Reneé Rapp Sings Openly About Assault, Anxiety and Sexuality. She’s Even More Candid in Person.

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Reneé Rapp is running late. Blame it on Beyoncé.

“I’ve had the greatest morning of my life. I’m gassed. Beyoncé sent me flowers today,” says Rapp, her mouth wide open, still in shock. The gift arrived at her hotel room in Amsterdam, the fourth stop of her first European tour, four days after the 24-year-old performer covered Queen Bey’s country-tinged “Daddy Lessons” at her Feb. 13 show in Paris, where Rapp also acknowledged that Black artists created country music.

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“I’ve never been speechless in my life. It’s literally going to make me cry,” says Rapp. “She is everything — and the reason that I know how to sing. I would sit down and listen to her different tonalities and phonics and phrasing styles and be like, ‘Please, Jesus, let me be able to do this.’ ”

Reneé Rapp was photographed Feb. 14 at Daylight Studios in Paris.
Reneé Rapp was photographed Feb. 14 at Daylight Studios in Paris.

Rapp has already built a strong acting résumé and fan base off of Mean Girls, the hit movie based on the Tony-nominated Broadway musical in which she also starred, as well as her role as Leighton Murray in the Mindy Kaling-created HBO Max series The Sex Life of College Girls, but music is her greatest passion. It’s also how she copes with her often debilitating anxiety — “I had an anxiety attack this morning. I got into my hotel room and I was freaking out. I almost threw up” — and other personal dramas, including her sexuality and battles with ADHD and an eating disorder.

“I had body dysmorphia and feeling like I had too much of an ass,” she says. “If I felt badly about my body, my mother would make me sing ‘Bootylicious,’ and it was everything to me.”

When Rapp details how much she needs music, some of her recent bold career decisions make a whole lot more sense, including departing from College Girls after two seasons to fully chase her pop star dreams (she’ll return for season three but not as a series regular). It’s also the reason why after moving from Huntersville, North Carolina, to New York at 19, she turned down a touring gig with the Mean Girls musical — she wanted to land a record deal in the city. Two weeks later, she got a call to play Regina George on Broadway.

“I had parents who were financially capable of giving me a certain life, so I felt comfortable to turn down money,” she says of her decision. (Her mother is a former accountant who now works as Rapp’s business manager and her father works in medical sales; she also has a younger brother, who is also a musician.) “Let’s be clear: That’s an insane, insane privilege. On the other hand, I’m stubborn as hell and I really know what I want to do and I really know what I don’t want to do. Ultimately, I’m going to do what I want to do in order to get to the next place in my career.”

That unapologetic approach to life — along with her wildly outspoken nature and authentic interviews that have gone viral — is why she is Gen Z’s latest obsession.

She recently completed a sold-out U.S. tour, selling more than 65,000 tickets within the first 24 hours. Her Interscope Records debut, Snow Angel, is a pop album with a mix of bops and ballads, with Rapp spilling her feelings on all of the songs, whether she’s telling you she loves you or to fuck off. Released in August, it earned the largest first-week U.S. sales for a female artist debut in 2023, amassed 252 million streams and sold 236,000 units globally. And she’s already working on her next album.

Reneé Rapp was photographed Feb. 14 at Daylight Studios in Paris.
Reneé Rapp was photographed Feb. 14 at Daylight Studios in Paris.

Since November — around the time she dropped the deluxe version of Snow Angel — she gained 1.3 million followers on Instagram, jumping to 2.3 million, and brought her total TikTok following to 2.9 million. Rapp will also make her Coachella debut in April and earned praise for her recent Saturday Night Live performance, which featured a strong, memorable vocal showing and another fun, lighthearted, cute pairing with Megan Thee Stallion.

Rapp started posting covers of songs by Alicia Keys, Demi Lovato and Beyoncé, of course, on YouTube nearly a decade ago, and her big voice is her superpower. “I was so sad as a kid. Still spunky and still would find joy in things, but my lows were so low,” she says. “There was never not music on because I would have panic attacks. If there wasn’t music playing in the car, I couldn’t sit. I would scream and take my shoes off before I could talk and throw them out the window on the highway.”

She’s now deciding how to repurpose the Beyoncé flowers in a way that will help allay some of her anxieties, joking that maybe she will turn them into rose water. “Beyon-spray,” she calls it, saying she’ll use it when she’s feeling uneasy. In reality, she’s “going to dry the flowers and I’m going to frame them,” she says, before sitting down for a candid discussion about writing lyrics that mine personal trauma, being hailed as a voice of Gen Z and how playing a gay character on TV helped her process her sexuality in real life.

You’ve mentioned how important therapy is for you — when did you start?

When I was 20, a week before the pandemic. I was in a rough place. I had a really tough eating disorder at the time. I lived in New York City for about a year. I was really stressed out and was incredibly lonely and very sick. I’m obsessed with the [therapist] that I see now. The other night I got offstage, and obviously she’s on Eastern Standard Time, and I was in Paris. I was having a full-blown anxiety attack, and I hit her and I was like, “Queen, can you get on Zoom?” And she was like, “Yes, absolutely.” And it makes such a big difference for me because — you know how some people are like, “Oh, count five things and breathe deeply?” I genuinely wish that I could do that. But I’m on a different level, so I do a lot of therapy.

When did you start to pursue your career professionally?

I started auditioning for America’s Got Talent and American Idol whenever they’d come anywhere close to Charlotte and Huntersville. I auditioned for, what’s the fucking [name]? High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.

Did you audition for The Voice?

Yeah.

So you’ve done all the rounds of the reality singing competition shows?

Oh, everything. Yeah. It didn’t go anywhere. They wouldn’t put me past the first little round. You know how people go into the room for American Idol? I wasn’t in the fucking room.

You never had a TV moment?

I couldn’t get there. I wanted to so bad. Because I was just obsessed and I was like, “I need to sing. I have to do this.” I just never went anywhere, which in hindsight is slay. It is so funny. I think that it made me so resilient. And so I’m spunky and scrappy. I am like, “I will make some shit work.”

So I put myself in the most absurd situations when I was a kid. When I was 14, I would find somebody through Instagram who knew somebody who was 35. Why were they talking to a 14-year-old kid? We don’t know. I mean, we know, but we don’t know. But I was like, “Yeah, I want to sing a Solange song at this underground fashion show that I don’t think I’m legally allowed to be at.” There was just always shit like that.

Reneé Rapp was photographed Feb. 14 at Daylight Studios in Paris.
Reneé Rapp was photographed Feb. 14 at Daylight Studios in Paris.

On “I Wish,” you sing about grappling with your mother’s mortality and your father mourning his own father. How did your parents respond when you played it?

I didn’t get a lick of emotion. I was like, “What the fuck? This is the last time I ever do something nice for y’all.” I wrote it while we were filming Mean Girls, and I had gone to set and then gone to the studio. And we finished delirious at 11 p.m. So I got home and I was like, “Guys, I wrote something that I think you’re really going to love.” Nothing. I was like, “Are you kidding me? This is such a slap in the face. The fact that you’re not on your knees right now is mind-blowing.”

The lyrics behind “Poison Poison” — where you sing “you’re so fucking annoying, you could poison poison” — really sting. Did you ever play it for the person you’re singing about?

The Snow Angel album cover
The Snow Angel album cover.

Oh, no. I don’t speak to that bitch. I’m good at having empathy, but if you do something a little too fucking close to the sun, that’s it. And this person tried to ruin my life, so go ahead. Fuck you.

On “Snow Angel,” you sing about a sexual assault. What’s it been like to share more of the story behind that song?

I still feel like I’m sorting through those feelings. I do understand that it was an incredibly traumatic experience that I don’t remember at all. And it feels weird to talk about because I don’t remember it. I just recently started to be like, “Wait, the people that let this happen to me suck.” I recently was like, “I actually don’t want to follow this person on Instagram anymore because they left me at a club to get drugged.” God knows what happened to me. And it happened two years ago. I woke up on a bathroom stall, face up in The Beverly Hilton with blood on my pants. And had been left alone at that point for like seven hours.

And that’s what inspired your SNL performance?

I was like, “OK, well, when we do SNL, if I’m doing this [song], I am doing this.” I will be on a red floor and I need to start laying down because that’s how I woke up. And there should be red underneath me and I should be in all white.

Performing “Snow Angel” on SNL.
Performing “Snow Angel” on SNL.

Have you had conversations with those former friends about what happened?

I talked to the guy that I was seeing the day after, and I remember he was like, “Are you OK? What happened? I guess you went home. Hope you’re OK.” I’m like, “I didn’t go home. Don’t be dumb.”

Was your gut telling you this was not the right crowd to be around?

To be clear, I think that I always knew. I’m my mom’s kid. But I had just gone through a really difficult breakup. I also think, in hindsight, I was really struggling with my sexuality and I was like, “OK, well, this boy is kind of giving me validation, and this is a straight group of people.”

I knew, but I didn’t know to the extent, and I made a lot of excuses for it, but all my friends knew. [They] were like, “What the fuck is going on? You realize you’ve been out every single night and it’s a Tuesday. That’s wild.”

Because you’ve been open about your experience, I wondered if you’ve heard stories about that song resonating with people?

More now. Ultimately, I’m not making music to just make music. I’m making music to start conversations. My idols make culture, my idols start conversation. That’s what I love. So I wanted to have “Snow Angel” come out and it be confusing and left up to interpretation. And I still see so many funny takes now that are like, “Well, this song is clearly about when she was doing heroin.” And I’m like, “You’re amazing, and I love your creativity.” But I like that people think that, weirdly enough. I’m like, “Take it. I think that’s cool.” But I think that now that I’ve talked about it and now that it’s been a public thing, I hear more people being like, “This has happened to me.”

I think that if I was taught and spoken to about what assault is — obviously it’s really difficult to prevent that or prevent being abandoned by a group of friends at a hotel bar — [but] I would love to have had more emphasis on what assault was and how to handle it. Because in hindsight, I think the next day going to the hospital would’ve probably been [smart]. But I was just like, “Nope, I’m going to block it out.” I think I went to a [recording] session the next day.

Mindy Kaling’s The Sex Lives of College Girls, which she left as a series regular after season two to pursue her singing career.
Mindy Kaling’s The Sex Lives of College Girls, which she left as a series regular after season two to pursue her singing career.

The track “I Do” sounds like it’s about unrequited love. Who did you write the song about?

My best friend Alyah [Chanelle Scott, who plays Whitney Chase on The Sex Lives of College Girls], and I don’t even think I’ve ever told her that I wrote it about her. But I remember being like, “I love you so much, and this feels so romantic in a platonic way, but I don’t understand how to explain it.” And I now know that it was so much more complicated in my sexuality. And I was like, “Wait, you feel completely different to me than a boy does, and I love you. So am I in love with you?” I’m like, “What the fuck?” And I now know that she’s just my fucking rock, and I just don’t think I like boys.

“Tummy Hurts” is the most R&B-sounding song on your album. What influenced that track?

That was probably the most gratifying to write actually because I grew up idolizing R&B artists. And I was fortunate enough to grow up with friends who played in bands who were playing in church. My idols are Jazmine Sullivan, Beyoncé, Frank Ocean [she has a tattoo of 60:08 on her arm, which is the duration of Frank’s Blonde album], SZA — they have made the biggest impact in my life. There’s a clear and obvious reason: Black people created all of these music genres we’ve just co-opted in a lot of ways. And let’s be clear, Beyoncé doing country is the best thing that’s ever happened to country music. It’s not even a question.

Rapp on her Snow Hard Feelings tour in Paris in February
Rapp on her Snow Hard Feelings tour in Paris in February.

I wanted so badly to do something that was slightly R&B-leaning, but in a way that wasn’t making something my own that is not at all my own, and something that feels authentic. Ultimately, I would love to do a project like that, but it needs to be done well, and I need to put thought into that. Because I think if a white girl does anything that slightly emulates R&B, it’s praised 10 times more than when Black people do it, in general, just because of the way the fucking world works, and it’s shitty in that regard. But yeah, it is something that I want to do so badly, and I will do.

You’ve said you want to be the bisexual Justin Bieber — were you being sarcastic or serious?

That was my pitch of myself to my label. I was obsessed with him. He was the one boy celebrity, pretty much, [that] I ever had a crush on. And I realized, as I was getting older, I was like, “Oh, I think I just want to be him.” Also, obsessed with him. Still. I’m a lesbian, but wow, do I love Justin Bieber. That boy is still cute to me, sorry. And he also, I think, has a similar [love] of R&B. He reminds me of a really sexy lesbian. Just the way he walks around and moves onstage and always has this demeanor that’s chill, sings his ass off, dresses really cool. That was just my pitch, and I got signed.

In Mean Girls, there’s a line referencing “fire crotch” that Lindsay Lohan, the star of the original film, wasn’t happy with. What did you think about that?

I feel like I’m the only person in the world who didn’t see this and who doesn’t know what we’re talking about. And I think it’s because I was fairly drunk at the premiere and that was the only time I ever watched the movie. Because I don’t like watching stuff that I’m in because it freaks me out. It was me and Megan [Thee Stallion], next to each other, and I was like, “I’m so anxious.” I immediately got into the theater, changed out of my little dress, put on a comfier one, sat down in the back. I was like, “We need two bottles of champagne.” I was violently hungover the next day. I must have had a great time. I remember seeing myself and being like, “My eyeliner looks amazing.” And that’s all I recall.

Rapp (second from left) as Regina George in Mean Girls
Rapp (second from left) as Regina George in Mean Girls .

Speaking of Megan Thee Stallion, what was it like collaborating with her on the Mean Girls single “Not My Fault”?

She’s someone who I’ve idolized for a long time, since she was doing music videos and mixtapes on the fucking top of the parking garage, in that little tan top. And it’s really nice for someone who’s like Meg to be so fucking sick, and such a badass, and to celebrate and uplift other girls. She cares. She’s a good fucking friend. She’s a check-in friend, which is really cool. And it’s comforting to talk to her too about having anxiety. I’ll text her, I’ll be like, “I’m petrified.” And she’ll be like, “It’s cool, I’m here. I’m scared too, but look, I’m going to be at the same thing. And so, at least we’ll have each other.”

Why did you decide to leave The Sex Lives of College Girls as a series regular?

It was hard for so many reasons. Recently, on TikTok, [I watched] this scene in season one, where I come out to another character as a lesbian, and I’m crying, sobbing. And I hadn’t seen that scene in years. It is so interesting that at the time I wasn’t even aware that what I was experiencing in my own personal life was actually exactly what I was doing onscreen. I was in a relationship with a man, incredibly confused, unsure of myself, feeling so insecure in my acting. And I watched the scene the other day, and I was like, “Wow, I feel so lucky to have that.”

That’s something I would show my kids. So when I watched it back, I was like, “Yeah, that’s hard to leave that.” And I’m also so grateful that I was able to have that moment. Not only was it helpful for other people, it was crazy for me; crazy helpful and also crazy hard. Because I’m like, “Why am I freaking out all the time?” I would go home and I would call my friends and I’d be like, “I think I’m a lesbian, but I really love my boyfriend. I would want to be with him, but I see him more as a friend.” So not only was I doing that on the show, publicly, in a big way to so many people, and my family, who had no idea that I was gay, I was also going through it personally. It is fucking crazy to watch that back.

I wonder if playing the role forced you to confront your feelings?

Oh, beyond. Look, this is good and bad. Being celebrated for being out because of a TV show or celebrity or success or something was really interesting because I think it forced a lot of people in my life and my family to have to accept me in a weird way, and in some ways that are twisted, like, “Damn, we could have done that a long time ago without her being on a TV show.” However, I think it made it a lot easier in ways that pissed me off but I’m also really grateful for. That [show] was the most parallel experience in my life, and I remember doing that specific coming-out scene and not acting at all. At all. I was just sobbing. I see that and I don’t see a character. I’m like, “That’s me.”

When you first read the script …

I was so excited. I remember reading it for the first time and being like, “I got it. Yeah, perfect, easy. Easy.” I’ve never been so excited to audition for something in my life. I was like, “This is everything.” My whole experience growing up was, I have a cousin whom I’m very close to who is gay, who was really ostracized by our extended family, and it made it so difficult for her and put her through absolute hell. She’s about 7 years older than me, and I was obsessed with her. I thought she was perfect, and she was told not to come around me because she would make me gay. And I’m like, “The joke is on y’all. We’re already there.”

Reneé Rapp was photographed Feb. 14 at Daylight Studios in Paris.
Reneé Rapp was photographed Feb. 14 at Daylight Studios in Paris.

I’ve heard that your character has helped some viewers come out.

It is the coolest thing ever because I’ve only recently started referring to myself as a lesbian, and I’ve only recently been in a relationship where I’m like, “Yeah, I’m a lesbian for sure.” I never consumed any piece of queer media up until maybe three months ago. I’m watching The L Word for the first time, and I just watched But I’m a Cheerleader, and I’m watching all these movies and parts of gay culture, specifically lesbian culture, and I’m like, “I love this.” It’s also been the most rewarding, validating, scary and exciting experience ever. So to imagine that that could be like that for somebody else, that makes me love acting.

Was there anything that you didn’t like during filming? In another interview, you said, “[I was] down to take shit, and let things hurt my feelings.”

Definitely, because it’s related to every experience I’ve had in work, ever. Even in music sometimes, sadly, which blows. I can only speak from my experience in acting, specifically musical theater and music, because there’s such a like, “Oh my God, please give me this opportunity,” and this grasp for, “Tell me that I’m worthy enough because what I’m doing is my artistry, and validate my artistry through giving me a job.” There becomes this weird [vibe of], “I feel like I owe you exactly what you want.” I don’t subscribe to that. I have before and I’m sure I will again. That’s the other fucking thing. This is my ADHD conversation. Because I know that I’m going to be in another situation one day where I’m going to be like, “Fuck. I want to say that I don’t like this, but I don’t want to ruffle feathers,” or, “I don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings.” But also, I think I’ve worked hard enough to be able to say no, which feels good.

And were there some instances during College Girls that you wished you said no?

I think I actually did a pretty good job of that on College Girls. When I was in Mean Girls on Broadway, I wish I would have said no more there. On College Girls, I got good at it. I attribute that a lot to Alyah, who’s my best friend but is also on the show, and that’s why we became friends. If I was like, “Alyah, I feel really insecure about what I’m wearing, and I think that someone’s going to be mad at me [if] I ask to change,” Alyah would come back to me and be like, “If something’s going to be on your body, change it.” So, actually, I got good at saying no. And I’m trying to carry that with me through the rest of my life. I think a lot of times when women say no, especially in entertainment, it’s seen as bitchy. And I’ve definitely heard that about myself. But I’m never going to disrespect anyone, and I’m also never going to disrespect myself.

Reneé Rapp was photographed Feb. 14 at Daylight Studios in Paris.
Reneé Rapp was photographed Feb. 14 at Daylight Studios in Paris.

Now that you’re living out your pop star dreams, how do you feel about acting? 

I want to act more than ever, which I’m like, “Are you fucking kidding?” I just didn’t think that that would happen. But now I haven’t acted for a year and I miss it. Even stage acting I miss, which is confusing because I just didn’t think that would be the case. I’m developing things with people that I really, really like, that I’m excited about.

How has it been dating in the public eye?

I’ve dated people in the public and I went through a relationship [with TikTok personality Alissa Carrington], then a breakup last year. It was hard at first. It also depends on the person you’re with, and that can make it tough, and that can make you just want to cry all the time, and it did and it does.

It can be tough sometimes and really lovely other times, when I feel held and brought back to reality. And also when I’m just so like, “I’m good. It’s OK.” I feel good about why I’m in this and why someone’s with me. That feels amazing. It’s person-specific, but it’s also hard, and a fucking nightmare sometimes.

I know some people have joked about your lack of media training …

Somebody’s made me do it before. I’m sure I’ve done it. It wasn’t that I don’t listen, I just don’t care. So as long as I’m not harming someone. I think also growing up in the South and getting the whole, “Act like lady and cross your legs” and “Do this and do this and don’t cuss like a drunken sailor and don’t complain too much or boys won’t like you.” It just never fit with me.

A lot of people feel like you’re one of the voices of Gen Z. How does it feel to hear that? 

It’s sweet. It’s cool. Whenever people are like, “You’re so honest. What’s that like?” Or, “We love that you’re so blunt.” I’m like, “Shut the fuck up,” first of all. Second, I actually cannot help but be this way. I’ve been that my whole life. So it’s not that I’m secure in doing this. I am still quite insecure about pretty much everything. I just can’t not. I don’t know why. I guess I’m wired like that.

Reneé Rapp was photographed Feb. 14 at Daylight Studios in Paris.
Reneé Rapp was photographed Feb. 14 at Daylight Studios in Paris.
Reneé Rapp was photographed Feb. 14 at Daylight Studios in Paris.
Reneé Rapp was photographed Feb. 14 at Daylight Studios in Paris.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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