The 'This Is Us' star is on a mission to change Hollywood's definition of beauty.
"I used to be Kate," admits Chrissy Metz, referring to her wounded but determined character on the break-out NBC family drama, This Is Us. There's a hint of relief in her voice when she adds, "but now, I'm so far removed from that." Sitting in a makeup chair at her BAZAAR.com photo shoot, Metz is early-morning vamping for her pin-up-inspired portraits. Every time the hairstylist brings over a hairpiece-a set of Betty Page bangs, a swirl of jet-black pin curls-Metz's cat-green eyes fire up; the middle child who loved to entertain her hard-working mom comes out to play. She giggles, pouting her lips duck-style for full goofball glamour. "God, I would've died for these bangs in high school," she says of a razor-straight fringe pinned to her natural hair. "The Florida humidity just ruined me."
Five years ago, the now 36-year-old actress was divorcing her screenwriter husband (though they've remained friends), working at a Hollywood talent agency while desperately pining to be an actor. Scheduling auditions for the talent "was like watching your boyfriend take out another woman every single day," Metz says. She'd ask herself why she wasn't auditioning despite leaving her hometown, Gainesville, Florida, to pursue her dreams. The truth was, she feared every potential outcome-failure or success. In the meantime, the office was besieged by cupcakes (bribes from actors), leaving her susceptible to bouts of stress-induced eating.
Pinup Girl Clothing dress and heels, pinupgirlclothing.com; vintage earrings
It isn't lost on her-the significance of a plus-size woman (a label Metz uses to describe herself) being asked to pose for a high fashion magazine. The industry has a troubled history of celebrating slim actresses and sample size models, while editing photos to downplay natural curves. "When I first heard Harper's Bazaar wanted me to be sexy," she recalls, "I was like, 'Who, me?' I knew y'all were edgy but this is incredible-it's validation." She admits she was nervous to pose as a pin-up at first, but says, "I can get into this now because I finally have the confidence." It's a certitude Metz cultivated through a keen sense of humor, after years of enduring high school bullies and an especially crippling panic attack on her 30th birthday. Her self-worth doesn't hinge on her body, or how it's viewed by society: "Like, if I ever end up on the worst-dressed list, it's not going to make me fall apart. I want to look great and feel good and be comfortable, but at the same time, none of this really matters. This is the fun stuff."
Metz credits her stylist, Jordan Grossman-who has dressed the likes of Halsey, Taryn Manning and Sofia Richie for the red carpet-for giving her the moxie to be a sex symbol. "She knows what works on me," says Metz, as Grossman buzzes in the background with corsets and satin. "She's given me permission to try different things"-like the bold floral dress Metz wore for the Critics' Choice Awards. Though she admits it's "still slim pickings for plus-size women, especially for formal wear," it helps that certain labels have rushed to dress her, even giving her access to pre-released collections. Eloquii, Michael Costello, and Lane Bryant have all encouraged her to experiment past the unspoken "only black" rule she says is always trotted out for curvy women. "I want to wear something because I love it, not because it follows the rules."
Fashion shoots may be play time, but Metz takes her role as Kate seriously-both on the show and in the public eye. Kate's struggles-which include depression, checking herself into a "fat farm" and considering gastric bypass surgery-don't exist only for the sake of tear-jerking television. To Metz, playing Kate is a mission: "I'm on this journey to inspire people, and to encourage them. We are all deserving of true happiness, so it's much more than just acting. It's like, forget you're on this amazing television show, you're changing lives and opening discussion."
Sometimes these discussions are taking place right when Metz, who describes herself as a makeup junkie, is touching up her lipstick in a public restroom. Not that she minds. "I can't go anywhere without people talking to me or recognizing me from the show. This woman told me she never understood her daughter and her weight issues 'til she saw the show. She got teary-eyed, I started getting teary-eyed… it was beautiful."
Her life has changed so radically in the last year, in career and romance, that Metz sometimes sounds a little shell-shocked, like when she recounts her "exciting but insane" schedule of interviews, phone meetings, photo shoots and fittings. Though she played bit parts in My Name Is Earl, and most notably American Horror Story: Freak Show, where she donned a prosthetic suit because she wasn't big enough to play the sideshow fat lady, Ima Wiggles, This Is Us was the first pilot she ever shot. Most actors have to weather fizzle after fizzle before seeing their show get picked up for a season, much less take off and get renewed for another two seasons. But not Metz. By the time This is Us was gaining accolades for its emotional depth, she was seizing the day-in more ways than one.
"I hit on him first," Metz dishes a few days after the photo shoot, over iced teas at her favorite spot in the Valley, where the chef greets her warmly. She's talking about Josh Stancil, her boyfriend who happens to be a camera grip on This Is Us. "I knew he'd never do it first so I stepped right up," she says with a delirious laugh. Five months later, they're taking road trips to Santa Barbara (Big Sur is next) and holding hands at all of Metz's high-profile events. Fearing he would distract Metz from her first big role, Stancil offered to leave the show, until creator Dan Fogelman gave his blessing. "He said to me, 'Chrissy, as long as he makes you happy, that's what I care about.' [Dan] really is a baby angel from heaven."
Metz-a voracious reader who loves Eckhart Tolle and Michael Singer's The Untethered Soul-has no plans of slowing down after the This is Us series finale. Imagining herself five years from now, she gushes about her myriad plans. On the bucket list: A production company, making an autobiographical movie, and recording an EP. Like Kate, Metz is a singer, but unlike Kate, she has embraced it full-throttle, ever since she joined chamber choir in high school. Citing her love for hip-hop and singer-songwriters, Metz's EP, she says giddily, would sound like "if Adele and Missy Elliott had a baby."
For now, Metz has a simple goal for playing Kate: To be present, and to tell her story as it exists, setbacks and all. Fans of the show would agree that Metz, who was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance, is already hitting that mark, with her naturalistic and vulnerable portrayal of a warm-hearted but wounded woman who's trying to find her place, not only in her own family, but in the world at large. She nails Kate's struggle to believe in-and fight for-happiness on her own terms.
There has been talk that Metz might lose weight alongside Kate, but at the moment, there are no firm plans, no number to hit on a scale. "If you can't love who you are now, you can't get to the place you want to be," Metz says, adding that she took this role for a reason. "It's a daily lesson for all of us. I'm paving the way for other women and men who know they're destined for greatness but they don't believe it yet." Metz's thriving existence in an industry that has long championed slimness as the universal beauty ideal is a call to everyone who struggles with body image, or any sense of otherness, to step out of the shadows: "There's more room for all of us now-no matter our sexuality, race, body size, gender or whatever else."
Vintage faux fur robe
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