Tiffany Haddish: comedian, actor and, by some measure, the US’s most enjoyable celebrity, has a helluva story to tell. One that involves a stepfather confessing he tried to kill her; a mother with schizophrenia; an abusive ex-husband whom she married twice, and, well, that’s barely skimming the surface. But ever since her breakout role in the 2017 hit comedy Girls Trip, she has had different kinds of stories to tell. And, oh boy, is she good at telling them.
“So I shouldn’t tell this, but … When I arrived in London, I was staying at Salma Hayek’s house – she’s my friend now,” she says, with a grin that is half self-mocking for the name-drop and half endearingly excited. “And I get there and her house is like a PALACE. And she says: ‘OK, pick a room.’ And I’m, like: ‘First off, the fact that you tell me to pick a room is, like, AMAZING.’ Then she shows me her closet and it is the most amazing thing in the world, Gucci, whatever, EVERYTHING. And I’m, like: ‘I’ll sleep in here!’ Then she shows me her daughter’s old bedroom with pink walls, circle bed, unicorn stuff all around. And I’m, like: ‘I’m sleeping in here! I always wanted to be a princess, and this is a princess room!’”
By now, Haddish, 39, is so excited she is banging the sofa she is sitting on with her fists, a seven-year-old overcome in a toy store: “I mean, AMAZING!”
Haddish and I are meeting in a hotel in London, ostensibly to discuss her work in The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part. When the first Lego film came out in 2014, she was a little-known comedian who had spent the past decade hacking her way through small TV appearances (typical IMDb entry: “One episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, stripper number three.”) Now, just four years later, she is one of the main characters in the mega-earning franchise, appearing alongside Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks and Will Ferrell and, as is Haddish’s way, nearly stealing the film from all of them.
She is extremely funny as the shape-shifting blocks called Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi (as in, “whatever I wanna be”), and the movie is a joy – but it’s clear pretty quickly that Haddish doesn’t have much interest in discussing it. (Me: “What did you think when you saw what your character looked like?” Her: “Never thought I’d play someone with blue eyes, but hey.”)
Haddish got her first break in 2015 on Tyler Perry’s soapy drama, If Loving You Is Easy, followed by a regular gig on the NBC sitcom, The Carmichael Show. When she finally shot to fame at 37 in Girls Trip, the riotous and raunchy film about four female friends, critics rightly compared her clearly star-making performance to that of Zach Galifianakis in The Hangover and Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids. While the three other women were perfectly good, Haddish had so much vibrant charisma, she made the others look pale in comparison.
Since then, she has won an Emmy for hosting Saturday Night Live; is the star of The Last OG, a US comedy created by Jordan Peele and co-starring Tracy Morgan; and this year alone has four movies coming out. But alongside her comedy, Haddish has become almost as well known for her appearances on the US talkshow circuit, where she describes her adventures among the A-listers with a candour you never hear from celebrities.
Last summer on Jimmy Kimmel, she described the time she went up to Leonardo DiCaprio at a Beverly Hills party and told him: “So, I want to hit that – but I only want to do it to you as your character out of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.” (DiCaprio played a mentally disabled teenager in the 1994 film.) DiCaprio – understandably – thought this was a joke and launched into the usual actor spiel about how he had prepared for the role, and what a great experience the film was. “And I was like: ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah,’” Haddish says making a bored face. “‘But when am I gonna hit that?’”
Has she hit that?
“No – he never called me! He don’t want me!” she says collapsing on the sofa with an exaggerated sob. She is groomed like a Hollywood starlet for the day – hair straight, gown formal – but throws herself around like a slapstick comedian. “I better leave him alone before he says I #MeToo-ed him through the press, and I don’t harass him because I know he’s got a girlfriend. But when that relationship goes, I’m popping back up, like: ‘Hi, Leonardo!’”
I tell her that it’s so much fun to hear what it’s like on the inside of celebrity from someone who clearly still feels like they’re on the outside.
“I definitely, totally, feel like I’m on the outside. I mean, where I came from is definitely on the outside, and that’s what made me who I am,” she says.
It would hard to be more on the outside than where Haddish started. She was born and raised in one of the poorest neighbourhoods in South Central Los Angeles, and her Eritrean father left when she was three. When she was eight, her mother was in a car accident so serious it gave her brain damage and probably triggered her schizophrenia. Haddish suddenly had to look after her four half-siblings as well as her mother, who, when she got out of hospital, would regularly beat her and tell her that she hated her because she reminded her of Haddish’s father.
When Haddish was 12, her mother got into a vicious fight with a neighbour and accidentally whacked his baby with a plank of wood. The baby was fine, but once social services cottoned on to just how chaotic Haddish’s home life was, they intervened. Haddish was placed in a group home, where she was viciously bullied, then in a foster home where the grandfather would suck on her nipples, telling her it would make her breasts grow faster.
At what point did she realise she was being molested?
“Not until years later! Yeah,” she says with a shrug that seems more like an expression of closure and self-protection than lack of interest.
Eventually, Haddish’s grandmother got custody of the kids, and Haddish went to school, where she managed to hide the fact that she was illiterate until she was 14. A few years later, Haddish’s stepfather told her that he had cut the brakes in Haddish’s mother’s car when she’d had her car accident, in the hope of killing her and all the children.
“I’m supposed to be a millionaire and y’all supposed to be gone,” he said, according to her extraordinary memoir, The Last Black Unicorn.
Is she in touch with her stepfather now?
“Yeah, yeah, I just saw him this weekend in Vegas. He came to my show,” she says.
How does it feel to see a man who confessed to trying to kill her?
“Well, at least he confessed,” she says. But when she sees the expression on my face, she continues: “And, you know, I can’t PROVE he did it. Maybe he was just saying it.”
“Maybe to make me work harder or to appreciate life or … or … I don’t know. But I don’t hate him. You know, he fought in the Vietnam war, he was a sniper – he’s got his own little demons. God makes you pay for your sins, and if I hadn’t gone through that, where would I be now?”
When Haddish was 15 and back with her grandmother, she became so disruptive in school that her social worker gave her an ultimatum: psychiatric therapy or comedy camp. Haddish chose comedy camp, and, she says simply: “It changed my life.” One of the most heartbreaking parts of reading Haddish’s memoir, I tell her, is thinking of how many other kids – in LA, the US, anywhere – had similarly chaotic beginnings, and knowing she is the exception to getting beyond them. “Totally. I mean, I still live in South Central because it’s where I’m comfortable. But I know I’m blessed,” she says.
It’s nice being able to buy things now, but I still count every penny
After finishing high school and getting kicked out by her grandmother, she gave up her tentative dreams of comedy and took various jobs, ranging from working in an airport to being, briefly, a pimp. Eventually, she decided to return to comedy. But she was regularly sexually harassed by comedy club owners – “They’d say: ‘So you want this, you’re gonna have to do that,” – and Haddish always refused. She was so broke that, for a while, she lived in her car. When her comedy colleague Kevin Hart heard, he gave her $300 for a hotel room for a week. Haddish, characteristically and correctly, shot back: “What? I cannot get no hotel room nowhere for 300 bucks.”
The two are still good friends, and regularly work together. Haddish is loyal to him when asked about the recent furore around Hart’s homophobic tweets, which led to him stepping down from hosting this year’s Oscars.
“First of all, he apologised for what he did years ago,” she begins, which is a somewhat debatable claim. But her second point is undoubtedly true: “So he was like: ‘Oh you guys don’t want it? OK bye.’ And he went to Australia and did a show for 35,000 people, and I think he made more money doing a comedy show than doing the Oscars.”
Haddish is always conscious of money. When we meet, she is wearing a beautiful long green Gucci dress (sweetly, she has left the side zip down) and shoes, which she admires lovingly. “It’s nice being able to buy things now, but I still count every penny,” she says.
The first thing she did when she started earning was get her mother proper medical care. Haddish’s grandmother and youngest brother live with her while Haddish is redoing her grandmother’s house.
So does she support her whole family? “We support each other,” she says firmly. “Maybe I contribute a little more financially because I’m gone a lot now, and that makes me feel bad. But I’m looking forward to having my house back to myself so I can walk around naked. Ha ha!”
Haddish is single, and has had, she admits, poor judgment when it comes to men. To make a very long story short, she met her now ex-husband on a cruise, he tracked her down five years later in 2011, and wooed her by finding her father, whom she hadn’t seen since she was three. Pretty much from the beginning, she says, he found him controlling. And yet, despite not even being attracted to him, she married him.
“I’m thinking: this is God’s work, and even if he’s not that physically attractive, I can live with that. What’s important is his soul, and to me, it seemed his soul cared about me a lot,” she writes in her memoir.
She has also made allegations of physical violence in her autobiography, which he has denied; he has also filed a $1m libel suit against her publisher. She finally divorced him – and then, two years later, remarried him. She divorced him for a second time in 2013 and is the one subject on which she will not be drawn.
“Girl, I don’t deal with that man. I wish him well, and stay out of my life, please,” is all she’ll say when asked about him.
She jokes about how she is looking for her fantasy man (“He gotta know how to cook, dance, be psychic …”) But Haddish has generally looked for men who need saving, and, given her family history, it’s not that surprising. Probably the most poignant part of her memoir comes when, as an adult, Haddish tries to involve her biological father in her life. But he abandons her again, and she is devastated.
“My dad didn’t care. Stepdad didn’t care. [So] I think I interpret possessiveness from men as love,” she writes.
Today, she says she doesn’t really want kids, and initially I assume it’s because of her career ambitions and, yes, she says, it is a bit of that. (“If Meryl Streep can be invited to the Oscars 22 times, why can’t I?”) But she is also scared of repeating her mother’s patterns: “My mama would say to me: ‘You look like your ugly daddy.’ I would hate to hear that come out of my mouth, but who’s to say it wouldn’t? I never want to put that on someone else,” she says. “But if some man inspires me to bust this thing open that’s cool, too!”
My favourite Haddish moment is not from her comedy and movies, but when she appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres Show last year, where, to her astonishment, Oprah Winfrey surprised her on stage.
Haddish went in full meltdown, alternately sobbing that she loved her and furiously asking why Winfrey never replied to her letters.
“I lost the letter,” Winfrey replied, in a tone that suggests she gets asked that a lot.
“But I wrote you six!” wept Haddish on national TV.
I tell Haddish I’d never seen a celebrity seem so human on a talkshow, or interview one so open about herself either.
“For me, being fake is too exhausting,” she says. “I think the way I grew up, in different homes, different schools, taught me I’m most comfortable being myself wherever I am. Also, I think being fake shows on people – they get tired, or bitter. Being yourself is easiest. I may be cheating but you know what? It feels good!”