Busy Philipps Will Not Be Canceled
Busy Philipps pulls up in her car and tells me to get in. She wants to go for pizza, and on the way we’re going to talk about abortion.
In general, but also hers, which she first discussed publicly in This Will Only Hurt a Little, the memoir she published last fall. She had the abortion at 15, after the mom of the kid who impregnated her — the kid who had gotten another girl pregnant just months before — told her she was going to hell. The hero of the story is Philipps’ Catholic mother, Barbara Philipps, who supported her instantly and without question, scheduling a private abortion that would be much harder to get now in Philipps’ home state of Arizona.
“I’ve always been too much. I’ve always been too big, too much, too loud, too … something.”
Philipps was content to leave the abortion in the book. Telling it there was enough, and she was in the middle of a banner year. Her Instagram account, where she posts everything from videos of her LekFit trampoline workout to impromptu music videos to moody photos of herself revealing her latest accidentally self-inflicted injury, was getting hundreds of thousands of views and providing an additional income stream. She decided that she was going to have a late-night talk show and sold Busy Tonight to E!, executive producing it alongside Tina Fey. Her book, which belongs to the slender genre of celebrity memoirs that are a) actually written by the celebrity and b) readable, made the New York Times Best Seller List.
But Philipps was tuned in to the ramped-up efforts to curtail abortion rights and felt she needed to do something. Between Instagram and Busy Tonight, she had the platform. It was just a matter of when.
The moment came on May 7, when Georgia’s governor signed one of the most restrictive anti-abortion laws in the country, banning the procedure once a heartbeat is detected, which is before most women know they are pregnant. Ohio was about to enact a similar law that would ban abortion after six weeks, even in the case of rape and incest. At the same time, the media was covering the case of an 11-year-old girl in Ohio who was impregnated through rape. Philipps’ older daughter was 10 and a half.
“I had a moment of reckoning that the country that I live in doesn’t value my experience, my gender. The things that I’ve gone through are a joke, and I’m like, f*ck that.”
That night, she took her abortion story to the airwaves. “Sharing the story on the show was a big priority to her, probably one of the biggest while we were on air,” recalls Kelly Oxford, one of the show’s writers and a close friend.
“Maybe you’re sitting there thinking, 'I don’t know a woman who would have an abortion,'” Philipps told the audience of Busy Tonight, choosing her words carefully. “Well, you know me. I had an abortion when I was 15 years old, and I’m telling you this because I’m genuinely really scared for women and girls all over this country.”
A week later, on May 15, Alabama passed a law that made it a felony to perform an abortion in the state, and Tina Fey encouraged Philipps to turn her story into a campaign using the hashtag #youknowme, which went viral immediately. “Not a single regret,” wrote a Twitter user who also had an abortion at 15. Another wrote, “It’s time I didn’t feel so ashamed of this,” saying the condom had been removed without her consent. There were women and girls writing about abusive relationships, health risks, the children they lived for, and back-alley abortions; the thread went on and on. According to the ACLU, the hashtag was used over 87,000 times.
“Talking about my abortion on my show was a decision that I made because I’m aware of how people think of me,” Philipps says. “I’m just a normal woman — I’m their best friend! — and I wanted to say: Like one in four American women, I had an abortion. And I’m so over holding all of the shame.”
“My best friend works there,” Philipps says, pointing to a building in Culver City as we drive by, and I have to ask which friend because Philipps has amassed so many.
For a long time that was how people knew Busy Philipps: the best friend, onscreen and off. After years of roles on shows such as Freaks and Geeks, Dawson’s Creek, and Cougar Town, Philipps only became a household name in 2006 when Michelle Williams started walking red carpets not with then-partner Heath Ledger, but with her best friend, Busy.
Perusing the menu, Philipps tells me that even though she recently turned 40, she still feels 19. She is wildly open, immediately generous, conspiratorially fun. She wants the dry rosé, not the funky rosé (“Is that like an orange wine? No.”) and is good with tap water. She wants to know when I was born and if I know one of her college roommates and if I eat pizza and if I eat everything or not and what about soppressata, does that look good? Once it’s there, she asks if I mind if she takes a little crispy piece off with her fingers — “Is that so gross? Marc [Silverstein, her screenwriter husband] hates when I do this." She has on a colorful African-inspired print mini dress with great upper ab cutouts that you can only hope she is wearing to meet the camp bus later, and her blue curaçao eyes tear up three times over the course of the conversation. “I’ve always been too much. I’ve always been too big, too much, too loud, too … something,” she says.
"All I want is for my daughters to not have any of the f*cking bullsh*t holding them down. If that means I have to be loud about it in all ways, all around, I’ve decided that I can handle that.”
Attempts to stifle that too muchness are behind some of her most painful experiences, many of which she recounts in her book. Growing up in Scottsdale, Arizona, in the '90s, she wanted to fit in, especially with boys. She lost her virginity when she was raped at 14, and the assault felt too confusing and painful and embarrassing and somehow her fault to tell anyone for years. She moved to Los Angeles at 18 to act, and from there the body shaming was on. When she was on Dawson’s Creek, where she met Williams, they put her in clothes that hid her body from right under her boobs down to her knees, Philipps writes. The makeup artist was under strict orders to conceal her moles. She was passed over for a role she auditioned for postpartum explicitly because she had gained weight.
And then there were her thoughts and emotions, the biggest muchness of all. In an earlier phase of their 12-year marriage, Silverstein used to cut her off in group conversations, as though she was embarrassing him. (She gives him lots of credit for turning things around.) She says she has retired from acting because 20 years in, rejection still wrecks her. She cares too much.
Through Instagram, the book, and her show, Philipps made her smartest career move yet: She started playing herself. She has parlayed her apparently inborn Instagram prowess into sponsorships from Old Navy, Vital Proteins, and, yes, Poo-Pourri, among others, and she is the first and only spokesperson for Michaels, the nationwide craft store chain. (“Michaels was an outgoing call,” she tells me. “They were like, ‘We don’t need a spokesperson.’ I was like, ‘You need me.’”) In addition to her work and activism, she is shepherding her two daughters, Birdie, 11, and Cricket, 6, through what appears to be the raddest of childhoods.
One way she has come to terms with her own volume, with the abundance of Busy Philipps, is by thinking about her place in the continuum between her mom and her daughters. Despite Barbara’s abject heroism on her behalf, Philipps feels her mom has been limited by traditional ideas about who a wife and mother should be. As she talks about it, her eyes fill with tears.
“I don’t know if she ever fully realized her truest desires or the life that could have been possible,” Phillips says. “I think I’m on the precipice of figuring that part out, and all I want is for my daughters to not have any of the f*cking bullsh*t holding them down. If that means I have to be loud about it in all ways, all around, I’ve decided that I can handle that.”
"We’re not having the same conversation, is the problem.’”
She credits the 2016 election with bringing her to that precipice, alongside a general fatigue with having to prove her worth and the fact that she is a thinking person raising girls, and therefore has lost the option to do nothing. When Trump was elected, she says, “I had a moment of reckoning that the country that I live in doesn’t value my experience, my gender. The things that I’ve gone through are a joke, and I’m like, f*ck that.”
Her immediate response was to lean even harder into those workouts that became a subsequent fixture of her Instagram and to get a pointier version of the slime green nails currently harvesting soppressata. “Kelly Oxford used to get these long nails, and I was like, ‘That’s what I want. I want claws. And I want to get really strong and fit. Because I have to be ready to fight,’” she says. “I wanted to be a little scary.”
Philipps lets you see her striving. In the workout videos, “I’m never wearing makeup,” she says. “If I have zits or have picked my face, you can see it. This is my body, and this is what I’m going through. It’s proof of life.” And her book includes a very candid account of her marital struggles: “The reason I started the [Instagram] Stories — it was because I was lonely. Marc and I weren’t talking. I needed to talk to someone. It’s who I am. And so I started talking to all of you.”
She’s also not afraid to saturate. In May she appeared in a 30-second ad spot the ACLU ran on national cable outlets targeting the abortion bans. On June 4, along with women on both sides of the issue, Philipps testified before the House Committee on the Judiciary at its hearing on threats to reproductive rights.
“Testifying at Congress was bonkers,” she says, “a week-long panic attack. I had to sit across from a congressman who has been elected to government, and he was talking about pre-conception souls, and I was like, ‘Are we in the same country? We’re not having the same conversation, is the problem.’”
"You have to ask yourself, ‘Am I doing this because it’s going to make me feel better or because it’s actually helpful?’”
Yet Philipps is wary of positioning herself as a reproductive rights activist. “I’m very sensitive to inserting myself in a way that no one is asking me to insert myself,” she says. “There are so many incredible grassroots organizations that have been at work for many years on the ground in really vulnerable states, people that are working tirelessly to try to help keep health care available to all women. You have to ask yourself, ‘Am I doing this because it’s going to make me feel better or because it’s actually helpful?’”
Recently, there was interest in her curating an anthology of abortion stories, and she said no. “That to me is crossing that line. That feels like I’m capitalizing,” she says. “Like, ‘Hey remember me, I had the abortion and I talked about it? Maybe you should buy a book.’”
Accountability is a big thing for Philipps. Showing up is something her myriad of best friends say she instinctively does. “She would drive in the middle of the night to your house. A lot of people are there for you in words, but she's there for you in action,” Oxford says.
On the final episode of Busy Tonight, Philipps gathered longtime friends Linda Cardellini, Jennifer Carpenter, Christa Miller, and Whitney Cummings to roast or toast her, and they all offered variations of what was said best by Michelle Williams, who flew in from New York on the opening night of her daughter’s play to tell Philipps, in person, on air: “You’re just always there. You look like you’re living this really fabulous life for yourself, but the truth is, Biz, that you show up for all of us all the time. You are the most selfless person that I know, and it’s taught me everything that I know about being a friend.”
Philipps’ mom, Barbara, has witnessed this since the beginning. “Biz is a collector — of people. If you are Busy’s friend, she is in your corner forever,” she writes via email.
Philipps attributes her showing up to Barbara, who used to bring her along to deliver Meals on Wheels when she was a kid. “Her volunteerism was always something that was instilled in me: that’s just part of being a person,” Philipps says.
“I know it was hard for her to reveal her abortion,” Barbara says, thinking about how Philipps has shown up for other women this year, but recalls, “Even when she was little, she was always pushing the envelope.” Watching her daughter testify before Congress, “I could not help but reflect that one of the most difficult times for our family had become something so positive,” she says.
I would just encourage the people working in the entertainment industry to put out more thoughtful sh*t.”
Philipps has started expecting everyone else to show up, too, especially those in the entertainment industry. “I think that one of the tenets of being an artist is imbuing your work with ideas,” she says. “That is what cultures respond to and get shaped around, and I would just encourage the people working in the entertainment industry to put out more thoughtful sh*t.”
She believes that “you change people’s hearts and minds by telling them stories about another way to be, and we have stopped doing that to a large portion of our country.”
This was what she was trying to do with Busy, and part of why she was so devastated when E! opted not to renew it. “God I loved our show,” she says wistfully, very much not over it. She and her showrunner, Caissie St. Onge, took care never to use the president's name on air. They also made the show unapologetically, at times campily, feminine. There were cocktails and games and a surprise call from Oprah. The theme song, which sounded like a top 40 hit from the '90s that you couldn’t quite place, went It’s just me and my friends, me and my friends, me and my friends… on repeat. Philipps almost always wore a dress, and it often had some sort of spangle. This was all thoroughly her — “I wear dresses anyway. I mean, this is me,” she says, gesturing to the minidress — but also intentional, as was hiring an almost entirely female crew. Her sister, Leigh Ann Dolan, was one of the producers. The goal was to create a late-night conversation for women that women might actually want to participate in. "We wanted to subversively normalize talking about periods and the things our bodies do as women, things that we like and things that we want, asking different questions,” she says. And she wanted to do it four nights a week, like the dudes.
"I’m taking back the power of my body. And the shame and guilt that’s been perpetrated on me by men, I’m giving that away."
From a traditional ratings perspective — how many people are watching a show on their TV at the time it airs — Busy Tonight didn’t take off, at least not enough in the six months it was allowed to air. But it had devoted fans, most of whom, Philipps points out, consumed it online. The conventional take was that the Busy brand wasn’t ultimately powerful enough to scale, that not enough people wanted or were ready to hear what she had to say, but that’s only true if you were listening on one frequency. According to the ratings, the show’s median audience age was 34, younger than most late-night TV viewers by almost a decade.
The important thing is to keep going, Philipps says. She recites one of her favorite quotes, a paraphrase of a line from the Talmud. She’s not Jewish (she’s not Catholic anymore, either — "f*ck no”). She heard it at a charity fundraiser and posted it on Instagram, where we all go to pray now: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
Which leads to the rumors that her show has not been abandoned and that it is coming back in some form. In fact, she is late for a meeting to talk about exactly that.
Now pressed for time, she goes ahead and answers the question I haven’t asked yet: "The throughline is this: I’m taking back the power of my body. And the shame and guilt that’s been perpetrated on me by men, I’m giving that away. I’m giving it to the world, I’m giving it back to the men who did it, I’m giving it back to men who are bystanders who have never stood up for a f*cking thing — I’m giving it back. I want to give that away, and I want to take the power."
Photographer & Director: Brooke Nipar
Stylist: Beverly Nguyen
Fashion Market Assistant: Raziel Martinez
Hair: Daniel Howell @ TraceyMattingly.com
Makeup: Austin Evans using MAC
Videographer: Fiorella Occhipinti