It’s 11 a.m. on a gloomy February day in a hotel suite high above the streets of downtown Manhattan, the muffled blare of car horns barely registering through a thick floor-to-ceiling window. Barefoot and sitting in an oversize armchair is 16-year-old Rowan Blanchard, looking like a doll or maybe even a character out of a Sofia Coppola movie in a blue velour slip with ribbon straps. Blanchard’s mom, a nice yoga teacher named Elizabeth, has graciously retired to the next room.
In from L.A., her hometown, to promote her new book (Still Here) and a new movie (A Wrinkle in Time) in addition to attending various Fashion Week events (the Calvin Klein show, a Proenza Schouler fragrance launch), Blanchard recounts—over a fruit plate and in tones that range from semi-hushed to totally giddy—the previous night’s excitement at an NYU party. It was a notable occasion not only because she did her own makeup and for the very first time liked the results, but, more crucially, because the college girls approved.
“I went to my friend’s dorm room beforehand, and they were like”—she feigns an air of aloofness—“‘Your makeup looks really good.’ And I was like”—equally aloof—“‘Yeah, thanks.’ But in my head I was going”—she fans herself—“‘Argggh! Thank you!’” She lets out a big, goofy laugh and crashes back into the cushions.
Blanchard, who has been acting since age 5 and starred in Disney’s Girl Meets World from 2014 until the show ended last year, is at a critical point in her young life. It’s cheesy to say, but she is becoming a woman, which is an especially interesting proposition for her because she a) pretty much has grown up in the public eye and b) hasn’t generally been surrounded by people her own age (she has been homeschooled since the sixth grade). It’s a subject that Blanchard—now somewhat of a poster child for a new, woke generation of Young Hollywood in these anti-Trump, gender-fluid, ethnically blended times—has been pondering lately.
VIDEO: Rowan Blanchard on Her Firsts
“I’m starting to realize the…” she trails off, sounding equally reluctant and surprised to say the next word. “Power you have with your physicality,” she says, thoughtfully chewing a strawberry. “Attention is still a new thing. It’s been fun to play with other people’s gazes and explore who’s looking at you: How do I look, and how is that being perceived?”
Up until this past year, that was anything but traditionally feminine. “I wasn't interested in being quote unquote beautiful, maybe because I was told that trying to be that sacrificed your feminism,” she says. “I was more interested in looking weird for myself.” Beauty inspiration came from Sailor Moon and David Bowie circa Ziggy Stardust. “I just love anybody who’s so strange,” she says. “But now I’m also actually setting out to look like a pretty girl.”
This has involved a number of red-carpet firsts since last October: red lipstick at the Teen Vogue summit, false lashes for the Golden Globes parties, and a “beat”—i.e., really done—face for the LACMA Art + Film Gala. The latter is a look she learned about from her younger sister, who goes to public school and knows what all the “teens” (her air quotes) are up to. “I told my makeup artist, ‘I want the highlight [snaps],’ ‘I want the contour [snaps].’ ‘I [snap] want [snap] to go [snap] there [snap].’ ” The acrylic nails are also new; today they are long, round, and painted a shade of blood red. “I really enjoy them, but it takes a fucking while,” she says. “I sit there for two hours, and I’m so bored. It’s work!”
More specifically, says Blanchard, it’s women’s work. She remembers seeing her mom and two aunts getting ready for a big night out when she was younger. “It was so fascinating to me,” she says. “And so glamorous, watching them look at themselves in the mirror, wearing push-up bras and all these other things. I was like, ‘Whoa! The world of femininity is so crazy!’”
Crazy, sure, but back to the subject of feminism, also a tool to fight the system. “The way I view it is that women have to use whatever we were given,” she says, now perched atop a chair arm, looking out onto the skyline. “So if we’re given these frameworks of things that are inherently feminine, whether that’s makeup or the femme fatale or even sadness—all these tropes associated with being a girl—I want to explore the undoing of patriarchal things in that same way.”
Blanchard works through her own depression, which she’s been getting help for since age 12, in Still Here, a deeply personal meditation on the exquisite pain of growing up told through drawings, photos, and diary entries by Blanchard and a band of like-minded contributors. And, like so many of the artists and writers she admires (Sylvia Plath, Tracey Emin, and her idol, Lana Del Rey), she approaches her melancholy with no apologies. “There’s a lot of weirdness when you’re a teenager, especially a teenage girl, where people just want to make you be happy and confident, like, ‘Go, girl!’ And I’m so anti that.”
Of course anyone over the age of 20, 30, 40—hell, even 70—can attest that the rah-rah insistence by the media and corporations to accept, nay, celebrate, your flaws and get over your misgivings no matter what extends way past adolescence. Blanchard calls it out as reverse feminism. “We’re being told by the same companies that got money from the fact that we hate our bodies to now ‘Love your body!’ and ‘You look so good!’” she says. “It’s like the second that our happiness and security can be monetized, there they are.”
But not everyone’s intentions are so nefarious. Blanchard often hears the same “don’t hate” message from well-meaning friends, people she respects, but it doesn’t resonate with her. A more authentic approach, she reasons, is to treat the situation with compassion—to recognize that you were taught to dislike these things, so when you do, it’s not that weird. She would rather people be honest about their insecurities than fake impenetrable confidence. “I would rather us be like, ‘I’m here, and I don’t fit into any of this, and that’s just where I’m going to figure this out.’”
Welcome to womanhood, Rowan. We’re glad you’re here.
Photographer: Theresa Marx. Fashion Editor: Sam Ranger. Hair: Clariss Rubenstein for The Wall Group. Makeup: Marion Robine for Open Talent. Manicure: Brenda Abrial for Open Talent. Production: Octopix.
For more stories like this, pick up the May issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download April 13.