Whitney Cummings talks deciding to gain weight and finding a sound mind. (Photo: Getty)
If only all celebrities could be like Whitney Cummings in interviews: unfiltered, funny, candid, and very, very real. In my recent chat with the comedian, ahead of her standup HBO special “I’m Your Girlfriend,” airing on January 23, Cummings didn’t hold back or follow the protocols that have become the (awful) standard for celebrity interviews. For starters, her team doesn’t ask for questions in advance, doesn’t provide a list of off-limits topics, and doesn’t give the typical allotted 10-15 minutes. Cummings is, in fact, happy to go off script and talk for almost 40 minutes. I quickly bag my questions and let her take the lead once she starts talking about how she froze her eggs this year and realized it scares guys. “I thought it was going to make me, like, the sexy girl that doesn’t want kids right now,“ she tells me. "And it’s the opposite!”
While Cummings has always been at her best delivering her brand of deadpan and hilarious takes on sex and relationships, this past year has found her coming out from behind her jokes and revealing more about herself. She announced on the Today show that she gained 25 pounds because she thought she was too skinny — when was the last time you heard that from a celebrity? She wrote a candid essay in Lenny Letter about being diagnosed as co-dependent and going through a 12-step program. During our interview, amid hilarious anecdotes, she delves into deeper territory, talking about reprocessing her brain from childhood trauma and an upbringing she describes as chaotic. “Once I started peeling off those layers and thawing the ice, what was underneath was a very scared and insecure person,” she says. “I had sort of been pretending to show the truth.” Cummings says she’s done with censoring herself, both in interviews and on stage, and the result is that she’s funnier than ever.
Sara Bliss: Let’s talk about your new HBO special coming up in January. What can we expect?
Whitney Cummings: In the entertainment industry there is this fear of getting older, because we have high definition television now, and you can see things that the human eye can’t even pick up. But the good thing about standup is that the older you get, the funnier you get. I am excited to show people how, when you get older, you get deeper, you get more raw, you get more honest, and you stop pretending to be the person you think people want you to be. I stopped worrying about what people wanted me to say and just sort of dug deep into my personal arsenal of my mistakes and shameful thoughts. Of all the specials I have done, this is the least guarded. In other specials, [it was] ‘Oh, I can’t say that! What if a guy I’m dating watches the special and sees that I’ve said that or done that?’ So this was the only one where I was like, You know what? If I die alone, so be it. I’d rather be funny. It was almost like reading from my diary, like all my deepest, darkest secrets. I talk about being diagnosed as a love addict. I talk about how a guy asked me to squirt and I didn’t know how to do that. Like what is that? Stuff that I didn’t feel comfortable taking to my closest girlfriends, I talked to a group of strangers about. I talked about how I froze my eggs…
You froze your eggs this year?
I did. It’s just so interesting because I thought I was taking my power back and buying myself more time, but then I would bring it up, and it would gross people out. They would think I was an old desperate spinster. It would really freak out guys. It’s ‘Oh, you want kids soon!’ And I’m like, ‘No, I don’t want kids soon. That is why I froze my eggs, dummy.’ I thought it was going to make me, like, the sexy girl that doesn’t want kids right now. And it’s the opposite! It’s not sexy. Like, I’ll be hooking up with a guy, and he is like, “Do you have a condom?” and I’m like, ‘Don’t worry, boo, my sh*t’s on ice down by the airport, we’re good.’
You definitely seem more unguarded this year. You are letting people see this more real, deeper, funnier you.
Yes! That is something that was super scary for me to do, so to have you say that means a lot. One of my favorite quotes about comedy is “We do comedy because we want to control why you laugh at us.” We are going to control the narrative, and it’s really a form of defense. Sometimes the funnier you are, the more vulnerable and scared you are underneath it all. So I think for me, comedy was always a defense. It was a weapon so that you can’t hurt me. Then I hit a codependent rock bottom, and I went into a 12-step program and really started to dismantle all that armor. I come across very confident and tough, but that is all just a mask, because underneath I am terrified and very insecure with low self-esteem. Once I started peeling off those layers and thawing the ice, what was underneath was a very scared and insecure person. I had sort of been pretending to show the truth. In your 20s you should not know who you are; we are all figuring it out. But not being self-aware, being unconscious, being a puppet of your childhood damage, it’s not cute in your 30s. I did a really hardcore 12-step work, trauma therapy, and EMDR to figure out who am I under all these costumes, masks, and defense mechanisms.
What is EMDR?
EMDR stands for eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. The way my therapist explained it to me is our brain takes in billions of pieces of information in a second. So if you and I were having coffee, the way you look, your hair, the color of the tablecloth, all of this stuff is being processed. But say we are having coffee and someone comes in with a gun to your head, that information is still coming in and you are filing it as danger, fear. So the last time you saw a blue tablecloth, someone brought in a gun. Two months later, you are at a wedding and the tablecloth is blue and you are anxious and don’t know why. Right? Because the brain has filed blue under fear. Those are triggers, essentially. So what started to happen to me as an adult, aggressive blond women really scared me; I would be very childlike and insecure and walked on eggshells. That is what my mom looked like. The trauma response was kicking in. So EMDR — I think it was originally developed for Vietnam vets and PTSDs —what happens, with a trained professional, you can reorganize the folders of your brain. You can move blue tablecloths back to the benign color blue, not a threat. So I think just understanding neurology and our primordial instincts can help us all have a little more patience with ourselves. I just think it’s a paradigm through which the world makes a lot more sense to me.
You also recently talked about gaining 25 pounds because you thought you looked too skinny. When did you decide to do that?
For me, my body image struggle started very young. All that I heard from my mother, my aunts, and my mom’s friends was, “I gotta lose five pounds.” At 5 years old I learned a size 2 is not thin enough. It was, Don’t eat carbs! Don’t eat sugar! Drink Diet Coke! You always diet! So that was engrained in my brain at a very early age. I had so little control in my life as a kid. I was going from my dad’s house to my mom’s house. My dad remarried a woman that I hadn’t really met, and it was so chaotic, food was how I felt like I had control. It became sort of a metaphor for stability for me. Then, of course, when you get thin you start getting all this positive attention. It’s like Pavlov’s Dog 101, and all I wanted was to be loved. So then I came into the entertainment business, and the thinner I was the more attention I got. Then it just became a habit. I got on a TV show, and you just get so much positive reinforcement for being thin. Designers send you a size 0 right off the runway, and it fits, and you’re a stylist’s dream. Then you just lose sight. I became very dysmorphic. Then I was on a talk show, and they played a clip of the sitcom I did six months before, and I saw it, and I was horrified. I didn’t even recognize myself. My thighs didn’t touch, and I just got a pit in my stomach, and it could have been a hunger pang … but I just thought, “Oh, my god.” It breaks my heart that someone’s daughter could be looking up to me and thinking that’s what her body should look like. I also didn’t recognize my face. It was scary. Once I was able to step back and get out of it, the dysmorphia, and sort of look at myself from below, and I was like, ‘It’s a wrap.’ It was very intense, though. Putting on weight is very tricky. None of my clothes fit, I changed my diet completely, but I had to do a lot of work on my self-esteem because it was an emotional thing.
So many celebrities are doing interviews and talking about how they’re losing weight or keeping it off, and I love that you did the complete opposite.
I think the big issue was more like, I don’t want to look back on my deathbed and be thinking of all the years I wasted obsessing over “Can I get the dressing on the side?” Then I started learning about what’s in our food and how good fat is for your brain. I was also run down. It took me five hours to write something that would normally take me an hour. So I started eating fat, and my brain started to clear, I had more energy, I felt like I was on cocaine. Food works! I don’t know if I could have pulled this off in the ’90s, when anorexic heroin Kate Moss models were big, but the pendulum has swung back to bodies. And then freezing my eggs, that sort of reinforced the power of my body and what my body’s capable of. I don’t want to punish my body anymore. I don’t want to punish myself or hurt myself. I haven’t done anything wrong. And if I don’t get a job or a guy or a whatever because I’m a size 6, then I don’t need that job or that guy anyway. And then, of course, last thing, after I put weight on, people thought I had gotten a facelift.
That’s hysterical. You can’t win.
My face was so gaunt, and it filled out, and you know, you choose your ass or your face, you hear that all the time. The good news is, when you choose your ass, your face sort of improves! So you don’t have to choose.