Illiteracy, Abuse and Foster Homes: How Tiffany Haddish Overcame It All

Yup, she ready. Having overcome a oft-traumatic past, the star is poised to conquer the world.

By Sarah Grossbart Jun 15, 2018 10:00 AMTags
Tiffany Haddish, Saturday Night Live, SNLWill Heath/NBC

She ready!

Anyone that's tuned into MTV in the last several weeks knows that Tiffany Haddish is fully primed to host the network's Movie & TV Awards this Monday. "The most important thing is preparation," she notes in one promo as she jokingly goes over flash cards. ("It: scary a-- clown, Riverdale: Okay, so many redheads, Stranger Things: nerd kids.")  

In another, the star (and double nominee!) envisions all the worst case scenarios that could befall her as emcee of the annual popcorn trophy fest—Fall on your face! F--k up the names!—seemingly using the power of the secret to ensure the event goes off without a hitch. Explains Haddish, "I like to say what I don't want, so that I can get what I do what." 

Tiffany Haddish's Career Firsts

No matter, though. Whatever could befall the 38-year-old, she's been through worse. No amount of t-tty pop-out compares to an absentee father, a mother who became abusive following a traumatic brain injury or a decades-long battle to break into the industry that included several stints of sleeping in her car.  

While the casual fan may not have heard the name Tiffany Haddish before last July, she's been hustling since the age of 15. "I didn't just come out of nowhere," she told Ellen DeGeneres of her years spent on the comedy club circuit and working as an extra. "I've been in this business a minute, walking around in the back smiling." Her off-camera antics caught the attention of none other than Oprah Winfrey on the set of her 2005 drama Their Eyes Were Watching God ("She walked by and I was making all the other extras laugh," Haddish recalled), but it'd be another 12 years until mere mortals paid notice. Outshining her more bold-named costars in last summer's surprise smash Girls Trip earned Haddish raves (and not a little Oscar buzz), but it was her infectious personality and ability to fully, authentically be herself on the ensuing press tour that made her the breakout star of 2017. 

A hosting gig on Saturday Night Live followed, as did a stand-up special, the cover of Time 100 and a flood of offers from the likes of Netflix, Showtime and HBO. Her already-in-the-works memoir, The Last Black Unicorn was fast-tracked (and swiftly became a New York Times Bestseller). And, if fans like Tyra Banks get their way, a job hosting next year's Academy Awards with co-presenter Maya Rudolph could be next.

First, though, she'll take center stage at the Barker Hanger in Santa Monica, Calif to help dole out some trophies. She has bits planned with her Girls Trip costars Queen Latifah, Regina Hall and Jada Pinkett Smith and other celeb pals (she's hung with everyone from Beyoncé to Taylor Swift to Barbra Streisand to Kevin Hart). "It's gonna be off the chain, and you know why?" she has said. "I'm hosting! And you know what that means—it's gonna be hilarious." Yeah, she ready. 

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To hear Haddish tell it, she's been a fighter since conception. "My soul is very determined," she recently shared with W magazine. "Ever since I was a little sperm, surrounded by all those other sperm that were stronger than me, had a longer tail than my tail, swam faster than me, I made my way through. I got knocked into other sperm—it was a battle, but I made it to the end." 

Her path didn't get much easier. The story of her childhood is, at times, unfathomably tragic, but she manages to deliver the details in her memoir with a dash of humor. Five years after her Eritrea-born father abandoned the family when she was 3-years-old, her mother was in a devastating car accident (Haddish speculates it could have been caused by her step-father in an attempt to pocket insurance money). The crash left her brain severely injured and her personality irreparably altered. To hear Haddish tell it, her mom returned meaner, more volatile and abusive. "I swore she had a demon in her," she told GQ. "It's so scary."

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Unable to remain at home, Haddish and her four younger half-siblings drifted in and out of the foster care system—where she was bullied, slapped and molested, though she didn't realize it at the time. Eventually, they landed with her grandmother, who, says Haddish, would ask her to leave when she turned 18. 

Her life at a high school in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley was just as fraught. She estimates she remained at a "first- or second-grade reading level" well into her teens and was faking her way through advanced placement classes until a discerning social worker enrolled the 15-year-old into the Laugh Factory Comedy Camp. There, comic legend Richard Pryor delivered the advice that has become her personal motto: You need to have fun. "I try to take that philosophy and apply it to everything I do in my life," she wrote in her book. "That's why I think my life turned out as good as it has. Because, all the time, I'm just trying to have fun." 

Lloyd Bishop/NBC

That light-hearted spirit propelled her through the next two decades that saw her survive an abusive marriage, a miscarriage and two periods of living in her tiny Geo Metro, which she parked in Beverly Hills because, "If I'm gonna be homeless," she told The Hollywood Reporter, "I'm gonna be homeless in the best area." 

Making ends meet meant accepting gigs as a movie set extra, a sex phone operator and what she calls an "energy producer" at Bar and Bat Mitzvahs—plus a little help from a friend. When she met Hart at the Laugh Factory, he offered her $300 to get a hotel room. But the next day, she recounted to Vanity Fair, "I got a phone call and was offered an apartment." The "most raggediest" place she had scene, there were roaches everywhere, cigarette stains on the carpet and yellowed walls from excessive smoking. "It was all bad," she told the mag. "The guy was like, 'It's $550 a month,' and I was like, 'It's perfect! I'll take it!'"

Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for SiriusXM

Nearly a year after Girls Trip raked in $115 million at the box office, she's collecting paychecks for TV (already starring in The Last O.G. with Tracy Morgan, she's set to executive produce a comedy series with HBO), movies (she and Hart teamed up for September's Night School and she's filming The Kitchen with Melissa McCarthy) and a deal with Groupon she earned by sharing an anecdote about taking Pinkett Smith and her husband Will Smith on a swamp tour using a coupon from the site. But she still can't quite shake the feeling of what it was to be poor. 

So, yeah, sorry Hollywood purists, she's going to wear that same bejeweled Alexander McQueen halter as many times as she'd like. "When I saw the receipt, I cried," she told W magazine of the gown originally selected for the Girls Trip premiere. "The dress was $4,122! So I'm wearing it multiple f--king times. I don't care what nobody say—that's a down payment on a car, that's a medical bill." Expect an appearance this Monday. After donning it at the Oscars (for the third time), she told E! News, "I had to go to Michaels and put more stones back in," after a few fell off at the dry cleaner. 

And while she's upgraded her fake Michael Kors bags to Fendis and Guccis, she sticks to her rule that, "Whatever the bag costs, I should be able to keep that amount of cash in the bag." So, she insisted to W, "If things start to go wrong, I'm going right back to my knockoffs." 

Tiffany Haddish

A downward trajectory seems unlikely considering pretty much every story Haddish utters turns into a cultural phenomenon. Take her little tale about the time she met Beyoncé and watched in horror, she relayed to GQ, as an unnamed actress "that's just, like, doing the mostest," bit the pop legend on the face. 

Her revelation led to a fevered, Internet-wide guessing game in which actress Sanaa Lathan was named as the most likely culprit, but Haddish insists she was just trying to tell a story about "how Beyoncé kept me from goin' to jail that night. I coulda just shut my whole career down." (Haddish offered to "beat somebody a--" on the 22-time Grammy winner's behalf, but she waved her off.)  

Tiffany Haddish/Instagram

Finally confirming Lathan as the nibbler to The Hollywood Reporter, Haddish admits the actress' dad and step-mom were less-than-pleased by her admission, but there was no other fallout. "The other day, someone was saying, like, 'Oh my God, you should keep your mouth shut 'cause now you're never gonna be invited to parties,' but I got invited to way more parties after that," she explained. "It's ridiculous how many parties. 'Can you come to my party?' 'Can you come to my thing?' They want me to talk about something at their thing 'cause they think, like, 'This is gonna put me back on if Tiffany says something.'"

Not only is Haddish willing to dish on her growing pool of celebrity friends, her delivery is so captivating that her stories become instant Internet fodder. Who hasn't heard about the time she met Brad Pitt in an elevator and formed a hook-up pact with the father of six? Her latest anecdote involves her crossing paths with Leonardo DiCaprio at a party, she told The Hollywood Reporter, and asking "if he'd let me hit that." Her request was specific: "I told him, 'My only stipulation: I wanna do it with you as your character in What's Eating Gilbert Grape.'"

Jerritt Clark/Getty Images for Ciroc

A night with DiCaprio is but one item on her bucket list. Having already accomplished her original tally of goals (working with the likes of Pinkett Smith, Whoopi Goldberg and Arsenio Hall), she's drafted a few more. 

"I want to go to every single country. I want to buy two streets that intersect and call them Tiffany and Haddish, and I want to open a youth center, a job-training center, a mental-health department, and a whole art center there," she detailed to Marie Claire. "Then when people say, 'Oh my God, how did you learn to play the trumpet?' 'Oh, I learned it on Tiffany and Haddish.' I want to go on a date with Michael B. Jordan. I want a fried-chicken-and-girls' night with Michelle Obama. There's a lot of things I want to do, girl."

Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

We're not doubting her ability to make 50 movies before she turns 50, have a clothing line, a perfume or even start Tiff and O's Vegetables with Winfrey. ("I had came up with a whole business plan, with mostly her vegetables and some of mine," she told DeGeneres. "And then we just go to different farmer's markets and we just go and do our thing.")

But, for now, Haddish is pretty satisfied with where she's at. "I would tell a young Tiffany to figure out what it is you love, do that every single day and you will always make money," she told E! News in January. "Don't doubt yourself...Never ever doubt it." 

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She certainly didn't. 

"I love to make people laugh and I'm making a living out of it," she added. "I remember being a little girl and people telling me, 'Oh, you can't make any money doing that. You need to figure out something else to do and get a real job.' And look at me now. I'm doing exactly what I love to do and I'm making a great living from it."