At 14, Ziwe Related To Steve Harvey For This Crushing Reason

In her debut essay collection, the comedian applies her irreverent wit to the cringey realities of teenagedom.

Ziwe Fumudoh talks to Bustle about age 14.
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Growing up as the child of Nigerian immigrants, Ziwe Fumudoh was subjected to many cultural-specific rules. She was forbidden from having sleepovers, urged to chemically straighten her hair, and pressured to conform to traditional Nigerian gender norms. But the teenage, Massachusetts-born Fumudoh possessed one innate trait there was no containing: her sense of humor.

“I've always had this personality, I’ve always been wry. It’s probably the most consistent thing about me,” the comedian and former star of Showtime’s Ziwe tells me. “Has [my comedy] evolved and changed? The news has changed. Honestly, comedy in the Bush era [when I was growing up] was when it was at its best.”

She brings that consistency to her sharp, incisive debut essay collection, Black Friend which explores everything from her love of 90 Day Fiancé to when guests on her show claim they have “4-5 Black friends.”

In the book, her wryness serves as a lens through which she sees the world, particularly in the essays focusing on her adolescence. She reframes some of her achingly relatable experiences with her signature wit, like the shame she felt for having severe facial eczema, describing it as “I had a Steve Harvey mustache that was impossible to shave.” She zeroes in on the way she harnessed her humor as a form of armor.

In the essay “wikifeet,” she writes about growing up as one of the dark-skinned people in her class. While she’d later attend the prestigious boarding school Andover, until freshman year she was forced to contend with “unimaginative and astonishingly cruel” public school classmates. Once, when a teacher asked her to present her perspective, Fumudoh seized on the opportunity, performing a “tight five minutes of standup” on the many nicknames she’d been given, ranging from “darkie” to “Africa.” Unsurprisingly, Fumudoh slayed. Yet all her teacher could respond with was “that is sad,” before urging her to sit back down.

Ziwe with Emily Ratajkowski.Rebecca Smeyne/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

There’s a slew of painfully poignant material from her early teen years, but when we speak about her life at 14, it’s the strangely comedic idiosyncrasies of the mid-aughts that she’s most eager to riff on, from HTML coding your MySpace page to the prevalence of grinding.

“The ’90s really prepared us for the Bermuda Triangle, which has not come up as an issue at all in my adulthood. Similarly, I would say that grinding is something that I was probably too well-trained in,” she says. “I don’t think I’ve ever grinded as an adult!”

Below, Fumudoh reflects on Zoey 101, being flat-chested, and her crush on Sailor Moon’s Tuxedo Mask.

“I’m trying to think of my [MySpace] songs: maybe ‘Naughty Girl’ by Beyoncé, or I was trying to be alt like Ashlee Simpson’s ‘Pieces of Me.’”

Take me back to 2006, when you were 14. You’d just started at Andover. How was the transition to boarding school?

I was a very independent 14-year-old. I remember watching Zoey 101 and being really inspired by her campus, Pacific Coast Academy. I was thinking, “How cool that this girl gets to go to class and be in charge of her life.” I didn’t apply to a bunch of boarding schools. I did a summer program [at Andover] by happenstance and then applied.

But at 14 years old I was really into anime. I remember the song “We Fly High (Ballin’)” was really popular. Rihanna was in her SOS era with her side bangs. Those were the days.

Did you find it easy to make friends?

For sure. I’m a shy, introverted person, which might surprise people. Or maybe I’m an antisocial extrovert, I can’t decide. [I befriended] the people who lived in my dorm and were in my classes. That’s how you made friends as a high schooler, or with the people who did the same sports as you. This was before I would make friends on the internet via Twitter and Tumblr.

How did you decorate your dorm room?

I think it was just a blank wall, honestly. I was never one of those kids who decorated with posters, maybe because of my upbringing. My laptop was more a reflection of my personality, or my MySpace. I feel like the reason why women are in STEM is, in part, because of MySpace’s requirement of HTML coding and JavaScript. I’m trying to think of my [MySpace] songs: maybe “Naughty Girl” by Beyoncé, or I was trying to be alt like Ashlee Simpson’s “Pieces of Me.” I just remember having a sparkly glitter page.

In Black Friend, you write about this really mortifying moment when you realized, “Uh oh. I need to be wearing deodorant.” By 14, where were you at on your puberty journey?

I had [discovered] deodorant by that age, God bless. I still was flat-chested. By the way, I don’t think I have big naturals [now], but I didn’t develop boobs until I was 16. So I was this flat-chested, shrill young girl who had crooked teeth. I think I got braces a year after that.

Did you have any crushes — at Andover or in the celebrity realm?

I was a huge Twilight person. Jacob or Edward Cullen, I liked them both. Also, I remember watching She’s the Man, and Chad Michael Murray was such a cutie in that. My number one crush was [Sailor Moon’s] Tuxedo Mask, because he was a typical man in anime in that he would show up, offer nothing, and take credit for all of Serena’s work. I absolutely adored him.

What do you think your 14-year-old self would think of your life now?

I think my 14-year-old self would be so impressed by the freedom I have to eat whenever I want. I woke up and ate an ice cream sundae two days ago because I felt like it. I honestly felt sick and it was a mistake. But my 14-year-old self would be like, “Wow, that’s really, really punk.”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.