Reneé Rapp: The pop star who willed herself into existence
You might know her from the Mean Girls musical or HBO’s teen drama The Sex Lives Of College Girls – but Reneé Rapp isn’t too fussed about being an actress.
Her entire life, “from the second I had a thought”, has been about the pursuit of one thing: music.
“There’s videos of me before I could talk, sitting on a coffee table in my parents’ house, making up songs and playing a harmonica,” says the 23-year-old.
“It was always this. It was always this.”
By the time she was three, the North Carolina native had composed her first original song.
“My mum’s a germaphobe, so I wrote something the foyer in our house,” she laughs, breaking into melody. “If someone has a cold, you shouldn’t hug them / Or kiss them“.
Before long, she’d developed a game plan. Gain stage experience at talent shows, enrol in art school, win a scholarship at the High School Musical Theatre Awards, get seen by agents, work on Broadway, build up a profile and use it to launch a pop career.
Amazingly, it all worked.
Rapp’s debut EP, Everything To Everyone, is a low-key phenomenon. Packed with painfully relatable break-up ballads and sparkling pop melodies, it was streamed 20 million times in December alone.
Her first-ever London show sold out in two minutes. The venue had to be upgraded twice, with Rapp eventually playing to 2,300 fans – four times more than originally planned.
When the date arrived last week, people queued in freezing temperatures from five in the morning, carrying handwritten signs and bunches of flowers.
Sixteen hours later, Rapp’s arrival onstage was greeted with the sort of deafening screams usually reserved for boybands and malfunctioning rollercoasters.
The singer has already forged an intimate connection with her fans online, and the show becomes a real-life extension of their relationship. They share handmade gifts and inside jokes, while Rapp divulges secrets about her love life, and pose for BeReal photographs.
She even sings a couple of lines of Baguettes, a scrapped song that’s leaked on TikTok, after spotting a sign that reads: “Sing Baguettes or you’re racist and homophobic.”
By the end of the show, she’s wiping away tears, overwhelmed as the crowd bellow “strangers to lovers to enemies” – the refrain of her signature song, In The Kitchen.
Speaking to the BBC a day before the show, Rapp calls the tear-soaked ballad “the most important song I’ve ever written”.
It arrived exactly a year ago, as she navigated a break-up “that was really personal and really nasty on a lot of levels”.
One evening, Rapp found herself alone in her apartment, reminiscing about all the meals she and her ex had cooked there.
Crying in the living room
“The rest of the time, I could scoff at the situation but the kitchen hurt,” she says, “because now I’m cooking alone, and cooking is such a love language.
“But then I’d remember how I used to cook for [his] family that didn’t like me, and how I’d made myself smaller so that someone else would feel comfortable.
“So I wrote this song, sitting alone in my living room, crying.”
The song throbs with pain like an exposed wound, but Rapp wasn’t simply channelling anger at her boyfriend.
“I’d just had a conversation with some people on my team who said I wasn’t writing personally enough,” she explains.
“That really pissed me off. Like, ‘You’re telling me that the one thing I cling to, that’s my way of communicating, you don’t feel it?’
“So not only was I angry about this break-up, I was just so disappointed in everybody… And In The Kitchen became such a shedding of the skin. It was the best catharsis of my life.”
Equally important to her is the delicately detailed What Can I Do – where Rapp, who is bisexual, talks about falling for the girlfriend of her boyfriend’s best friend.
She calls it the “first openly gay song I’ve written”, even though she’s been out since she was 14.
“Gayness was so oversexualised when I was a kid,” she explains, “so I wanted my first gay song to be like a lullaby – really tender.”
That was important, she says, after growing up in America’s Southern states, where queerness – or sexuality of any kind – was often equated with sinfulness.
“There were things on the internet called ‘Expose Pages’, where people would put up stories saying what girl had hooked up with what person, and why it was shameful and why we should call her a whore,” she told Norwegian entertainment show Blåkkbøster last year.
“That happened to me a lot growing up and it was really difficult. I felt like a really bad person for quite a long time.”
Playing a queer character on The Sex Lives Of College Girls helped her make peace with her own sexuality, especially after Leighton came out at the end of season one.
“I was very afraid of how it would be perceived,” she recalls. “But it’s my most proud acting to date, because I don’t think I was acting.”
To her surprise, the scene also changed the minds of people at home.
“I have some family members who are all of a sudden super-allied, that weren’t when I was a kid,” she says.
“Like, it’s more palatable to accept me being gay now that I’m on a TV show, because its so glamorous and romanticised.
“Is that messed up? Yeah.
“Will I accept it? Yeah.”
As you might have guessed, Rapp is something of an open book. She speaks in long, unbroken streams of consciousness that are both delightfully indiscreet and touchingly vulnerable.
Her big break on Broadway, for instance, is described as a long, arduous slog.
“I’m used to doing my own thing, so stage work frustrates the living hell out of me,” she laughs. “I literally went, like, brain dead for a while.”
She even confesses that, as a condition of accepting the part, she made the show’s producers “pinky swear” to help her music career.
That’s a bold move for any actress making their New York debut. But doubly so when the producers are comedy icon Tina Fey and Lorne Michaels, who runs the US TV institution Saturday Night Live.
“I was so green and I didn’t care,” she cringes.
“I guess I’m a bit delusional and I’ll do anything I need to do in order to serve my purpose in life, which I feel is music.”
This year, Rapp will play Regina George again – this time in a movie of the Mean Girls musical – while shooting season three of Sex Lives and finishing work on her debut album.
So how does it feel, now that her dreams are coming true?
“I’m just so relieved that I’m actually doing it,” she says, “because it means that when I talked myself up as a kid, I wasn’t bluffing.”
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