The word real is so horrifically over-used in Hollywood profiles that it's starting to become parody. She's so real that she says hello to people at work even when she's tired! She's so real that she adopted a racehorse! She's so real that she has all of her teeth! Stars, they're just like us! But it's pretty darn hard to describe Gabrielle Union without slipping the dreaded real in there. Because despite her movie-star status, her multiple endorsement deals, her basketball-star husband — well, she's real. And if you didn't know, then her new book, We're Going to Need More Wine, communicates it pretty clearly.
I met Gab — yup, I'm allowed to call her that! — at a fashion-show dinner (not the realest event, but bear with me). I was incredibly nervous in my red leather coat and tottering heels. I sat down next to Gab, in her head-to-toe couture look, seeming like she should have seventeen security guards. Instead, she grabbed the bread and said, "Fuck, I'm hungry." The relief I felt was full body, and we spent the rest of the evening talking about unprintable things.
In the three years since, we've talked about plenty of unprintable things as we've compared notes on the challenges of living in our female bodies (and the greater challenge of letting Hollywood have a say in what those bodies do and represent). And while Gab has often expressed her anxiety about public perception, she's written a book of essays as raw and honest as anyone has ever produced.
In this fantastic book, she discusses everything from sexual assault to the complexity of money in relationships to infertility (plus all the extra gossip you crave). Gab has not only excused the demons of her two-decade career, but she's turned the exercise into primal scream therapy for her fans. As witty, warm, and assured on the page as she is in person, this book lives somewhere between Nora Ephron and Eve Babitz, with a touch of Audre Lorde's radical awareness. It was an honor to ask her about the divide between public and private, the challenge of being your own best representative, and knowing your damned worth.
Lena Dunham: You and I have talked a lot about the anxiety of being a public person, and you talk about it in the book. How did you navigate the Gabrielle who is so concerned about public image and the Gabrielle who wants to let it all out?
Gabrielle Union: That's a long, long, long road. Each step of the way is littered with therapists. Luckily, I've had the same supportive group of friends since my mid-20s, into my mid-40s. I've always sort of been encouraged on the "Fuck it" of it all. "Fuck it" — that's what I have to tell myself. You could literally save mankind, and people would be like, "Is that what you wore to save mankind? Gosh, it would be so much better if your thigh gap was bigger when you saved mankind," or, "Oh, that's a really plunging neckline when you saved mankind," or, "I wish you had worn your hair natural when you saved mankind." There's going to be a peanut gallery of naysayers, no matter what you do.
LD: You can't stand there trying to please and un-please a whole group of people.
GU: I'm not one of those people that needs to touch the stove to be like, "Oh, it's hot." I can watch everybody else get burned, and be like, "You know what? I'm not going to touch the stove." You realize that people that you know, you know where their intentions are, you know where their hearts are, you know what they've actually accomplished, and you still see people tearing them down for shit that has nothing to do with the actual work that they're doing.
Once you see that over and over again, it doesn't matter who you are. You lean in to Team Fuck It real quick. Like, "I'm going to share my truth and try to help as many people not feel isolated and alone, like they're on a freaking island, and just try to connect with as many people as possible."
LD: You've been a public figure, a successful actress, for a long time, and yet you're still bumping up against the issue of being a woman in Hollywood, you're bumping up against the issue of being a black woman in Hollywood — that sort of incipient struggle. I saw you talking about this with Oprah and Viola Davis, where you're like, "There's stuff that you are fighting for that a man in your position or a white woman in your position, who had done what you had done in the industry, would not still be fighting for."
GU: Absolutely. That's just what it is. It's like, I wish I was in a place of a Jennifer Lawrence, where she's talking about pay inequity with her white male peers. It's like, "Hey, Jennifer, pass the mic back, 'cause the women of color behind you are making way less than you, who have ten, twenty, thirty years of a body of work, and we're making pennies on the dollar of what you're making."
LD: Something this book really conveys is you have an incredible ability to weather so much and continue to bounce back with the attitude of, It's mine. I deserve it. I'm going to take it. There must be so many people who are tired of that and are like, I can't fucking do it anymore.
GU: I was that person, feeling like I don't have the luxury of fighting: I'm the head of multiple households. I can't rock the boat or be seen as the angry black woman. I've got to fly under the radar. I've got to be a good team player, even if that means I make considerably less. And then they're asking me to do way more to sell the film or the TV show. I just kind of have to take it, because I don't have the luxury of losing this job, or the next job, or getting blackballed.
Then you just reach a point like, OK, I've invested pretty well. Independent of Dwyane [Wade, Union's husband], I'm OK if I never work again in this town. Based on my education and my job skills, I can get a job and still pay this mortgage because I've lived so far below my means for my whole adult life.
But I never had enough self-worth to feel like I was worthy of the fight, even when I knew it was wrong. Even when I felt such rage and resentment going to work, knowing that I was doing more work, and having more popularity. It's Hollywood. For some people, they pay you based on popularity, or how big your last project was. But when it comes to people of color, and specifically women of color, it doesn't matter.
I felt like if I can talk about my pussy with you, I can talk about race.
LD: At what point did you go, "I don't really care if those people I work with think I'm difficult or challenging. I just want what's fucking mine"?
GU: It was very recent, in the last year or two. I definitely didn't have that in me in my 20s or 30s. But when I have spoken up, I very much speak for the group. It was never self-serving. If I'm in a group of actors, and there's grumbling, and they're like, "God, I wish I could say this," I may speak for the group. Whenever I would present something to the executives, it would be like, "This is what we're thinking."
It was more recent that I was like, "I am worth this. This is what you agreed to pay me. This is what I bring to the table. If I'm going to be a part of this, I need equity in the company, or I need creative control."
I've always spoken for the group because I grew up in predominantly white communities, speaking in a way that wasn't considered the angry, aggressive black woman. Changing my tone — which again, brings out a lot of rage and resentment inside — gets the job done. If I were to speak passionately, armed with facts and figures, and if I'm speaking to someone in the exact same tone they're speaking to me, their passion turns to my aggression in how it's received.
LD: You were one of the first female celebrities to ever come out and talk about the effects of rape and sexual assault and trauma on your life. Considering that you have always been a very measured and private person, how did you make the decision to come out about that, and what effect has it had on your life?
GU: When I was nineteen, when it happened, one of my biggest fears wasn't so much that I was raped. It was that people would find out, and I would be an Other. You're no longer the good kind of black girl, or the magical Negro. You become, in their minds, a stereotype. That something bad happened to me, after trying to live this perfect, completely assimilated life, that was terrifying.
By the time I got into Hollywood and I had gone through mental-health services at UCLA, I was on a show called City of Angels. The story line was that there was a serial rapist raping women in the hospital. Each episode, I would just pray to God that my character wasn't next. But we were running out of women in the cast. The episode where Viola Davis's character gets raped, I remember staying on set and watching that scene. The post-traumatic stress just took over me, and my arm started going numb. I felt the sensation of having a heart attack. I was like, "I have to go to the producers, because if [the rapist is] still not caught at the end of this episode, I'm next."
I had to go tell the producers. Their response was, "Oh my God, I had no idea. We'll have him caught in the next episode. Your character won't be affected." And also, "That happened to my mom. That happened to my friend. That happened to me in college." Every producer and writer that I talked to had been touched by sexual assault.
It was the same week that I was doing my first magazine cover. I was like, "I could take this opportunity to actually help somebody, and share with them how I got on the path [to recovery]." That was the first time [I talked about it], and shit, it's been almost twenty years. What's crazy is that every time I talk about being raped, it's a revelation. It trends. It's news. We like to think it's not affecting our mothers, or sisters, or fathers, or brothers, or neighbors, or significant others. But the reality is, it is the most underreported crime in the world. You do know us. We are right here. We're in your office. We're in your bed. We're everywhere.
Like I said, my biggest thing wasn't the sexual violence. It was the not being perfect, which is a reoccurring theme in my life. It's funny because people are like, "Oh, that came from the rape," and it's like, "Well, but I kind of felt that same way when I was six."
LD: The last question that I had wanted to ask you is about Hollywood and race. When I said my incredibly dumb shit, you were a friend. You were really straight with me, and you said, "Here are all the reasons why this was a problem." Something you didn't have to do but did out of love and kindness, and you did it with a firm, wise hand. You said publicly, "I've had some conversations with Lena Dunham about race. I wish I could talk to other white actresses."
We had an honest conversation about the way that white women dominate the space in Hollywood, and then all the headlines were like, "Gabrielle Union shuts Lena Dunham down," and I remember you texted me and you said, "I wish people could understand that it was possible for two women to have a conversation about the complexity of race. One could educate the other, and it wasn't like WWF wrestling. It was a dialogue."
I wondered how you felt about that. How do you feel about that Hollywood tendency to pit women against each other, especially women who come from different cultural backgrounds?
GU: It's hard, because there are certain women who other groups of women have a very strong reaction to. Right? I feel like there is no amount of conversation that you could have with them for them to get it in any kind of meaningful way. Whether that's true or not, that's just what their perception is.
You went out of your way to be a good friend to me in so many ways, that because they're so personal to us, I couldn't be like, "Out of all you motherfuckers who've been through fertility issues, and had womb issues, no one fucking shared information or resources, but Lena did." She didn't have to do it. She doesn't know me like that, but we were able to have an honest dialogue about our vaginas, and our uteruses, and our journeys with them, in a real way.
If we can have such personal conversations about our uteruses, where we're sharing resources and information in a way that we can help each other, why isn't our friendship big enough to have an honest conversation about race, culture, appropriation, privilege? I felt like if I can talk about my pussy with you, I can talk about race.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Lena Dunham would enjoy having Gabrielle Union's bravery.