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Why Gabourey Sidibe’s Blue Oscars Gown Was so Controversial

Despite Hollywood’s reluctance to accept her, the ‘Precious’ star still marched triumphantly down the red carpet

Photo: Kevin Mazur/WireImage/Getty Images

It’s like she wakes up and checks her calendar, and says, ‘Gee! The Golden Globes are this weekend. I wanna wear…YELLOW!’ And somehow a yellow dress shows up, and come that weekend, she’s on the carpet in a yellow dress thinking, Fuck yeah! YELLOW! while somewhere in the background I’m sweating with one heel in my hand, trying to find my seat, and hoping that my dress photographed well so that those bitches on Fashion Police don’t talk shit about me.

The first profiles written about Gabourey Sidibe were all pretty much centered around one thing: The twentysomething from Harlem was not actually the abused teenager she played in the movie that made her famous. A New York Times story from 2007 — two years before Precious, based on the novel Push by Sapphire, would hit theaters and garner Sidibe her Oscar nomination — flat-out said it: “Desk-job ambitions or not, Gabourey Sidibe is not Precious; she is a natural performer.” A Guardian piece took it even further, opening, “Just for the record, Gabby Sidibe is not a functionally illiterate high-school girl.” It seemed like no matter how often it was written, people refused to believe it.

Expressing a personal connection to a character can make for a better narrative — especially in the press-heavy lead-up to a film’s release. The audience always searches for authenticity, and Gabby’s Precious often felt too real. In that way, Gabby’s performance was revelatory mainly because it was a performance. Roger Ebert wrote of the film, “She so completely creates the Precious character that you rather wonder if she’s very much like her.” In the film, she wears the pain of her characters in her eyes and on her shoulders, and to some it appeared too visceral to not have been previously lived. But if you follow her on Twitter, you know that Gabby is one of the funniest people around. She isn’t Precious. But off screen, she didn’t easily fit inside the boxes of the Oscar-industrial complex.

On the festival circuit for Precious, Gabby wasn’t treated like other young starlets. She explains in her memoir, This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare, that she didn’t have money for a stylist, so she shopped for herself — buying prom dresses from plus-size boutique Torrid to wear at Sundance and Cannes. Even in the four months between those festivals — after the film had already won widespread acclaim and awards — no one told her that she’d need to wear fancy attire. “I was told that the dress code was ‘casual,’” she writes. “That was a lie.” She wore jeans under a paisley dress, while her co-stars Mariah Carey and Paula Patton were outfitted in full cocktail wear.

By the time awards season rolled around, Lionsgate would set Gabby up with a stylist named Linda Medvene. They weren’t a great match. Gabby didn’t feel comfortable telling Medvene whose style she actually wanted to imitate at the time — Kimberly Parker from Moesha — so she just told her, “I don’t need a dress that will stand out. I’ll do that anyway. I just want to look like I belong.” What followed was continued skepticism about just how Gabby, as a plus-size woman, would look on the Oscars’ red carpet, with headlines like “Gabourey Sidibe’s Dress Mystery: When Plus Size Is Too Big for Hollywood” and “Gabby’s Red Carpet Presence Sparks Plus-Size Debate.” Others were less explicit but no less uncomfortable. “What Will the Best-Actress Nominees Wear on Oscar Night?” asked Vanity Fair. “A woman with curves, Sidibe has been choosing empire-waist gowns, and this Marchesa dress fits the bill,” they surmised, putting a photo of the actress side-by-side with a runway look featuring off-the-shoulder ruffles. “The detail at the neckline extends over the tops of the arms, a problem area for some women, and bright white would really pop against her complexion.” Phrases like “problem area” and “complexion” dance around Gabby’s weight and race, but are no less insidious.

Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Medvene, meanwhile, was using Gabby as a prop to promote her own work and to show off how tolerant she was of people who didn’t look like her typical clients. In February of that year, Medvene spoke to USA Today and announced that Marchesa — the brand founded by Harvey Weinstein’s then wife Georgina Chapman — was dressing Gabby, insisting that her size wouldn’t be a hindrance in finding a gown by such a high-profile designer. “We’ve been offered dresses by all these huge designers. It just proves that anyone can dress a full-sized woman,” Medvene said. “Working with Gabby has been so easy because she’s so comfortable with who she is, in her skin.”

But just two days before the ceremony, in an interview with Fox, Medvene confusingly said that Marchesa wasn’t actually going to be responsible for Gabby’s dress. Fox was running a feature that asked why Gabby hadn’t “been given the same star-studded styling treatment” as Jennifer Hudson a couple years prior — implying, essentially, that Gabby was just too plus-size for the industry. While ostensibly written to call out Hollywood, the article largely featured experts hiding behind anonymity using coded language to frame Gabby as an outsider. One nameless boutique owner said, “I hate to say that, because she seems like such an amazing person, but she doesn’t ‘fit’ who they design for.”

Meanwhile Medvene’s strange behavior didn’t go unnoticed at the time. Erica Kennedy, writing in Salon, declared, “This is some reeeeal funny style bullshit going on here and my only consolation is to believe that Gabby is so above and beyond this surface CRAP that hopefully it will not affect her or let it ruin her night.”

Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Weirdly, Gabby did end up wearing Marchesa. It’s still unclear what happened with Medvene, but the actress showed up in a rich blue gown, draped with a Grecian air and embellished with silver floral embroidery that matched the jewels in her bracelet, ring, and hair. The red carpet watchers approved. Heather Cocks at Go Fug Yourself raved, “I love that this dress suits her better than anything I’ve seen her in so far — great color, cool detail, and a simple style that accentuates the right things.” Teen Vogue listed her as one of the 10 best dressed at the event. “Gabourey looked like a red-carpet queen in a regal blue Marchesa dress with perfectly coiffed hair and loads of diamonds,” the write-up cheered. On the red carpet, Gabby triumphed. During the ceremony, she lost Best Actress to Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side, and quickly the media continued publishing stories questioning her weight and her future in the business. Just days after the Oscars in March 2010, CNN asked, “Can Talent Outweigh Size in Hollywood?” The piece cites Howard Stern, who claimed on his radio show that Gabby’s “never going to be in another movie.” A blog post at SFGate countered that the bigger issue was racism: “Gabourey Sidibe Isn’t Too Fat for Hollywood, She’s Too Black.” By the end of the month, Jezebel insisted, “Enough About Sidibe’s Weight, Already.”

Eight years later, Gabby’s flashy, jubilant personal style is on full display. (Just check her Instagram!) She wears bold patterns and bright colors and works with Marcy Guevara-Prete — a designer who specializes in plus-size fashion. One look from the African-inspired brand ÖFUURË features a full-length skirt and a cropped sweatshirt emblazoned with the word “Queen.”

Precious still looms over Gabby’s career; the emotional breakout film is still a punchline to some. A Girls writer invoked the character during a racist defense of her whitewashed show in 2012. In This Is Just My Face, Gabby describes how during Halloween 2016, friends sent her photos of people dressed up as the character Precious. She’s not offended by the costumes, but by the pals who want her to laugh at the photos with them. “We may have the same face and body, but we stand for two completely different things,” Gabby writes. “Precious is a survivor, and I refuse to be anyone’s survivor because I prefer to think of myself as a winner.”

Esther Zuckerman is a freelance writer in New York. She’s been published online in Vanity Fair, GQ, Marie Claire, and Vulture. She loves dogs and movies.

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