My mother was at her most beautiful when she came back from the salon every fortnight – her long hair falling in big sweeping curls around her shoulders. I thought she must be the prettiest woman in the world.
She was tall and black as night with long curly hair. To my seven-year-old self, she was like a black Charlie’s Angel. I’d stare at her for hours, imagining what it must be like to have hair that turned heads. Powerful hair. I had much coarser hair, that fell about my ears with a kinky curl.
My mum’s beauty was simple and pure. She would wear lip gloss and maybe mascara on special occasions but she never needed much. How I looked was important to her, especially if we were going to an event or a family occasion. She or my auntie would do my hair, putting colourful ballies at the base of my braids and barrette clips at the tips that would making a clicking noise when I walked.
The louder they clicked, the cuter I felt, so I’d walk around swinging my head to make them as loud as possible. Whenever I left the house, my mum would shout after me: ‘You have seven barettes in your hair, YOU BETTER COME HOME WITH SEVEN.’ But I’d click them so hard because I felt so pretty that I’d lose them all.
She and my grandmother loved to make clothes for me, like the little white dress with sailboats on I used to wear all the time, and then they’d fawn over me. My cousin and I would wear matching outfits when we went with my grandma to her Jehovah’s Witnesses meetings. We’d be in pretty dresses with white tights and little Mary Jane shoes. Our hair would be in Shirley Temple curls and we would tap dance in the lobby.
People would stop and say, ‘You guys are so cute, look at you little ladies,’ and I loved it. That’s when I realised that people wanted to have me around because I looked pretty, and it felt like I had a superpower, as if I could get away with anything. As if I had real privilege.
My whole life changed when I was just shy of my ninth birthday and my mum had a car accident. The accident was bad. She had gone through the windscreen on her way to work the night shift at the post office. She would normally drop us off at my grandmother’s on the way, but that night I said, ‘I know how to make hot dogs, how to change diapers and put everyone to bed anyway, so let me babysit.’ And she did.
If she wanted to get in touch, she said she’d ring twice, then hang up, and we’d know that it was her calling. But the phone never rang, not the next morning or the day after that. We waited and waited, but she never came home.
She should have died, but she didn’t. When we were finally allowed to see her at the hospital, I wasn’t prepared for what I would be faced with. My once-beautiful mother looked like a monster. Her eyes were black and she had bandages across her head. Her whole body was swollen. She spent three months in hospital learning how to walk and talk again.
From then on, she no longer wore lip gloss or her hair in big waves. She became plain… her hair tied in two braids, like a child. Everything she had taught me, I had to teach her. I tried to do her hair as she’d done mine, but I couldn’t do it well, so we’d wait for my aunties and they’d do everyone’s hair at once.
Quite quickly, my mother became someone I no longer knew. She became verbally abusive to me, usually about the way I looked. ‘You look like your ugly ass daddy, get out of my face,’ she would shout.
For the next three years, those words would play over and over again: the constant message that I was ugly, stupid… not worth anything. But a daughter’s love is strong. After all, she was the first person I ever loved. And when you love someone that much you believe every word they say.
Even when I was put into foster care when I was 13, I continued to love her. My mum got into a fight with a neighbour and when I got home there were police everywhere and the social worker told me to put my clothes in a bag because my mum wasn’t coming home. I was moved around a lot in that one year while she was put into a state mental health facility. I felt like a piece of dirt, being moved from house to house with just a bin bag full of my clothes.
The first house I was put in, the lady took me to a nail salon for a manicure, which felt good. I remember her telling me, ‘You’re too pretty to be looking so harsh!’ But it was too late... I already wore my sorrow and pain on my face.
As a teenager, I relied a lot on the reactions of other people to feel beautiful. All my friends were pretty attractive and they all had curves, but I was straight up and down. I used to borrow a friend’s mascara and eyeliner at school, but I didn’t know how to put it on or that you couldn’t rub your eyes when you wore it, so it would just look like I had a black eye. I’d go to my Auntie Mary’s house after school and she would say, ‘Girl, what happened to your eye?’
Around this time, however, I discovered that I could make heads turn in a different way: I could make people laugh. I loved seeing the way my words made people smile. When I was 15, I went to live with my grandmother, where I would lock myself in my room and stare in the mirror for hours on end. ‘You’re so damn vain,’ my auntie would shout up after me. But I wasn’t checking myself out. I was looking at the way my face could contort to make others laugh.
Pretty soon I started getting into trouble at school for always trying to make others giggle. They tried to move me to a different school, but I kept going back because I didn’t want to move. That summer, my social worker gave me two choices: either go to therapy to help me deal with everything I had been through or go to comedy camp. Therapy seemed like a bad idea. I knew my mum was in and out of therapy and they were always trying to make her take medication. I saw her drooling, gaining weight and not being able to keep her eyes open. So I said, whatever the options, I’m not going to therapy.
Instead, I joined the comedy camp at the Laugh Factory in Hollywood and learned about stage presence and confidence, and in particular the confidence to be seen. That opportunity changed everything for me. I felt so powerful being on stage, like the microphone was my sword and the words were my shield. Confidence, not beauty, felt like my superpower and I still feel that way when I perform today.
When I started camp, there were all these huge comedians like Dane Cook and Richard Pryor. Every time I got on stage they would tell me that I was smart and beautiful. It was the first time men told me I was beautiful and I didn’t think anything bad was going to happen. I could tell they didn’t want to trap me in some weird situation, which had happened before when I was in foster care, but that they actually cared.
They would say to me: ‘Tiffany, you are a beautiful girl.’ Just to hear that from someone I’d watched on TV was enough to shift a gear inside my head.
Now I feel most beautiful when I’m in my natural state. Not necessarily with my hair all tied up and curled, although I do love that look. But I feel most confident in who I am and what I look like when I’m not wearing any make-up, because it hasn’t taken any work to look that way.
I recently showed my mum the cover of a magazine I was on. I didn’t have much make-up on, it was more of a natural look. She looked at me and then looked back at the cover and said, ‘Oh, wow, you look beautiful!’ And I joked, ‘So I don’t look like my ugly daddy?’ She laughed and said, ‘No, your ugly daddy would not have made it on the cover of a magazine. You look just like me.’
'Like A Boss' starring Tiffany Haddish is out 21 February.
This article appears in the February 2020 edition of ELLE UK. Subscribe here to make sure you never miss an issue.
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