Busy Philipps on Her New Book, Being Instagram Famous and Making 'a Late Night Show for All of Us'

In Depth

Busy Philipps has been fucking up my Google results for almost 20 years, and up until last week, she had no idea. At this point in her career, of course, she’s almost certainly beyond the point where she casually Googles the name “Kim Kelly” to check up on the beloved antihero she played on cult TV favorite Freaks and Geeks. More than ever, Busy Philipps is busy.

Since the show first aired in 1999, the Los Angeles-based actor has appeared in a number of other films (White Chicks, He’s Just Not That into You) and television series (Dawson’s Creek, ER, Vice Principals), she’s won a Critics’ Choice Television Award for her work on Cougartown, and she co-wrote the Ben Stiller/Will Ferrell smash Blades of Glory. By the time we speak, she’s too wrapped up in preparing for the launch of her E! talk show Busy Tonight, promoting her candid memoir, This Will Only Hurt a Little, raising two daughters, and keeping up with fans via her wildly popular and extraordinarily personal Instagram stories to care about what “Kim Kelly” is up to.

I, however, do, because my actual, real name is Kim Kelly. For the past 18 years since the cancellation of Freaks and Geeks in October 2000, roughly one out of every three people I have met has, upon hearing my name, excitedly asked, “Oh my god, have you ever seen Freaks and Geeks?” Yes, I have, and I am very familiar with the other Kim Kelly—the tall, blonde, rocker chick with a bad temper, a difficult home life, and a heart of dented gold, to which I bear an uncomfortably close resemblance. She is me. I am her. We are one and the same, a blonde ouroboros with an attitude problem (except she was a character on a TV show, and I am very much not).

Philipps’s character was a shining beacon for girls like me who were a little too loud and a little too rough around the edges to ever be accepted by the “nice girls.”

Philipps’s character was a shining beacon for girls like me who were a little too loud and a little too rough around the edges to ever be accepted by the “nice girls,” a quality that Philipps herself effortlessly embodies in real life. The fact that her Kim Kelly clearly didn’t give a fuck about anyone else’s approval (but still had the hottest boyfriend in school) was a balm to my angry adolescent soul, and is almost certainly a very small part of why I’m covered in tattoos and still wear combat boots to the office.

I’ve followed Philipps’s career ever since I discovered that she was the real person behind my celluloid doppelgänger, and was particularly pleased to read in This Will Only Hurt a Little about how she got her start in acting by working at toy trade shows as a life-size Barbie. Clearly, Philipps’s powers of impersonation go far beyond my random connection to her, which is why she’s found such success as a working actor in the bloodthirsty shark pit that is Hollywood. In her new memoir, she’s extraordinarily open about the roadblocks she’s had to vault over (or smash through) since she got her start in the ’90s and is equally forthcoming about the personal struggles she’s had to overcome, from surviving a sexual assault at age 14, getting an abortion at 15, dealing with body shaming and sexism in Hollywood, and being physically assaulted on the set of Freaks and Geeks by her co-star, James Franco (an allegation he’s addressed in the past, and Philipps said they “made amends”).

This frankness has endeared her to a whole new generation of fans—fans who wouldn’t recognize a Freaks and Geeks reference if they tripped over it but can tell you everything about what Philipps did on Instagram that day, and who flocked to the Brooklyn book launch where I got my first glimpse of a flesh-and-blood Philipps, and who cried along with her as she told her stories. To them, with her soliloquies about Oprah and almond milk, she feels more like a friend than a famous person. If there’s anything I learned from Philipps’s memoir, it’s that she really just wants to be loved; that’s what she offers her fans, and it’s what they radiate back to her tenfold.

Despite her privilege, few things have come easily to Philipps. The messier parts of her book are the most interesting. The glitzy, glamorous red carpet nights with her best friend Michelle Williams are fun to read, but pale in comparison to the passages about struggling to make mortgage payments, feeling pressured to lose weight to get ahead, and dealing with an unsupportive partner. As Philipps said to a cheering crowd while flanked by Williams (who had popped in to act as enthusiastic moderator): “I feel like, here I am, and what’s the fuckin’ point of any of it if we can’t share our stories? Fuck that guy who left me. Fuck that guy who gave me HPV. Fuck that guy who shoved me to the ground. Fuck all that shit!”

The celebrity memoir is a strange creature, but what Philipps has done here is construct a genuine window into her world. As Williams commented, “It’s a book about love, and about someone on a quest for belonging and for love,” which is accurate; it’s a very emotional book, and Philipps is an unapologetically emotional person who is, as she says, “always crying.” While most celebrities work to smooth out their sharp spots and create an impenetrable veneer, Philipps straight up spills her guts, and I can almost hear a flannel-clad, younger version of her hiss, “Well, why the fuck not?”

When I got the opportunity to hop on the phone with Philipps a few days after the book event as she powered through a windy Boston train station, I knew I needed to stay professional. But I was determined to at least mention our status as spiritual twins, because, come on—the very fact that we were speaking at all was obviously written in the stars. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation is below.

Did you see the girl in the front who was sitting down cross-legged and crying? I knew I was probably going to cry.

JEZEBEL: I’ve got to say, it’s been an honor sharing my Google results with you these past 20 years.

BUSY PHILIPPS: Wow, it’s so exciting to finally meet Kim Kelly over the phone!

I was going to mention it at your recent book launch in Brooklyn, but it was so packed and so emotional that I didn’t want to derail the vibe. Did you expect the response to be so intense?

It was a pretty magical night, i have to say. Michelle [Williams] had offered to do a book talk, and I think that she really thought it was going to be in the back of a bookstore for like 30 people, and then when it was clear that it was what it was, she was like, “Okay, let’s do it!” Where were you standing? Did you see the girl in the front who was sitting down cross-legged and crying? I knew I was probably going to cry, because that’s whoI am. I’m sort of always in tears, but I was really surprised by the outpouring of support and love and emotion, and people relating in such a deep way to the things that i want to say and am putting into the world right now.

Reading your book felt like having a very long conversation with one of my friends, and that’s the kind of openness that your fans are responding to. What does it feel like to open up Instagram and know that literally hundreds of thousands of people are looking at you go about your daily life?

It’s intense. When I started participating in social media, the thought at the forefront of my mind wasn’t that it was going to transform my career or how I was perceived publicly. It was more just that I was looking for an outlet, as so many people are, whether you’re on television or just sitting in your room. And as the response to my stories accelerated and it became clear that people were very interested in things that I was doing and saying, it shifted my feeling about the whole thing, but it also made me not want to pull back.

You really let fans into your world in a way that feels very conspiratorial, almost like, “Yeah, I’m a famous person, but I’m still a person and I care about real things.” Was there ever a moment when you sat down and had to decide what kind of famous person to be? The kind that hides in a French villa, or the kind that you’ve become?

I don’t have a French villa yet [laughs]. I think the bottom line was that I was always trying to forge a path in Hollywood and understand my place, and I think that’s one of the things that I talk about in the book. Whether it was in my own family or when I was a teenager at school, or when I started my career in Hollywood, I always felt that I was being left out. I don’t think that’s an uncommon feeling for people, I think it’s more common than feeling that they’re part of the action, so in a way I really turned outward, with social media, to create that feeling for myself. I was just trying to work for so many years, just truly hoofing it, and so in the last couple of years, my choice to participate so strongly in social media was not something that was planned out at all. Obviously, I’ve been able to forge a whole new career path from it, but ultimately at the end of the day, do I still suffer from my anxiety attacks? Do I still suffer that feeling of being left out? Yes, that’s never going away, and I guess more therapy is the answer [laughs], not posting on Instagram, but nevertheless, here we are.

“in the case of Geoffrey Owens, and the case of myself, you can be on hit television shows and not be a multimillionaire.”

It was interesting reading about how the recession and housing prices affected you, too. People don’t often think of the material realities of the work you do, and parts of your book remind me of the reaction to former Cosby Show actor Geoffrey Owens and his job at Trader Joe’s.

I have to say that that really spoke to me so deeply. It was the perfect encapsulation of the public’s misunderstanding of what it is to be a working actor slash celebrity slash person who’s in public. I think people were very shocked when the pay disparity between Michelle and Mark Wahlberg came out, on the reshoots for For All the Money in the World; that is not something that anyone would have ever considered to be a possibility. “Michelle Williams is a movie star; she should be making a movie star salary!” But these are the realities that artists face, and in the case of Geoffrey Owens, and the case of myself, you can be on hit television shows and not be a multimillionaire. People have very interesting ideas about how much money people make and how long it lasts for, and I wanted to be really open about my own struggles financially at that time in my life because it was all sort of weighing down on me.

On that note, and on perhaps a more existential level, do you feel that your labor itself is devalued due to the nature of your industry? A construction worker can work on an intermittent schedule and people understand that, but because your job is what it is, people assume it’s a cakewalk.

I think people think it’s magic—they take for granted all the hard work that does go into it, and I know people will roll their eyes and say, “You don’t know hard work!” And that’s probably fair. I don’t know manual labor, but I know what it’s like to struggle and to have your heart broken and to feel financially insecure in my job. But I’m really bad with a hammer, that’s not for me [laughs]. I know what it’s like to work 15-hour days, and not see your kids for two days or a week because you’re at work like I am right now trying to sell the book and the show and all of these things. But you’re doing the thing that you love and following this creative pursuit, and that makes it all worthwhile for sure.

You also touch on some of those personal struggles in your book, like when you describe your sexual assault or your feelings of worthlessness, or the way that studio execs picked apart your body. How did it feel to put all of that out into the world?

It was and continues to be many different things at many different moments. I would say that it was scary in a lot of ways, but I do feel that there is a moment happening where we as women are able to finally speak truth to the injustices, great and small, that we face simply by being women. I resent the clickbait headlines about my book. I resent how reductive that is, but I understand that that’s the way the world works right now; while it can be reduced to bombshell, “Can’t believe it’s in her book!” bullshit, this was my life, and I hope that me saying these things, that are real things that fucking happened to me, on such a public platform, allows another woman, younger or older, to be able to speak their truth on whatever level they need to. I think that we’re at a place where we’ve held onto these things, generationally, for so long, and it has done us no fucking favors. It’s time to release these feelings, these things that have happened to us, into the world, and say we’re not going to take it anymore—not for myself, not for my sisters, not for my children. We’re done.

I resent the clickbait headlines about my book. I resent how reductive that is, but i understand that that’s the way the world works right now.

During this moment, people are looking to public figures, especially white feminist women, to weaponize their privilege, and help uplift the rest of us who don’t have access to those platforms. What do you think is the most effective way for people with large audiences to weaponize their privilege?

I mean, it’s a work in progress for all of us, and I think that the best thing that those in these positions of privilege can do is to turn to smarter people [laughs], to activists who have dedicated their lives to this who can advise. I know that in terms of Times Up and MeToo, Tarana [Burke] has been so open with so many women who are in these positions and have come to her. I think that in terms of how do you continue this, what’s the right way to move forward, my hope is that we continue to show up, that there’s a real reexamination. I had to reexamine my own internalized misogyny in regard to the response I was getting to my book from certain people, and how that was making me feel—even though it’s hard for me, because we still feel those things, because whether we like it or not, culturally that’s what we’ve been presented with our entire lives.

Now you’re moving into the talk show world, which is a very white, very male space. How do you intend to disrupt that?

There are a lot of things. [Busy Tonight showrunner] Caissie St. Onge and I tried to be incredibly thoughtful in our hiring process. Our writers and producers come from all different sorts of backgrounds; the majority of them are female, my director is a woman as well, Tina Fey is our producer. I think making sure that we have lots of different voices is going to show on screen, and that was always Caissie’s and my intention, and something that was very important to us, because I do think that there are a great number of people who don’t get entertainment geared towards them, so this is a late night show for all of us [laughs]. But also, just because it’s me, it will be different and unique. We’re just trying to build a show that ultimately is something that the 20 or so of us who are working on it right now would want to watch, and hopefully, other people will agree.

Well, from one Kim Kelly to another, thank you for continuing to make that space for tough girls from rough backgrounds to have a little place of our own. It’s still really funny to be talking to you. I feel like the universe has delivered something special here.

I love it. I love that you’re Kim Kelly. You know, it’s so funny—I was saying to Jenny Yang, one of the writers in my room, about how I think we’re all sims, and sim theory, and she asked why I thought that, and I said, because all these things happen, and there are these crazy coincidences, and how else could it be explained? And by the way, I don’t really 100 percent believe in that, but it’s just kind of a fun thing to talk about. She was like, “Oh, I believe that that’s the universe telling you that you’re in the exact right place at the exact right time, doing exactly what you should be.” And here we are, and now I can now officially say, Kim Kelly is my friend.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that James Franco denied the shoving incident that Philipps described. This post has been updated to reflect that Franco did acknowledge the incident and that, according to Philipps, the two made amends.

Kim Kelly (the interviewer) is a writer and radical organizer based in New York City; she is a contributing editor at Noisey, and her writing has appeared in many publications, including the New York Times, the Guardian, Teen Vogue, Al Jazeera, the New Republic, Rolling Stone, and NPR.

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