Mindy Kaling On Diets, High School And Other American Pastimes

Nov 1, 2011
Originally published on November 1, 2011 10:28 am

Much of Mindy Kaling's humor is rooted in something that might seem unfeasible: using logic to explore American culture. But it works — and works well — because Kaling uses a type of circular logic that's all her own. Just consider this recent Tweet: "Can everyone buy my book please? I wanna quit the business and homeschool my kids real weird."

That sense of twisted earnestness is what has made Kaling's TV alter ego, Kelly Kapoor, a hit with audiences of The Office. And it's a sensibility that runs through Kaling's new book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?

On today's Morning Edition, Kaling tells NPR's Renee Montagne that her acting career is an unlikely one.

"Well, if you've seen a photo of me from when I was a kid, I don't think anyone would have expected that going in front of the camera was something that I was going to do," she says. "I can't believe how little effort my parents put into making me seem like an appealing little girl."

In particular, Kaling is referring to a photo on the back of her new book, one that shows her as a child with short hair, thick-rimmed glasses and a profoundly unique sense of style.

And maybe that's another part of Kaling's charm: She gives off the vibe of the too-smart kid who's left her physically awkward days behind, but hasn't lost the outsider's conviction that popularity is wasted on the popular.

As Kaling tells Renee, when she was a teenager, she couldn't quite break through and show her awesomeness.

"I mean, I was obsessed with being popular in high school and never achieved it. There's photos from our high school musicals, and I'm comically in the deep background, wearing a beggar's costume," she says.

"There are musicals I didn't even know there were beggars — and I managed to play them. I played a street urchin in Evita. In City of Angels, I played a Los Angeles hobo. Whatever they could find ... the sort of desperate-looking urchin in a musical ... our drama teacher managed to find a part for me playing it."

Kaling, who's a writer and executive producer on The Office, got her big break by playing half of the titular duo in the play Matt and Ben — a retelling of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon's rise to stardom.

In 2003, The New York Times called the play a "deliciously spiteful sendup of Hollywood's naked emperors in general and Mr. Damon and Mr. Affleck in particular."

And the reviewer, Bruce Weber, also commended Kaling and her collaborator, former Dartmouth classmate Brenda Withers, "for undermining their own careers in Hollywood for our benefit."

Of course, Kaling can't write a memoir without touching on the town where she makes her living. In one essay, she writes that by being neither "model skinny" nor "fabulously owning my hugeness," she falls outside of the two body types endorsed by Hollywood's stylists.

"They're like, 'Pick a lane. Just be so enormous that you need to be buried in a piano, and dress accordingly,' " she writes.

The size question often finds its way into The Office, as well. In one episode, Kelly Kapoor replaces three meals a day with a dubious mixture of lemons, cayenne pepper, water and maple syrup. She got the idea, Kelly says, from Beyonce Knowles' preparations to make Dreamgirls — and she expects the diet to make her look amazing in the size-2 bikinis she just ordered online.

But after three days of the diet, Kelly is seen shaking in the office. And soon after, she faints. (For the record, that "diet" might be more accurately called "fasting."

To Kaling, fad diets are only partly about an attempt to lose weight — they're also a staple of American culture.

"We always think of a diet with a big groan," Kaling tells Renee. "But I think diets are fun. I think it is an American pastime for a lot of women. I don't know. I think that Kelly thinks of dieting as a fun hobby to have."

If you want some insight into Kaling's own hobbies, you may want to follow her voluminous and wildly entertaining Twitter feed, or visit her website, The Concerns of Mindy Kaling, where traces of the Kelly Kapoor persona are prominent.

Consider, for instance, two recent posts in a regular feature on Kaling's website, called "Things I bought that I love."

One item is Siggi's Icelandic yogurt — "tastes like some kind of tangy dairy cud, but it's actually edible and kind of delicious," she writes. Another recent purchase is a bottle of prenatal vitamins — which Kaling recommends for "any lazy girl, like me, who wants a short-cut to healthy thick hair."

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(SOUNDBITE OF THEME MUSIC FROM "THE OFFICE")

RENEE MONTAGNE, BYLINE: The television hit "The Office" is populated with types - albeit exaggerated ones - types you'd find in the workplace. There's been the inappropriate boss, Michael Scott; the power-hungry misfit, Dwight Shrute; and the perpetual teenager, Kelly Kapoor. She's a boy-crazy shopaholic, frivolous and celebrity-obsessed. She also happens to be Indian-American.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "THE OFFICE")

MONTAGNE: Mindy Kaling is the actress who brings Kelly to life on "The Office," where she's also a writer and executive producer. And now, add the title author - of a book of essays about her life, called "Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?"

Now, she may be a fashion-conscious Hollywood type these days, but the back cover of her book shows the child Mindy: thick glasses, ill-fitting sweater, and hair cropped into a bowl cut.

: I can't believe how little effort my parents put into making me seem like an appealing little girl. I mean, I feel like you - sometimes your celebrities, they'll show photos of themselves, and they're like, I can't believe how unattractive I was. And when you really were not a very attractive kid, you really want to be like, oh no, no, no. I was the real deal; see this photo.

MONTAGNE: You do write about high school and not being very popular in high school. But the way you write about it is not to worry. The last thing - what? - anyone needs is to have high school as the high point of your life.

: You know, that's one of those things where I wrote that, and even if I had heard that as a 15-year-old - that, don't worry about being popular in high school - even I know that that might just be completely futile advice. I mean, I was obsessed with being popular when I was in high school and never achieved it.

There's photos from our high school musicals and things, and I'm comically in the deep background, wearing a beggar's costume. There are musicals I didn't even know there were beggars, and I managed to play them. I played a street urchin in "Evita." In "City of Angels," I played a Los Angeles hobo. Whatever they could find - the sort of desperate-looking urchin in a musical, our drama teacher managed to find a part for me, playing it.

MONTAGNE: Well, you discovered you were funny. And you discovered you had a lot of appeal when you hit college. You know, it seems like you blossomed.

: I felt incredibly special in college. I was really lucky. I mean, I went to Dartmouth College so simply by being an Indian-American woman, I was already so statistically interesting. And then the fact that I didn't want to do anything science-related, and I wanted to write comedy plays and act little bit - I mean, I became deeply interesting in college because of how rare that was.

MONTAGNE: Another rarity Mindy Kaling writes about: being average-sized in stick-skinny Hollywood. Here, she reads an excerpt from the book.

: (Reading) Since I am not model skinny but also not super fat and fabulously owning my hugeness, I fall into that nebulous, quote-unquote, normal American woman size that legions of fashion stylists detest. For the record, I'm a size 8 - this week, anyway. Many stylists hate that size because I think to them, it shows that I lack the discipline to be an ascetic; or the confident, sassy abandon to be a total fatty hedonist.

(Reading) They're like, pick a lane. Just be so enormous that you need to be buried in a piano - and dress accordingly.

MONTAGNE: This is the sort of reality that Kaling minds, as when Kelly Kapoor experiments with crazy fad diets.

: We always think of, I'm always on a diet, with a big groan. But I think it's - I don't think - I think diets are fun. I think it is an American pastime for a lot of women. I don't know. I think that Kelly thinks of dieting as a fun hobby to have.

MONTAGNE: Well, there is one moment in one of the episodes where Kelly is concocting - it's this terrible diet. It's hot sauce and grapefruit juice...

: This is real. This is the...

MONTAGNE: It's a real diet.

: Yeah, it's a real diet, which Beyonce Knowles famously went on, to lose weight for "Dream Girls." Kelly heard it and she tried the diet; did it for, you know, four days and then fainted - I think at work.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "THE OFFICE")

MONTAGNE: And you, Kelly, look like a zombie. It's like...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

: Yes, I do look like someone from "The Walking Dead." That's pretty well-observed. If you've ever done a diet like that, an incredibly restrictive diet - which, I'm embarrassed to say, I have tried for very short periods of time - you do become, your personality does change into that kind of "Walking Dead" personality.

MONTAGNE: You know, you're known, obviously, as a character on "The Office" - which has a cult following, practically. But you have a lot of followers on Twitter. We're talking - what, a couple of million?

: I think right now, I have 1.5 million.

MONTAGNE: Oh, only a million and a half, eh?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

: Well…

MONTAGNE: Sorry.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

: Whenever you brag about how many Twitter followers you have have - I think Kim Kardashian has close to 10 million.

MONTAGNE: Oh...

: And Lady Gaga has more than some huge nation. So I sort of pale in comparison to that.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "THE OFFICE")

MONTAGNE: Mindy Kaling as Kelly Kapoor; she's also a writer and producer for "The Office." And her collection of essays is called "Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?"

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: All I can say is, we're hanging out here on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.