibe's incredible one-liners. She spoke about her identity in ways both genuine — "I could lose weight. That is a fact. But I am dope at any and every size. I am smart. I am funny. I am talented. I am gorgeous. I am black. I am fat. Sometimes I’m a bitch. At all times, I am a bad bitch. (The word bitch is pretty confusing, right?)" – and hilarious — "I was born a cynical, suspicious, 45-year-old divorcée."

Sidibe told Refinery29 that the book took her three years to write. She was worried about hurting her family and friends by speaking her truth, but found a way.

"I'm a person who is of some level of emotional intelligence and I was clogged in a lot of ways. Writing helped me unclog. I needed to allow myself to do that."
And starting today, you can watch Sidibe's directorial debut.

Sidibe's short film The Tale of Four is part of Refinery29's ShatterBox Anthology, a series of 12 short films directed by industry veterans and first-timers like Sidibe. The film provides vignettes of the lives of four Black women.

“It’s so important for people like me to get behind the camera,” Sidibe told Refinery29's Sesali Bowen. “I know that we’re called minorities but there’s no fucking way there are less of us than there are of them. We’re called minorities because we matter minorly. The way we matter is minor to the way they matter... Atlanta and Insecure, those are my favorite shows. We out here winning all the Emmys. Don’t say we don’t exist. We’re not a fad. We’re not going anywhere and we are snatching the gold right out of your hand.”
Go, Gabby!

At 26, Sidibe was an unknown actress. Eight years later, she's officially a triple threat: Author, actress, and director. We can't wait to see where her career goes next.