Brow Beat

Making Sense of the Dizzyingly Complicated Jameela Jamil Controversy

Scrutiny over the actress’s medical history has pitted skeptics of her public persona against disability rights activists.

Jameela Jamil in a strapless purple dress on the Grammys red carpet
Jameela Jamil at the Grammy Awards in January. Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Jameela Jamil’s name is in the news once again in connection with another controversy, and no, this time it’s not about airbrushing or George W. Bush. It all started when a journalist accused the star of The Good Place of lying about her health issues over the years, and the situation has only snowballed from there. For the not Very Online, each new detail emerging out of the drama has only made it more difficult to follow: Why are people suggesting that Jamil has Munchausen syndrome? How does Piers Morgan factor into this? And what do swarms of bees—yes, bees—have to do with anything?

The fallout has pitted those skeptical of Jamil’s public persona (more on that in a bit) against disability rights activists. We’ve done our best to answer the most pressing questions about the situation below.

Remind me who Jameela Jamil is again.

She’s an English actress best known for her role as Tahani Al-Jamil on NBC’s acclaimed show The Good Place. Before that, she worked as a television presenter in the United Kingdom. She’s also a vocal critic of diet culture and has criticized celebrities like the Kardashians and Cardi B for promoting diet suppressants. In 2018, she launched I Weigh, an Instagram account dedicated to body inclusivity.

Why are people saying she has Munchausen syndrome and is faking her illnesses?

It began with an Instagram Story Highlight (a collection of images posted to an Instagram user’s profile that doesn’t disappear after 24 hours like a normal Instagram Story does) created by journalist Tracie Egan Morrissey. The Highlight features a collection of different interviews where Jamil appears to give contradictory statements about her health, among other subjects. According to screenshots on Twitter, Morrissey originally posted two Highlights. One, titled “Munchausen,” collected stories about multiple celebrities’ health claims and has now been deleted. The other, which is still up, is devoted solely to Jamil and is titled “JJ.” It contains screenshots of headlines and quotes from Jamil about her experiences with cancer, car accidents, her modeling career, and a 2010 incident involving musician Olly Murs where she fell on her face.

Who is Tracie Egan Morrissey?

A writer and producer who founded Vice’s women’s issues site Broadly in 2015. She stepped down from her role as editor in chief in 2017 following a leave of absence, which was prompted, according to Politico, by employees’ complaints to HR and the union about Morrissey’s “aggressive management style and off-color jokes,” including suggesting that they should be able to “feign enthusiasm for their jobs because they had faked orgasms with their boyfriends.” Morrissey is now the host of the podcast Pot Psychology. (Slate columnist Rich Juzwiak co-hosts the podcast.)

What exactly is Morrissey saying about Jamil in her Instagram Story?

The best way to understand is to watch it, but basically, Morrissey’s trail of evidence begins with a 2015 interview that Jamil did with the Mirror in which she describes being partially deaf, having a severe shellfish and peanut allergy, her celiac disease diagnosis, a bout of mercury poisoning from teeth fillings, a breast cancer scare in 2014, and spinal damage she incurred after running into traffic to avoid a bee. Morrissey takes issue with what she considers inconsistencies in how Jamil describes her health issues and the bee-related car accidents Jamil claims to have been involved in.

Bee-related car accidents? Plural?

Indeed. Morrissey shared her suspicions about an accident Jamil recounted in the Mirror article—which occurred when the actress was 17—and a different, more recent accident that Jamil described to the Chicago Tribune in 2019. In the Mirror and elsewhere, Jamil has said that as a teenager, she sustained a spinal injury after running headlong into traffic while “trying to avoid a bee on Hampstead High Street” that left her bedridden—though there have been some inconsistencies about just how long she was bedridden. Jamil told the Mirror she was “confined to bed for two years and had to walk with a Zimmer frame,” but in a 2019 Cosmopolitan article said she was bedridden for a “year and in a wheelchair for about six months after that.”

Jamil later described another incident, which occurred while she was filming the first season of The Good Place in 2016, where she was hit by a car while fleeing a swarm of bees on an evening jog, as her “worst moment,” though she was able to get back up and take refuge in a juice shop. Morrissey suggested that both the Hampstead Road incident and the accident during the filming of The Good Place were the same and had questioned how the story had changed from Jamil suffering an injury that left her bedridden to one that allowed her to walk away after. Morrissey also took issue with a 2015 interview with the Sun in which Jamil said she and Mark Ronson were attacked by 500 bees, pointing out that Ronson later said that he didn’t remember the incident as Jamil did and that “one or two individual bees approached slowly.”

What does Jamil have to say about all this?

The actress took to Twitter and Instagram last week to defend herself, writing, “I’m now being accused of munchausens? By an unhinged idiot who didn’t even realize in all her ‘research’ that my car accident injury stories are ‘different’ because they were about TWO SEPARATE CAR ACCIDENTS 13 years apart? You can keep it.” She then went on to say that she has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which “means always having people doubt your illness and injuries because you look okay.”

Wait, what’s Ehlers-Danlos syndrome?

According to the Mayo Clinic, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome is group of disorders that “affect your connective tissues—primarily your skin, joints and blood vessel walls. … People who have Ehlers-Danlos syndrome usually have overly flexible joints and stretchy, fragile skin.”

Emma Reinhold, who wrote a toolkit on Ehlers-Danlos for the Royal College of General Practioners, told me over email that there’s no test for the most common form of EDS, “leading sadly to false accusations of Munchausens, conversion disorder or, in children, Fabricated or Induced Illness (the new term for Munchausens by proxy). I think this is why the EDS community has been particularly upset by the comments of [Piers Morgan] and others, because some have had to fight, or indeed are fighting, such incorrect accusations themselves.”

How does Piers Morgan figure into this?

As Morrissey’s Instagram Story began to go viral, Morgan accused Jamil of having Munchausen syndrome as the two argued on Twitter.

Jamil responded by blocking him and briefly making her Twitter account private. (It’s now public again.) It was around this time that James Blake stepped in.

Who is James Blake?

A British musician and Jamil’s boyfriend.

Is he the one who sings “You’re Beautiful”?

That’s James Blunt. James Blake is best known for his solo work, but he’s collaborated with the likes of Frank Ocean, Beyoncé, Travis Scott, and Kendrick Lamar.

What did he say about the accusations against Jamil?

In a lengthy Notes app statement, Blake wrote that “It’s pretty disgusting to watch the woman I love be dog-piled on every day for such ridiculous things…I am there for her swollen joints, her dislocations, her severe allergic reactions, her constant high fevers. I was there for her concussion, her 3 months of seizures, when the doctor gave her the cancer diagnosis and for all her operations and their complications due to EDS.” In a later tweet, he wrote, “Oh and FYI, the woman spreading these lies about my girlfriend has started a Patreon so that you have to pay her to hear them. Literally profiting off exploiting and gaslighting a young woman of colour with a chronic illness.”

Is that true? Is Morrissey profiting from the controversy?

Morrissey’s Patreon was not created specifically to sell her Jamil sleuthing, but she is promoting access to DMs that Jamil sent her after the Instagram Story Highlight went viral. For $5 a month, subscribers get early access to episodes of Morrissey’s podcast, as well as “any and all communication with Jameela Jamil.”

Did Jamil respond to any of the other apparent inconsistencies in her accounts?

She did. Morrissey had also scrutinized Jamil’s experiences with cancer, noting that while in the 2015 Mirror interview the actress described herself as having a “cancer scare,” in later statements she said she had survived cancer twice. Jamil explained on Twitter that while she did have a breast cancer scare when she was 28 (the one mentioned in the Mirror article), she was later diagnosed with cervical cancer, as Blake corroborated.

In response to Morrissey questioning how the actress could have a peanut butter allergy after she posted a photo of a bag of peanut butter–filled pretzels to her Instagram story, Jamil said that it cleared up as she aged, which isn’t uncommon. (Reinhold also told me that because EDS affects one of the most abundant proteins in the human body—collagen—that the disease can not only impact any system in the body but that symptoms “can change from day to day and also over the years.”) Even Ronson came to Jamil’s defense after Jamil wrote another lengthy Notes app explanation about the bee encounter, tweeting “spoke to my friend Jameela. We’re good. Also bees suck.”

There are still some points that Morrissey raised that remain unaddressed (was Jamil a model, a model agent, or never a model but a model scout?) but the ones about her health seem to have largely been clarified.

Update, Feb. 23, 2020: Jamil tweeted an explanation for her different characterizations of her modeling career over the years, saying that she denied being a model at times because (among other reasons), “I never was successful. I just went to castings and tiny jobs because I could never get my hips to 34 inches and there just weren’t successful South Asian models in the mainstream when I was a teen. Then I got hit by a car and it derailed my ilfe/body.”

Why were other people so ready to believe that Jamil has been lying about her health and career?

The Morrissey situation comes on the heels of a different controversy involving Jamil, in which HBO announced that she would be a judge and MC on a vogueing competition show about ball culture, leading some to accuse her of appropriating the LGBTQ tradition despite having no obvious connection to ballroom or the culture. Jamil then came out as queer, writing in yet another lengthy Notes app explanation that she “was scared of the pain of being accused of performative bandwagon jumping” while acknowledging that her “being queer doesn’t qualify me as ballroom.” Jamil has a tendency to center herself in conversations that don’t necessarily require her input and has been criticized for taking up space in the body positivity discourse as a thin, conventionally attractive women.

Basically, there were plenty of Jamil skeptics out there who were primed to dislike her before the Munchausen discourse began. But what this conversation has also highlighted is how people with chronic illness who don’t “look sick” are often forced to disclose their various medical histories so that people believe them.