“You can’t have that soda—you know that, right?” It’s 20 minutes into my interview with Lea Michele and she’s already telling me what to do. The Glee actress does not approve of the can of Coke I’m nursing mid-morning on the set of our cover shoot at Milk Studios in Los Angeles. Normally, anyone who informs me about what I can or can’t consume is told to f-ck right off or, at minimum, given major evils, but something strange—near magical, even—happens when it’s coming from Michele. “I know, I know,” I mutter, head down and all rueful yearning for a positive life change. This isn’t me simply placating the talent under the watchful eye of a publicist; it’s a genuine reaction. In less than half an hour, Michele has actually made me want to be a better person—she has that effect on people.
The 28-year-old New Yorker is the type of multi-hyphenate whose CV makes you feel like a slovenly monster wasting your life away on frivolous garbage (and Coke). Take September 22, for example: on that day alone, Michele has a buzzy new Ryan Murphy series, Scream Queens, debuting on City, as well as a book coming out, You First: Journal Your Way to Your Best Life (Crown, $24). And she crushed last year just as hard, starring in Glee, releasing a bestselling memoir, Brunette Ambition, and dropping a successful pop album, Louder.
You First. Brunette Ambition. Louder. Michele is fiercely determined, and she craves wild success not only for herself but for you, too: she wants everyone to achieve a New Age-y ideal of their “best self.” Or so trumpets You First, a throwback to the guided self-help journals popularized by Oprah Winfrey in the ’90s. She appears to be a wee Oprah in the making. The book tackles fitness, diet, friendships and relationships and includes hundreds of soul-searching questions rendered in a girly font. They range from “Is there one food group (meat, dairy, carbs) that dominated your week?” to “What’s the one thing you’d most like to put your energy toward?” Lined pink pages abound for you to commit your goals to paper. My own goal? To figure out how Michele has created the best best life. And so, I turn to You First in an attempt to find the method to her mini moguldom—one Michele mantra at a time.
1. Harness that you-ness.
The book starts by urging readers to examine their roots, so I spend the night before we meet delving into Michele’s past. Her parents saw in their child a girl who was, as she puts it, “part Jim Carrey, part Natalie Wood,” a firecracker with a supernova at its core. Her career started off with that old chestnut “I accompanied a friend to an audition, but then I got the part!” In her case, she landed the role of Young Cosette in Les Misérables on Broadway at age eight and then harnessed her you-ness in big productions like Ragtime and Fiddler on the Roof. She broke out in 2006, at age 20, in the Broadway smash hit Spring Awakening (alongside her real-life BFF, Looking star Jonathan Groff). The following year, Murphy wrote the lead part of Rachel, the go-getter club head, for her in Glee. There, she began a well-chronicled romance with co-star Cory Monteith and built a rabid international fan base beyond the Great White Way.
That following crowds her social media, a joyous lovefest between Michele and her 11-million-strong legion of tweens, teens and young adults. They plaster her feeds with exclamation points, like so many fistfuls of glitter, and waterfall-tear-emoji over her acting, voice and unconventional beauty. (One superfan even has “Leanatic” tattooed on her ankle.) The positivity is palpable.
2. Adding new experiences to your life will help you by pushing you outside of your comfort zone.
When I first met meet Michele, she nestles her 5’3” body into the couch beside me and I dutifully note what she’s wearing: a head-to-toe Helmut Lang ensemble of a black high-neck tank top, forest-green silk pants cinched at the ankle, a leather-panelled moto jacket and an assortment of small Jennifer Cohen ear studs. She has the exaggerated features of a Disney heroine: lush lips, big brows, doe eyes, her hands slashing the air with vigour as she sells Scream Queens. She swears 14 times in 50 minutes. The avowed horror-film freak was stoked to rejoin the Murphy troupe. Each episode is an homage to a different horror flick, and the pilot reveals candy-coloured production design and a high-camp tone that’s outrageous, even for a Murphy production. Michele is Hester, a quiet, awkward nerd stuffed into a neck brace, looking to pledge the sorority Kappa Kappa Tau and join the powerful clique of Chanels, led by odious Chanel #1, played by Emma Roberts. To portray a character limited in movement by her brace and possessed of a dark side, Michele boned up on her physical comedy skills by watching SNL reruns featuring Kristen Wiig, Cheri Oteri and Molly Shannon. She gleefully went makeup-free for the role. She says it’s the coolest job she’s ever had.
Original scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis co-stars as the dean of the university, who forces Kappa Kappa Tau to accept all pledges, regardless of babeliness or popularity. “Does this feel like a feminist message to you?” I ask. “This isn’t that serious—we’re just drinking Emma’s pee water and getting buried up to our necks and burying dead bodies and sh-t like that, and I had to stick my finger into a pustulous cyst on the show the other day and it was disgusting,” says Michele. “I think that the feminist message in Scream Queens is that girls are f-cking badass. Ryan was saying the show is totally girl power. It’s mainly a female cast, all of whom are incredibly talented, strong and successful women. But also, think of any scary movie: it’s not the strong man that survives in the end; it’s the girl. Girls are so much stronger than they know, and especially more than society makes them believe they are.”
3. Be your own person and create your destiny.
Groff got Michele into journalling back in their Spring Awakening days. At first she was intimidated by the blank page, so she started with lists of her goals: make an album, land a TV show. “I’d be like, ‘You’re crazy. You’re writing these goals down, but it’s never gonna happen.’ So I would start doubting myself a lot. But then those goals would just be burning on that page and I’d be like, well, I’m not just gonna throw this away,” she says. I show her my own multicoloured to-do list and she oohs over it with the lust reserved for a Céline bag: “I love that list.”
Such rigorous goal setting is working for her. Michele may not have realized her dream of a Grey’s Anatomy arc yet (“Shonda, call. Like, what the hell? I’m ready. Put me in scrubs. I’d love a little arc. Just a little arc”), but she has done two TV shows so far and is also well on her way to her second album. A few critics found her first effort an attempt at mainstream pop stardom that fell flat. Now, Michele is course-correcting with a forthcoming release that plays to her strengths, including “four-minute-long vocal marathons,” she says. “I’m going back to my roots. It’s not a Broadway album, but there are definitely theatrical elements to it. It’s not about being a pop record and getting on the radio; for me, this is about people listening to the songs and going ‘Oh, that’s Lea Michele? I really don’t think there are other people that could sing those songs.’ A lot of pop songs are interchangeable among artists, and I want to make a record that’s unique to my voice.”
4. It’s likely that you will have many role models.
Michele counts Barbra Streisand and Scream Queens’ Emma Roberts among the women she looks up to. “Emma speaks up for herself, she stands up for herself, she takes care of herself, and those are the kinds of girls I want to be around,” Michele tells me. And she strives to be that girl for her own fans. (She is the type of star who references “my fans.”) Michele genuinely wants her book to help them. “There is enough gossip, craziness, unhealthy sh-t—girls against girls—in this f-cking business. My goal is to be as much of a positive role model as I possibly can be,” she says.
She takes pride in eschewing makeup while off-duty, paps be damned. She eats super healthy—Michele claims to have never eaten fast food in her life (other than the very occasional In-N-Out burger). She counts the ultra-polished Jessica Alba among her style icons: “She always looks adorable but clean. And, you know, she’s a friggin’ [chief creative officer], so that’s definitely an inspiration for me.” She rarely parties: her evening plan, post-shoot, is dinner with her mother and a gaggle of aunts. Even her tattoos serve as life inspo: “I Believe” curlicues across one wrist in bright turquoise ink, “Imagine” adorns a foot, and scattered across her body are a star, two separate butterflies and musical notes. It’s easy to regard all this clean-living positivity as over-the-top—it’s literally written on her body—but if you have that many people listening to you, why not use it for good?
5. You will attract a good partner when you yourself are in a good place.
Her cheery disposition has been tested in recent years. In 2013, Michele lost Monteith, her BF of two years, when he died of a lethal mix of heroin and alcohol. Following this trauma, Michele had to soldier back to serenity, to being okay with being single again. “I wanted to make sure that I was okay with me, feeling strong and feeling happy on my own. I didn’t want anybody to fill any holes for me—that sounds sexual! I wanted to make sure that I was a whole person again and that no one was coming into my life to put me back together,” she says. “I needed to do that on my own. I worked very, very, very hard and I got back to that place where I was genuinely happy and strong and ready to live again and see the world and, you know, bring in more beautiful experiences. And that’s when someone miraculously came into my life.” Now, she’s dating 30-year-old model Matthew Paetz; he often makes cameos in her social feed—another instance of Michele’s refreshing willingness to share every aspect of her life rather than play coy. They look happy together.
6. Be ambitious which can be a hard thing to do because it’s easily mocked in today’s culture—particularly for girls.
Relationship, family, fitness, career: not only does Michele appear to be the human embodiment of the #blessed hashtag, but she’s also admirably unapologetic in trumpeting her triumphs. “I’m so proud of my success,” she tells me. “I’m really proud of the life I’ve built and created for myself. I’ve kept my head on my shoulders to get to where I am. You’re always going to run into critics. The only people I care about are the people that are close to me. It’s a tough business, it’s a tough town, and you really have to have a thick skin. I’m constantly learning, but I’m really proud of where I am.” Many celebrities balk at revelling in their success—especially women, who, as You First tut-tuts, are taught to downplay their coups—but that isn’t Michele. Her 29th birthday is coming up on August 29, so I ask about her plans for the near future. “Hey, it’s my golden year,” she says. “It’s gonna be great, no matter what.”
At the end of the shoot, we part with a big hug. On my way out, I spy several Cokes left in the cooler. I pause by the door for a few long seconds, eyeing the bright red cans bobbing around in the melted ice. But I walk. Me first.
Correction: This post has been updated with Lea Michele’s correct birthday. She turns 29 on August 29, not September 29. FLARE regrets this error.
Hair: Lona Vigi, Nexxus, The Magnet Agency.
Makeup: Matthew VanLeeuwen, The Wall Group.
Nails: Carla Kay, CND, Cloutier Remix.
Set Design: Maria Santana, Art Department.
Art Director: Jed Tallo.