Thirteen years ago, Lea Michele publicly declared her dream of starring in the musical Funny Girl on Broadway. On Tuesday, September 6, that dream came true. And the public rose to their feet on six separate occasions. Just a week after fulfilling her dream, the actress has been forced to take a momentary pause: she has tested positive for Covid-19, forcing her off the stage for 10 days. Since that statement 13 years ago, she has starred in Glee, the television phenomenon. Her partner, the actor Cory Monteith, died of an overdose. Her colleagues have described her as “despicable,” “terrifying” and “a cancer,” and social networks have fiercely dissected her career, debating whether she deserves a second professional opportunity of the caliber of Funny Girl.
When Michele was eight years old, her parents took her out of school so that she could dedicate herself professionally to musical theater. She worked non-stop until she starred in the series Glee at age 20. The show brought her Golden Globe and Emmy nominations. Time magazine listed her among the 100 most influential people in the world. Billboard created the Triple Threat Award just for her, recognizing her abilities in singing, dancing and acting. In 2010, she opened the Tony ceremony singing Don’t Rain On My Parade from Funny Girl with an enthusiasm that almost seemed parodic. But there is nothing parodic about Lea Michele.
The public has always conflated her with Rachel Berry, her character on Glee. Equal parts endearing and repellent, Rachel’s need for attention, approval, and triumph was tragicomic. Even then, the producer and screenwriter Ryan Murphy tried to quell the rumors that she behaved like a capricious diva. “She’s very ambitious and driven, and she’s got her eye on the prize. She’s always been focused. Talking to her mother, she’s been that way from birth. She’s an only child and you can tell,” he noted in USA Today in 2010. The gossip blog Lainey Gossip noted that “it’s fun to hate her” because she’s “inoffensively annoying.” At the beginning of the last decade, the reigning stars were Anna Kendrick and Jennifer Lawrence, who exuded spontaneity and a certain awkwardness. By contrast, the perfectionism of stars like Lea Michele and Anne Hathaway was perceived as irritating.
In July 2013, her boyfriend and co-star Cory Monteith died at the age of 31 from an overdose of heroin and alcohol. Michele insisted that the series resume filming less than a month after his death, and in “The Quarterback,” the tribute episode for Monteith, she sang To Make You Feel My Love by Bob Dylan. The following year, she spoke extensively about her grief while promoting her pop album, Louder, and her book, Brunette Ambition (a nod to Madonna’s nickname). “My relationship with Cory made me feel like I could reach for the stars and more. He would be like, ‘You’re going to be a pop star!’ He would say, ‘This is going to be big!’” she recounted.
Glee ended in 2015, and Rachel Berry fulfilled her life’s dream: to star in Funny Girl on Broadway and win a Tony. Ryan Murphy bought the rights to adapt the film but ended up discarding the project. Michele appeared on the series Scream Queens and recorded another album. But she spent most of her time becoming an inspirational self-help celebrity, with tattoos ranging from messages like “I Believe” or “Imagine” to butterflies, stars and musical notes. Fashion magazine described her as “the personification of the hashtag #blessed.”
In 2018, the podcast One More Thing commented on passages from Sorry Not Sorry, the biography of Naya Rivera, who played Santana in Glee. The episode in which she revealed her bad relationship with Michele caught the attention of presenters Jaye Hunt and Robert Ackerman. On the one hand, it confirmed that she was a difficult partner. “As my character ceased to be secondary and acquired more plots and screen time, our friendship faded,” Rivera wrote. “She started ignoring me and didn’t speak to me for the entire sixth season. I think Rachel – oh, sorry, Lea – didn’t like sharing the limelight.”
The podcast presenters also joked that perhaps she refused to improvise dialogue because she couldn’t really read and brought all her memorized lines from home. The joke is based on the idea that child prodigies are too busy succeeding to learn to read. In a matter of days, the joke went so far that the actress herself participated in the rumor. “Loved READING this tweet and wanted to WRITE you back. Literally laughing out loud at all this. Love you!!!” she tweeted.
In March 2019, Michelle married businessman Zandy Reich. Ryan Murphy officiated the ceremony and celebrated her maturity: “The night Lea introduced me to Zandy was the first time I had dinner with her and she didn’t spend dinner talking about herself and her next professional project,” Murphy joked.
This seemed like Michele’s new professional status: self-help celebrity, former star who plays a handful of concerts a year covering Broadway classics, and the occasional meme — until in June 2020 she published on her Instagram account, in which she has 7.5 million followers, her condemnation of the murder of George Floyd accompanied by the hashtag #BLM (“Black Lives Matter”). The Black actress Samantha Ware left a comment in which she accused her of having made her life hell on Glee: “You told everyone that if you had the opportunity you would shit in my wig.” This was followed by a flurry of testimonials from former colleagues, saying that Lea Michele was not a racist: she treated all races equally badly.
“Lea Michele Has Been Terrorizing Actors Since She Was 12 Years Old,” read the title of a report by The Daily Beast that compiled the testimonies. Hello Fresh, a food packaging brand that she represented, terminated its contract, stating that “Hello Fresh does not condone racism or discrimination of any kind.” The artist apologized, saying that although she did not recall those specific incidents, “my privileged position caused me to be perceived as insensitive or inappropriate at times when I was just being immature.”
At that time, Michele was pregnant with her first child. She took the opportunity to withdraw from public life for a few months. Many assumed her career was over. Buzzfeed included her in their list of “23 Actors Who, If We’re Totally Honest, Destroyed Their Own Careers,” along with names like Armie Hammer, Mickey Rourke and Charlie Sheen.
And suddenly, she reappeared. And she did it in the most Rachel Berry way imaginable. The day it was announced that Beanie Feldstein was going to star in the first revival of Funny Girl since its premiere in 1964, Lea Michele was a trending topic on Twitter thanks to the hundreds of jokes about how pissed off she must have been. (The same thing occurred when the movie adaptation of the musical Wicked was announced.) After the premiere, the devastating criticism against Feldstein led her to announce that she was leaving the production after six months, instead of completing her year-long contract. This meant the death of the project.
Lea Michele responds to the internet conspiracy theories about her being illiterate: “Loved READING this tweet and wanted to WRITE you back” pic.twitter.com/TzdMxCsxRr— Pop Crave (@PopCrave) March 23, 2018
Lea Michele began meeting with the producers, one by one and in secret, to offer herself as a replacement. Feldstein found out and moved forward her departure date: in the end, she only acted for four months. The gossip revived interest in Funny Girl. The day Michele was announced as the new leading lady, tickets for her debut night rose from €68 to €2,300 on resale (an unprecedented figure, only surpassed by the Hamilton phenomenon of 2016). Glee actress Jane Lynch, who plays Fanny Brice’s mother, announced her departure from the play on September 4, two days before Michele’s premiere. The jokes overshadowed comments like Samantha Ware’s: “Yes, Broadway upholds whiteness. Yes, Hollywood does the same. Yes, silence is complicity.”
But the new life of Funny Girl was unstoppable: a meta show, an endless source of irony and the show that all the New York elite had to see. On September 6, the audience jumped to their feet as soon as Lea Michele appeared on stage and applauded so long that the actress had to wait to deliver the famous opening line of the play: “Hello, beautiful.” When she sang “I haven’t read many books,” the audience screeched, clapped and burst out laughing. The cheapest seat that night cost €570. Among the attendees were Ryan Murphy, Drew Barrymore and Jonathan Groff. In the end, she came out to say hello, unable to speak through tears.
Now, her colleagues say that her attitude is impeccable. “She’s being so nice, she makes Julie Andrews look like a bitch,” a source close to the show told Page Six. “She knows everyone’s name and their birthdays. She is watering-the-plants-in-[castmates’]-dressing-rooms kind of nice. It’s an expression, a joke. She’s not actually doing it … yet.”