MTV Star Nicole Byer on Being "a Person of Color, a Woman, Overweight" in Hollywood (Guest Column)
The creator of 'Loosely Exactly Nicole,' based on her life, hits a Hollywood trifecta as she reveals the "roller coaster" ride of bias, typecasting and the struggle to play a "funny person," not a "funny black person."
Lately, a lot of media people have been asking me what it's like being a person of color working in Hollywood. Well, it's a real roller coaster because not only am I a person of color, but I am a woman, and an overweight one at that. I'm like the least traditionally f—able of all the women you could gather and put on TV or film.
Now you're probably thinking, "Oh, Nicole, don't say that about yourself! Every body is a beautiful body!" That's a very nice thing for you to shout at me, but I already know that. I love who I am right now, and I'm not the one who's telling myself I'm unf—able. It gets beaten into my brain from audition notices that say, "Looks like a linebacker" … "woman who is fat and disgusting but still somehow has sex" … "fat black waitress" … "hooker" … "black bus driver." A lot of under-five-line characters I would audition for don't even have names. Instead, they're named by their race, body type and/or profession, which to me means they're not viewed as real people.
I've done a handful of voiceover and on-camera jobs where I've been asked to "be blacker." That's code for sassier, more ghetto, more neck rolls and snaps. I even wrote and shot a video about it with some dear friends (please take a break from this and YouTube it). A lot of the time I wouldn't know where my next paycheck was coming from, so I would just sass it the f— up when someone asked me to.
Before you think, "Nicole, nobody escapes typecasting," I say, "F— you, take a nap, you don't know what you're talking about." Typecasting is a thing, but when it involves race, it narrows the roles available to an almost comically small amount.
On the flip side (told you it was a roller coaster), now I do get to audition for things that are not defined by race. I'm very lucky that in most of my jobs now, I'm able to just be a "funny person" as opposed to a "funny black person." I perform at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, where my race and gender are rarely pointed out. I just worked on a new sketch show for Fox called Party Over Here, where sketches were written for me because of my funny and not my race. MTV's Girl Code was 100 percent me. I'm currently writing and about to star in my own scripted show for MTV, where race and gender play a role but are not the star.
MTV’s Loosely Exactly Nicole, starring Byer.
I constantly see shows that seemingly have diversity but fail to realize that you don't have to hide people of color in the background and in under-five roles. You can give them fully three-dimensional characters who return in multiple (dare I say all?) episodes in a season.
So when I think about being a mildly successful person of color in Hollywood, I think that change is happening. If you look at me on paper, I shouldn't have the things I have. I should thank Queen Latifah, Gabourey Sidibe and Mo'nique for being trailblazers by not adjusting their bodies to industry standards. Their careers have made it easier for me to exist in this world. Maybe now you're thinking, "Nicole, shouldn't the best person get the job, regardless of race or gender?" Yeah, they should, but in this business, "best" is subjective, and people tend to like what they know. And more times than not, it's a bunch of old white men making the decisions.
Listen, I don't wish we existed in a colorblind society, because what a boring f—ing world that would be. Also, saying you're colorblind is essentially taking the color away from people. I don't ever want to be just a basic bitch lumped with a bunch of other basic bitches in one big basic bitch beige ball. I want to wave my color proudly. I want to bring my color and background to the table because it makes life — and entertainment — more interesting.
Byer, 30, is a comedian and actress who stars in and executive produces MTV's Loosely Exactly Nicole, based on her life.
This story first appeared in the Sept. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.