The Mindy Project Takes Off

Actor, writer, producer Mindy Kaling steps out of The Office and into the spotlight.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on October 14, 2012
10 min read

Mindy Kaling seems to move at the speed of light.

At 33, she is the creator, producer, head writer, and star of her own Fox network sitcom, The Mindy Project. Her growing fan base includes more than 2 million Twitter followers, at whom Kaling fires off tweets on topics as varied as shopping, friendship, and the revenge fantasies she has while jogging. Her collection of essays, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), became a best-seller last year when her only claim to fame was being a writer on and co-starring in the NBC series The Office.

If colleagues left in the dust are shaking their heads, Kaling shrugs off her heady ascension. "I'm an Asian kid who grew up the child of immigrants and went to an Ivy League school," she says, her high-pitched voice and rapid speech making her sound like an enthusiastic teenager rather than an industry heavyweight. "I'm a hyper-perfectionist and a people-pleaser."

Raised in Boston with her older brother Vijay by her OB/GYN mother Swati and architect father Avu, Kaling became interested in comedy as a teenager. She spent hours deconstructing movies and comedy skits. After graduating from Dartmouth College, she and her roommate Brenda Withers moved to New York and while looking for work wrote a comedic play called Matt & Ben, in which Kaling played Ben Affleck to Withers' Matt Damon. In 2002, it won top honors at the Fringe Festival. After moving off-Broadway, Time magazine named it among the "Top 10 Theatrical Events of the Year."

Producer Greg Daniels, just about to launch The Office, took note and hired the then 24-year-old as the show's sole female writer. During her eight-year tenure, the cast earned an Emmy nomination and she earned critical praise for her role as the narcissistic customer service representative Kelly Kapoor.

Last year, when the show entered its final season, Kaling made a pitch to Fox: She wanted to write, produce, and star in The Mindy Project, playing a romantic-comedy-obsessed OB/GYN in New York. Then Kaling boarded a plane to Boston, where she spent three months at the bedside of her mother, who was dying of pancreatic cancer. "In some ways, those were the most amazing three months," says Kaling, who describes her relationship with her mother as one of the most significant of her life.

Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States. Most patients are diagnosed at a late stage with a five-year survival rate of 2%. "No one is lucky to get cancer, but I remember feeling jealous of people who got a cancer where there were stages and you could do chemo to [treat] it," says Kaling, whose mother lived with the diagnosis for eight months.

A week before her mother's death last January, Kaling pulled out a notebook and pen and asked her mother for advice. "We had accepted by then that she was not going to survive, and so suddenly we had to have really accelerated conversations," she remembers. "I always thought she would be around when I had a child, but when I realized she wouldn't be, we talked about possible names for my kids. She told me things she wanted me to tell my children."

The day her mother died, Kaling checked her overflowing voicemail and learned that Fox had given her and The Mindy Project the go-ahead. "I was lucky to have that to think about instead," she says quietly.

Working 16-hour days might be good for distraction, but Kaling admits that being the boss of all she surveys is exhausting. "I have that kind of super-invincibility that people who have never had an illness do, but now I'm starting to do weird things like say, 'Should I do B12 shots? Should I be on an IV drip?' It would be so cool to be that one person who never mentioned how stressful work is, but to say having my own show is a lot of work is the understatement of the year."

The writing and producing take energy, but playing the kinetic, driven doctor who races from bad dates to patients' bedsides and office gossip sessions with nonstop acerbic commentary is also demanding. (Her character, on the subject of marriage: "Maybe I won't get married. Maybe I'll just do one of those Eat Pray Love things. Ugh, no, I don't want to pray. Forget it. I'll just die alone.")

To restore herself, Kaling tries to sleep at least six hours a night -- "I sleep so deeply it's like I die and then come back to life in the morning" -- and has recently changed her eating habits to give her a boost. "I am a notoriously unpicky eater, and a great joy of my parents when I was growing up was they embraced my love of eating everything," the actor says. "But I eat to whoever is around me, and I'm around a lot of big guys in the writers' room. I used to eat french fries and chips, but it started to make me lethargic so I try not to."

Kaling starts each morning with a smoothie. "[My assistant] makes a huge Vitamix blender of spinach and tomato and ginger that used to disgust me, but now she puts a pear in it and it tastes pretty good and keeps me alive." Her next meal is around 2 p.m. when she finishes her acting duties and heads to the writers' room. "When I'm on set, I don't do well on a full stomach," she explains, "but when I'm done I try to eat something like a turkey burger. I also know that when I get home, all I have in my fridge is fish oil, water, and birth control."

She tries to sneak in a half hour on the elliptical or some strength training before work, "But only if my call time doesn't start with the number 7, which it almost always does." On weekends she runs. "I am an avid slow jogger," she says of her 5-mile jaunts. "I don't go to therapy or any of that stuff, and I can be very anxious. But if I go for a run, my mind feels so much clearer." Kaling trots along to music by Rihanna and Beyoncé, as well as to movie soundtracks. "I have a very active imagination, and when I work out I like to disappear into a world of fantasy. A soundtrack is great for that."

Kaling often says she wants to lose 15 pounds, but admits that she doesn't want it enough to do what it takes. "I'd have to do interval training, but I never would because I don't enjoy it," she explains. "And those days of just not eating dessert for a week and dropping 5 pounds are long gone."

She says she made peace with the idea of being "chubby" years ago. "I'm such a perfectionist that I'll always want to change how I look. But if someone called me dumb or unfunny that would be devastating, and I have never not worn a bikini just because I'm not skinny. My best friend in college was comfortable in her own skin, and it had a huge effect on me. So I wear strapless things and clothing that stylists tell me I shouldn't. I love fashion too much to miss out on trends."

It was Kaling's mother who instilled in her daughter a passion for fashion. "My mom loved looking good and she loved me and my brother looking good, which is weird because I think of her as an intellectually minded person," she says. "But when you came home from college, you didn't wear sweatpants in front of her. It was about respect."

Kaling's mother also taught her daughter to treat her body with respect. "The great thing about having an OB/GYN for a mother is there was nothing we couldn't talk about," the actor says. "She was completely frank and open with me, and things like, 'See your GYN regularly' were always a part of my life. I'm not that organized, and I don't eat great," she continues. "I don't take a multivitamin or do a lot of the things I should, but as a result of my mom, when it comes to seeing my OB/GYN, I go like clockwork."

Cheri Lowre, MD, an OB/GYN and an assistant clinical professor at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine in Los Angeles,lauds Kaling for taking responsibility for her health and the time to find a doctor she likes. "It's incredibly important that you feel comfortable talking to your ob/gyn and that you feel she or he is listening," Lowre says. "You need to be able to have open dialogues about everything."

Kaling says talking about her mother's death is "still difficult," but she supports the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network by recording public service announcements to help raise awareness of the disease.

And she is focusing on the pockets of her life that provide a guaranteed respite. "I know it will be fun to walk into my writers' room and be pitched a story," she says. "And I have always been a crafty person, so I like making homemade cards. And if I can catch up with my best friends in New York with a two-hour phone conversation every six weeks, that makes me really happy."

Then there's her penchant for online shopping (Kaling has memorized her credit card numbers to make the process as speedy as possible). "I only return [items] about 40 to 50% of the time," she says proudly.

As for her New Year's resolutions, they have been the same for the last several years: "Talk to my dad every day and work out five times a week. I won't work out five days a week, but my dad is moving to L.A., so that should get easier."

Kaling, who's had small parts in films like The 40-Year-Old-Virgin and No Strings Attached, also hopes to continue developing a movie career. She's working on The Low Self Esteem of Lizzie Gillespie, a romantic comedy Kaling co-wrote with Office colleague Brent Forrester. "And I really want to have children," she adds. "My mother and I had such a profound relationship, and when she passed away, it really strengthened my urge to have my own daughter."

For the moment, however, Kaling admits that almost any undertaking will take second billing to the one that bears her name on Fox. "I can't imagine anything else soon," she says. "Right now, I'm in a mode where I just love doing what I'm doing."

In other words, the Mindy project is just beginning.

Thanks to her mom, Mindy Kaling never misses an appointment with her gynecologist. It's crucial to go regularly and to feel comfortable enough to speak honestly. "This is your health and your body and nothing could be more important," says Lowre, who suggests covering these topics during your visits:

New sex partners. "It doesn't matter how old you are; if you have a new partner you need to use condoms, and I will want to test you for STDs if you are ready to stop using them," says Lowre. "I saw an 81-year-old patient who contracted chlamydia at her nursing home. You're never too old to practice safe sex."

Mammograms. "Health organizations now offer conflicting recommended guidelines, so the best thing to do is to talk to your doctor about your personal risks." Although they are out of favor with many doctors, Lowre encourages monthly self-exams and asking your doctor to demonstrate the proper technique. "Every woman should know her body, and your breasts are a good place to start."

Menopause. "Don't assume you're going to be miserable. A lot of women find it a relief, and studies show that women in their 50s and 60s are happier than anyone," she says. "And if you're not one of those women, there are so many more options now, including investigating alternative medicine. It's a great time in your life to take a look at your overall health."

Pap tests. New guidelines say women under the age of 21 can skip them, and women between 21 and 29 can settle for screening every three years. For women 30 to 65, screening time can be extended to every five years if a Pap test is done along with HPV testing. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists stresses that this doesn't mean you don't need to see your doctor for an annual wellness visit.

Doctor-patient relationship. "Even though most of us are trained for everything, there's no shame in switching doctors," Lowre says. "There are thousands of us out there, and the person who got you through an STD when you were younger may not be the best person to get you through a natural delivery."  

Old Spice men's deodorant."Women's deodorant is just too wimpy."

Australian licorice. "It's my favorite thing, and I get a lot of it as a gift."

Sour candy. "It's my treat to myself in the afternoon."

Earrings."I always have rhinestone hoops in my purse. I have a lot more earrings at home. I go to Bloomingdale's and buy them for $3 so if I lose them, it's OK. My mom used to feel like if you left the house without earrings you were naked. I can't live without them."

Tom Ford eye shadow. "I spend a lot of money on very little makeup. These colors are so rich!"

"I still break out so I rely on Mario Badescu Drying Lotion."

"I keep Bumble & Bumble dry shampoo in my purse because my hair can get stringy."

Music videos to watch on the elliptical in her gym. "I wish I could watch TV shows when I work out, but I can't concentrate."

Playlists with Rihanna, Beyoncé, and movie soundtracks for running.

Urban Decay Lip Stain.

Books. "I haven't had a chance to read in months, but I love books."

Find more articles, browse back issues, and read the current issue of "WebMD Magazine."