On her show — first on YouTube, then Instagram Live, before making the leap to Showtime for two seasons — Ziwe was known for asking well-meaning White celebrities how many Black friends they have. With an eyebrow raise or a smirk, she knowingly leaned into the foolishness of the question by letting the blundering answers speak for themselves.
In a 2020 Instagram Live, chef Alison Roman, who made controversial comments about Chrissy Teigen and Marie Kondo, answered the question with “four to five.” “That’s an interesting statistic,” Ziwe said to the best-selling author, who added, “in the grand total of actual friends I have that would pick me up at the airport, [which] is probably like twelve to thirteen.” Without missing a beat, Ziwe replied, “Okay, so do your Black friends know that you treat them like objects?”
It’s all in jest, Ziwe says. During the summer of 2020, when the country was reckoning with race, Ziwe’s comical contributions to the discourse were both a welcome reprieve and a thoughtful examination of how race is discussed. Her faux seriousness — “You said famously you discovered racism in 2018. What were you doing for the first 25 years of your life?” she once asked internet personality Caroline Calloway — is all a part of the performance that led her from the writer’s rooms at “The Rundown with Robin Thede” and “Desus & Mero” to headlining her eponymous show. (It was canceled earlier this year.)
These days, when she’s not casually kiki-ing with Real Housewives or making her runway debut for Mugler, she’s preparing for her comedy tour, which just kicked off in Seattle and has sold out in six cities so far. She also has a new book of nonfiction essays, “Black Friend,” in which she examines the absurdity of several racist incidents she’s experienced (including being stopped by white neighbors while renting an Airbnb); expounds on her lauded interview technique (it’s “a trap” she told me); and reflects on the self-imposed boundaries she built to protect herself as passed on to her from her parents (“privacy is a Nigerian value,” she writes).
So, what’s behind the 31-year-old’s hyper-feminine fucshia-loving facade? Here’s what I gleaned from the protagonist herself.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: You wrote, “Iconic is in the eye of the beholder.” What makes your book iconic?
A: What do you think is iconic about it?
[Note: Did I just get “Ziwe’d?!”]
Q: I’ll be sure to explain what’s so iconic about it when I write this.
A: I like to lead with humor. I’m a comedian so whenever we get into serious territory, that’s when I start to clam up because I just want to joke. I’m an unserious person.
Q: I interviewed another 30-something comedian who wrote a memoir, and I’m wondering what’s going on that we’re writing memoirs at this young age. Why did you write yours?
A: Well, I don’t consider my book of essays to be a memoir. And I also don’t identify as 30 so I can’t answer that question.
[Note: Yep. Totally got “Ziwe’d.”]
A: I started these essays with really silly, satirical takes or with historical examinations. After rereading the book over and over again, I realized that there was a wall between me and my audience and that the only way to chip at it would be to offer some of myself.
Q: How do you make the serious topics you explore in your book lighthearted, like being racially profiled while on a walk in the woods or being mistaken for another Black female comedian?
A: That’s how I process traumatic situations, is to laugh at it. Whether that is healthy or not healthy, who is to say? I’m also reflecting my personal experiences. It just feels more loaded because of my identity.
Q: You write about your “performance of femininity,” the expectations your traditional Nigerian parents had for you and the opinions of your critics. How do you define yourself?
A: I’m Ziwe. I encompass all of the things that I rejected as a child while also encompassing the things that I gravitated toward. I like Zelda as much as I like Barbie, and I’m an adult. As I was growing up and finding my voice, I felt this impetus to want to be someone I wasn’t. Over time, I’ve learned that people embrace me most when I’m just marching to the beat of my own drum.
Q: I was taken aback to read so many reporters have asked you if your parents are proud of you. I don’t get why that’s relevant. Why was it important for you to mention in your book?
A: I was interested in examining why I would get a question like that. It isn’t even an impossible question to answer. There’s really only one appropriate answer, which is yes. And yes, my parents are proud of me, but it’s such a paternal examination. I was really intrigued by this fixation. It’s more a reflection of the interviewer than it is of their subject. We contextualize each other right now.
Q: Was there a particular essay that was harder to write than others?
A: “Discomfort” is in its namesake. [An essay about how her parents’ influence led to the creation of her Barbie-pink-loving alter ego.] That was an uncomfortable thing to write. Even “Wikifeet” [in which she examines beauty standards and her growing fame by balking at her two-star rating on the celebrity foot fetish website]. It started off as a one-page essay encouraging people to rate my feet from okay to perfect, and it turned into me unpacking stories about my grandparents.
Q: When did you notice there was a wall between you and your audience? Were you receiving input that people wanted to know more about you?
A: In “All About Love” by bell hooks, she really employs the personal anecdote in how she constructs the theory and contextualizes her statements. I read that and I [thought], “Wow, this is the thing that I can’t place my finger on that I’m missing.” Sending [a draft] to my peers and them being like, “Okay, I think that you can probably go deeper here,” that was an element of my [writing] process.
Q: What do you want readers to take away from your book?
A: I want them to laugh at me and with me. But it depends on the essay. All I can do is provide comedic observations about reality, which is pretty bleak. So I want them to laugh.
Q: Your fans really valued your work revamping the late-night talk show format. What do you think is next for your style of interviewing?
A: I’m not dead. I don’t have the same grief that I’m so fortunate others have, for my interviews. I feel as though they are going to find a new iteration because I was creating this in a vacuum that no one cared about since 2016 [when she started “Baited by Ziwe”]. This is another epoch that has closed, and I’m ready to see what the new era is.