March 27, 2010
Mo’Nique, sitting in an airless anteroom of a TV studio inAtlanta, Georgia, suggestively lifts the hem of her brown dressing gown to reveal her legs. “Touch them, go on. They won’t hurt, they won’t bite. I used to be like a BEAR. I am a bear. I was probably a bear in my first life.” I touch as instructed. The hair, the famous Mo’Nique leg hair, is indeed downy, not bear-thick or stubbly. The 42-year-old actress, stand-up comic and talk show host may have won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, Golden Globe and Bafta for her performance as Gabourey Sidibe’s monstrous mother in the movie Precious, but it’s her hairy legs — revealed at the Globes — that have excited most comment. That and her “open” marriage to her third husband, Sidney Hicks. Of course such gossipy morsels disguise, and also symbolise, what a singular force Mo’Nique is. In the pantheon of preened and pliant Hollywood screen queens, she is unique: an unapologetic, outspoken maverick. A force 12 gale of passion and confession — about her incestuous childhood abuse, marriage to Hicks, Hollywood’s racism, the glories of leg hair, God and much more besides — is about to engulf me.
“I’ve been in the business for 20 years and they’re talking about this,” she says mock- scornfully about the hairy hysteria. “Guys, if you don’t like the hair on my legs you can look somewhere else. But because you keep looking” — her voice drops to a sultry whisper — “there’s something about it you like, but you don’t want to say it out loud. For me, brother, I enjoy every inch of me, and if I begin to change it based on your opinion of me, that’s when I go crazy. I only shaved my legs once: it was when I was a teenager. It was the most painful thing ever. When it started growing back it was prickly. Sugar, I can’t do it. I love it and my husband loves it. All the s*** going on in the world — we’re at war, Hurricane Katrina . . . and my hairy legs make the news. What about the homeless? Can we go to Haiti and keep that story alive?”
We meet after the first of that day’s two recordings of Mo’Nique’s talk show, broadcast on Black Entertainment Television. The audience has been skilfully geed up by slick warm-up men, we know when to stand up and applaud, to dance (or sway woodenly in my case) when the house band plays, to look at each other quizzically when someone says something moving. Mo’Nique appears to a bedlam of roars and applause in a dramatic off-the-shoulder red dress, hair bouncy and lustrous, stalks towards the camera and fires off a lecture about the importance of kindness. The audience — with muttered “Amens”, “yeses” and sighs — sounds like a congregation.
Mo’Nique doesn’t go to church and isn’t devout or judgmental, but she invokes God with her own fire and brimstone. The stage is her pulpit. Today’s guest, John Forté, the former Fugees producer, talks about being charged (and jailed) for possession with intent to distribute, and conspiracy to distribute, cocaine. His friend the pop star Ben Taylor, Carly Simon’s son, reveals why he and his mother fought to free Forté (whose 14-year sentence was commuted in 2008). Mo’Nique absolves a humble Forté, complimenting both men for showing how the race divide can be overcome by friendship. Everybody claps. “I don’t do interviews, I do conversations with friends,” Mo’Nique says later. “We ask the talent what they want to talk about.” Shouldn’t you be asking the questions an audience wants answered? “We’ll never try to catch a guest off guard. I don’t call myself a chat show host, I call myself a late-night party host. Here you leave your worries behind. This is where you come, baby, to have a good time.”
Mo’Nique is, she says, an “entertainer” first and foremost. From the outset, goaded by her brother Steve to take to the stage in her native Baltimore, her career has been centred on stand-up comedy (she is in the middle of a 20-city US tour). She was the first woman to present the US music TV programme Showtime at the Apollo. She found popular success in the comedy series The Parkers. She’s successfully produced her own reality show, Mo’Nique’s Fat Chance (celebrating larger-sized women). But stand-up comedy is her true passion.
“In stand-up, there’s no ‘Action’, no ‘Cut’, no director, no edit. Give me a microphone, say ‘Go’ and baby, I’m in heaven.” Her beatific smile is a million miles from the curd- led spite of Mary, the abusive mother in Precious. “There weren’t lots of rehearsals or takes,” Mo’Nique says. “The moment Mr Daniels [Lee Daniels, the director] said ‘Cut’ we left those characters on the floor. We did not have to be deprogrammed. We laughed a lot, we had crabs legs and house music. I turned Mary on and turned Mary off.” After a screening in Hollywood, her husband recalls that the renowned actor Sidney Poitier told Mo’Nique that she had not had “one false moment” in the film.
Daniels says that Mo’Nique added a “complex, twisted humour” to Mary and adds, sadly, that since the movie became so successful their relationship has changed.
“It’s about business now, it has a different dynamic. But I’ll always savour the filming. We talked about sex, who’d got some the previous night. I had the best, obviously. Mo’Nique was making jokes, Mariah [Carey] was singing. Lenny [Kravitz] was playing the guitar”. What will Mo’Nique do next? “You know,” Daniels says, “I’d be curious to find out.”
The model for the abusive Mary came from the most horrible source: the youngest of four, Mo’Nique claims she was sexually molested by her eldest brother, Gerald. “I was 7, he was six years older. It happened for a while. For a long time I resented and despised him. But the moment I got done with that movie, the resentment went.”
She reveals that it’s been four years since they last spoke. “I love my brother. The last conversation we had was, ‘I never want to see you again and I wish you nothing but the best that life has to offer’. I understand his sickness. I just couldn’t have him in my life.” He has not publicly commented on the allegations. The first people she told about the abuse were her parents, when she was 15. “I don’t have the horror story. I was a playful child. What you see now is what I was then. I don’t know if that was my way of dealing with it. I was never inward. I was outward. Now, at 42 years old and after going through therapy, I want to be free. I said to my brother, ‘If I hate you I’m not free. If I resent you I’m not free. But if I totally let it go I’m free. If I let it go, God can now step in and deal with you. But as long as I hold on to it nothing can be done’.”
Did she feel able to fight back at the time? “You’re a kid. What do you say?” she replies. “There is no language, so you go along with it.” And her parents? “For a long time I was very angry with them: they didn’t know at the time, but why didn’t they do anything about it after I told them?” Gerald, she has revealed in the past, later served a 15-year prison sentence for sexually molesting a young girl. “A few years ago my mother said, ‘I didn’t know what to do, you’re both my children. I was embarrassed, ashamed, guilty. Do I stop loving him?’ I understood what she meant so it stopped me being angry with them. With Precious, I was honoured with all the awards, but I was never looking for them. I signed up for the reward of people who would be healed. Lots of people have said, ‘You’ve told my story’. That’s amazing.”
The molestation, Mo’Nique says, made her “a very promiscuous young lady”. She would go from man to man, “like, ‘This one will be ‘it’, the one to protect me so it will never happen again, ‘No, this one’, ‘No, this one’. I was very dominant in the relationships, I wanted to be in control.” She was a supervisor for a phone sex company (“I was like quality control,” she has said), and she married and divorced twice.
“There came a point, five years ago, when I said to myself, ‘I don’t want to be sick for something I really had nothing to do with’,” she says. At about the same time, “Fame was coming, money was coming,” she recalls. “But at home the pain remained the same. No one knew. I’ve always been the life and soul of the party.” Her mood swings became extreme and Hicks and her close friends told her to seek help. At 37 she started therapy: “It literally saved my life. Without it I would have been a mess. I think I wouldn’t have been able to be a good friend. I wasn’t always the most considerate person. I thought it was all about me. No one should believe they’re special ’cos your ass is going away from here one day and you can’t explain it.”
However, her determination to succeed has always been unwavering. Her father, Steven Imes Jr, once said that “she was always an aggressive individual who seemed to carry out everything that she started”. She tells me: “When I found out I could stand on stage and all eyes in the room would be on me, and I was going to be paid to do that, it was a no-brainer.” Her father may have been a clinical therapist and her mother, Alice, an engineer, but when I say that it sounds like a cerebral house in which to grow up, Mo’Nique roars. “No. I love to entertain. I love to dance. I didn’t want to study. I told my parents, ‘I’m going to be a star, don’t you know it’. I couldn’t wait for people to do my make-up and hair, to walk off a plane and have people say my name, and now we’re walk- ing in the midst of that.” Does it live up to the dream? “Every second,” Mo’Nique whispers. “The little girl in me goes . . .” And she lets out a piercing, delighted yelp.
But while she’s achieved stardom she’s also determinedly become an atypical star. Bigger men and women have thanked her for proudly embodying a larger body shape than Hollywood’s toned fembots (“Baby, I thank God for using me as a vessel”). She was criticised for not lobbying more actively for the awards that she eventually won. “I’ll do what my maker tells me to do,” she replies, opaquely. Later she says: “My attitude was, ‘Hey guys, I didn’t sign up to win any awards’. My performance stands for itself. I have beautiful children. I was honoured last year to take care of my 85-year-old grandmother in her last days. How could I give up those jewels to deal with the pressure of the business? My grandmother and I would go to the super- market and she would point people to the covers of the magazines and say, ‘This is my granddaughter. Isn’t she beautiful?’ I’ve not grieved her. How could I? I think God would say, ‘For real? You greedy ass. You knew it wasn’t permanent, so enjoy every moment’. On the last day, I said, ‘Baby, I’ll see you on the other side’, and she winked.”
In her Oscars speech Mo’Nique thanked Hicks for reminding her not to confuse what was popular with what was right. She referred to Hattie McDaniel, the black Gone With the Wind star who wasn’t allowed to attend the film’s premiere and who was made to sit at the back of the auditorium of the Oscars in 1940 (where she won Best Supporting Actress). Is Hollywood still racist? “I don’t think too much has changed from 1940 to 2010. Look at television: how many people of colour do you see? When you think the Oscars have been around for 82 years and only five [lead category] performances by people of colour have been worthy of an Oscar, you have to ask, ‘Guys do you not see the elephant in the room?’ ” She asks that the big studios be held to account on black under-representation. “Hollywood should show that the world is a true melting pot, that beauty comes in many colours. Why are we still so secondary?”
Has her career felt any post-Oscar bounce? “I am the highest-paid woman in the history of this network. That was before the Oscar. I’m a New York Times bestseller [Skinny Women are Evil, in 2003]. That was before the Oscar. If I take that one trophy and base my entire career on it, I think God would say, ‘Are you serious?’ They say it should change my career somehow. We’ll see.” She seems so tough, does she ever feel intimidated? “I get intimidated at the top of the rollercoaster before it comes down from the top and I feel myself coming up in my seat and want to make sure the bar is tight around my waist. But I’m not intimidated by anything in this business.”
The headlines over her open marriage to Hicks are met by a weary shrug. “It’s such an old story,” she says. “You put these unrealistic expectations on people and we said, ‘Hey guys, we can’t live that way. I’m not judging your situation, so how can you judge mine?’” Has she or Hicks had sex outside the relationship? She dodges the question. “It’s not a deal-breaker. It wouldn’t break us up. My husband and I have been best friends since we were 14. We have no secrets. There are people who lie next to their partner at night and not know what they are thinking. I refuse to be one of them.”
I ask again: do you have sex outside the relationship? “Do we look for other people to have sex with? No. We’re here [at the studios] three days a week [their company, Hicks Media, produces the show], we’re on comedy tour, we have two children at home [their four-year-old twins Jonathan and David]. Sidney has a son, Michael , I have a son, Shalon . But we are in our forties.” She claps her hands together. “We might live another 50 years. For another 50 years, can I tell you I won’t be attracted to another human being?” She is shouting now. “I can’t tell you that.”
Hicks, a handsome man with diamond earrings, says that Mo’Nique’s “naked honesty” is her most attractive characteristic. She doesn’t get embarrassed, but is “free”. He won’t say if they’ve had extramarital sex either (“it’s not relevant and it’s private”). The one thing that annoys him about her is when she steals snacks he has just made. “I’m used to it. When she was 20 she would steal my cookies and always remove the raisins before eating them.”
Later, listening to our conversation, I realise how much Mo’Nique imputes to God, rather than her relentless determination, talent or business savvy. It is God, she claims genuinely and passionately, who has made her a “victor” rather than victim. “I believe God, not in God,” she says. When does she feel God? “Right now.” She takes my hand. “You’re my brother. I’m very careful with journalists. They’ve changed what I’ve said in the past. If you write this wrong, the Universe will deal with you in a way that you’re going to be like, shhiiiiitt. . .”
Before I am turned to dust on the spot, I ask Mo’Nique about ageing. “Baby, I love it,” she bellows, bringing the crown of her head to my eye level. “Do you see these grey hairs? I will not hide them. I will not have one wrinkle removed. Surgery? Noooo. I love the gift I’ve been given. I don’t want to get to Heaven and St Peter to say, ‘Who the hell are you?’ I want him to see wrinkles, grey hair, double belly, double chin, arms that jiggle, thighs that rub together, big feet — it’s me.” Suddenly she stands up, and shouts into my recorder: “Now I’m going to eat ’cos I got another show to do. I love all of you in Britain and thank you for loving me.” Then to me, dressing gown chastely cover- ing those downy legs, she says softly: “God bless you, brother.”