A powerful interview on anxiety, depression, therapy and body image.

November 14, 2019   |   Written by Josh Smith

In our inaugural Hustle Issue, the US actor – who shot to fame in Riverdale and is fresh from her movie star turn in Hustlers– says her greatest hustle of all is with her own mental health. Here, she opens up to Josh Smith about ‘crippling anxiety’ and how therapy allowed her to put the puzzle pieces back together.

“Depression has affected me in so many ways. It’s something that never goes away,” Lili Reinhart confides to me over the phone. She’s in Vancouver, I’m in LA, but the distance doesn’t stop us having one of the most open and honest interviews of my career.

Lili has been in the Canadian city for almost three years, filming Netflix’s Riverdale – the teen drama spin-off of an Archie Comics series in which she plays Betty Cooper, a golden girl with a penchant for solving dark mysteries (naturally).

Many interviews with Lili seek to get the lowdown on her relationship with herRiverdale co-star, Cole Sprouse, who she’s been officially dating since 2018. Indeed, after much talk of a break-up over the summer, Lili notably uploaded a series of photobooth PDA shots with Cole, leading to an internet meltdown and more than seven million Instagram likes. But it’s the conversation around her other, more long-term relationship – with anxiety and depression – that she wants to talk about today.

“I’ve experienced depression and anxiety. Not constantly, but I’m still experiencing it,” she shares. “I have spells of time where I feel completely unmotivated, I don’t want to do anything and I question myself. I don’t know how to handle stress very well. I find that talking about it and sharing my experience with other people, and reminding myself that I’m not alone has been incredibly therapeutic.” At 23 years old, she has found an open and honest voice on social media, sharing everything from body image to her acne with her 20.8 million Instagram followers. It’s an outlet that has no doubt empowered others, but has also helped herself -no wonder Lili was just named as one of Time Magazine‘s 100.

Speaking openly is something Lili believes strongly in, since attending therapy in her teens. “When I first started going to therapy, it was out of my incredible social anxiety. I was having trouble going to school every day. I was crying before school. I would fake being sick so my mom would let me stay home. When you hear the term ‘crippling anxiety’, that’s what I had when I was 14 years old.

“Seeing the therapist allowed me to be understood. The goal for me has been to always leave therapy feeling a couple of inches taller. Feeling like I’ve alleviated myself of a problem by learning how to solve it. Not everything has a straight answer – it’s not just going to take one session – but I start to think, ‘I’ve grown, I’ve done this, I’ve figured this out, now can I go off into the world and try to put what I’ve learned into action.’ That’s how I look at therapy. I am not crazy, and I am not problematic. I am just a human who’s feeling something in a different way than some other people would.”

Having battled with anxiety for nearly a decade and actively seeking help for it, I wonder what Lili’s relationship with anxiety is like now? “Frustrating. It’s something that I’ve accepted, but I don’t understand it,” she sighs.

“Sometimes I wake up and I’m like, ‘OK, I have anxiety today.’ I’m not really sure why, I’m more irritable than usual. It’s like an undercurrent that lives within me, and certain social situations can obviously trigger my anxiety. I work a lot of hours, sometimes I don’t get a lot of sleep, and that makes me anxious. I’ve found a way to talk myself down when I’m getting super anxious.”

The small act of writing a list to help rationalise her big issues has helped. “I will take a pen to paper and write out a list of everything that I’m feeling anxious about, then when I step back and look at my list of things I’m like, ‘That’s really not that much to be worried about and there’s really no need for it to be causing you this much turmoil.’ That’s how I’ve learned to put things into perspective.”

When Lili isn’t hustling to deal with her mental health, she’s negotiating the greasy pole of Hollywood, which is apt given her recent big screen role in strip club drama Hustlers, alongside Jennifer Lopez. Jenny from the Block herself has taught Lili a lot about the power of hustling. “Jennifer Lopez has said about herself, ‘I’m always the hardest worker in the room and I never stop,’” says Lili. “I admire that and that’s what I’ve been doing. At least this past year has been trying to take advantage of where I am in my life. I don’t have kids, I’m young, in my 20s – I can take the time and energy to put into my career.”

Lili is booked and busy. Aside from Riverdale, she has just landed a coveted CoverGirl beauty campaign, finished her first producing role on the Amazon movie Chemical Hearts, and recently put the final touches to her book of poetry, Swimming Lessons, both of which will drop in 2020.

She says poetry has helped her to understand herself. “It’s therapeutic,” she adds. “I would rather feel too much, than feel nothing at all. Poetry gives me that feeling that my feelings are normal, justified. That other people have felt heartache and grief. I know that the things I’ve written are what 99% of human beings have felt, when they read my book.”

All of this is a long way from her hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, where her mum used her dad’s hotel points from his work trips to take the budding actress to auditions. She grew up alongside her two sisters, Chloe and Tess – she is the middle child. After moving to Los Angeles at 18 to pursue acting and finishing her school studies online, a flurry of smaller roles came in the form of Law & Order SVU and the coming of age movie Miss Stevens, in which she starred alongside a pre-fame Timothée Chalamet. Success came knocking in the form of Riverdale in 2017. But her rise to fame can’t be described as ‘overnight’ as at the time of auditioning, Lili was sleeping on a mattress on the floor of her friend’s apartment.

It’s this knowledge of struggle that meant playing strip club worker Annabelle in Hustlers really spoke to her. “I love how Annabelle doesn’t have her sh*t together, because that’s very real. There’s been a large amount of times in my life – like when I first moved to LA, away from my parents’ house and living on my own for the first time, I almost felt like a baby bird jumping out of a nest. You’re just told to fly, without being taught how to fly. You can learn how to balance your cheque book in school, learn how to pay taxes, but no one teaches you how to live on your own, how to take care of yourself, and how to be an adult. It’s very much a trial by fire.”

Meanwhile, alongside her rise to fame, Lili was managing her well documented issue with body dysmorphia – something Lili attributes to acne and to social media, which both contributed to it, but also helped her to manage it by connecting her to a like-minded community of people.

“Even today, I see myself in the mirror and think, this doesn’t look the way the world tells me it should. I don’t have a cinched, minuscule waist. I do have curves, I have cellulite, my arms aren’t stick thin,” she says. “This is my body and we’re told that it should fit certain proportions. There’s such a disgusting problem right now with people photoshopping their bodies. Obviously, there’s a reason why people do it, they’re insecure, they feel like they’re not good enough, and that’s incredibly sad. When I see someone who’s authentically themselves, like models Charli Howard or Ashley Graham, who promote healthy, real body images, I think that is so refreshing and important. Our community values need to reflect that.”

She adds: “Charli’s messaging talks to me on social media. She makes me feel like my body doesn’t need to fit these impossible standards, and she’s a model, my body will never look like that. It just won’t, and 90% of women’s bodies will never look like that, but we are still only used to seeing one body on the runway and in magazines. It’s an incredibly stupid and confusing thing for that to be shoved down young men and women’s throats. Being told: ‘This is what beautiful is.’ And it’s often unachievable to regular people.”

Lili has equally been very vocal about airbrushing – having once taken a magazine to task after they photoshopped her waist. “I would love to see a world where people who are already thin don’t need to photoshop their waist even more, to make young girls, like me, when I was 14 or 16 years old go, ‘I thought I was skinny, but maybe I’m not. Maybe I need to have an eating disorder to make my body look like that.’ Life is not a FaceTune app.” Can we get an amen up in here?

One body insecurity Lili has been conditioned into dealing with and won’t tolerate any longer is “this idea of cellulite”, as she angrily put it. “It really pisses me off. It’s this weird thing where people think that it’s unnatural or a symbol of being fat. It’s so f*cked up because cellulite is just a part of the human body. It’s just genetic, it’s like having freckles on your face. It’s something that is there, you’re born with it, and it’s become this disgusting thing. We’re told: ‘We need to laser this away, no one wants to see that.’ There’s nothing more beautiful than when I see stretch marks, or cellulite, and people’s real skin.”

Taking a new healthy mindset into the gym has also helped Lili overcome her body insecurities. “I’ve started to go to the gym out of the want to feel strong. I’m not going into the gym thinking, ‘I want to be skinny, or I need to lose 10 pounds, or I need to not have cellulite, or my arms need to be thinner.’ There’s so much power in feeling strong and physically healthy. It’s badass to be strong.”

Having overcome so many self-confidence issues while simultaneously rising to fame, I wonder what message she would want to give to that insecure girl who was sleeping on a mattress only three years ago. Without hesitating, Lili replies, “You’ve done good! But also, the struggle that you’re going through right now only makes your success so much more profound. There are people who have been given fame and fortune on a silver platter, but I don’t think there’s anything inspirational about those people.

“I was from a small town in Ohio, from a middle-class family, I knew no one in the acting business. I didn’t have a baton passed down to me from an actor in my family. I did it on my own from sheer passion and knowing that this is what I was good at, and this is what I wanted to do. There truly is a lot of power in struggle and survival, and that’s what makes you a strong person,” she finishes, defiantly.

People don’t come much stronger or more honest than Lili Reinhart. As we hang up the phone so she can fly to LA – the place where, she says, “I want to settle down and have a home” – I only hope she finds a happy ever after with her own mind.