Over the years I’ve been able to talk to “talent” in many different settings, but last weekend was a first for me. While Essence Fest was going on at the New Orleans Convention Center, I and three other reporters had the opportunity to talk to Jeff Jenkins at a nearby hotel in an extremely informal setting. The five of us sat at a small table eating and getting to know him. It was the perfect environment for learning about him and his new show Never Say Never with Jeff Jenkins (premiering July 9th on National Geographic and later on Hulu and Disney+).
Jeff (I’m going to call him Jeff now because I feel like we’re friends) is a large person and he doesn’t shy away from that (he goes by @ChubbyDiaries_ on social media). He explains, “Never Say Never is about stepping outside your comfort zone. So it’s following my adventures around the world doing things that are living off my motto – ‘life begins where your comfort zone ends’. So each episode there’s a challenge, and within that challenge I’m learning more about myself.”
Never Say Never – and before that, Chubby Diaries – is all about inspiring people to step out of that comfort zone. “I realized there weren’t a lot of people that looked like me in the media …. They would show fit people and never show plus-sized people. So I made it my mission to redefine what travel looks like.” Jeff got his start on YouTube and social media, but it was always his goal to be on television. He put in his time building up his own brand and working hard to make that happen. As he put it, “late nights, a lot of networking and putting myself out there in ways that other people weren’t willing to.”
One thing he’s particularly proud of is making adventure travel more accessible for plus sized people. For example, something as simple as having large size wetsuits or larger harnesses for ziplining. As he said, the ropes themselves can hold thousands of pounds.
One of the moments that really endeared him to me was when I asked if his mother (who was sitting at a table near us) played a large part in his feeling comfortable in front of the camera despite his size. To my surprise, his immediate response was “Nope. Not at all.” He went on to explain that she had her own pride and seeing how she walked did inspire him. However, after talking for a bit, he reassessed and said “You know what? Nah, you are right, let me back up… She was a strong black woman that was a go-getter, so I got to see that part and that confidence … Now thinking to myself, when a teacher or a guidance counselor would be like ‘I don’t think he can do this’, she’s like ‘oh baby, you show you can do this’”. The best part of this exchange was then looking over at his smiling mother as he came to this realization.
Jeff is also smart enough to realize his unusual looks can be used to his advantage these days. “I didn’t know anybody talking about body positivity and travel, plus sized travel … I put myself in a lane that other people weren’t in”. He went on “that’s why my hair is up like this .. I always have my glasses and my beard just to give some kind of uniqueness and to be more recognizable"
Being from a Disney website, I asked Jeff what it was like working for the company. “Corporations in the past have tried to do the tokenism kind of thing. I haven’t felt that here so much. But one thing I would say is, I take it and maximize on it like, ‘Y’all messed up because what I’m going to do is I’m going to elevate the culture’. I will do whatever I have to do to bring in more people that look like us.” Jeff’s father was a VIP chef at Walt Disney World so he has a Disney connection there as well. In fact, he talked about how his father used to cook for the Disney Dreamers Academy which Jeff was a mentor at last year.
Jeff grew up in Orlando and did his time working at a theme park (as nearly everyone in Orlando does at one point or another). In his case it was doing merchandise at Universal Studios where he got comfortable meeting and talking to new people. Of course I had to find out what his favorite Disney attraction was. “Muppet*Vision 3D. Oh, I am in love with the Muppets. Don’t judge me.”
Asked about his favorite destination, Jeff instantly replied “Japan”. “Japan is my favorite country in the world, so to be able to go back there [in the second episode] – it was the first country I went to internationally – was like coming full circle. And I got to do sumo wrestling.” He said when he first visited there 17 or 18 years ago, someone compared him to a sumo wrestler and he was very offended at first, but then he started realizing how revered sumo wrestlers are, almost like gods in that culture. “It was taking back that shame … taking off my shirt, getting in the ring. Doing that was a liberating kind of moment, to mentally get out of my own head and be okay with who I am”.
Jeff is one of the most delightful entertainers I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing and after seeing an episode of Never Say Never with Jeff Jenkins, I’m happy to report that infectious joy comes through there as well. Do yourself a favor and give the show a watch. There’s a good chance you’ll come to love Jeff Jenkins just as I have.