Words by Emil Wilbekin
It’s New York Fashion Week, and the city is electric and buzzing with runway shows, influencer photo shoots, and celebrity sightings. It’s September, the beginning of the New York social season, and there is no shortage of fancy parties, gatherings, galas, and gossip. It’s a great time to be back outside — and to see and be seen.
Comedian, TV writer, and now author Ziwe Fumudoh is booked and busy. Her social and professional calendars are packed, and she seems to enjoy all the pandemonium. “I mean, fashion week is over for me. It’s such a whirlwind experience,” she says flatly. “But I’m really pleased with the events that I went to. I was lucky enough to do what I did during fashion week. I presented a couple of awards, and then I shot a bunch of covers. But yeah, it was great. I can’t complain.”
Some critics say that New York Fashion Week has changed and become more like a brand marketing circus featuring pop-up events, cavalcades of influencers, and VIP parties versus serious fashion shows filled with editors and buyers. “Unless you’re like me and you find circuses fun,” Ziwe quips. “Chaos is my favorite. It’s my love language.”
Outside of the island of Manhattan — in Forest Hills, Queens — in a parallel social universe is the U.S. Open, which is considered fashion adjacent. Like New York Fashion Week, the U.S. Open is cluttered with celebrities — the Obamas, Nicole Kidman, Spike Lee, Leonardo DiCaprio, Shonda Rhimes, Lil’ Wayne, and the new rumored couple Kylie Jenner and Timothée Chalamet (making out in the stands). The other commonality between #NYFW and #USOpen is the presence of the iconic American Vogue editor Anna Wintour, who is literally holding court.
Many celebs were there this year cheering on a young Black woman who wasn’t a fashion model but a talented and outspoken athlete. All eyes were on Coco Gauff, 19, the first American teenager to win the U.S. Open Championship since Serena Williams. It was Gauff’s first Grand Slam. Ziwe went to the U.S. Open, but unfortunately wasn’t able to attend Coco’s winning match because of her busy work schedule.
“Shout out to Coco for being 19 and winning,” she says enthusiastically. “I just am such a fan of hers. I think she is a star!” Without missing a beat, she adds: “I love that her grandmother was like one of the first people to go to an integrated school. And so [Coco] has this legacy of disturbance so to speak. Good trouble. I think that’s really cool.”
While Ziwe missed Coco’s shining moment IRL, she was able to attend the men’s final between Novak Djokovic and Daniil Medvedev. True to form, Ziwe caused her own media blitz and buzz that day. She and her friend, supermodel Emily Ratajkowski, were sitting in a private box right in front of actress and singer Lea Michele, star of the Broadway musical Funny Girl, and her husband.
“Lea Michele sitting behind Ziwe and Emily Ratajkowski at the US Open. I need a full breakdown of any & all interactions,” Frank Costa, a Bravo producer, posted on X (formerly Twitter), receiving 26,000 Likes. The seating caused quite a scene in the stadium and a stir on social media because of Ziwe’s controversial interview nine months prior with Michele’s former Glee co-star Amber Riley about alleged allegations of racism on the set of Ryan Murphy’s hit television show. According to Page Six, Ziwe pressed Riley about Michele. “I think that she would probably say she doesn’t see race,” Riley said. “But everyone does.”
According to BuzzFeed, the accusations began in 2020 when Michele spoke out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement after the murder of George Floyd. In response, Michele’s former Glee co-star Samantha Ware commented about “traumatic microaggressions that made me question a career in Hollywood.” Michele later posted an apology on Twitter.
Back at the tennis match. “It was such an interesting evening,” Ziwe says, plainly referencing meeting Michele. “Yes, we spoke. It was iconic. She’s an icon.” When asked what she thought about that moment with Michele going viral, Ziwe responded: “Sorry, I didn’t even see that. Let me Google that right now. Believe it or not, I don’t Google myself, but hold on, let me search.”
The sound of nails clicking on her phone. “Oh, this is a lot. Page Six, the New York Post, the Daily Mail, BuzzFeed. Wow! Yeah.” In a New York minute, the former talk show host adds: “It would be a privilege to sit down with an American icon like Lea Michele. I saw her in Funny Girl, and she had an incredible voice. It would be a pleasure to talk to her on the record.”
Ziwe is known for her blunt “woke” style of interviewing, questioning, and directly challenging everyone from Fran Lebowitz, Gloria Steinem, Drew Barrymore, and Rose McGowan among others about their relationship with, proximity to, and consciousness about Blackness. Michele would be a prime subject for Ziwe. As they say in tennis: Game. Set. Match.
Ziwe is a bit of a paradox — as evidenced by her self-reflective new book of personal essays entitled Black Friend (on sale October 17, 2023). “I think that the hardest parts for me to write were the moments when I am vulnerable,” Ziwe explains. “I started writing this book and it was a little too heady and theoretical. It was really encyclopedic about pop culture, whether that’s like Britney Spears performing, ‘Oops, I Did It Again.’ Or like the interview between Barbara Walters and Ricky Martin. James Baldwin and Maya Angelou’s conversation about how success as an artist can really be to the detriment of art.”
She continues: “I was reading this book and it’s like how am I going to connect to an audience if I offer nothing of myself? And at the time, I was reading All About Love by bell hooks. And so what she did really well in that book of essays was she would talk about community and children and all these elements of love and then connect it to her personal experiences. And so I found myself really appreciating that in her book and, like, reverse engineering.”
Ziwe had to practice unlearning to access her vulnerability. “You know, culturally I’m a Nigerian woman, like you’re taught to never share anything about yourself,” Ziwe muses. “Like you don’t know what my favorite juice is, my favorite color, nothing. And to create a book that’s worth its salt, I needed to share. And so that was probably the hardest element.”
Ziwe tackles issues that are deeply personal like “why I was self-conscious about my looks and why I felt like an ugly ducky growing up, like, first in public school in Massachusetts, and then in private school Massachusetts and how that affected me as an adult,” she shares. “So over time, because of the books I read, I was able to peel those layers and really show part of myself that I was initially reticent about and still very reticent about. This book allows me to present my real self. It’s deeply intimidating, but also really, hopefully, rewarding.”
Living in this duality is nothing new for Ziwe. As a child she says: “I was really well-behaved and so my parents would get pulled aside at restaurants and told, ‘Wow, your daughter is so quiet.’ But then also I would make them watch me perform the Hercules soundtrack. [laughs] I’m a middle child, so I’m as much of a ham as I am an introvert. I think that’s what the case is now,” Ziwe says contemplating.
“Maybe it’s the reverse. Maybe I’m quiet in the house and out in public, but I definitely like to be alone to recharge. I was able to write a book.” Ziwe is processing this idea. “I think I’ve always been funny,” she says, now more confidently. “I was voted class clown in high school. People who knew me growing up would not be surprised by my career track, even though it happened really organically. But I was always really funny. And the moment I knew when I had important things to say. Every single time I’d say something important, people would say ‘Wow. That’s important.’ That’s when I was like, ‘Wow. I guess I have something important to say. People have not asked me to stop talking yet.”
Ziwe’s version of this Oprah formula is “half luck, half perseverance.” It was during her junior year of college at Northwestern University where she was deeply attracted to satire. She applied for an internship at Comedy Central and was one of eight people chosen. Donald Glover was in the internship program so it seemed like a good idea. “It aligned with my interests, and it aligned with where I wanted to be professionally,” she explains. “That sort of got me into a place where I understood that entertainment was just a bunch of people working at desks as opposed to what you see on TV. Suddenly it became really, really accessible. And I used that accessibility to intern at The Onion and, like, to start my own humor mag.”
After graduation, Ziwe pursued the entertainment industry. She was inspired by Glover and Issa Rae, saying, “Obviously she started with her self-producing Awkward Black Girl, which sort of started the YouTube-to-television pipeline that I ultimately ended up following by doing Baited [on YouTube] and then IG Live and then Showtime.” She is also a “vociferous” reader and read books by Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling, and Steve Harvey that served as her guide. She was a huge fan of Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart who also had books coming out.
“Information is power to me,” Ziwe says flatly. “I was one of those annoying young people that would email, email whoever, and say, ‘Hi, I’m Ziwe, and I’d love to hear more about you, um, and your position. I would take those interactions really seriously and let those words mentor me as well.”
“And then Oprah, obviously. Oprah’s like a huge influence to me,” Ziwe gushes. “I think that she really pioneered a form of sensational journalism with her work on The Oprah Winfrey Show. She is a cultural juggernaut in her influence in lifestyle as well as her interview in influence as a reporter.”
She continues: “What was really captivating about her is that she had such range as a reporter, so she could interview Tom Cruise and get really wild quotes and then talk to the mother of a serial killer about why her child was weird and also get really compelling quotes. And so I think that that is something that I definitely, like, refer to whenever I’m feeling lost as an interviewer. What did Oprah use to do? Oprah is a pioneer and she’s opened many a door.”
“I believe luck is preparation meeting opportunity. If you hadn’t been prepared when the opportunity came along, you wouldn’t have been lucky.” — Oprah Winfrey
What Ziwe knows for sure is that she is excited that the book is done, gone to the printers, and not haunting her anymore with deadlines. She can now bask in the afterglow of telling the story of being a Black Friend.
“The title Black Friend sort of comes from this media trope where there’s always like the sidekick next to the protagonist, and they talk a lot, right? They have all the good jokes. And they’re some of the best characters, but you never really get a sense of them being more than two-dimensional.
In public, I am very verbose, but you’re always sort of connecting to an audience via me as a professional writer,” Ziwe shares. “Like my job is to write down words and then hand them to someone else to say, or in my case the other work I’ve done for myself, like write down words and then sit in it and then filter it through a character.”
Ziwe is now living her best multidimensional life. “Like even this week I am posing in Victoria’s Secret, and then my New Yorker excerpt comes out tomorrow. Like, that is such a professional whiplash,” she says deadpan. “So I find that to be really fun and, like, just a testament to how dynamic I can be as this artist. But, I take it a day at a time.”
Words by Emil Wilbekin, Photography by Mark Squires, Styling by J. Errico
Hair by Dhai Rus Thomas, Make-Up by Camille Thompson, Nails by Jackie Saulsberry
Prop Stylist: Montana Pugh, Photo Assistant: Duncan Mellor, Styling Assistant: Shelby Comroe, Prop Styling Assistant: Emmet Padgett
Shot at Hook Studios