Rachel Bloom Gets Honest About Beauty Standards, Money, and the Male Gaze
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend creator and star Rachel Bloom opens up to deputy director Sam Escobar for Allure.com’s fall digital cover story.
The majority of profiles about famous women begin the same way. First, the writer offers a detailed description of what their subject looks like at the time of the interview: the length of their hem and the precise way their hair is styled, down to the texture of their complexion, the color of their nails. This is followed by a comparable blow-by-blow account of what the subject is drinking — somehow, it’s always chai — and the manner in which they consume it.
Rachel Bloom sits across from me on the cream-colored couch in my boss’s sunlit office, sipping tea (sorry) as she details her favorite scene from an upcoming episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. I can’t remember what she wore, nor does it feel relevant for the simple fact that it was never brought up in the conversation. Had she discussed it in the same enthused tenor she uses as she later describes her favorite costumes from the show’s fourth and final season or the Gucci dress she purchased for the Emmys, perhaps it’d be worth noting. Otherwise, meh.
It is she, in fact, who describes (even compliments) my outfit: a nearly new Zara suit in a color the retailer simply deems “Bluish.” I thank her, but my gratitude hastily turns to embarrassment upon realizing I’ve already started picking at my cuticles — a compulsive behavior that, ironically, doubles as a coping mechanism for anxiety.
“You have the turtleneck and the Planned Parenthood pin — it’s all great,” she continues, breaking me out of a miniature shame spiral.
The same week I meet Bloom, I interview several other people for a separate project, often on sensitive subjects. To each, I offer the same preemptive provision: “If you don’t want to answer a question, that’s OK. You don’t have to.”
It is common, after all, to encounter insensitive, invasive, or flat-out offensive questions when you are known not only for your professional endeavors but also for an attribute that isn’t skill- or accomplishment-based — mental illness, gender identity, disability, publically known traumatic experiences. And when you’re an aspiring creative sitting across from a writer, it can feel like you don’t have a choice outside that one topic of conversation: your private life. Too personal? Too bad.
But it is quickly clear from Bloom’s response that she already felt empowered to decline any unwanted inquiries: “I’ll just take care of myself as we’re talking,” she assures me.
For a moment, my mind goes blank; a lifelong people-pleaser, I’m immediately inspired (and maybe a little jealous) that she already feels empowered to decline anything unwanted. “Fuck,” I think to myself, “I literally never do that. Why don’t I ever do that?”
Anecdotally, it is rare to encounter unambiguous self-assuredness in the creative world, and even more so for female creatives. This is not to posit the idea that women are inherently unconfident, nor would I ever blame anyone who feels uncomfortable sticking up for herself. In actuality, this scarcity can be blamed on a combination of contradictory pressures: exude confidence yet stay modest, be emotive but never act emotional, be assertive while prioritizing your own likeability. (“Likeability,” by the way, is a term almost exclusively reserved for women who challenge men’s ideas of how they should or should not look and behave.)
No longer compelled to cross out any of my questions, I put down my pen, secure in the knowledge she’d stop me if she needed to.
Like many multi-hyphenate creatives, Bloom’s vocation demands long hours. We are meeting at the peak of her harvest season.
“You’re catching me at the craziest moment of the [season] when I start to really kind of crumble,” she says, a little apologetic. “There’s always a point mid-season that I have more work, where it what feels like an unsustainable amount of work, usually around episode six or seven. That literally just happened, and now I’ve kind of gone over that hump.”I like thinking about a lot of things at once, but at a certain point, it gets to be too much. And that’s when I kind of crumble.
I ask whether she thrives on being extremely busy, already knowing the answer. She nods. “I talked to my therapist about this — I think I have slight touches of ADHD,” Bloom says, adding that these symptoms can be effective for multitasking but, at a certain point, become similar to an overheating computer. “I like thinking about a lot of things at once, but at a certain point, that actually gets to be too much and I overheat myself. And that’s when I kind of crumble.”
A native Los Angeleno, Bloom came up on the Upright Citizens Brigade scene, making a name for herself not only on the stage but also online, producing her own comedic music videos long before “YouTuber” could be considered a viable (let alone lucrative) career. And they went viral, as catchy Internet videos are wont to do, but views weren’t the only recognition she received: “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury” a 2010 masterpiece written and performed by Bloom, garnered a Huge Award nomination the following year.
The 2015 premiere of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend on The CW gave audiences one of television’s most endangered species: something new. Since its inception, Bloom has accumulated an enthusiastic fan base, with many admiring her candor on topics long considered too taboo for public consumption, particularly when vocalized by women. Others connect with her character, Rebecca, and praise the show for providing comedic storylines involving serious subject matter that doesn’t trivialize, ostracize, or glamourize it.
To some, the idea of a musical comedy-drama series covering mental illness seems to set up for disaster, if not an offensive mess, yet Bloom and company have repeatedly proven that they can be trusted. Another perfect example of this is one of season three’s most lauded moments: a scene from “I Never Want to See Josh Again” in which viewers witness Rebecca attempt suicide. It is a harrowing plotline for which the writers consulted doctors — a move that paid off, as the episode was praised by viewers and TV critics alike.
I first encountered the show in 2016 — a year that dragged on and on for millions, myself included, particularly toward its acidic end. There was a need for entertainment beyond the news, but pure dramas felt too bleak, while simpler comedies just felt distracting, but not cathartic. Enter: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Not only were the performances and writing incredible, but it was also such a beautifully written depiction of mental illness. A character with depression and OCD who wasn’t written as a cheap punchline or a catalyst for the lead’s big metamorphosis? Imagine that.
“I think the interesting part for me is being in therapy and also doing this show, learning different shades of everything,” Bloom tells me.
Personal experiences certainly contribute to Bloom’s ability to effectively tell stories about difficult themes, but she notes that the storytelling itself has also allowed her to approach them in new ways. “In diagnosing a character, you really start to learn that these diagnoses aren’t labels,” Bloom explains. “They’re tools to help you try [to] feel better, to find what is gonna make you happy. And it’s an ever-changing field, an ever-changing science.“
And just like science, characters are constantly evolving, too — something Bloom has given Rebecca room to do. “[Season four] is about renewal and getting more grounded, inner exploration, [and] remembering this person still tried to commit suicide like a year ago in the timeline of the show,” Bloom explains, recalling the aforementioned (and acclaimed) scene in “I Never Want to See Josh Again.”
“It’s weird…talking about things in the show, like self-care and pursuing your own happiness and taking time for yourself, but I literally don’t have the time to do that because we’re a network show,” Bloom admits. “Being involved with the writing, the shooting, and the editing, and writing songs and [performing] songs, [all] simultaneously.”
Still, Bloom loves to work. Or, perhaps more accurately, she loves her work, as well as those alongside her for it. Rather than sinking into bitter exhaustion under the unquestionable toll it takes on someone to be the creator, producer, and star of a network sitcom, she regularly recounts moments of joy she’s experienced during the show’s production. (“I mean, look at us — we’re having so much fun,” she giddily exclaims, showing me a video of an upcoming musical number.) Every so often, she interrupts herself to remark at how wonderful the cast and crew are, each time with a level of sincerity that is impossible to fake.
Bloom’s mastery of these crafts is what led us to not only ask her to be our cover star, but to additionally request her to write and perform our first-ever music video cover. It was a unique task that she executed with flying colors, and one that Allure’s digital editorial director details further in her editor’s letter.
While her character is a successful attorney — typically viewed as one of the more demanding, high-pressure vocations to choose from — Bloom has found her ideal stride straddling multiple intensive posts in the entertainment field. A living example of what happens when a strong blend of talent, creativity, and ambition is met with educational and familial support, the UCB-trained comedian has a refreshingly blunt view of her own success.
“I think that there’s this narrative [that] I was a ‘self-starter,’ and yes, I made my own Internet videos and I worked incredibly hard and persevered, but let’s zoom out for a second,” she says. “I was raised in LA, [the only child of] two parents who encouraged me to pursue the arts, and encouraged me that women could do anything.”
Bloom sighs before concluding: “I’m not saying my family’s perfect, but I’m just saying on that bare minimum, there is that.”
Indeed, an oft-overlooked factor in the success of any career, and perhaps most of all within the arts, is the proximity to opportunities. This is not to say that Bloom’s achievements should be attributed to her education at a Manhattan Beach public school with a prestigious arts and music program, nor that she was able to graduate college for musical theater and experimental theater (“with no student loans”), but the rarity of a revered figure acknowledging their privilege is telling. It speaks to the misconception that to recognize any advantages received from society — whether through racism, ableism, classism, or any other bias — is to effectively revoke one’s right to assume credit over any accomplishments, past or future.
Being secretive about money is how inequalities perpetuate, and how women don’t learn to ask for what they deserve.
Bloom, on the other hand, is forthright about the leg-ups she’s received. In fact, she thinks everyone should be more honest about finances, recalling a recent experience of feeling the internalized pressure to stay mum: “I did an interview with [Wealthsimple in 2017] where I just kind of said how much I made and then later regretted saying that, because I was like, ‘Oh, that feels gross.’ But looking back on it, we should just be open about money.”
She ponders this for a moment before adding, “I think being secretive about money is how inequalities perpetuate, and how women don’t learn to ask for what they want or what they deserve.”
For women in Hollywood, this taboo goes beyond discussing salaries, extending into seemingly banal scenarios that likely seem bizarre to the vast majority of us — Bloom included.
A lesser-known oddity of the red carpet: very few celebrities actually own the gowns they wear. Typically, a fashion house will loan the celebrity (or their stylist) clothing, which often translates to the latter receiving samples sizes. It’s an system that typically benefits those who fall at the intersection of two already-revered groups: the tall and thin, as the dresses are typically created for straight-size runway models, and the very wealthy.
Ahead of the 2017 Emmy Awards, Bloom and stylist Annabelle Harron looked through several dresses — some that are on loan, others that would have to be purchased — before deciding on a gorgeous Gucci number. The gown belonged to the latter group, meaning Bloom would need to buy it.
“[Annabelle] picks up this Gucci dress and she’s like, ‘I think this is worth buying, [and] I’ll help you resell it on the Real Real afterward,’” Bloom recalls. So, what did Bloom do? She bought it.
Fast forward to September 17, 2017: Bloom wears her brand-new gown (see it here) on the Emmys red carpet where she is approached by E! News host Giuliana Rancic, who asked Bloom whether she would be keeping the dress.
“I went, ‘Well, I should…I bought it,” she says, laughing, her voice tinged with a lingering incredulity. “[Rancic] was like, ‘You bought it?’ and I went, ‘Yeah, Gucci’s not loaning me a dress.’”
Just like that, the short interview went viral, quickly progressing into a David-and-Goliath narrative wherein Bloom emerged victorious against the Big Bad Fashion Industry. “I just said Gucci’s not loaning me a dress but [people] were like, ‘Rachel Bloom says she was refused at every other fashion house…’” She trails off, exasperated at the memory. This, she says, is evidence of the “dangers of the Internet”: one person interprets a scenario, which is immediately dispersed through social media and quickly picked up by news outlets.
People who are earning the most money are supposed to not pay for their dresses — and that’s capitalism.
“It’s important that with awareness, we not swing so wildly to the other side,” she contends. “And [on] the Internet, everything’s so black and white — there are exaggerations even on the good-guy side.” To Bloom, the part she took pride in was admitting she bought a dress in the first place: “Because unbeknownst to me at the time, which I know more now, you don’t admit to buying dresses — because it means no one would loan a dress, right?”
It is a strange paradox that only the wealthiest consumers can afford to buy many designers’ clothes, but to actually do so is stigmatized. Bloom finds this contradiction more than a little frustrating. “People who are earning the most money are supposed to not pay for their dresses — and that’s capitalism,” she remarks. “People are rewarded for being already rewarded.”
Aside from Hollywood’s classist eccentricities, Bloom’s Emmy dress fiasco is indicative of a more pervasive issue — one with implications far beyond the red carpet. “When you have curves or a different body type, suddenly the canvas gets bumpy, and so you have to adapt,” says Bloom, shrugging. “For me, that would sound fascinating if I were designing clothes.”
It’s no secret that Hollywood and the fashion industry tend to stick to a specific script for who they deem “beautiful,” and thereby deserving of opportunities, praise, and affection. To Bloom, the problem goes beyond simply who we deem beautiful versus not beautiful; it starts with how we view perceived beauty as a measure of value.
“We don’t measure men by that. We measure women by that, and that’s the male gaze,” she asserts.
Like many of us, Bloom has a complicated relationship with the concept of beauty and, in turn, beauty practices and products. “It’s something that I’m still grappling with,” she reveals. “I was raised by parents who didn’t care about how they looked — and I think that specifically something that my parents said was, ‘Oh, if you care about how you look too much, you’re phony.’”
We measure women by [beauty], and that’s the male gaze.
I tell her what beauty means to me: it’s a skill, an interest, a hobby, a career. As long as you’re the one in charge of your choices, you should wear whatever you want to — a sentiment reflected in the musical companion that she wrote for this cover.
“And that stuff makes me feel good,” she continues. “I like wearing pretty clothes and I like putting on makeup for me — is there a part in there that’s the male gaze? Fucking probably.”
She looks down, picking her own thumb. For one brief, giddy moment, I wonder if we share similar compulsions. I snap out of it, though; we’re 15 minutes over our scheduled time, and Rachel has to jump into hair and makeup.
I head back to my desk, feeling an emotional high from having such a raw and impassioned conversation. Before the small mountain of work still left on my plate for the day gets too overwhelming, the moment in our conversation where Bloom promised to just take care of herself bubbles back up in my mind, and I make a pact with myself to do the same.
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