Reneé Rapp: “My music is about the shitty things that have happened to me”

You know her from TV, but 'The Sex Lives Of College Girls' star has a new "stripped-back pop" project that'll get you off the couch and dancing

Most performers who juggle acting with a music career are keen to make clear they love both equally. But not Reneé Rapp, the 23-year-old star of hit teen dramedy The Sex Lives of College Girls. “Acting is just a hobby,” she tells NME when we meet at her publicist’s fancy office in north London, the day before she plays a sold-out headline gig.

Wait… really? “It’s an amazing hobby, a cool fucking hobby,” she says. “And I have such a specific place for it in my life. But I started acting so that I could do music.” When the right role comes along, like playing iconic queen bee Regina George in the upcoming Mean Girls movie, she snaps it up. “But it’s always been music for me. Always.”

“Acting is just a hobby… it’s always been music for me”

Though she’s best known for The Sex Lives of College Girls, in which she plays wealthy college freshman Leighton Murray, a character she readily describes as “a bitch”, Rapp’s recording career is really taking off. Tomorrow night’s show (January 19) has been upgraded twice to meet sky-high demand – Rapp was originally booked into the 600-capacity venue Lafayette, but will now play the 2,300-capacity O2 Forum Kentish Town to meet demand.

Back in November, she dropped her arresting debut EP, ‘Everything To Everyone’, which she calls “stripped-back pop” with lyrics about “all the shitty things that have happened to me”. Rapp, a warm straight-talker who maintains eye contact throughout our interview, even when the subject matter gets heavy, is brutally honest about her music.

Reneé Rapp
CREDIT: Erica Hernandez

“I don’t think that I make the music that I listen to,” she says. “I listen to artists like Frank Ocean and SZA, but I don’t really make R&B music like them. I take lyricism from them – and I take vocalisations and some phrasing [from them] – but I write pretty pop music at the moment.” The EP features production from The Monsters & Strangerz, who have collaborated with Dua Lipa, and Blake Slatkin, who worked on Sam Smith and Kim Petras‘ recent chart-topper ‘Unholy’.

She may be pop, but the uncluttered production of alt-R&B music is also a big influence. “Every producer hates me,” she says. “I’m like their worst nightmare because I’m like, ‘Take out the 100 things you’ve just done.’ Not because it’s not good – it’s fucking amazing. But I have a big voice, and a big voice and a lot of production don’t match.”

Reneé Rapp
CREDIT: Erica Hernandez

Rapp’s lyrics are as candid as she is in person. ‘In The Kitchen’, a soul-baring ballad she calls “the saddest song I’ve probably ever written”, frames a breakup in impeccably Gen Z terms: “But I’m too scared to dеlete all our videos/’Cause it’s real once everyone knows.” And the devastatingly delicate ‘What Can I Do’ finds Rapp, who is bisexual, pining for a straight female friend. “Your boyfriend’s in the bathroom and I’m holdin’ your hand,” she sings. “I wonder if he notices the things that I can.”

“I’ve always wanted to write something super-gay,” Rapp says of ‘What Can I Do’. “I’ve been out a long time, but they [gay-themed songs] are just harder to write for some reason.” Interestingly, she broke her queer songwriting duck with a “bunch of straight boys”, which felt “fucking weird” until Rapp realised it altered the male-dominated power dynamic. “I felt like I had so much more knowledge than them, even though I was a woman in a studio with three other men,” she says. “They are lovely, by the way – this is no tea, no shade to them. But I felt like I understood everything better than they ever could, because that’s not an experience that they’ve ever had.”

Rapp also believes she would have struggled to open up if she had tried writing this song with other queer people. “I would have been hypercritical, overanalysing and internally homophobic to myself,” she says. “I would have been, like, ‘Do they think I’m good enough?'”

“I felt like shit during that first season of  ‘The Sex Lives Of College Girls'”

Rapp may have come out a while ago, but this doesn’t mean she found it easy to revisit the experience on The Sex Lives of College Girls. “I felt like shit,” she says when NME asks about portraying Leighton’s coming out journey in season one. Initially, Rapp’s character stays doggedly in the closet because she doesn’t want her sexuality to define her, but eventually, in the season finale, she opens up to roommate Kimberly (Pauline Chalamet, Timmy’s big sister) when she’s found crying after a breakup. “It wasn’t a guy,” Leighton tells Kimberly. “It was a girl. I’m gay.”

What did she find triggering about this storyline? “I was so judgmental of myself, I was so mean to myself,” Rapp replies. “I just couldn’t sit into it. Anytime I was playing that character in season one, I was just so, like, prickly and afraid.” Not only did it dredge up the “shame” Rapp felt as a closeted teenager, but she also felt pressure to make Leighton’s journey authentic. “I was like, I gotta do this right,” she says earnestly. “I gotta impress the gays – we cannot be disappointed.”

The Sex Lives Of College Girls
‘The Sex Lives Of College Girls’. CREDIT: Getty

Rapp was particularly spooked by a scene in which Leighton secretly hooks up with an older woman in a car because it carried echoes of something she did in high school. “This girl wasn’t older than me [like Leighton’s hook-up], but otherwise it was so similar,” she recalls. “And I just remembered that feeling of: ‘I’m gonna hook up with this girl, then I’m gonna leave and act like nothing ever happened. We dated for a second but my parents never knew.”

In season two, which premiered in November, Leighton also comes out to her dad Henry. Happily, this proved more nourishing for Rapp because her own father learned something from it. “I never really had a coming out to my dad, and my dad was my best friend,” she says. “But my parents are much more accepting of who I am [now] because it was served to them on a platform where it was inherently accepted and more palatable. [The show] has made my parents’ relationship with my sexuality so much better.”

“In high school, I started to do drugs and became really unhappy”

Rapp grew up in Huntersville, North Carolina, a small town just outside the state capital, Charlotte. “From the moment I had thoughts, I was like, ‘I wanna be Beyoncé!'” she says. Her parents have videos of her playing the harmonica before she could even talk. “I was always on stage and my parents turned everything into a performance opportunity,” Rapp adds. “At my great-grandmother’s funeral, she was literally being sunk into the ground as I was singing ‘Amazing Grace’, because I was like: ‘How can I make this about me?'”

Her parents became less encouraging when she told them she had no intention of going to college. “My dad kicked me out of the house once,” she says. “But then when I actually left the house, he was like, ‘Where the fuck are you going?’ It was very confusing.” At high school, Rapp felt like a square peg in a round hole. “My grades started to get really bad,” she recalls. “And I started to just… honestly, I started to do drugs in North Carolina. I was like, ‘Whatever, fuck it.’ And I started to become a really unhappy person.”

Reneé Rapp
CREDIT: Erica Hernandez

Rapp turned things around when she heard about the Jimmy Awards, a musical theatre competition for high school students. A girl from her hometown had entered, won the regional heat, then smashed it at the national finals in New York, where she got to perform in front of talent agents. “I told my parents I was going to do exactly what that girl did, and I did it,” Rapp says with a glint of determination in her eye.

Rapp admits she took the competition completely seriously. “I knew those fuckers were watching us every day in rehearsals, so there are videos of me on the internet with dagger eyes,” she says with a laugh. “My friends mock me now, but I’m like, ‘Guys, I really did not want to go to college. I had to win so I could be seen by agents.'”

Rapp’s plan came to full fruition a few months after she won the Jimmys when she was cast as Regina George in the Broadway production of Mean Girls The Musical. Rapp stayed with the show, adapted by Tina Fey from her cult 2004 film starring Rachel McAdams and Lindsay Lohan, from July 2019 until March 2020 when COVID forced it to close early.

Rapp says it’s “so cool” to be playing Regina again in the upcoming movie adaptation, which starts shooting in early February, but also admits to feeling apprehensive. “To be super-transparent, I loved doing Mean Girls on Broadway, but I was also very sick,” she says. “I’ve struggled with an eating disorder my whole life and I had a lot of shit happen during that time. And so my biggest thing right now is trying to prepare myself to go into the filming environment with a way healthier mindset. Because I don’t want to fall back into anything.”

“I want people to think that I really care…  but also that I don’t give a fuck”

What kind of shit did she deal with during her Broadway run? “I had things said to me that were heinous,” Rapp replies. On one occasion, she opened Instagram backstage to find a spiteful DM claiming she looked “distractingly big” in her costumes. In every interview, Rapp was asked about being a “a curvy Regina”, which made her feel incredibly uncomfortable – not least because she knew she wasn’t a plus-size role model. “I was a very mid-size person occupying a space that actually, I don’t really think was mine to take,” she says.

Sadly, having her body shape scrutinised wasn’t just a problem on Broadway; it’s also happened on The Sex Lives of College Girls, a gig she landed around six months after Mean Girls The Musical ended. “I had comments recently where I said something felt uncomfortable on my body, and someone [who works on the show] said, ‘But it’s so slimming,'” she recalls. “As someone who has struggled with eating disorders pretty much her whole life and was in the thick of one recently, that sends me into a panic attack. I don’t know how I’m properly supposed to go into my workspace when a comment is made to me like that.”

Reneé Rapp
Reneé Rapp live at the Troubadour in West Hollywood, California. CREDIT: Getty

Rapp appreciates her experience is far from unique. “It happens everywhere,” she says with a sigh, then lightens the mood by drawing an insightful parallel between Leighton and Regina. “With both roles I’ve played, they’re horrible people – kind of – but you really root for them,” she says. “But with Regina, you have to deliver every line with such carelessness and thoughtlessness, but it has to be so smart. And that’s a big ask.”

Still, Rapp has never baulked at a big ask. While shooting season two of The Sex Lives of College Girls, she regularly went into the recording studio after a full day’s filming to keep her music career on track. “A lot of big producers don’t work weekends or late at night because they’re like, ‘We already have catalogues coming out our ass,'” she says. “But I’m like, ‘Guys, I’m hustling. So please show up [at the studio] on a Saturday.’”

Rapp has every intention of maintaining the same balancing act while filming Mean Girls in the coming weeks. “We’re already flying people out,” she says matter-of-factly, adding that she’ll pivot between set and studio again when season three of The Sex Lives of College Girls goes into production. What’s the ultimate goal? “I want people to think that I’ve created my own lane of music,” she replies. “And that I really care a lot about what I do, but at the same time,” she adds with a tenacious smile, “that I don’t give a fuck.”

Reneé Rapp’s new EP ‘Everything To Everyone’ is out now via Polydor

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