Show Stopper

As driven in her career as she is in her pursuit of style, Katharine McPhee, the dazzling star of Smash, doesn’t rest. And she won’t—not until we’ve all caught McPheever.

The tall, sultry brunette standing at the check-in at Fred’s restaurant on the ninth floor of Barneys in New York seems perplexed. Lean, all in black, she scans the midafternoon crowd: dedicated luxury shoppers with big diamonds on their fingers, thick furs on their backs, blonde streaks in their hair. When I wave her over, she waves back, smiles and walks briskly to meet me at a table by the window. Katharine McPhee slips gracefully into her chair and takes a sip of the glass of pinot noir waiting for her. “You look so familiar,” she says. “Have we met before?”

Almost immediately, we start to talk fashion. “This is Jeremy Laing,” she says, plucking at her sheer black high-neck long-sleeved shirt. Her wrists sparkle with a mishmash of colorful bangles, and a raw-cut amethyst dangles from a silver chain around her neck—something she found at an art show downtown. She lifts a leg to show me her dark Rag & Bone ripped jeans and black high-heeled Gucci booties. She loves heels, she says, even though she’s six feet tall when she wears them, the same height as her music producer/husband Nick Cokas—who doesn’t mind either. And it’s a good thing, too, because after spending most of her life in L.A., she’s now living in a city where heels rule. “In L.A. no one wears heels because they drive, but here in New York I get to wear heels. It’s great!” She proudly holds up her black gold-plated Sophie Hulme bag. “This is not a briefcase,” she says emphatically. “The men at work say, ‘Oh, is that a briefcase?’ I’m like, No, you stupid,” she says, laughing. “It’s like a beautiful fashion statement that you can fit your laptop in.” Work for McPhee at the moment is season two of the NBC series Smash, in which she plays the lead, Karen Cartwright, an ingenue who unexpectedly lands the lead in a Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe. This is McPhee’s first scripted TV series, and she is truly mesmerizing as the inexperienced, slightly stiff beginner who slowly transforms herself—offstage and on—into the ne plus ultra of sexual sophisticates. Her success in this role is maybe not so surprising; she is in some regard playing a version of her own story: the ingenue who rose to fame—as runner-up on American Idol in 2006—seemingly out of nowhere and swept viewers up in what the press quickly termed “McPheever.”

But, I say, despite her sizable fame, it seems that fashion-wise, she’s still the down-to-earth, jeans-wearing girl I saw on Idol who puts music first and style second. Correct? “Not always,” she says, spooning up some lentil soup.

“Oh,” I say. Hmmm. “I never got the sense from anything I saw or read that you spend much time worrying about fashion.”

“Actually, I’ve always loved fashion; I salivated over fashion magazines. Growing up, I learned from my best friend, who really knew clothes, that to look really great with no money took time, and I didn’t have time. I was singing.” The singing started early, unsurprisingly: McPhee was raised—in Sherman Oaks, California—by a voice coach mother and a television producer father.

“Music was pretty much all I did growing up,” she says. “But I loved clothes. On Idol, I was very strategic with my look. I specifically wore very little makeup, did very little with my hair. I wore beat-up jeans and a simple jacket and I covered my body up because I knew that viewers like seeing transformation. As a viewer myself, it was one of those things I looked forward to. It’s like when people watch Dancing With the Stars: They love to see the stars lose weight and start to feel confident. So I wanted to create that story—actually to push the story that I had no idea about fashion—which was not actually true.”

Post-Idol, she became the face of the Sexy Hair product line (deservedly so—her hair is amazingly thick and lustrous in person, with a waviness that hasn’t been sacrificed to the blow dryer), released several successful albums (Katharine McPhee debuted at number two, Unbroken at number 27) and appeared on dozens of magazine covers.

It was on these cover shoots that her latent fashion cravings came alive and were shaped—by experts. “I learned from stylists the crucial lesson that what looks good on camera doesn’t always look so good off.” It changed her outlook and her wardrobe. “Now I look back [at paparazzi photos] and I will be like, Where did I get those pants that I was wearing? Oh, right, they were sent to me by some PR company, and you think because they’re free, they’re awesome, but then you look back at the photos and you look horrible in them. I’m like, God, what was I thinking?”

Out of the limelight, most of her time was spent auditioning, auditioning, auditioning, because although she knew she could sing, she also wanted to act. She had small roles in two forgettable movies (The House Bunny and Shark Night 3D), but she hungered for the breakthrough lead role. When she learned about Smash, co-executive-produced by Steven Spielberg, co-starring Debra Messing and Anjelica Huston, and the role of Karen, it seemed like the opportunity she’d been waiting for. She auditioned on video, flew to New York and waited two nail-biting days for Spielberg to watch the tape and deliver his verdict. Yes, was the answer. She got the part, and it fit her like a glove.

Of course, for anyone who’d seen her on Idol, heard the powerful, soulful voice (which seemed almost too big for the then 22-year-old) and taken in her gorgeous looks, the casting was natural. There was only one snag: Her dream job was in New York; she loved L.A. “I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but I hated living in New York for the first six months,” she says. She was used to a city full of people in the same business, all struggling (albeit, for most of them, on a lesser scale than her). “You would walk into Starbucks and three people are reading scripts and you realize, Oh I’m not alone, and there’s sunshine and you can go hike in the mountains if you need to work out.”

New York obviously was different. It was cold half the year, it was expensive (“$2.25 for a subway ride!”) and she had a schedule that left her no time to see anyone except Cokas, on whom she routinely fell asleep at night, exhausted by work and her 5 am wake-up time.

But there was the show, which was everything. And slowly, things began to shift. She found a friend in co-star Megan Hilty, a veteran Broadway actress who plays McPhee’s on-screen nemesis (also a veteran Broadway actress) and rival for the role of Marilyn; the city began to grow on her. She started shopping at downtown boutiques like Curve and spending the odd Sunday in wine bars, and to her surprise, she fell in love with the place. “I couldn’t really put my finger on it. There’s so much diversity on the streets here. You get to leave work behind when you leave; not everyone is an actor.”

She loves New York street style, the girls she sees downtown “who look like they haven’t brushed their hair, and they’ve thrown on ripped-up shorts with a pair of tights and ankle boots and a jacket—it has this effortlessness.” They remind her, she says, of her two celebrity style icons, Kate Bosworth and Kate Moss. She’s never met either, but Bosworth, McPhee says, “is feminine but has an edge—she always looks good even when caught on the street.” As for Ms. Moss, “she just nails it on a daily basis.”

“Plus,” I say, “she does it under the intense pressure of knowing she’ll be photographed pretty much every time she leaves her house.”

“Now that’s the kind of thing in fashion that excites me,” McPhee says. This season, she has become more involved in creating her look on the show, weighing in on costume decisions. “I realized I needed to put attention and time into the clothing. It would be so easy to put together a Helmut Lang top and jeans and ankle boots—and it looks fine, but it doesn’t take it to the next level, especially on television.” Working with stylists, she’s learned to trust her instincts and built her confidence. “I know what looks good on me,” she says. These days that mostly means romantic, feminine silk or sheer pieces, mixed with something edgy, like a leather jacket, which she owns nine of. She does her best to lead as ordinary a life as possible. She’s bought a bike that she rides along the West Side Highway; she spends time with her Chihuahuas Larry and Nena; she cooks.

She definitely doesn’t go crazy at night. “When you’re on a show like this, one that requires so much singing, you have to be really protective of your instrument. You don’t get to just, like, go out and party all night.” To her, this is not a sacrifice. “In five years I’d love to have done a play and a few movies, and of course I hope Smash keeps going.” She’s on a journey, something she easily admits, and she won’t rest until she reaches her destination. “I once thought that by now I’d have lots of children, but actually I’m really enjoying being able to go from point A to point B and the only worry I have is have my dogs been walked. I’m selfish right now, but that’s how and where I should be. The thing is, work is the thing I love the most.”

Click through the slideshow below to see more photos from Katharine's cover shoot and her favorite things: