Head Over Heels For Julie Bowen

Julie Bowen played the girlfriend for years. Now she plays the mom—and the sister and the daughter and the wife. In real life, she’s just as funny—and a lot more stylish.

"P-chew! P-chew! P-chew!" Julie Bowen has made her hand into a gun and is pretend-shooting age spots off my face. This is her way of telling me that yes, not only do Intense Pulsed Light facials work, they are nothing short of miraculous. “Even this one?” I ask, pointing to a pond-size formation above my right eye. Bowen takes aim and fires again. “P-chee-ew!

Shortly after she won her second consecutive Emmy for playing high-strung, perfectionist, often acid-tongued Claire on the sitcom Modern Family, a well-known columnist blogged that Julie Bowen, and beautiful women in general, just couldn’t be funny—funniness, she wrote, was a result of having suffered at one point, and beautiful people don’t suffer. But sitting in a white booth in a white box of a Hollywood café, contemplating this mega-diss, Bowen seems more perplexed than agitated. And what throws her off isn’t being called unfunny. It’s being called beautiful. “I don’t even know what to say about that, because then, I’d have to acknowledge I was some kind of attractive ideal, and that’s just not the way I was raised. Plus, I feel like I look like the pale girl in some Flemish painting.” But she is beautiful. She’s thin with killer blonde hair and gorgeous brown eyes enhanced magically with a pencil from By Terry called Bronze Moon, which we all need to get immediately. She had a charmed childhood in Baltimore with a supportive, close family. She has a cute husband and three adorable children and, now, two Emmys and a hit show. That said, it is very clear that this columnist never had the pleasure of hearing Julie Bowen perfectly imitate the sound of an IPL facial.

Bowen talks with bright, zingy energy, and you get the sense that inside her mind ideas are playfully jostling each other to see who can get out first. I am still imagining typing up a clever, lacerating retort to Ms. Columnist, but Bowen, after ordering a black coffee, has let go, and now we are talking about shoe booties. “It took me forever to invest in new shoe booties. I had all these pairs from the ’90s, and all the other shoes in my closet were pointing at them and laughing.” We run down fashion faux pas from days gone by. I confess I had an asymmetrical bob in college and am expecting a vague “Yeah, I remember those” sort of response. Instead I’m met with a horrified, prolonged Don Rickles–esque stare.

She’s wearing a striped Vince sweater over a rust-colored Zara dress, and when I tell her I like her outfit and she wags her finger and says, “Hey, I put in a lot of effort for you today,” it’s hard to tell whether she’s joking. She really does look good, but she insists she knows nothing about fashion, before adding, “But hey, I can go there.” Laura Ashley comes up. “Oh, I went deep on Laura Ashley,” she recalls. At the fancy prep school she went to in Newport, Rhode Island, “you had to have at least three Laura Ashley dresses.” Then I tell her I wore Laura Ashley to the prom, and she gives me that Don Rickles look again.

“It took me years to break the will to be serious, years,” Bowen insists, despite the fact that nearly everything she says is, at some level, a joke. She wanted to be An Actress. So after graduating from Brown, having majored in the very actressy field of Italian Renaissance studies, Bowen came to New York to do Ibsen and Shakespeare and Brecht. Wearing black motorcycle boots and “horrible brick red lipstick” she auditioned and waitressed. “But I never got those parts. Never!” she says. Instead, Bowen climbed the prime-time TV ladder. She supportive-girlfriended her way through Ed and then ex-wifed through Lost. (She’s not surprised that no one remembers her from Lost. “Oh, that’s because I was always crying and because I looked like a man. They were good at jungle makeup on that show but [my scenes] weren’t in the jungle, and I was like, ‘Hey, sister, could I get some eyelashes?’ ”)

Then she describes how, at age 39, pregnant with twins, she got the chance to play Claire, Bowen’s humor vanishes. “All I can say is, thank God for television! Our writers are flexible enough to write to my strengths and open-minded enough to imagine Claire in a car pool and naked in a hot spring. I needed good material. I’m not like Amy Poehler, who can make anything funny,” she says. When I suggest that her role as the mother-kid sister–aunt perfectionist control freak is iconic, she doesn’t agree. She just says, “Wow. Thank you.”

You’d expect someone who got suddenly famous at 40 to have some “Whoa, what a crazy ride, man” attitude. But Bowen’s too down-to-earth for that kind of thing. Instead, she talks about how now, different things are expected of her. “It was a big evolution in style for me to grow up and say ‘I need to take fashion seriously for my job.’ I have a stylist now, and she’s trying to get me to wear more revealing stuff. She’s Kristen Stewart’s stylist,” Bowen says, fluttering her eyelashes at the name drop. “I go there and see all this amazing funky stuff, and I know it’s for her. If I get K-Stew’s castoffs, that’s all right with me.”

A twentysomething girl passes by our table. She’s wearing Isabel Marant leather-and-suede wedge sneakers, and Julie I-know-nothing-about-fashion-but-I-rocked-neon-at-the-2012-Emmys Bowen gives the girl such a big, obvious sitcomy stare that she stops cold. Bowen waves her over, smiling, as if to say, “I come in peace, girl wearing $656 sneakers.” She grills the girl, charmingly, asking her where she got the shoes, what she thinks of the knockoffs, what she does for work. The girl is already adorable, and ever more so under the bright beam of Bowen’s curious attention. When she gets back to her table, she waves shyly.

Even if Bowen’s been stepping up her game style-wise, she doesn’t feel the need for Claire to do the same. “Claire’s a teensy bit bland and very un-trendy. But nothing is worse than watching a rerun of some show and getting distracted by the styles.” Plus, style might be important in Bowen’s world, but not so much in Claire’s. “People like Claire,” Bowen points out, “because at the end of the day, she’s a good mom.” I wonder if perhaps people like Claire because they like Julie Bowen. Julie Bowen does not harbor a similar curiosity. “I am quite sure there are plenty of people who could play Claire,” she insists. “I was just in the right place at the right time.”

“This look is gorgeous and fun and sort of tough chic.”

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