Tiffany Haddish Opens Up About Foster Care: "My Talent Is What Helped Me Survive"
"I remember when I got my first suitcase, I felt like I was a traveler, like I had a purpose, like I'm a person," Haddish said during an interview on David Letterman's Netflix talk show.
Tiffany Haddish nabbed the interview seat for the latest episode of Netflix's My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman, opening up about her difficult family life as a child and how she eventually began a performance career.
"I think this is going to be something," announced Letterman right before his guest appeared onstage. The two began the conversation with a joke about Haddish's familiar white dress, which she has worn for many public appearances. "It's getting tight," said the actress. "My career gettin' big, I think my body gettin' bigger. This might be the last time you see me in this dress."
Letterman then brought up Haddish's book, The Last Black Unicorn, praising it as a "remarkable story." In reference to her upbringing, which included a period of time in foster care following her mother's serious car accident, he said, “The fact that you not only survived this, but you’ve prevailed, I believe parallel to this that your talent, your ability, your likability, your sense of humor and your inclination for comedy is so of you that it almost has no bearing on your upbringing. You could have been in any circumstance growing up and the same result would have happened. What I’m saying is, your talent is so powerful.”
"My talent is what helped me survive," said the actress. She explained that the car accident happened when she was around 9 years old — her mother's head went through the windshield and she had to learn how to walk, talk and eat again. As the oldest of five, Haddish became a mother figure to her younger siblings.
When she was 12, they were all placed in foster care. "I didn't want to be with my mom no more, because she had become very violent and verbally abusive," Haddish said. "You never knew who she was going to be; I was begging my mom to [let me] go live with my grandma."
Haddish described the feeling of moving to foster care as "the worst feeling in the world." At that young age, she resolved to do everything in her power to make sure kids don't feel like "garbage" during those confusing transitions. "You're dropped in these strangers' houses, you don't know these people, these people don't know you, you don't know if they're gonna hurt you, if they're gonna be kind, you don't have a clue what's going on."
She described having all of her belongings in a trash bag, which meant that her first suitcase was an important belonging. "I remember when I got my first suitcase, I felt like I was a traveler, like I had a purpose, like I'm a person, like I'm not garbage, I got this — it's mine, and my things are in here, and wherever I go I can take this with me and I'm going somewhere."
At 18, Haddish went to community college, became a mascot for the football team, learned customer service skills and began performing at Bar Mitzvahs for a number of years. She was very briefly involved with the Church of Scientology when a representative offered her a place to sleep in exchange for her working in their Inglewood and South Central locations, but the agreement was forfeited when Haddish saw the sleeping arrangements: bunk beds, which she never uses because it brings up memories of being in foster care.
In 1997, Haddish began doing stand-up comedy at the Laugh Factory Comedy Camp. "That's where I learned communication, confidence. I learned how to construct a joke. I learned how to stand in front of a room full of people and not be afraid, and also when to be funny and when not to be funny," she explained.
Haddish's first gig was at a Renaissance hotel, where she got paid $50 for a 15-minute set. She explained that it turned out to be a lesbian show where Haddish was heckled onstage, but she kept going because she needed the money.
Toward the end of the show, Letterman declared to his guest, "I know that culture and family and nurturing and the lack of it can be formative, but you're your own person, and the power of you is overwhelming and delightful."