Nnegest Likke - "Phat Girlz" writer - hits it big!


"Nnegest Likké and actor Jimmy Jean-Louis on the set of "Phat Girlz," a movie that Likké, a Bay Area native, wrote and directed. Fox Searchlight photo by Valerie Goodloe
Nnegest Likké was in the shower, rushing to get ready for a meeting, when the phone rang.

"Monique's on the line," her roommate called out.

"Monique? I don't know a Monique."

Likké got out of the shower and took the call: "Hey, sis, this is Mo!" said the voice on the other end.

Likké was still at a loss: "Mo who?"

Likké may have written a screenplay with Mo'Nique, the stand-up comic and actress, in mind, but she had no idea that her muse -- whom she had never met -- had somehow gotten a hold of her script.

Her identity finally established, Mo'Nique let Likké know why she was calling: "Girl, I got the script, and I got in the bathtub with it. I said, 'Oh, I'll read a few pages, then get out of the tub.' My bathwater went cold reading it -- I read it from beginning to end."

Then Mo'Nique spoke the words Likké had been dying to hear: "I'm down. Let's do it."

What had been a dream project of Likké's thus became reality. Not only did the Bay Area native sell her script for "Phat Girlz," but she also got to direct the movie -- something she had never done before.

"It's unbelievable, I'm overwhelmed," Likké, on the phone from Los Angeles, said about seeing her movie open in theaters nationwide last week. Made for only $2.5 million, "Phat Girlz" reached the coveted top 10 list at the box office, taking in $3.1 million over the weekend.

A bawdy comedy with melodramatic moments, "Phat Girlz" is a movie with a big heart and an unmistakable message: Jazmin (played by Mo'Nique) is a combative (though often funny) plus-size woman who comes into her own -- and finds love -- when she begins to take pride in who she is. A T-shirt she wears sums up her attitude: "Aint fat I'm sexy succulent."

Jazmin's emotional journey has similarities to the one Likké experienced.

"I always kind of felt like an underdog growing up," said Likké, who describes herself as being in her mid-30s. "One, for being kind of plus size, but also because I'm half Ethiopian. And growing up half African -- now it's a little better, but then it was tough. I got teased.

"From sixth grade to 11th grade," Likké added, "I went by the name of Kelly because I hated my name. I was trying to fit in."

Likké's parents met at UC Berkeley in the 1960s through their involvement in the civil rights movement. Her father, Senay Likké, who earned a doctorate at Cal in math and chemical engineering, became a revolutionary in his native Ethiopia; he was killed in the revolution in 1977.

Likké was raised in San Francisco until she was about 9 -- part of that time in a housing project -- then moved to East Oakland with her mother, Rosalind.

"People react differently to having self-esteem issues," Likké said, discussing her youth. "Mine was, 'I'm tough.' I thought it was cool to be tough and rebellious. And thank God I had my mom. ... My strong family support is what saved me."

After graduating from Oakland's Skyline High School and Georgia's historically black college Clark Atlanta University, Likké moved to Los Angeles in 1993 to pursue her love of screenwriting. To make money, she taught English and drama to high school students for a few years. Then she and a friend began a dating-advice show on public-access TV, which led to a job as a writer and producer for the reality TV show "Blind Date."

Likké has her mother to thank for suggesting Mo'Nique as her movie's lead. It was on one of her frequent visits to see her mother -- "definitely Oakland's my home still," Likké said -- that her mother sat her down to watch "The Queens of Comedy," a stand-up show featuring Mo'Nique.

" 'Oh, you have to watch this,' " Likké laughingly recalled her mother saying. "My mom, who's really prudish -- I was shocked because 'Queens of Comedy' is not for the faint of heart."

"Phat Girlz" centers on Mo'Nique, as Jazmin, meeting a man who loves her without reservation. That man, Tunde, is from Nigeria. (He's played by the devastatingly handsome and charming Jimmy Jean-Louis, a native of Haiti who has worked as a model.) Likké wanted this character to come from Africa because as a kid, she traveled to Ethiopia and Nigeria several times to see relatives, and "over there," she recalls, "they were always like, 'Oh, look at your body, you're so strong, you're so beautiful,' because I was bigger.

"It's not just a fantasy, it's a reality," Likké said. "They even have fattening rooms over in Nigeria where people are trying to get fat. And we're over here putting our fingers down our throats to throw up!"

Likké quickly added that she doesn't mean to promote being obese: "Fattening rooms are insane, but I think they're as insane as trying to be a size 5 when your natural size is a size 14. I think they're equally extreme.

"So what does it all mean?" she asked of these differences. "The bottom line is, love yourself -- fat, skinny, short, tall, whatever. Love yourself."

E-mail John McMurtrie at jmcmurtrie@sfchronicle.com


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