Reneé Rapp

Reneé Rapp Is Hitting All the Right Notes

The Sex Lives of College Girls star is ready to take over your playlists.

Reneé Rapp never expected starring in a hit HBO Max series to feel like an “extra little bonus” in her career, but as we sit down to chat just weeks ahead of the second season’s premiere — where our conversation drifts away from The Sex Lives of Colleges Girls and towards the upcoming release of her debut EP, Everything to Everyone (out now) more often than not — the 22-year-old can’t help but admit that’s precisely her reality: Her heart is in her music.

That’s not to say that the Gen Z actress isn’t incredibly grateful for the opportunity to reprise her role as Leighton Murray, a preppy, closeted lesbian whose seldom without a witty one-liner (or a matching tweed set), in Mindy Kaling’s The Sex Lives of College Girls (returning to the streamer Nov. 17), because she is very, very grateful. But after nearly two years since she filmed the show’s premiere season back in 2020, Rapp is finally in the position to pursue her true life-long dream of making music alongside her budding acting career — a balancing act she credits as “the coolest fucking thing” she’s ever done.

“To be honest, I spent so much of season one just worrying that I was going to get fired every day, because I didn't think that I was cut out for the job,” Rapp admits. “But I think I was really dropped in this season in the sense that I wasn't really worried about how I was doing, I was just doing it.” 

The biggest difference between this season and last? “I’m doing music now. That's what I love,” she explains. “I felt less pressure mentally, because I’m literally doing the thing now that I have always wanted to do in my life. And while I feel very lucky to also be able to get to show up to a TV set every day, I found a huge part of myself that I’d been chasing since I can remember.”

While this transition from actor to actor-singer may seem like serendipity in its purest form, it’s important to note that Rapp’s ascent to true multi-hyphenate status (that’s right — she can dance, too) didn’t happen overnight. After winning a national high school theater competition in 2018 that would lead her to the role of Regina George (you know, the Rachel McAdams character) in Tina Fey’s Mean Girls on Broadway, the newcomer capitalized on a growing social media presence to work her way up from at-home songwriting sessions to recording studio slots with Andrew "Pop" Wansel, the producer of one of her favorite Ariana Grande songs, “Fake Smile,” one viral TikTok at a time.

“I got signed off of a TikTok, and I was very afraid, because this is something that I've been scheming for and plotting for years,” she shares. “That's the reason I started acting, so that I could try and build myself a platform to get people to pay attention to me so I could get signed.”

Reneé Rapp

Erica Hernandez

And people are paying attention. Whether binging, streaming, or scrolling, it won’t take long for the unacquainted to stumble upon at least one of Rapp’s projects or posts in the coming months — and odds are, it takes even less time for them to fall in love with her pure authenticity when they do. 

As for what Reneé thinks about her whirlwind year and growing audience? She’s just happy to have friends along for the ride as she continues honing her passions publicly. “I feel like people who have been following me, or are now, or choose to not, are growing up with me in a sense,” Rapp says. “I have a lot of growing to do, but it feels good. I try to just do what it is that I do, and if anybody likes it, then fuck yeah. If they hate it, that’s fine.”

InStyle spoke to Rapp about what she really thinks about Leighton’s wardrobe, her favorite single (so far), and the pop culture moment that altered her brain chemistry.

Because your career really took off when you were finishing up high school, what's it been like to get a glimpse of the traditional college experience through Sex Lives of College Girls?

I think it’s made me realize college is not for everybody. I’m not cut out for college, because I’m literally not strong enough. There is no way that I could have gone and had enough discipline to go to classes after going out the night before. There's just no way. I could barely get up to my alarm this week. So, it's really just made me a bit grateful that I didn't go just because I also am a very socially anxious person. As much as I have a very social and open-to-perception job, I feel like college would've scared the shit out of me.

While Leighton spent most of the first season hiding her sexuality, we get to see her come into her own a bit more in season 2. Were there any aspects of her coming out journey that related to your own?

I've been out for a long time now, but having this show be so public I feel like I've come out all over again — and not in a bad way. I was very afraid, too, to be quite honest. But I love it in the way that I think Leighton, for the first time, is sort of claiming who she is to herself. Everything is an internal struggle with her, but you really see her start to like herself and like that part of her. I think this is probably the first year of my life that I’ve felt that way about myself even, and I’ve been out for so long. It’s been eight years, but I genuinely think this is the first time that I'm even starting to be like, "Wait. I love this about myself."

I also think that has to do with the fact I'm on a public show that accepts that part of me with open arms. And it wasn't that I didn't have a lot of that directly, but I didn't have a lot of that directly. A lot of people don't. So, I also know that it’s a huge fucking blessing to be able to have this experience and to be so accepted on such a public level because not everyone has afforded that opportunity.

As someone with a large social media presence, how do you think this public acceptance of yourself has strengthened your relationship with your followers?

I feel like the reason that I started doing music and now acting is literally just because I wanted to make friends — I feel like I'm fans of my fans. We all just have this connective tissue in a way. Whether they're queer or not, there's something that we all just see each other on. 

And I think, for me, I try to be very open about the fact that I’m imperfect, but not in the sense that people are like, "Social media is all perfect and frou-frou. Don't believe everything." No. The things I fucking preach are things I also need to be preaching to myself. I can be so publicly queer and so publicly not give a fuck. But those are also things I need to be doing in practice. 

Out of the four SLCG roommates, who do you think you'd be closest to in real life?

One of my favorite parts of this season is Alyah [Chanelle Scott], who plays Whitney. She's my best friend in real life — we are Thing One and Thing Two — and this season, not only did we play into that, but also our writers played into that. There are a lot more little moments that the two of us share, which is really, really, really special to me as a human being, but also as a person on the show.

I do think that there's so much about Whitney that isn't even really her character. It's just how Alyah carries herself in the role. She just walks with a very specific self-awareness and confidence even when she's insecure, and I think that's something that Leighton probably loves. At least something that I have chosen that Leighton loves, because I think it's also something that Reneé loves about Alyah. That's my bitch. That's my best friend.

On the show, Leighton has a very distinct, preppy sense of style. How closely would you say her aesthetic relates to yours?

There could be not more stark of a fucking difference between Leighton and myself. There is no single piece of clothing or anything that I would want from Leighton's closet. That bitch is not dressing the way I want to dress. Literally, burn it. 

No, but I think this has been an internal conversation with me for a while because clothes are something that are personal to everybody, but for me specifically, they're very, very, very important. I’ve struggled with eating disorders my whole life and I feel very comfortable talking about it, and clothes have always either been a protective mechanism or something that makes me feel like myself because obviously they're a way of expression and the way that you’re physically perceived head-to-toe.

But oh my god, sometimes when I would put on Leighton's shit, I would be like, ‘Oh, Jesus Christ.’ I have to remember that I'm playing a character. It would give me the most crisis sort of feeling in the whole wide world. It's a jump scare.

Between singing and acting, is there one you prefer over the other?

Music is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do. My two biggest insecurities growing up were, I thought I was a horrible songwriter and I thought I was a terrible actor. So, I don't think I ever thought about acting as being a feasible thing for me, really, so it wasn't really in my view. I thought, ‘OK, I'm going to have a music career and then hopefully it'll blow up and then one day I might do a movie.’

But music has always been the only thing that I love like that, so I don't even know if it's a preference. It's just more so what I am supposed to be doing and I'm very fortunate to also be able to act in that regard.

Which of your singles has been your favorite to release?

“In the Kitchen.” And it was also the one that I was most nervous for … my first song, “Tattoos,” had pre-saves already and had numbers and had done things that felt at least metaphorically tangible for myself and people in music, but I was really nervous for “In The Kitchen,” because it was my second single, and it didn’t have the same gusto around it online that “Tattoos” did, and I was genuinely fucking terrified of that. 

But luckily, “In The Kitchen” is my most streamed song now. It's also the song that's so special and important to me because it's one of — I've said this so many times before, but I really still mean it just the same — that's the song that baby Reneé wished she could have written. It just has every facet of music that I love in it. It's really bittersweet lyrics that don't really lean too much into lending away power or power to the relationship, but it's just this very sweet, "OK, got it. Fuck you."

Between SLCG, Mean Girls on Broadway, and your music career, where do people most often recognize you from?

I do feel like I get recognized from Mean Girls a lot, because I feel like those fans are die-hards. But I will say, whenever people recognize me for my music, that's the greatest compliment anyone can literally ever give me. I will never forget the first time that that happened to me. Somebody was like, ‘Oh my god, I love your songs,’ and it was when “Tattoos” and “In the Kitchen” were out, and I almost cried.

I didn't say anything to this person, but I was like, ‘Holy shit.’ You have no idea what you just did for me emotionally, mentally, career-wise, because that's like my everything. So, to now have that be a part of my life publicly is so important. And I hope that it becomes my entire life publicly.

Reneé Rapp

Erica Hernandez

Small Talk

Who was your first celebrity crush?

Beyoncé. This is also how I figured out that I was a little bit gay, because I said to my mom one day — this is how I came out to my mom, by the way — I was like, "Do you ever just look at Beyoncé's ass?" And she was like, "What?" I was like, “Well, don’t you do that, too?” And she was like, “No.”

So, immediately I'm thinking two things. A. You're a fucking liar. B. OK, I think I do like women. 

Are you into astrology?

I'm so knee-deep into astrology, it's disgusting. I'm a Capricorn and I'm a Pisces moon and I'm a Gemini rising, so I know no peace.

What was your last binge-watch?

House of the Dragon.

What is your biggest guilty pleasure?

It's not a guilty pleasure, but it sort of is, because I'm obsessed. I go to Pilates every single day.

You can only have one: TikTok, Twitter, or Instagram?

I'm definitely going Twitter, because I love Twitter.

Is there a pop culture moment that first sparked your interest in Hollywood?

Yeah, I mean the Lady Gaga “Paparazzi” Grammys performance altered my life and still does to this day. And it's also recently made a resurgence on the internet, and so I'm like, “OK, the gays are standing.”

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