It’s just after 9am on a grey and rainy Saturday – the kind of morning that has even the most energetic Los Angelenos hitting the snooze button and crawling back under their covers. Lea Michele, however, is hard at work.
Strapped into a safety harness, the 160cm actress – who’s dressed in black knee-length workout pants and a matching zip-up top, her long, dark hair pulled back into a tight ponytail – is attempting to scale a 7m climbing wall at indoor climbing gym Rockreation, a wonderland of sculpted vertical terrain. It’s a tough ascent, but Lea climbs it with ease, pulling herself up peg by peg and giving those biceps and hamstrings a wicked workout. “That was fun,” she says enthusiastically, touching down onto solid ground. “Now, let’s try a harder one!”
Clearly, Lea likes the view from the top. And as one of the stars of Channel Ten’s hit show Glee (in case you’ve been living under a rock for the past two years, it’s a musical dramedy about a high school singing club made up of loveable, music-obsessed misfits) the 24-year-old has become accustomed to breathing in rarified air. Put it this way: if Hollywood were high school, the talented cast would be holding court at the cool lunch table, with Lea – who plays Rachel Berry, the self-appointed leader of the pack – sitting front and centre.
The show is a critics’ darling (it picked up hardware for Best Television Series – Musical or Comedy at both the 2010 and 2011 Golden Globes) and has developed a cult following (the show’s fans are affectionately known as Gleeks).
Musically, the show is an astronomical success, with more than 21 million individual songs purchased digitally and more than nine million albums sold worldwide. Artists scramble at the chance for their songs to get the Glee treatment, as the series’ cover versions boost the original’s sales while simultaneously topping the Billboard Hot 100 charts.
The cast are also in hot demand: in April 2010, they performed at the White House Easter Egg Roll (a US initiative to combat childhood obesity) and also appeared on Oprah. And then there was this A-list encounter: “I went out to dinner with my boyfriend, and Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem were leaving the restaurant as we were going in,” recalls Lea. “[Penélope] was like, ‘Eez eet you? Are you dee girl I’ve been zeeing at all of deez [award] tings?’”
DON’T STOP BELIEVING
Indeed, the past few months have been a whirlwind – and they’ve left Lea feeling more than a little fried. “I need some me-time,” she admits. “I have to remember to rest, because I have a natural energy and I don’t want to burn out.”
Not much chance of that. Fact is, like her Glee character, Lea has always been a nonstop go-getter. Growing up in Manhattan and Tenafly, New Jersey, she broke into acting when, as a precocious eight-year-old, she asked her parents if she could go with a friend to audition for Les Misérables on Broadway. Though her mother told her that she didn’t know how to sing, Lea went anyway... and wound up with the plum part of a young Cosette. What followed were Broadway stints in Fiddler on the Roof and Ragtime, but her big break came when she was cast to play the tragic and sexually naive Wendla in the 2007 Tony-winning musical Spring Awakening. The gutsy role, in which Lea starred opposite her best friend and “soul mate,” Jonathan Groff (who played her love interest in the last season of Glee), featured a sexually charged scene.
One theatregoer who saw her provocative performance was Glee’s co-creator and executive producer, Ryan Murphy, who summoned her to test for the part. On her way to the audition, Lea was in a car accident (in a rented vehicle) while driving onto the Hollywood studio lot. With only minutes to spare, Lea begged the security guards to look after the mangled vehicle while she hoofed it to the soundstage.
After crashing a car, most people would be too rattled to perform, but Lea nailed the audition, nabbed the part, and moved from New York to LA. Though Lea admits, “Los Angeles has been good to me,” she is quick to add that “New York is who I am,” and it’s where she lives when she’s not filming. “It took me a long time to put together my group of friends in New York. Also, every member of my family lives within 30 minutes [of each other] there.” Another reason her heart belongs to the east coast: it’s where her boyfriend, whose name Lea chooses to keep quiet, lives.
LEAN ON ME
Fortunately, Lea and her castmates have formed a strong bond. “Glee is a family, and Lea is the mum figure,” says Matthew Morrison, an old theatre friend of Lea’s, who now plays the show’s glee-clubber cum-teacher Will Schuester. “She is the fearless leader.” But even fearless leaders can have their vulnerable moments. “We did this event in Australia and were accosted by fans,” recalls Morrison. “Lea got overwhelmed and broke down crying. It was too much for her and she had to leave. It was overwhelming for all of us, but she’s the one young people identify with, so everyone wanted a piece of her.”
A big part of Lea’s mass appeal – besides her amazing voice – is her accessible beauty. Part Italian, part Jewish, she’s a refreshing change from the waifish blondes who often populate screens both big and small. Although Lea proudly proclaims she’s “the only girl in her high school class not to get a nose job,” she isn’t immune to look-perfect pressure. “I love myself, the way I look, my body,” she says, “but sometimes I can’t help but feel insecure here. It plays with your head.”
LET’S GET PHYSICAL
Still, Lea is more interested in being healthy than striving to be a specific dress size. She stays in shape by tackling the trails in Runyon Canyon Park – a 15-minute drive from her apartment – and working out with “health counsellor” Devon Butler. Something else that keeps her fit: starring in such a physically demanding show, which often involves elaborate dance routines and 14- to 16-hour workdays. And she recently became hooked on organic and vegetarian fare – more for what it does for her wellbeing than her waistline. (Check out her eating and exercise tips in the box below.) After her morning climbing session, for example, she hits Belgian chain cafe Le Pain Quotidien for a tofu scramble.
The actress talks passionately about her commitment to a primarily vegan diet: “My idea of heaven used to be relaxing at home with a cheese plate and champagne,” she says. Then she read the New York Times best-selling diet book Skinny Bitch “and it slapped me in the face”. An animal lover who has “always had a problem eating meat,” Lea was especially shaken by the information on farming practices and decided to give up dairy, too. “Coming from an Italian family, you can imagine [they] couldn’t understand. But they respected my decision,” she says.
When brunch is over, she slips into her sleek black BMW, complete with a GO CHEERIOS! bumper sticker (a nod to the mean-girls cheering squad on Glee), and starts navigating her way through the streets of West Hollywood. She talks about her hectic filming schedule, and new episodes which will include original songs for the first time. It’s a lot of work, and the reality of that is sinking in.
“I got home last night and was like, Oh my God, how will I be able to function?” Lea says. “But I woke up this morning and was fine.”
It’s not surprising, really. When Lea Michele hits a wall, she just figures out a way to climb it.
Lea began working with health counsellor Devon Butler because she wanted more energy. Here, her best body tips:1 Just say ohm
“We do a lot of yoga,” says Butler. Lea likes Bikram, poses and breathing exercises done in a heated studio for deeper stretching and
stress relief.2 Vary the pace
Lea and Butler incorporate short bursts of cardio into her workouts. “It takes more energy to go up and then drop than stay at the same level,” says Butler.3 Toss it around
If Lea doesn’t have enough time to do a full-on workout, she’ll do squats and throws with a 3kg medicine ball. “It really gets her heart rate up,” Butler says.4 Eating well doesn’t have to be heinous
For breakfast, Lea has oatmeal made with soy milk, or orange juice and a tofu scramble. “I’ll add in some salsa and avocado,” she says.5 Cut back on java
A former coffee addict, Lea now allows herself a cup in the am. If she needs a lift later, she drinks yerba mate, a herbal tea made from a South American tree.6 Munch smart
“I snack on fruit, and vegetables – carrots and celery –
and hummus,” says Lea. “I don’t like nuts, so I get my protein from tofu and black beans.”