Lily Collins: On The Verge
Special Projects Director
A few months back, Lily Collins found herself in Dallas for Chanel’s annual Métiers d’Art show, an over-the-top fashion extravaganza, which this year featured a hay-strewn catwalk, classic cars, corn dogs and a true-to-life drive-in theater and rodeo. “I was wearing a sequined gown and $80,000 earrings, and there was a mechanical bull for guests to ride,” recalls Collins, who, along with a smattering of bright young things like Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning and Alexa Chung, had been handpicked to be flown in for the event. “I had to have a cowboy lift me up on the bull as my dress was too fitted to allow me to climb up myself. I was terrified that my jewelry would fly off and nervous to ride it in front of so many people, but it was such a liberating, amazing experience. After that, I felt like I could do anything!”
As the daughter of British musician Phil Collins (whose name, depending on your age and affinity for ’80s rock, may elicit either a head scratch or an impromptu performance of “Sussudio”) and his American second wife, Collins enjoyed a charmed upbringing. She was born in the English countryside, silver (tea)spoon in mouth, and bred in Beverly Hills. Growing up, it wasn’t impossible that, say, Elton John might pop over for tea or that she’d find herself trading stories with famed photographer Mario Testino. (The actress herself never name-drops, but thanks to Google, a virtual gawking session is only a click away.) “I never understood the word ‘celebrity,’ ” shrugs Collins from a cozy velvet couch in the Chateau Marmont’s lobby, where today she is the most famous person in the room. “It was just part of my everyday.”
While others in Collins’ position might squander their Hollywood head start on an E! reality series, her background has only inspired her to work harder, to dream bigger—to take the bull by the horns. Given her pedigree and prime location, entertainment and media were natural pursuits. By 15, she was writing articles about everything from L.A. buzzwords to basketball games for the U.K. edition of Elle Girl; by 16, she had pitched a TV show idea to a roomful of network executives at least twice her age; and by 19, she was covering the presidential inauguration as an on-air reporter for Nickelodeon. When the actress didn’t think she nailed her audition for the part of Snow White in Mirror Mirror, she marched right back in and asked for another go. (The result: She was cast as the princess opposite Julia Roberts’ Evil Queen.) “I can be really passionate,” she says. “My gut told me to try again—I just needed to leave feeling I did everything I could.”
Collins didn’t begin her acting career in earnest (unless you count Growing Pains, a BBC family drama she appeared on at age two) until the age of 16—and she was adamant about not using her connections to get her foot in the door. “I wanted to be ready and confident as Lily before I put myself out there,” she says. “I felt I should go through the same rigorous audition processes as everyone else and be told ‘no.’ ” (And she was: Collins was passed over for Olivia Thirlby’s role in Juno and the part of Bella in Twilight.) Her breakthrough role came in 2009 as Sandra Bullock’s daughter in The Blind Side.
Even now, with big-budget movies like The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones and a global deal as Lancôme’s latest ambassadress, the star still sounds like she can’t quite believe her luck. When I mention the Moschino gown embellished with safety pins, crystals and metal studs that she wore to the 2013 punk-themed Met Ball, she exclaims, “The Met Ball? Being invited to something like that? Incredible! I still think, Why am I on the list? I still feel like a little girl dressing up and getting to go to a pretty party.” To this day, she introduces herself to everyone at events, assuming people have no idea who she is. Take her recent encounter with Christian Louboutin at a Golden Globes event. “I walked up to him and said, ‘I don’t know if you remember me, but I interviewed you for my school paper.’ ” The designer thanked her profusely for the opportunity, the absurdity of which is not lost on her. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, thank you!’ ”
Collins herself knows a good opportunity when she sees one. So when Lancôme approached her about working with the company, it was a no-brainer. “I’ve always been a big fan of ‘less is more’—the idea that you can accept a little help to accentuate what you already have and bring out that extra sparkle,” says Collins. With her naturally ruby red lips (she often chooses nude lip shades to tone them down), porcelain skin and sun-kissed brunette hair—the likes of which mere mortals try (and fail) to achieve at the salon—Collins’ minimalist approach makes perfect sense. “I like to save the dramatic moments for events or photo shoots,” says the star, whose current low-key outfit (Topshop denim jacket, J Brand jeans and open-toed gray suede Steve Madden booties) speaks to her candor. Her whole routine—applying Bienfait sunscreen, swiping on some Hypnôse Drama mascara, dabbing a little highlighter under her brows and choosing a Lip Lover shade to suit her mood takes her, maybe, 10 minutes. “I like doing it fast,” she says. “The more you have on your face the more there is to go wrong.”
But not even Collins, who’s appeared on People magazine’s “World’s Most Beautiful” list, is beyond the occasional beauty blunder—and messing with her eyebrows as a teenager was one of her biggest. “Kids were commenting on them at school, so I got the tweezers,” she says. She thought she had done a great job … until her mom saw her handiwork. “She was staring at me across the dinner table and said, not happily, ‘You’ve changed something about your face.’ ” Collins’ “technique” had left her with Groucho Marx bushiness but no shape, let alone anything resembling an arch.
Luckily they grew back. “Brows are the statement piece of the face, and I’ve learned to embrace mine over the years. And I guess they speak for themselves now that they apparently have their own Twitter account,” she says with a laugh. (Indeed: @iamthebrows has more than 1,300 followers.)
As Collins has gotten older (she’s 24), she’s grown more comfortable taking risks with her style. Not long ago she had the “starlet standard”: lovely, and perfectly safe, long, flowy locks. Today she’s rocking an edgy textured bob, courtesy of her hairstylist, Mara Roszak, that makes her come off less Hollywood It Girl, more French ingenue. The cut also gives her a chance to show off her “Love, always and forever” tattoo, which rests just below the nape of her neck. (She has two others: a crown above a winged heart on her left wrist and an English rose on her right foot.)
“I’ve always loved body art,” says Collins. “I remember being with my mom on Venice Beach when I was really young, and we walked by this guy on a Harley who was covered in tattoos. I was this little British girl, and I went up to him and said”—here she slips seamlessly into her usually dormant British accent—“ ‘Your tattoos are so pretty!’ That was probably the last thing he wanted to hear.” In her case, though, it’s true: If it’s possible to characterize tattoos as ladylike, Collins’, in her own delicate handwriting, fit the bill. As for the pain? “Look, women go through worse things,” she says, with a wave of her hand. “Waxing hurts more than tattoos. And tattoos are permanent, so if it takes a little pain to get there, that’s okay.”
Don’t mistake Collins’ fondness for body ink as a sign of a simmering wild side. “My mom still says to me, ‘I’m waiting for your rebellious stage!’ ” admits Collins. If her makeup-chair-singing abilities, witnessed at Lucky’s photo shoot, are any indication, she has the talent to follow her father into rock stardom but, so far, not the inclination. (She writes lyrics and creates playlists to help her access emotions for her roles but is happy to leave those professional duties to Dad.) When it comes to clubs, she claims, “I don’t know the first place to go out,” and instead gets giddy talking about potluck dinners and board game nights with her friends (Cards Against Humanity and Taboo are favorites). Once afraid to set foot in the kitchen, she is now an avid Top Chef viewer and has even mastered a few dishes. “I make this quinoa dish with mint and chives and tomato,” she says proudly. (She baked our Lucky photo-shoot crew yummy gluten-free vegan brownies, too.)
For now, at least, the star’s daring side is relegated to her red-carpet choices. “I love pushing the boundaries with fashion,” she says. “I’m feeling a little bit edgier and sexier.” Her movie wardrobe often influences her personal style. During Mirror Mirror, she was all about pretty and princessy looks, but by The Mortal Instruments, in which she played Clary Fray, a demon-fighting, sword-wielding “Shadowhunter,” she’d gone to the sartorial dark side. “It was like, Whoa, I never thought I could wear heeled boots and chains and leather pants and kick ass, but I can. It was empowering.” Reminiscing about the white Cushnie Et Ochs leather dress she wore to the L.A. premiere of TMI, she says, “It had slashes all the way up to the bustline! We had to tape my parts perfectly.” The tiny Houghton gown she wore to the Madrid premiere was another risky pick. “You could roll it up into a ball—that’s how little a dress it was! I had to be so strategically placed. One wrong move would have been a paparazzi’s dream.”
What Collins’ next fashion phase will be is anyone’s guess—she’s known for her impressive styling range and has worn it all, from Mary Katrantzou’s kaleidoscopic prints to modern, monochromatic crop tops and shorts from Paper London. But one thing’s for sure—she won’t stop playing. The girl who grew up shopping flea markets with her mom while still in a stroller, and creating her own mood boards with pages ripped from fashion magazines, is still very much a part of her. “I sometimes get more excited meeting designers than I do meeting other actors,” Collins admits. She’s a veteran high-end shopper (a Vivienne Westwood oversize car coat from Selfridges is one of her best finds of all time) and also a fan of vintage (whether it’s ’80s T-shirts, her ballerina grandmother’s hand-me-down Chanel purses and necklaces or her mom’s collectible Yohji Yamamoto pieces).
Given her affinity for fashion, Collins seems a natural contender for the celebrity-slash-designer mantle—and she counts Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, Gwen Stefani and Victoria Beckham among her role models. But she’s not ready to dive in just yet. “I would never just put my name on something,” she says. “It would have to be me designing.” Besides, she’s too smart to let her clothing overshadow her career. “I like to support designers, and I am genuinely one of those girls who loves dressing up and getting the opportunity to wear art in the form of clothes,” she says. “I don’t need to publicize it, though. Or go to every fashion event I’m invited to. Acting is my focus.”
Collins’ next role may be her most challenging yet. In the upcoming Love, Rosie, a Brit-to-the-bones romantic comedy that she says is reminiscent of Notting Hill, Love Actually and those “classic Hugh Grant films,” she ages 10 years, gets pregnant and gives birth. The job required her to wear not only mom jeans but a prosthetic belly. “Oh, I had a whole baby bump,” she says with the kind of enthusiasm she might otherwise employ describing her latest flea-market find. “My bump actually kicked when someone blew into a tube—it was amazing! We had a real midwife on set, and she explained how I should scream and push—it was so exciting. I creepily kept my ‘stomach’ and have it at home now, because they were going to throw it away.” She also came away with something more practical—a new style crush: “I just bought a pair of jeans from Topshop that are literally called ‘The Mom Jean.’ Nowadays they’re rocked in a different way, but I’m obsessed with them!”
With her career still heating up (she was just cast in Warren Beatty’s Howard Hughes movie), Collins (who is maybe single, and maybe not—she’s not telling) is far from ready for motherhood herself. But given her brownie-baking skills and uncommon centeredness, it’s not hard to imagine her there. “Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, Julianne Moore, Jennifer Connelly,” says Collins, rattling off her recent costars. “Most of them brought their kids to set when they were shooting. It was inspiring to see these incredible world-renowned actresses in mommy mode. It proves to me that you can have both. One day I would love to be a mom, but right now I’m so excited about my work.”
With fashion, as with acting, Collins’ greatest pleasure is slipping into character. “I like disappearing for a little while,” she says dreamily while the waitress drops off the check. “I always wanted to be someone who could take other people into a world with me. As an actor, I’m able to jump into a story and become someone else for a time. It’s a beautiful journey.” One we’ll be watching.