On a recent evening the actress Jennifer Coolidge was watching a Harry Styles performance on her phone, and she got to wondering why she was not more like him. “I was thinking how confident he was and I was like, ‘Why didn’t it occur to me to be like that?'” she says. “There’s self love and love of the world and love of other people. And he puts it all on stage. It’s such an attractive thing. No one wants the person that’s like, ‘ahhh, I’m not very good.'”
Not to diminish Mr. Styles’ charms, but it turns out that people actually do want more of Coolidge’s mixture of authenticity, hilarity, and obliviousness to her own charms. After winning more awards in the last 12 months for her performance as Tanya McQuoid in The White Lotus than she garnered nominations for any other role in her entire 30-year career, and giving the kind of frank and unconventional acceptance speeches that go viral, Coolidge, 61, is offering hope to late bloomers everywhere. She’s finding new audiences, gathering more than a million fans in just two measly months and five measly videos on TikTok, starring alongside J.Lo in Shotgun Wedding, and appearing in e.l.f. Cosmetics’ Super Bowl commercial. On top of all that, she’s on the 2023 TIME 100.
“I just find it baffling, absolutely baffling, that this is happening. But guess what? I really like it,” says Coolidge. “It’s like I was like Sleeping Beauty, where I was locked in a box under the bed or something. And now I’m out and it’s like, ‘Well, I’m sure glad they let me out of that box, because this is way better.'” In one of the surest signs of celebrification, fashion labels are sending her clothes—to her enormous relief. “If I have to come up with the stuff, it’s never that great,” she says. She wears them to the new places she’s invited. “People that you don’t even know—cool people that I’ve always respected are inviting me to cool parties and producers and directors that I’ve admired, I’m actually meeting with them now.”
The newfound success and adulation has caused her to look back on her prior work, to assess if she was doing anything differently. She doesn’t think so. “I saw some things recently that I did in my youth, and they weren’t bad,” she says. “I thought maybe I wasn’t good or something. But I wasn’t bad.” She’s particularly proud of her work as the down-on-her-luck beautician Paulette Bonafonté in Legally Blonde. Or, at least she admits to being proud of that film, which foresaw, among other things, the #MeToo movement a decade and a half before it broke into the mainstream. “It predicted a lot of things. I’m glad I was part of that,” says Coolidge. “Many of the people who come up to me say the same thing, and that is, ‘I went to law school because of that movie.'”
In her newly influential state, Coolidge says that if she had any advice for younger women it would be that they should focus less on being attractive to a partner and more on finding their own way. “There was just like, a giant chunk of my life that was wasted on trying to get boyfriends who didn’t want me, instead of just, you know, taking care of business and, and working on my own thing,” she says. “I think we have to really take care of ourselves and get our own thing going. And then if a guy comes in, it’s all great. Or if a guy doesn’t come in, it’s all great.”
When she was young, Coolidge used to stand on the dock of the little river near her parent’s house in Norwell, Mass. “Whenever a little plane would fly over, I’d be like, ‘Take me out of here! Get me somewhere really cool!’ But the planes never stopped,” she says. Her father gave her a piece of advice that she didn’t understand at the time. “He used to say this quote to me all the time as a kid: ‘Character is fate.’ As an older person, I’ve realized that’s one of the most accurate things I’ve ever heard,” she says. “Who you are in this lifetime decides your ending and how your life will go.”
It’s possible that the culture may have shifted in Coolidge’s favor, that the era of the incredibly polished and on-message public figure is over, and people can respond to somebody who’s more authentic and messy. If a guy with a stutter can become the president of the United States, why can’t an unguarded scatterbrain become a movie idol? “I think people really just like the honest answer, even if it’s not what you’re supposed to say,” says Coolidge. “Maybe that’s what I’m doing: I’m saying things that you’re not supposed to say.” But lest anyone think she might be tooting her own horn, Coolidge quickly clarifies. “To be honest, sometimes I think it’s just because I’m tired.”
Correction, April 13
The original version of this story misstated the movie that Jennifer Coolidge appears in alongside J. Lo. It is Shotgun Wedding, not Destination Wedding.
Buy a print of the TIME100 Jennifer Coolidge cover here.
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