One quarter on Riverdale's 'Core Four', the actor is using her own moral compass to navigate the pitfalls of new-found fame
Lili Reinhart and I are sitting in a very West Hollywood coffee shop. To our left, three earnest boys — think the 2018 version of the Jonas Brothers — are deep in an excruciating conversation about the best way to ensure their characters are ’emotionally woke’. To our right, a couple of agents are having the mother of all rows about who deserves credit for the srtatospheric ascent of a certain young actor’s career. And just behind us, directly in Lili’s eyeline, two girls are furiously texting each other, in spite of the fact they are sitting side by side. ‘Just so you know,’ Lili says, a conspiratorial twinkle in her eye, ‘those girls are DMing about our conversation.’
She has an eye for spotting a fan trying to play it cool. Since Riverdale‘s meteoric popular culture rise in 2017, she’s been catapulted into the public eye. As an actress, landing her first major lead role in a smash-it TV show — playing a multi-dimensional character like Betty Cooper, with a presence in almost every scene — was ideal. As a person who values privacy and is prone to anxiety, less so.
‘Basically, my entire world now is because of Riverdale,’ she says. ‘When I moved to LA, I didn’t have anyone and it was really hard. I was lonely and depressed, bt then booking Riverdale gave me 10 new best friends. asey [Cott, Riverdale‘s Kevin] was texting me earlier about the Met Ball, like, “Oh, my god, I’m so stoked for you,” and I was asking about a project he was working on. Then I live with Cami [Camila Mendes, who plays Veronica]. We’re all very interconnected — this is my family, not just my work friends, these people are my chosen family.
‘But as an actor, you have to be strong. You’re criticised by literally everyone — strangers all over the world, casting directors, other actors in the casting room… You’re constantly being judged, so you need to be able to take that, and it’s hard. I am a very reserved person, I don’t really go out and party when I don’t have to. I feel like I’m more of a cold enery, not super warm and bubbly. I’m kind of introverted, a little shy, socially anxious and a little awkward, and that’s fine. When people come up and want to take a poto with me, I feel pressure to live up to their expectation. I’ve been that person on the other side. I took a photo with Zac Efron in a doctor’s office, which I am low-key embarrassed about, but now I feel this strange pressure to be “on” all the time, immediately. I act for a living, but I’m not a performer 24/7. It’s a matter of reminding myself, “OK, you’ve got to turn it up for 10 minutes. You do what you gotta do to get by in the moment.”‘
The ‘cold energy’ Lili speaks of is an interesting one. Cold is not a word a person would usually choose to describe themselves, especially in such a matter-of-fact way. But cold isn’t ‘col’ with Lili. She’s quiet, but it’s not rude, she’s introverted, but it’s not awkward. She’s not going to be the girl bounding into a room of strangers with jazz hands in full effect, but sit with her for a minute and she’s an open book. We’re in the cafe for over an hour, running the gauntlet of topics that make her tick — depression, therapy, bodies [and our often-damaged relathionships with them], sexual harassment, self-care, acne, the toxic nature of your phone, love… Well, that last one is the only point where the book closes a litte, but we’ll come back to that. In essence, she’s a breath of fresh air. Navigating her way through fame in her own way, not for a second trying to be anyone she’s not, and showing every one of her millions of fans that it’s OK to be who you are. In fact, it’s the only way.
Take body image, for example. After photos of Lili and co-star and best pal Camila Mendes appeared on the cover of Cosmopolitan Philippines, heavily photoshopped to give them miniscule waists that neither of them have or care to have, Lili took social media to call it out. ‘I don’t want people to think I have a 24-inch waist or that I’m OK with someone altering my body, because I’m certainly not,’ she says, passionately. ‘I wish so badly I could call out people photoshopping their pictures on Instagram and be like “Hey, you don’t look like that! You’re making these girls think that their waist needs to be inverted to be beautiful and it’s so frustrating.” Millions of girls and boys are liking photos, thinking this is what beauty is, but it’s not real. Growing up, I would have liked to see people with cellulite and a love handle to look up to and think, “Alright, maybe my fingers don’t need to touch around the width of my arm for me to be beautiful.”
‘Right now, there are very, very interesting and completely counter-intuitive thoughts going on with our generation. On one side, you have women saying “embrace your flows, be authentically you” and you have the other half saying “it’s your body, do what you want with it”. There is such a delicate line between those two things. We say it’s OK to have a bigger nose than you’d like, but then we idolise the people who change themselves. It’s so fucked up and it pisses me off, truly.
‘The people with hundreds of millions of Instagram followers are the people who have got plastic surgery at a young age, so the generation around me thinks they need to have lip fillers to be beautiful, and that’s the opposite of the movement that I am part of. The same people who are saying “makeup free, all natural” are people who have altered their faces. Well, there you go, you’re flawless because you pais for it. Please don’t think you need to get work to be beautiful.’
Lili has the same attitude towards her skin as she does to her body: be honest. Talk people through the things that are going on, no matter how they might be making you feel, and make the conversation open to everyone. If you follow her Instagram, you’ll have seen the posts about cystic acne that popup on her stories. You’ll know that she tries to lighten the situation with a funny comment or a picture that you possibly wouldn’t catch another 21-year-old with seven million followers posting for fear or revealing too much of the truth. But for her, the truth is not only important, it’s essential. ‘When I post a photo of me with pimple cream on, it’s not only for fans, but for myself,’ she says. ‘I’ll wake up in the middle of the noght and touch my forehead to see if any cystic acne has appeared. It’s something that I’ve dealt with forever. It sucks, and it’s hard, but I’m trying to normalise it, by showing people that not everybody has perfect skin. This is what I look like. I don’t look like Betty Cooper on a daily basis, you’re not going to run into me on the street and se flawless skin and a perfect ponytail.’
She might seem remarkably together, but Lili thanks years of hterapy for helping her navigate self-doubt and, to a larger degree, the anxiety and depression she had been dealing with since she was a child. Growing up in athight-knit family — her mum, dad and two sisters — in a ‘middle-class-plus’ suburb of Cleveland, Lili was 13 when she first when to talk to a professional. ‘Anxiety and depression run in my family, so the idea of therapy wasn’t completely foreign,’ she says of te desicion to ssek help. ‘You have to treat mental illness like physical illness. It’s not something I’m ashamed of at all. I can tell you that I’m on antidepressants, I can tell you that last week I fell into a depression again, no particular reason why. I hope that the idea that someone can be depressed without having to justify it to anyone can be a more normalised thing — I want to be a voice for these younger people, to be like, “That’s OK, you don’t need a reason, it just happens sometimes.”
‘I’m not telling the world to go and see a therapist, or go on antidepressants, but I’m saying to the people who are struggling, who fell immense anxiety or feel uncomfortable in their own skin, that there are many outlets for that. Whether it’s art therapy, writing, seeing a therapist, medication, family counselling… there are a million things you can do. It’s about finding the right fit for you. People get so discouraged, go to one therapy session and don’t feel anything, but there are a billion therapists out there. You are willing to try a million different hair colourists to make sure you have the right hair colour, but you don’t want to find the right therapist? It’s worth it.’
I ask Lili’s advice for people supporting friends dealing with depression, for examples of what helped her when things have been bad. ‘The most important thing to say to someone who is depressed id, “That’s valid,”‘ she says. ‘My mum always calms me down, she sympathises with me, but also makes me feel like I’m totally valid in what I’m feeling. I’ve been through times in my life where people have had to bite their tongue, because I’ve been hard to deal with. I’ve had major mood swings, major depressions, been almost suicidal and people have had to be around me, and that’s not an easy thing to do.
‘But the strongest friendships I’ve had are the ones where we’ve seen each other at our lowest point. My mum especially had to deal with me in the worst depression of my life, but she just asked me what I needed and gave me the space to figure it out. To me, it’s just having someone who is there to say, “I may not understand exactly, but I’m here and I’m listening and what you’re feeling is valid.” You just have to be an ear.’
Lili has learnt the art of self-care too. Last night, she spent five hourse clearing her room, throwing things out, decluttering. Other times, she might go for a drive or go to the beach or paint. She’s learnt the things that mean she can help herselfn as well as asking others for help, all of which serve a vital importance in her well-being and in the balance between being public Lili and private Lili.
For that balance to remain in check, she’s vehement in her commitment to keeping her relationship with Riverdale co-star Cole Sprouse off the record. They attented this year’s Met Gala together, posted pictures on holiday, but that’s as close to the action as you’re likely to get, and that’s the way she’s keeping it. ‘I’ve dealt with it a lot, people wanting to know things about my love life,’ she says. ‘I thought I was going to be the kind of person who would be OK talking about relationships, telling people what I do on dates, but that didn’t end up being what I like to do. I’ll talk about sex, about love, but I’m just not going to talk about the relationship I’m in. It took a while to realise what I wanted to keep private, but right now, it’s not going to happen. Keep a little mystery, come on!’
Of all the things Lili is going to keep quiet about, ensuring her relationship between her and her boyfriend is just fine. With a voice she’s using powerfully to discuss things that really matter, that can make a genuine difference to how people are feeling or coping with something they’re up against, she knowns setting some boundaries for herself is critical. Her life, her rules. What other way could it possibly be?