This article first appeared on Malta Today
I recently learned about the life story of an American stand-up comedian named Tiffany Haddish, who became a break-out star in last year’s box office hit, Girls’ Trip.
Watching the countless interviews she has given, she talks candidly and with much humour about what it’s like growing up in the foster care system. She even uses her life experiences, describing the various families she lived with, in her stand-up routines. Her autobiography, The Last Black Unicorn is a New York Times best seller. Her banter is poignantly funny and self-deprecating but she never lets it descend into self-pity, because just when it is about to sound too sad, she always manages to reel it back by breaking into a mischievous grin and a hilarious, raunchy remark. She is, undoubtedly, a force of nature, and her boundless energy came in very useful when she was supporting herself by literally getting the party started at hundreds of Bar Mitzvahs.
She was also homeless and often had to sleep in her car – but typical of her optimistic nature, she used to park it in Beverly Hills, telling herself that at least she was “living in Beverly Hills”. Today, in one of those stories that could only happen in Hollywood, she is a star herself, doing the talk show circuit (Jimmy Kimmel, Ellen and Jimmy Fallon), winning awards and hosting iconic shows like Saturday Night Live and up next, the MTV movie awards.
It’s hard to believe that she came from South Central LA, which when she was growing up was characterized by gang violence, crackheads, drive-by shootings and a heavy police presence. She says that comedy saved her: “I tried to join a gang once but they said I was too goofy”.
Tiffany’s mother ended up unable to take care of her children following a very serious car accident which left her with severe brain damage leading to mental health issues. Social workers eventually stepped in and Tiffany and her step-siblings were taken away and placed in foster care (her father was not in the picture and her step-father was unwilling to take care of the children).
It is a story which should have ended in another cycle of misery and poverty, and it is to her merit that she has broken the cycle. She also credits her grandmother for giving her a strong work ethic and in encouraging her to take up comedy as a career. Tiffany also makes it clear that although it seems to people that she has become a star overnight, the truth is that she spent many years doing gigs in small comedy clubs and basically taking on any work offered to her, until she finally landed the role in Girls’ Trip which would bring her to the public’s attention and change her life.
I love this story for many reasons: because it’s a wonderful rags-to-riches story, because Tiffany herself is just so likable and funny, but mostly, because it is a clear example of how it is possible for people to emerge from adversity and a dysfunctional family background, and make something of themselves.
Now I know that this is easier said than done, and that Tiffany’s own indomitable spirit has a lot to do with her success. She is just one of those people who can see the upside of everything: when she was feeling cold while sleeping in her car, she consoled herself by thinking, “well at least I’m in sunny Los Angeles and not in Alaska”. I also think that she has succeeded because she never forgot where she came from and repeatedly thanks her friends who stood by her when things got rough. Fellow comedian Kevin Hart, on learning that she was living in her car, once loaned her $300 to get herself a motel room, and she mentions it in every single interview. While hosting SNL she thanked her social workers, as well as “everyone who paid their taxes between 1990 – 1999, making it possible for me to be in the foster system”. There is a lot to be said for people who “make it”, who remember to thank those who helped them along the way. It shows the generosity of spirit of someone with a big heart, a beautiful soul and the self-awareness that, if it were not for those who reached out to help, their story might have easily ended up very differently.
Most of all however, I admire Tiffany Haddish for persevering rather than giving up; for turning to laughter rather than wallowing in gloom, and for working hard towards her goal. In an age where it seems too many people expect free handouts, where we make passing exams easier by lowering the benchmark and where too many think they can just slide through life without having to work for their achievements, it is refreshing to see an example of someone who fought and struggled with a single-minded determination to get to where she is now.