From the front steps of Milk Studios in Hollywood, you’d think the apocalypse was coming.
A cluster of helicopters swirls overhead; sirens blare past at 10-minute intervals. But Leighton Meester doesn’t mind. “It’s just so nice out,” she smiles. Cahuenga Boulevard is always this noisy, but Los Angeles hasn’t seen a day so warm and sunny in weeks (it’s been a rainy winter), so we decide to sit outside anyway. “I’m such a baby about being comfortable,” Meester says. “Comfortable temperature, comfortable clothes.” She takes a seat at a white table on the patio directly facing the sun. She’s not even wearing shades—just a pair of black leggings, a gray tank top, some sneakers, no makeup, and her honey-blond hair in a messy ponytail.
It’s been two minutes, and already I can tell Meester is not your typical high-maintenance Hollywood actress. Off screen, she has the laid-back demeanor of a truly regular person, not just a celebrity pretending to be relatable. In fact, when she first arrives at the studio for our interview, I don’t even recognize her: The juxtaposition between Meester’s natural self and the glitzy characters she’s played on screen, both in Gossip Girl and Country Strong, is extreme. “In my daily life, I don’t have a makeup routine,” she shrugs. But it’s not just her aesthetic. There’s an inherent quietness, a modesty, to Meester’s personality that catches me off guard.
Before we get to talking, Meester notices a coffee stand just inside the lobby. “I’m going to grab a cup if that’s okay,” she says. (Soon I’ll learn that coffee is Meester’s one true vice.) “Do you want anything?”
Five minutes later, the actress returns, her body newly caffeinated, her eyes sparkling. “Okay, now I’m ready,” she says.
Meester’s low-key disposition is a welcome contrast both to the street noise and the general state of things in our country. Officially, I’m here to talk with the actress about her beauty routine and her upcoming television show, Making History, which premieres March 5 on Fox. But in February 2017, even a question as simple as How are you? sounds political. “I feel like every time I open my phone and look at the news or listen to the radio, it’s about really sad, depressing things,” Meester tells me, rotating her coffee cup in her hands. “We don’t have to talk about that if you don’t want to.”
“Oh no, let’s talk about that,” I say.
It’s easy to forget that the people who govern everyday Americans are the same people dictating celebrities’ lives too; as I’m reminded, fame doesn’t make you immune. Historically, Meester has remained fairly private about her political opinions, but the election of Donald Trump has inspired otherwise reserved people to crack right open. “It’s a crazy time,” Meester says. “Sometimes it’s challenging having the news on constantly, but at least we can see for ourselves what’s going on.”
In recent months, dozens of celebrities have publicly voiced their solidarity with the women’s movement: reproductive rights and access to affordable healthcare. These issues are vitally important to Meester, but she tells me they’re not what keep her up at night. “The thing that gets all the attention is ‘women’s right are humans rights,’ and that’s certainly a true statement,” she says. “Maybe some people are mistaken that sexism is gone and that women are treated equally, but we’re not. … That said, I do think people will fight for [those] rights.”
Meester takes a long pause, collecting her thoughts. “I’m not saying we should take these issues for granted,” she continues. “But I think what can’t be as easily defended is the environment, and people are doing irreparable damage. … It’s pretty unbelievable that there are people out there who don’t think so. They just ignore the facts, and that’s pretty scary. Four years: Maybe we don’t have that long.”
Meester and I take a collective deep breath. “Wow, so we’re covering beauty and Trump—really going all over the place,” she jokes. Sounds like 2017 to me.
The discussion surrounding self-care has broadened in America’s current political climate. Now more than ever, women are interested in learning how to take ownership of their minds and bodies in a positive way. While Hollywood is often better known for intense diets than holistic wellness, that is categorically not Meester’s steez. “I’m never hard on myself when it comes to what I’m eating,” she says. “I usually just go with my gut … what I want, what I feel like, and what’s easy.”
To Meester, staying in supermodel shape is simply not worth the stress. (Of course, she conveniently looks to be in supermodel shape.) The actress is 30 years old now, married, and the mother of a new baby—having a flawless diet is nowhere near her top priority. “To get through the day, I usually need to give myself little treats,” she reveals. “So I’ll eat chocolate, or I’ll drink coffee. When I go to bed, I’m excited about coffee in the morning.” (For those interested, Meester takes hers with a drop of raw milk and heavy whipping cream.)
Telling a familiar story, Meester says her diet usually starts out on a healthy note: “A lot of kale, spinach, and greens in the morning … smoothies with protein powders, flax, and chia seeds.” But by midafternoon, the coffee and sugar cravings creep in, especially now that she’s busy working on her show. “When I’m in a hurry, I’ll just eat a bagel with cream cheese, and maybe a slice of pizza, and then I’ll have pasta. Just a lot of bread,” she says. “Generally I do eat plenty of organic, fresh food, but if I’m out at a restaurant, I’ll always get dessert.” Meester takes another sip of her coffee and smiles. Fit as she looks, I believe her.
Meester’s fitness habits are equally relaxed. She used to do Pilates regularly, but she hated it. Now, she has a trainer who comes to her house once a week. “It’s something that I know I can stick to because I don’t dread it,” she says. Unlike other celebrities or even many of Meester’s past characters—women who tend to push themselves (and others) to extremes—the real-life Meester possesses a natural appetite for balance. “Like I said,” she reminds me, “I like to be comfortable.”
If Meester resembles any of the women she’s played, it has to be Deborah (or “Deb,” as she fondly calls her), her character on Making History. The new show follows three friends who time-travel back and forth between present day and the 1700s—Meester plays Paul Revere’s eldest daughter. At first, the show sounds like a sci-fi thriller akin to H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine, but surprisingly, it’s a comedy. As Meester describes, “It’s wish-fulfillment, adventure, a bit of comedy, and a really sweet love story too.”
Whatever the genre, Deb is an unexpected departure from the glamorous roles we’ve seen from Meester in the past. But the star tells me she couldn’t have designed a better gig for herself. “It started off because I wanted to do a comedy,” she says. “I read a handful of scripts, and after the first page, I just really enjoyed this one—it appealed to my sense of humor, and I loved the character. She’s sort of everything: strong, vulnerable, sort of childlike but unwittingly. I don’t know how I got so lucky.”
When Meester talks about Deb, her eyes light up, like she’s talking about a new love. But to go with the metaphor, if you try to ask about her old love Blair Waldorf, she won’t be as enthused. For all the die-hard fans I know are still out there, I try to slip in a question about the Gossip Girl role that made Leighton Meester a household name. But at the mere mention of Blair, her face tightens. “Can we not talk about that?” she says with measure. “It’s so 10 years ago, you know?” (If you’re curious, she also evades any questions having to do with her actor husband, Adam Brody, and their 18-month-old daughter, Arlo.) Fair enough.
Instead, to get to know Meester and her new character better, I propose a little game: I’ll read off a list of wacky beauty-related activities, and Meester has to say whether she or Deb would be more likely to do them. Examples include spending the weekend at a sweat lodge (Deb), dropping $500 on night cream (Meester), or receiving Botox (neither).
It must be said: If Meester is nothing like Blair Waldorf, she’s even less like Gwyneth Paltrow. As a part of our game, I ask whether she or Deb would be more likely to get the “vagina facial” Paltrow famously endorsed in 2015. “What?!” Meester responds, slack-jawed. “What is that?”
Uncomfortably, I proceed to describe the controversial treatment, which has you “steam” your nether regions, ostensibly to “balance female hormone levels,” as Paltrow has stated. Meester is genuinely horrified. “I personally don’t feel like you should be adding anything into your vagina—it’s self-cleaning,” she says, deadpan. “We’re fine; I’m going to say neither on the vag steam.”
As our game continues, I learn that the “grapefruit diet” and bee-sting therapy are also off the menu, both for Meester and Deb. “I don’t know what that is either,” she says of Paltrow’s other favorite treatment, which involves the use of bee venom to reduce inflammation and scarring on the face. “That sounds like something from My Strange Addiction. It just doesn’t seem right.” I can’t help but laugh—Meester’s distaste for absurd beauty exploits is truly refreshing.
Less than a week after our interview at Milk, Meester arrives on set for her photo shoot with Byrdie. She enters the room with the bashful expression and undone hair I remember from the other day. But once she’s fully made up and in front of the camera, she’s on. There, under the bright lights, I recognize her: the elegant, ebullient, scene-stealing Meester I’ve seen so many times on screen. Stylists and producers crowd around the monitor as the photographs appear in real time, fawning over Meester’s photogenic face and contagious energy. The room is hers.
But a few hours later, once her job is done, the makeup comes off. The hair comes down. Her tailored skirt is replaced with leggings. The Meester few have gotten the chance to glimpse, the one who cares deeply about the environment and would never deny herself dessert, is back. Graciously, she thanks everyone for their time and floats out of the room, a cup of coffee with raw milk and heavy whipping cream surely soon to come.