Well, the 33-year-old star of “The Good Place” has a message for her online critics: She’s queer.
In a note she posted to Twitter, titled “Twitter is brutal,” she wrote: “This is why I never officially came out as queer.”
Born in London to a Pakistani mother and Indian father, Jamil struggled with feelings of confusion and turmoil, she said Wednesday, fearing that the South Asian community would not accept her sexual orientation. Although the onetime television host added a rainbow emoji to her name on social media several years ago, she otherwise “kept it low” when discussing this aspect of her identity.
“It’s also scary as an actor to openly admit your sexuality, especially when you’re already a brown female in your thirties,” Jamil wrote. “This is absolutely not how I wanted it to come out.”
Some offered their congratulations and praised her for giving visibility to South Asian LGBTQ people. Yet, as the actress herself seemed to acknowledge, her coming-out may not quite quash the broader debate around her casting: on race and sexuality and who should tell certain stories about ballroom — and in this case, who should do it on reality TV.
“I know that my being queer doesn’t qualify me as ballroom,” Jamil wrote. “But I have privilege and power and a large following to bring to this show.”
In September, HBO Max announced the launch of “Legendary,” a reality competition series on the streaming platform. Contestants would be split up into eight “houses,” as they are typically known, to face off in dance and fashion challenges that “highlight modern day ball culture.”
The ballroom tradition originated in 1920s New York, where black and Latino LGBTQ people would spin, dip and pose before the crowd in a distinctive style of dance known as “voguing.” For communities grappling with discrimination, violence and the AIDS epidemic, the glamour of the balls transformed them into spaces of family and survival.
Since then, the Madonna song “Vogue” and, more recently, the hit FX show “Pose” have brought the ballroom subculture to a wider audience. In the fall, actor Billy Porter won an Emmy for his role as Pray Tell, an emcee in New York’s 1980s ball scene.
The ballroom emcee, who throws out quips and announces performance categories like “realness,” is a particularly important job in the underground competitions. On Tuesday, HBO Max indicated that Jamil would take on the role for “Legendary.”
“I’m *so* excited to be a tiny part of bringing ballroom further into the mainstream where it belongs,” Jamil wrote in a now-deleted post on Twitter, according to the Los Angeles Times. “I’m here to celebrate some of the coolest, most talented people on the planet who deserve center stage.”
Jamil has an outspoken manner on social media that has repeatedly landed her in hot water, with critics accusing her of slut-shaming other female celebrities, appropriating the body-positivity movement and weaponizing black women’s bodies. Yet she calls herself a “feminist-in-progress” and notes that it all goes back to her desire to share her struggles with eating disorders and speak out against misogyny and racism.
It’s precisely because of her support for progressive causes that so many people were questioning why she had accepted a job on “Legendary.”
“How are you gonna work tirelessly on behalf of underrepresented people,” asked comic artist Adam Ellis, “and then turn around and accept a job on a panel that should be populated with queer and trans people?”
“This is what taking up space for the sake of taking up space looks like,” Bitch Media editor in chief Evette Dionne wrote on Twitter. “It would’ve been so dope for Jameela to pass on this opportunity and recommend a member of this community.”
Trace Lysette, a trans actress with roles in the film “Hustlers” and the series “Transparent,” said she was interviewed for a role on “Legendary” but never heard back from producers. For almost 10 years, Lysette served as a “house mother,” leading a kind of family unit for performers involved in the New York ballroom scene.
Still, HBO Max said in its Tuesday announcement that most spots on “Legendary” would be filled by staples of the modern ballroom scene: “Pose” actor Dashaun Wesley would commentate, DJ MikeQ would take care of the music, and Leiomy Maldonado, known as the “Wonder Woman of vogue,” would judge. The judges’ panel would be rounded out by stylist Law Roach, rapper Megan Thee Stallion and a rotating guest each week.
First, HBO Max had made an error in its news release, she said: Wesley, the commentator and “king of vogue,” was going to serve as the “Legendary” emcee. She was merely lead judge. And she is queer, too.
That’s not the same as knowing ballroom. But as a newcomer to the scene, Jamil said she could bring it to a wider audience and serve as a “window” into the culture for those who are just discovering it, as many viewers might be doing.
“Sometimes it takes those with more power to help a show get off the ground,” she said, “so we can elevate marginalized stars that deserve the limelight and give them a chance.”
Her announcement has not settled all the questions out there, and it’s drawing renewed criticism of her for subtly pointing fingers. But as “Legendary” begins filming Thursday, one thing is certain: She’s not coming back to Twitter anytime soon.
“You can keep your thoughts,” she wrote.