After the toughest year of her life following the tragic death of her boyfriend, Cory Monteith, Glee actress turned pop star Lea Michele talks candidly to Celia Walden about finding her way back to “a good place.”
“So, did you get the shoes?”
I’m in the corner of a cavernous photographic studio in Los Angeles, placing a last-minute eBay bid on a pair of Alaias, when Lea Michele pops up beside me, catching me in the act. Damn. I don’t think I’ve ever known a Hollywood actress be on time before. I’ve certainly never known one to be as warm and easy-going as Lea is from the offset. Within minutes, the 27-year-old Glee star is showing off her impressive British accent (she learnt it from co-star Gwyneth Paltrow’s daughter, Apple, “who speaks with a British accent to her friends and an American one to her mum – it’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen”), helping herself to a latte almost as large as her (at 5ft 3in, she’s a dinky) and ushering her publicists out of the room (“we don’t need a chaperone”).
This refusal to have her minders present, in particular, is surprising. First, because Lea’s rise – ever since she became the poster girl for the global phenomenon that is Glee in 2009 – has been meteoric enough to unsteady any actress, let alone a then 22-year-old TV newcomer, and second, because the actress and singer has every reason to feel vulnerable and wary. Last year was a devastating one for the Bronx-born Lea. In July 2013, she lost her boyfriend and Glee co-star, Cory Monteith, to a heroin overdose. After months of battling drug addiction and stints in rehab, 31-year-old Cory – who played Lea’s on-off love interest – was found dead in a Vancouver hotel room. Lea was inconsolable, postponing the release of her new album, Louder, and retreating to her friend Kate Hudson’s house to try to make sense of the tragedy. “I used that time to really heal and hibernate,” she says now, curled up on a sofa in her dressing room in cut-off jeans and an oversized oatmeal Iro jumper. “I immediately started to try and process everything. I didn’t drown myself in anything toxic.” She pauses. “At the start, it’s hard because you’re so physically and mentally shocked and damaged, but after a while you get tired of physically feeling so horrendous, so I started doing yoga, which really helped. Then gradually your mind catches up with your body. Now I feel a little bit more back together and I have this blank canvas in front of me, which is what my life can be. There’s something sad about that,” she concedes, “but also something good, because I will take that blank canvas and make something beautiful out of it.”
Professionally, she’s well on her way to doing that. Although her album was completed prior to Cory’s death, (“we used to sit in the car together and listen to the tracks because it had the best sound system”), Lea has since added one song, If You Say So, in his memory, written a book, Brunette Ambition, to be published in May, and filmed the sixth and final season of Glee. Personally, she’s also “in a better place”, she says. “I’m just so glad we’re in a new year. I feel physically strong and emotionally very strong. You don’t know how strong you are until you have to be. I lost my grandfather a couple of years ago and I always feel that he’s watching over me. I feel the exact same way about Cory. Every day when I go running, I feel like he’s pushing me to run harder,” she smiles, slightly embarrassed by her confession. “But everyone’s different and Cory didn’t believe in stuff like that.” Did they ever talk about death? “We talked about a lot of things,” she nods. “We talked about children and what we would look like when we grew old and who would be fat and how we would stay thin. We talked about where we wanted to go and what we wanted to do. We were done. We were it. And when you’re at that place in your life with someone, you talk about everything. But today I feel like I was given the best part of Cory and I’m thankful for that.” Moving on won’t be easy, she realizes, particularly with a fan base that is so invested in hers and Monteith’s love story. Does she think that she’ll feel guilty when she gets together with someone new? “I honestly don’t know,” she says slowly. “I’ve only ever had serious relationships so it’s an adjustment putting myself back into a place of being alone. And I was under a Cory Monteith spell,” she explains. “I was. It’ll take time to readjust my mind and I’m really not wanting to do that right now. I feel like it’s so important to make sure that I’m 100% OK before I can get into a relationship. But,” she goes on, and here her voice hardens, “people have to understand that I can’t be alone forever. Cory wouldn’t want that.” When she and her best friend, actor Jonathan Groff – with whom she co-starred in the Broadway hit Spring Awakening back in 2006 – posted happy holiday selfies on Lea’s active Twitter account back in January, the actress was dismayed by the reaction. “People were posting the most horrendous things. Things like, ‘You’re cheating on Cory.’ But a lot of my fans are young and they can’t understand,” she says with a shake of the head. “People are going to have to get that I am 27 years old and that I have my whole life ahead of me.”
Lea credits yoga, hiking, running and healthy eating for helping keep her sane over the past year. We suspected that it wasn’t the McDonald’s drive-thru and Real Housewives re-runs, I tell her. Scarcely a week goes by without a paparazzi picture appearing of the actress looking lithe and toned in Lululemon spandex, drinking green slush through a straw. “I have a routine!” she giggles, apologetically. “And I like my green juices! In order to do what I do and do it well, I have to be in a good headspace. So any free time that I have I dedicate to self-care.” Over the past five years living in L.A., Lea has watched less sanguine girls in her industry crash and burn. “I think exhaustion is the number-one cause, and pressure. You have to have a thick fucking skin. I come from New York and I don’t give a shit what people say about me. I have a fucking thick skin.” Remembering something, she laughs. “My cast members call me ‘grandma’ because I go to work, come home, pour myself a glass of wine, watch my television, read or take a bath. Then on Sunday I have my spa appointments booked with my best friend, because it’s so important to carve out the time to nourish your body and soul.”
Loss may have strengthened – even empowered Lea – but as she points out, “coming into this business I was already pretty grounded.” The daughter of a deli owner and a nurse, Lea had a “normal high school experience” in New Jersey (despite erroneous reports that she was bullied, like her alter ego Rachel Berry) landing her first role as Cosette in the Broadway production of Les Miserables at the tender age of eight. Agents and managers would tell her that she reminded them of a young Madonna (“I’m always hustling”), but it wasn’t until she got her big break in Spring Awakening that she caught the attention of Hollywood – and Glee’s casting directors. Two years later, she moved to L.A. “Broadway is this really small community, so before I moved out here, I was completely unaware of the other side of the business – the media interest and all those shows on E!. I just wanted to be the biggest leading Broadway diva. That was as good as it got to me.” Barbra Streisand had always been Lea’s idol growing up – in part, she says, because she looked a little like the actress and singer. “If Gilda Radner and Barbra Streisand had a baby with Jim Carrey, I would have been the outcome,” she laughs. “I was a really weird-looking kid. I had my dad’s Jewish nose and my mom’s Italian thick curly hair and I was kooky and awkward. But I’ve come into myself over the years.”
Given how regularly she features in “World’s Sexiest Women” polls, men would be inclined to agree. But Lea says she only realised that her unconventional beauty could be moulded into something more mainstream at her first Golden Globes Awards. “I like to dress very cosily – in Iro, Vince, or Mason – in my day-to-day life, but my stylist had put me in this gorgeous black Oscar De La Renta dress and when I saw a photo of myself on the red carpet a week later, I was like, “Wow.” I thought, “You know, I may not look like the other people there, but whatever I am, I look OK.”
Ultimately, she says, it’s about feeling good within yourself. “Because I know so many girls in the business who don’t love themselves, and no matter what they try to do to the outside – inject or plump or pluck or pull or dye – it won’t help. Look at JLo or Gwyneth or Kate Hudson: these are strong women who are glowing from the inside out. Gwyneth wakes up in the morning and she literally glows – that’s because she loves herself.”
It was in trying to harness the magic of those women that Lea came up with the idea for her book, Brunette Ambition, a selection of recipes, workouts, home-made beauty concoctions and life philosophies. ‘Ambitious’ may still be an insult where women are concerned, but “we don’t do what we do to be mediocre!” Lea all but shouts. “That said, being an outspoken, strong woman is intimidating for some men and women. I have a lot of girls who can’t handle me. That’s why my girlfriends are all very confident in who they are.” Lea’s enduring self-confidence was rewarded at the end of 2012, when she was pronounced as a L’Oreal spokesmodel. “When I did my first shoot, looked into the camera and said ‘Because I’m worth it’, I started hysterically crying. Because here’s the thing, if you set limits for yourself in your life, if you tell yourself you’ll never get there, you won’t. Nobody else is setting those boundaries – only you.”
Should anyone dare to set boundaries for Lea, I’m pretty sure she’ll pole vault over them. And whatever the next few years hold for her, she has no intention of choosing between music and acting, she says. “Just look at Jared Leto. He’ll probably win an Oscar and he has a best-selling album in the US right now.” And he’s hot, I point out. “And he’s cute,” she laughingly agrees. “So obviously that’s the dream.”
She’s planning to go on tour this summer, and can’t wait to go back to London, she tells me. “I took my mum there for the first time for the GLAMOUR Women of the Year Awards and she still talks about it, so I really want to go back there and this time make some British girlfriends.” Which shouldn’t be a problem, I assure her. Only those green juices? They’re going to have to go.
“If Gilda Radner and Barbra Streisand had a baby with Jim Carrey, I would be the outcome. I was a really weird-looking kid. I had my dad’s Jewish nose and my mum’s Italian, thick curly hair and I was kooky and awkward. But I’ve come into myself over the years.”
Being in a relationship is so terrifying when you think about it because you're either gonna spend the rest of your life with this person or something bad is gonna happen and you'll break up and there's really no other possible outcomes so that's weird to think about
late night thoughts am I gonna marry you or are we gonna break up cuz it’s gonna be one or the other
If Gilda Radner and Barbra Streisand had a baby with Jim Carrey, I would be the outcome. I was a really weird-looking kid. I had my dad’s Jewish nose and my mum’s Italian, thick curly hair and I was kooky and awkward. But I’ve come into myself over the years.