Jessica Alba has been sitting in a booth at the Beverly Hills Hotel for about five seconds—barely enough time to put down her personalized red quilted-leather Valentino handbag—when she is approached by two breathless tweens. “Can we, can we, gurgle … blah … eek,” they say while Alba poses gamely for pictures. They let out a squeak and flee.
You see, Jessica Alba is really popular. And she knows it. But her capitalizing on her popularity, stemming from an acting career that started in her teens, is not like something out of a sorority—it’s much more conscientious, more type A, than that. While Alba, 37, knew a while ago that she was big-screen beautiful and charismatic (and looked damn fine in a bathing suit), she was already diligently calibrating a more global and lasting success.
So here she is, married 10 years to longtime love Cash Warren, a mother of three (Honor, 10, Haven, 6, and the brand-new Hayes, 7 months), and the founder and face of one of the most colossal born-from-celebrity-mamahood business successes, The Honest Company. Alba may go back to TV too, having recently filmed the pilot for L.A.’s Finest, a Bad Boys spin-off, with Gabrielle Union. But right now she’ll just have a vodka soda and some self-analysis, please.
Cover Girl Rule 1: Smile like you're having the best day of your life...
LAURA BROWN: In the magazine world you are quite literally consumer marketing’s favorite cover girl. When did you realize you were not only attractive but also “commercially viable?”
JESSICA ALBA: I worked really hard at the commercial viability. There are plenty of much better-looking and more talented people in this town than me who are trying to break into this business. So I’ve always felt like I needed to be two steps ahead and ready for any of the opportunities coming my way. I wanted to set myself up for success. I did that by making sure I was relevant in every marketplace that mattered to the studios.
JA: For example, Dark Angel [the hit show Alba starred in from 2000 to 2002] had big international sales. Asia was a big territory, Germany was a big territory, and so I tried to stay relevant to those markets even after I stopped doing the show. Anytime they would have me endorse a product or whatever, I would go and do press tours in those countries.
LB: OK, what about in terms of magazine covers? How do you know what to do?
JA: So my jam on a cover, from the time I was around 19, is I would say, “Tell me what sells.” I want to sell these magazines, so tell me what works. Is it the smile? Is it the twinkle in the eye? Every magazine has their different things, so I was like, “Let’s just get a lot of that—with different tops.” [Laughs] And that’s what I would do.
LB: Different tops!
JA: Different tops, and usually it’s a slight smile with a twinkle in the eye. It’s relatable and not intimidating. It’s “I’m not gonna steal your man.” It’s “I wanna be homegirls with you and have a drink” but still aspirational.
Rule 2: ...but if you're not, a smize will do.
LB: When did you realize you had a spark? You have always had a currency that was going to get you somewhere.
JA: I think I started to explore the idea of charm when I was 16 or 17. That was when I realized I could get away with some things. Not with my parents, because they saw through me, but with other people. When I was younger, though, I didn’t know how to turn it on for the camera, only in person. That was my problem.
LB: Well, as you get a bit more ease in yourself, you can turn it on.
JA: I was always so self-conscious.
LB: Because you were in a swimsuit every five minutes! Having to eat celery and be hot all the time must have taken up so much energy.
JA: It didn’t, but being on your menstrual cycle while you’re in a bathing suit—that’s terrible! That’s what I was going through on my first TV show, The New Adventures of Flipper, when I was 14. You’re like, “Why is this happening?” I went through puberty in a bathing suit on camera every day, but I was happy to get that check, man.
LB: Those checks were great for cramps. What drove your ambition in those days?
JA: What drove me was that I felt like I wasn’t represented. There were a lot of girls out there who looked like me and weren’t represented in pop culture, you know?
Rule 3: Wear enough bling to draw the eye, but now so much as to appear gaudy.
LB: Where are your parents from?
JA: They are American, but my mom’s side is Danish and French, and my dad is Mexican. When I started, I was labeled “exotic.” That was it. It was like you had to be mysterious and sexual. Back in the day, if you were Latina, it was always a stereotype. They couldn’t write you as a normal person in the world. [Director] Robert Rodriguez was kinda the first person who made Latinos commercial in his movies, like in the Spy Kids franchise. And then Jennifer Lopez and Salma Hayek [helped pave the way]. It was tough in the beginning.
LB: What is your greatest motivator now?
JA: I’m so shallow. It’s people not believing in me. For whatever reason that motivates me.
LB: Do you still think anybody thinks that?
JA: Yeah. I don’t know why. There are always haters, and my goals are not small ones. I just want to live a full life and stay curious and challenge myself. I want my kids to see me push outside my comfort zone. And sometimes that means making mistakes and admitting them, which is especially hard in front of your kids.
VIDEO: Jessica Alba on How to Be the Perfect Cover Girl
LB: You’ve never made one, though, right? [Laughs]
JA: I make them all the time! I have this terrible habit: Whenever my kids ask me to find something, they’re like, “Mom, where’s my ...” you know, backpack, toothbrush, whatever. And I just say, “Up your butt,” and that’s probably bad parenting. But they got to a certain age where I’m like, “That’s where it is: It’s up your butt.”
LB: OK, what’s next on your achievement pile?
JA: We’re in our infancy as a brand at Honest. It was really a start-up until our amazing CEO, Nick Vlahos, came on board a year ago. He knows how to scale a CPG [consumer packaged goods] company. There is so much potential. And with my acting career, I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface as well.
LB: You’ve gone back to television after a 10-year hiatus with the L.A.’s Finest pilot. How was it?
JA: It was awesome. I missed it. I feel like my purpose in life was to create Honest, and everything led me to that. But my heart is with entertainment, acting, performing, and that world. I knew it was a matter of time. I just didn’t know it was going to be two months after having a baby.
Rule 4: Opt for clothes that are aspirational but not intimidating.
LB: You had to run off in between scenes and pump?
JA: Yeah [laughs]. So that wasn’t that fun, but I’d bring Hayes to the set, and he’d be with me in the trailer. He’s so sweet.
LB: You represent Honest on social media so well. How much do you feel you have to do that?
JA: It’s my baby! I’m so proud of it, and I want it to be successful. I believe we’re changing the conversation. You never really heard about toxic chemicals in products before. It wasn’t that commercial when we launched six years ago. People weren’t questioning ingredients or whether there was a safe alternative. Some people were, but they were sort of looked at as like, “Oh, you’re a hippie.” But now it’s mainstream, and that’s cool. So we were pioneers. Hopefully, it will allow people to live better and healthier lives because they’ll at least know what to avoid.
LB: Speaking of healthy, after Hayes, you’ve been very frank on social media about getting back into shape.
JA: [Laughs] That shit is hard. For me, it’s more about posting what I’m really going through. Working out is not easy, but I’m doing it. I’m dropping a name here, but I was with Kate Hudson, and she’s so fit! And I was like, “You work out every day?” And she said, “Of course I do.” I was just like, “Fuck, man, she doesn’t even question it, so I shouldn’t question it either.”
Rule 5: Make sure your hair and makeup look, you know, natural.
JA: But then I look at that glass of wine at 5 p.m. like, “Shit! If I could just have that.” But I’m not giving myself that. Instead, I’m figuring out how to drink a lot of water.
LB: Can you exhale a little bit now? You’ve done so much, obviously because you’ve needed to.
JA: I’ve been driven toward goals my whole life, and I didn’t stop and smell the roses—ever. I slowed down for a second when I had Honor and Haven, but then I was right back in the hustle. I made a concerted effort with Hayes to appreciate the quieter moments. I had to slow down when I was pregnant, so now we have a new tradition called Family Fridays.
LB: Oh, is it branded? Is there a hashtag?
JA: It’s our game night. We get on teams and play Clue. Honor is really good. I love when she wins—she’s strategic.
LB: Do you feel that having as much success as you’ve had, you’re still kind of like the hustler in the room sometimes?
JA: I definitely still have the hustle. I always feel like I’m an anomaly in a weird way. I didn’t go to college and get a degree and go into the workplace. I’ve had a pretty unconventional path to get where I am, but there are hustlers in every field. You can find them. They are lawyers, doctors, people in government. When you find people who are like-minded, you gravitate toward them.
LB: You cling to them, and you’re like, “OK, I’m going to start, like, an island.”
JA: Yes! You just need people who are self-sufficient and positive. They take on challenges with enthusiasm. They’re always curious, and they can MacGyver shit.
LB: What was the last thing you MacGyvered?
JA: I’m MacGyvering shit every day! Like, how to make a swaddle blanket have nine different uses [laughs]. As I’m going through life, I am continually figuring out how to MacGyver stuff.
LB: Isn’t that just the joy of getting older? You’ve just figured stuff out. Your face may fall down, but everything else, you’re just like, “Oh, why did I care?”
JA: Yes, why did I care so much? That’s something I really appreciate now that I’m getting older. I give so little fucks, so little. All that matters is to be happy and live your life.
Fashion editor: Karla Welch. Hair: Renato Campora for The Wall Group. Makeup: Daniel Martin for Honest Beauty/The Wall Group. Manicure: Kim Truong.
For more stories like this, pick up the July issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download June 8.