It's just after 9 a.m. on a gray and rainy Saturday the kind of morning that has even the most energetic Los Angelenos hitting the snooze button and crawling back under their comforters. Lea Michele, however, is hard at work.
Strapped into a safety harness, the 5'3" actress—who's dressed in black knee-length workout pants and a matching zip-up top, her long, dark hair pulled back into a tight ponytail—is attempting to scale a 24-foot climbing wall at Rockreation, an indoor wonderland of sculpted vertical terrain. It's a tough ascent, but Lea summits with ease, pulling herself up peg by peg and giving those biceps and hamstrings a wicked workout. "That was fun," she says enthusiastically, touching down onto solid ground. "Now let's try a harder one!"
Clearly, Lea likes the view from the top. And as one of the stars of Fox's hit show Glee—a musical dramedy about a high school singing club made up of loveable, music-obsessed misfits—the 23-year-old who grew up in Manhattan and Tenafly, New Jersey, has gotten used to breathing in rarified air. Put it this way: If Hollywood were high school, the crazy talented cast would be holding court at the cool lunch table, with Lea, who plays Rachel Berry—the self-appointed leader of the pack—sitting front and center.
The show is a critics' darling (it picked up hardware at this year's People's Choice Awards, Screen Actors Guild Awards, and Golden Globe Awards) and has developed a cult following (fans are affectionately known as Gleeks). This past April, the cast performed at the White House Easter Egg Roll, and even appeared on Oprah's show. And then there was this A-list encounter: "I went out to dinner with my boyfriend, and Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem were leaving the restaurant as we were going in," recalls Lea. "[Penelope] was like, 'Eez eet you? Are you dee girl I've been zeeing at all of deez [award] tings?'"
Don't Stop Believing
Indeed, the past few months have been a whirlwind—and they've left Lea feeling a little fried. "I need some me-time," she admits. "I have to remember to rest, because I have a natural energy and I don't want to burn out."
Not much chance of that. Fact is, like her Glee character, Lea has always been a nonstop go-getter. She broke into acting when, as a precocious 8-year-old, she asked her parents if she could go with a friend to audition for Les Miserables on Broadway. Though her mother told her that she didn't know how to sing, Lea went anyway...and wound up with the plum part of Young Cosette. What followed were Broadway stints in Fiddler on the Roof and Ragtime, but her big break came when she was cast to play the tragic and sexually naive Wendla in the 2007 Tony-winning musical Spring Awakening. The gutsy role, in which Lea starred opposite her best friend and "soul mate," Jonathan Groff (who plays her new love interest on Glee), featured a sexually charged scene.
One theatergoer who saw her provocative performance was Glee's co-creator and executive producer, Ryan Murphy, who summoned her to test for the part. On her way to the audition, Lea was in a car accident (in a rental!) while driving onto the Hollywood studio lot. With only minutes to spare, Lea begged the Fox security guards to look after the mangled vehicle while she hoofed it to the soundstage.
After crashing a car, most people would be too rattled to perform, but Lea nailed the audition, nabbed the part, and moved west. Though Lea admits, "Los Angeles has been good to me," Lea is quick to add that "New York is who I am," and it's where she lives when she's not filming. "It took me a long time to put together my group of friends in New York. Also, every member of my family lives within 30 minutes [of each other] there." Another reason her heart belongs to the East Coast: It's where her boyfriend, whose name Lea chooses to keep quiet, lives.
Go behind the scenes on our June cover shoot:
Lean on Me
Fortunately, Lea and her castmates have formed a strong bond. "Glee is a family, and Lea is the mom figure," says Matthew Morrison, an old theater friend of Lea's, who now plays the show's glee-clubbercum-teacher Will Schuester. "She is the fearless leader." But even fearless leaders can have their vulnerable moments. "We did this event in Australia and were accosted by fans," recalls Morrison. "Lea got overwhelmed and broke down crying. It was too much for her and she had to leave. It was overwhelming for all of us, but she's the one young people identify with, so everyone wanted a piece of her."
A big part of Lea's appeal—besides her amazing voice—is her accessible beauty. Part Italian, part Jewish, she's a refreshing change from the waifish blondes who often populate screens both big and small. Although Lea proudly proclaims she's "the only girl in her high school class not to get a nose job," she isn't immune to look-perfect pressure. "I love myself, the way I look, my body," she says, "but sometimes I can't help but feel insecure here. It plays with your head."
Let's Get Physical
Still, Lea is more interested in being healthy than striving to be a specific dress size. She stays in shape by tackling the trails in picturesque Runyon Canyon—a 15-minute drive from her apartment—and working out with L.A. health counselor Devon Butler. Something else that keeps her fit: starring in such a physically demanding show, which often involves elaborate dance routines, not to mention 14- to 16-hour workdays. And she recently became hooked on organic and vegetarian fare—more for what it does for her well-being than her waistline. (Check out her eating and exercise tips in the sidebar below.)
After her morning climbing session, for example, she hits the Belgian chain cafe Le Pain Quotidien for a tofu scramble and orange juice, and begins talking passionately about her commitment to a primarily vegan diet. "My idea of heaven used to be relaxing at home with a cheese plate and champagne," she says. Then she read The New York Times best-selling diet book Skinny Bitch "and it slapped me in the face." An animal lover who has "always had a problem eating meat," Lea was especially shaken by the information on farming practices and decided to give up dairy too. "Coming from an Italian family, you can imagine [they] couldn't understand. But they respected my decision," she says. She still eats fish, but laments, "I feel bad about it because fish are animals too."
When brunch is over, she slips into her sleek black BMW, complete with a GO CHEERIOS! bumper sticker (a nod to the mean-girls cheering squad on Glee), and starts navigating her way through the streets of West Hollywood. She talks about the Glee national tour, which features the show's cast members performing songs from the show, and filming season two's new episodes. It's a lot to juggle, and the reality of that is sinking in.
"I got home last night and was like, Oh my God, how will I be able to function?" Lea says. "But I woke up this morning and was fine."
Not surprising, really. When Lea hits a wall, she just figures out a way to climb it.
These Simple Pleasures Make Lea, Well Gleeful
The Kind Diet (Rodale Books)
"It's [a book by Alicia Silverstone] about being good to your body and the planet. I'm a foodie, but I think it's much more fun to find things on the menu that are good for me."
"'Dear Mr. President' is an amazing song. I don't think we've seen everything she is [yet]." Some of Lea's other faves include Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion, and Alanis Morissette.
In fact, when L ea arrived in L.A., her goal was to land a guest spot on the show.
Sunday Dinners with Her Family
"All of us: Grandma, Grandpa, aunts, uncles. I have 19 cousins just on one side!" says Lea, who flies home "every chance I get."
Green Day's Broadway Musical American Idiot
"I was watching clips on YouTube," says Lea, who partied with the band after the Grammys. "It will knock people's socks off!"
Luxury Beauty Products
Lollia bath products ("I relax by taking baths"); Bliss scrubs and body washes; MoroccanOil shampoo and conditioner, which aren't tested on animals ("They make my hair look great!"); and AmorePacific's eye and face creams.
6 Changes that did her body good
Lea began working with health counselor Devon Butler because she wanted more energy. She got that and a hotter bod. Here, her best tips:
1/ Just say ohm. "We do a lot of yoga during red-carpet season," says Butler. "Lea has so much attention on her, and this is so calming." Lea especially likes Bikram, poses and breathing exercises done in a heated studio for deeper stretching and stress relief.
2/ Vary the pace. Lea and Butler incorporate short bursts of cardio into her workouts. "Just think of it like a roller coaster: It takes more energy to go up, up, up and then drop for a bit than to stay at the same level," says Butler. "It burns more sugars, which ends up leaning you out." For example, Lea will walk at a speed of four miles per hour at a 10 incline for three or four minutes.
3/ Toss it around. If Lea doesn't have enough time to do a full-on workout, she will exercise with a medicine ball. "She holds a six-pound ball to her chest, squats down, and as she stands up, she throws the ball to me. I'm standing 15 feet away, so it's a long throw," says Butler. "She'll do three sets of 20. It really gets her heart rate up."
4/ Eating healthy doesn't have to be heinous. For breakfast, for example, Lea has steel-cut oatmeal made with soy milk, or a tofu scramble. "I'll add in salsa and a piece of avocado," she says.
5/ Cut back on java. A former coffee addict, Lea admits, "I detoxed and it was difficult." Now she allows herself a cup in the a.m. If she needs a lift later, she drinks yerba mate, an herbal beverage made from the leaves of a South American tree.
6/ Munch smart. "I snack on fruit, carrots, celery, and hummus," says Lea. "I don't really like nuts, so I get my protein from tofu and black beans."