WHEN FOX’S HIT SHOW Glee debuted in 2009, the over-the-top dramady about a high school glee club swiftly rose to the head of the class. But by its second season, the love-in was over, with many once-smitten critics and fans wondering if the show was going to flunk out. As Lainey Gossip blogger Duana Taha noted, it had become “as fashionable to hate Glee as it once was to love it.”
Last summer, glee co-creator Ryan Murphy gave the show’s diehard followers, a.k.a. “Gleeks,” even more reason to fret about its fate when he announced that several of the show’s most popular cast members, including breakout star lea Michele, would not be returning for its fourth season. “There’s nothing more depressing than a high-schooler with a bald spot,” Murphy commented. “You can keep them on the show for six years and people will criticize you for not being realistic, or you can be really true to life and say when they started the show they were very clearly sophomores and they should graduate at the end of their senior year.”
Shortly thereafter, the mercurial showrunner revealed that a spinoff following the former New Directions members’ lives post-graduation had been planned (psych!), but was no longer in the works (psych again!). Instead, Murphy decided what was called for was a Glee reboot. “I want to see those characters grow up and change and not be the same. At the end of the day, the show is really about the pursuit of dreams, that’s what Glee has always been,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “I want to see those characters go get their dreams; I want to see them fight and achieve.”
So, along with the travails and triumphs of McKinley High’s glee-clubbers in Lima, Ohio, the revamped show also follows the adventures of Lea Michele’s Rachel Berry as she struggles to find her way in New York City.
It’s a win-win scenario for Michele: Not only is Rachel the locus of the new storyline bringing fans back into the Glee fold (“Sue me, kick me, mock me,” Taha wrote of the most recent season, “but yeah, I got a bit of the goosebumps when she sang ‘New York State of Mind,’ SORRY!”), she’s also been liberated from the dorky schoolgirl outfits that have been the character’s signature. “I think the days of knee-high socks are definitely done,” the actress reports happily. Rachel’s new wardrobe is sophisticated, fashion-forward, body-conscious. “Her clothes are closer now to what I would wear,” says Michele, 26. “It’s really nice to see her in a different light. And it makes sense that she would move to New York and transition.”
Indeed, and per the fairytale logic of the Glee universe, it also makes perfect sense that Rachel’s wardrobe make-over comes courtesy of guest star Sarah Jessica Parker, who plays an editor at a fashion mag where Rachel’s old classmate/new roommate Kurt (Chris Colfer) has landed an internship. “It was amazing,” the New York native marvels. “To have a makeover
by the Miss Carrie Bradshaw!”
When we meet, she’s just wrapped FLARE’s cover shoot, which takes place days after it had been announced she’d been hired as L’Oréal’s latest spokesperson. The location is, fittingly, Dawnridge, the Beverly Hills estate built by the late set and jewellery designer Tony Duquette, whose skill at transforming everyday materials into dazzling treasures is the stuff of legend. As we sit outside on one of Dawnridge’s jungle-esque patios, Michele undergoes a reverse-transformation, with the removal of the photo shoot’s makeup, nail polish and hairstyle. “I really feel like I’m the only girl who will do a photo shoot and want to take all the hair and makeup off,” she says. “I like to let my skin breathe.” Au naturel, wearing a simple T-shirt, black yoga pants and her hair in a loose ponytail, she’s still strikingly pretty, with flawless skin, luscious lips and caterpillar-thick lashes. It’s easy to see why L’Oréal would want her as a face.
While Michele frequently works with stylist Estee Stanley, whose client list includes Jessica Biel, Penélope Cruz and Sofía Vergara, she has very definite opinions on what she will or won’t wear. At today’s shoot, she was confident about what would work on her figure, steering the selection toward body-con pieces—during the summer couture shows, she sat front row at Versace—and was validated when a few of the more experimental shapes the fashion team had selected dwarfed her petite frame. Prior to the day, Michele had made it clear that no fur and preferably no leather items were to be included. “I will never wear fur for sure. I mean, food is for nutrition, so if that’s your preference, okay, but I don’t think that there’s really a need to be wearing fur,” the actress explains. “I think it’s important in this industry to not just conform to what people want you to do, and instead stand by what you believe in—that’s something I’m very passionate about.”
A veteran of Broadway musicals since the tender age of eight, Michele caught Murphy’s attention with her knockout performance as Wendla in Spring Awakening, Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s musical reworking of Frank Wedekind’s 1891 expressionist play depicting the trials of sexually curious teenagers in hypocritical, restrictive religious environments. A hit with audiences and critics alike, the tragic coming-of-age tale was showered with awards after it opened in 2006, including eight Tonys.
Struck by what he describes as her “once-in-a-lifetime talent,” Murphy created a once-in-a-lifetime role for Michele. Ambitious, demanding and über-competitive, Rachel has perfect pitch when it comes to singing, but can be quite tone-deaf in her social interactions. Yet for all her character’s obnoxious tendencies, Michele still manages to make her seem likeable and relatable, as evidenced by her legions of fans.
Though, as a general practice, one is supposed to avoid contrasting-slash-confusing actors with their characters, this poses a challenge in Michele’s case, given that Murphy wrote the part with her in mind. “Usually when Lea is parodied, Rachel Berry is the one being impersonated. They have similarities, but Lea and Rachel are very different people. They just look alike,” quips her friend and co-star Colfer. Of course—but that doesn’t make the unusual amount of crossover less notable. Both are vegetarians with a deep love of New York and Barbra Streisand—who gave each the courage to reject the temptation of rhinoplasty (a potential manager suggested it to a teenage Michele, but she feared it would ruin her voice, the same reason Streisand held out). Then there’s the fact that Michele is starry-eyed over the strapping Cory Monteith, who plays Rachel’s former (and, we suspect, future) fiancé, Finn.
Being that Monteith is a Canadian, I ask if he lives up to the typical Canadian stereotype. “The Canadian stereotypes?” she muses. “I don’t know what they are… But Canada makes some great dudes, and he’s definitely one of them—just the nicest, sweetest guy in the world. And it’s really great that I’ve gotten to go to Victoria and Vancouver a lot—it’s so beautiful.” (Paparazzi shots suggest that “Monchele” enjoys going out for sushi when there—Just Like Us!)
As we chat, Michele tucks into a plate heaped high with kale and other veggies (“Hope you don’t mind the crunching”). “It’s super important to take really, really good care of yourself, and that’s what I do with all my free time, whether I’m going for a hike or working out or getting a massage,” she says. “And I definitely need a lot of sleep, because we have to be at our best physically and mentally.” Evidently, her attitude has been a good influence on Monteith, who recently dropped about 20 pounds. “I was a terrible eater, man,” the 30-year-old actor told Ryan Seacrest. “Horrible, horrible habits.”
Lucky for him, Michele is a skilled cook; in fact, Colfer says if she weren’t an actress, she’d be a chef. “The way she describes food is like a romance novel. The detail turns you on. You forget she’s describing hummus.”
Recently, Michele took in a patchwork-brown stray cat, which she named Sheila after a character in the musical Hair. “I found her on the Paramount lot with some other kittens, and I took her home and found the other cats homes as well. She’s the greatest cat in the whole world, so spunky and fun. It wouldn’t be fair to have a dog. But Sheila’s the perfect companion for me.”
It seems her biggest indulgence is curling up with her cat and man to watch horror movies. “There’s nothing like finishing a day of work and watching a scary movie,” Michele says. Even torture porn like Saw and Hostel ? “Not my favourite, but I will watch them. And I’m such a fan of American Horror Story.”
While almost all kids harbour some fantasy about what they want to be when they grow up, it’s safe to assume a much smaller number of these fantasies actually come to fruition, or else there’d be a lot more astronauts, jockeys and ballerinas crowding the unemployment line. Michele is one of the rare exceptions. Though she seems to have been born in a trunk, à la Judy Garland in A Star Is Born, the New York–native didn’t get her introduction to show business from her parents, but through a childhood friend whom Michele tagged along with to an open tryout for Les Misérables. On a whim, Michele decided, what the heck, she’d like to audition, too. It would be her first time singing in public. At the open call, little Lea performed The Phantom of the Opera’s “Angel of Music” a cappella, and won the role of Cosette. Thus was a future-star born (and, one would imagine, a friendship strained!).
Every next step propelled her up. She got good grades in school and was offered a spot at New York University’s musical theatre program, but didn’t end up accepting it as she was already working on Broadway. “School of life?” I joke. “Best kind,” she says.
She stresses that she feels “really thankful and just incredibly blessed for all these great things I have in my life,” never expressing a note of doubt—even about dancing. “I don’t think I’m the best dancer in the world—it’s something that’s a challenge for me. But I love the challenge.” Maybe this is because one negative note can be tweeted eternally, but there’s also a sense that she’s genuinely where she wants to be. She loves Fame and fame, not as some unfortunate side effect of loving to sing and act, but because she loves the whole bundle.
And judging by the sweet spot Glee found, where Michele is, is where it’s at. Pitched by creator Ryan Murphy as “American Idol with a script,” the zeitgeist-channelling show managed to connect with the sensibilities of the post-reality era—in which fame is now the reward for anything from giving birth to a litter of children, vying for a date with Brad Smith, or having a gypsy wedding—as well as those of the more innocent older generation, milkfed on variations of A Star Is Born. Of course a key component of Glee’s success was its painstakingly selected cast, and with his lead actress Michele, Murphy struck gold.
In between shooting Glee and gorging on scary movies, the featured lead singer in most of Glee’s top-selling songs has been hard at work making her first solo album. She wants the result to be a dance-around-in-your- underwear pop record along the lines of Katy Perry or Kelly Clarkson. (“I love ‘Since U Been Gone’ by Kelly Clarkson—that to me is the ultimate girl-power song.”) To that end, she’s enlisted as writers such heavy hitters as Bonnie McKee, the woman responsible for some of Perry’s biggest hits, including “Teenage Dream,” and the Australian singer-songwriter Sia Furler. But don’t expect a rush job: “I definitely think that it’s a long process,” she says, adding a line that sounds like it could be scripted for Rachel: “I’m really gonna take my time with it and make sure that it gets a lot of attention.”