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Bel Powley On Her Rising Star, Feminism, and Playing A Princess

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Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images

chatting with the star of ‘a royal night out’

Bel Powley is blowing up. The British actress wowed audiences this year at the Sundance Film Festival with her breakout role in The Diary of a Teenage Girl, holding her own with Alexander Skarsgård and Kristen Wiig. Her performance as Minnie, a teenager who enters into an affair with her mom’s beau, won her a number of nominations, including the Gotham Award for Best Actress. She also boasts a handful of movies coming out opposite Kristen Stewart, Elle Fanning, Douglas Booth, and Liv Tyler—to name a few.

In her latest film, A Royal Night Out, Powley plays a young Princess Margaret, sister to the soon-to-be Queen Elizabeth. Set on VE night in 1945 London, the story takes Margaret and Elizabeth out on the town, disguising their royal identities. Wide-eyed by the reality of the celebration, the adventure brings the sisters to revelations about the people of the country they would soon lead. We had a chance to chat with Powley about playing a princess, feminism, and her how she stays grounded as her star rises. 

Sarah Gadon has said she read a book called, Young Elizabeth: The Making of the Queen when researching the role. Princess Margaret experienced that similar journey. What is it to make a queen or princess, and in what way does that parallel the making of an iconic actress?
I actually read this book as well when I was doing my research for Margaret. There is a lot of material around about Margaret's later life but not much about the early stuff, so I really had to dig through the biographies of Elizabeth for each moment "princess number two" was mentioned! The main similarity I can think of between being a princess and being a Hollywood actress is the being in the limelight. Although, at least as an actress you are playing characters and pretending to be someone else—as a princess, it's all you. 
 
I’ve been told you and the cast boxed before shooting every day. How was it going from being a boxer to a princess? Did having that time to let out steam with your cast mates help your performance?
Jack Reynor is an amazing boxing teacher! We'd all meet up in the park and throw some punches. I wasn't very good at it, I must say... And I doubt Margaret boxed, either, but it was a good way for us all to have some fun together before a day of shooting.
 
In your career, you’re in a place similar to where Margaret is in the film. Eyes are on you and the work you’re making. How do you stay grounded as your career begins to take off?
I'm away from London most of the time, so I try to go home any chance I get, even if it's just for the weekend. It's actually the most grounding thing—just sitting in my local pub with my friends. Touching base is very important.  
 
Having exposure and being an icon also serves as a platform to really have your voice heard. Are there any issues you're passionate about?
I'm very, very passionate about being a good role model for young women. I grew up feeling incredibly underrepresented in the films I watched. Women were always presented in this sort of fake "Hollywood" way. I want to show young women that you can be real, yourself, and you don't need to succumb to media pressures in order to succeed as a great woman.
 
Tell me about working with director Marielle Heller and how The Diary of a Teenage Girl helped you evolve as an artist.
Working on Diary was one of the most difficult jobs I've ever done. Mainly because every other line was mine—it was an all-encompassing role! So, it was a real lesson in playing the lead of a movie.
 
In what ways has feminism and the idea of beauty evolved from the 1940s until now? In what ways has it stayed the same?
I should hope that the idea of feminism has radically evolved since the '40s! Women back then didn't have the same rights we have now, and the princesses especially were kept very cooped up and sheltered from the world. Our attitude toward female sexuality has changed drastically in the last couple of decades, for good, and that's something that The Diary of a Teenage Girl really conveys. 

Nail polish is for novices

Fashion label The Blonds is known for its high-intensity looks that you'd only wear if you wanted to stand out (and who doesn't?). For its runway shows, wild press-on nails are the beauty step that can't be missed. So, since the brand has partnered with CND since it was founded, we thought it best to get prepped for the show with Jan Arnold, CND's co-founder.

See why you should take your nail look from a zero to a 10, in the video above.

Credits:
Shot by Charlotte Prager
Edited by Gretta Wilson
Produced by Alexandra Hsie
Production Assistant: Polina Buchak
Featuring Jan Arnold of CND Nails and The Blonds

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Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

It would've been nice if someone said the word "fat"

Back in November, Rebel Wilson claimed to be the first plus-sized lead in a romantic comedy when she appeared on Ellen to talk about her role in Isn't It Romantic. Wilson was not only wrong, but she was—even if inadvertently—erasing the work of Black plus-size actresses like Queen Latifah and Mo'Nique, both of whom have expansive resumes that include romantic comedies.

Wilson's comment isn't the first example of white women taking up a little too much space in the fat acceptance ethos. It's actually quite common. But there is a reason why women like Wilson—women who are blonde, pretty, successful, and white—get put front and center in calls for body positivity. In the same way that feminism—the movement from which body positivity was born—has often failed to address how gender intersects with other identities like race and class; so, too, has body positivity been championed as a cause for otherwise privileged women. And that's why it's no surprise that Isn't It Romantic, which aspires to be both a spot-on mockery of rom-coms and a celebration of body positivity, is actually a perfect example of how very white both the movie genre and the body positivity movement tend to be.

In the film, Wilson plays Natalie, an architect based in New York, who is single and plus-sized—the archetypal rom-com underdog. Very early on in the movie, she endures the double humiliation of both being hit by a runaway food cart and then accosted by its owner for not stopping it with her "cement truck"-like body. At work, Natalie is similarly disrespected: The office manager hands off troubleshooting tasks to Natalie; another colleague always tasks Natalie to throw out his trash; her assistant Whitney (Betty Gilpin) won't stop watching movies (rom-coms, naturally) while in the office; and Natalie is so afraid to present her ideas for more innovative parking garage designs that she isn't even widely known in the firm as an architect, and is treated like an intern.

But is Natalie just a doormat? Or is it that she isn't asking for what she wants? And isn't very nice about not getting it? If Natalie's life is any example, the bar on suffering is set pretty low for white women. In her personal life, Natalie lives alone with her dog, and seems to be pretty well-off, financially; her best friend is actually her slacker assistant, Whitney, and she's close with another coworker, Josh (Adam Devine), who gives Natalie constant emotional support. She's decidedly anti-romantic, having been told by her mother from a young age that there's no such thing as real-life fairy tales; she's level-headed and practical. But also, she's filled with self-loathing. This leads her to be crass, sarcastic, and disconnected from people. And it was this last part that was hard for me. As a fat Black woman who grew up broke, does not have an assistant, and would get fired if I didn't do my job well, it was hard, if not impossible, to root for her.

For Natalie, though, everything changes when she bangs her head while fighting off a mugger. Her mundane life is tinted through rosy rom-com glasses. Suddenly, all the things that sucked about her life are gone, and everything is beautiful and perfect. But was her life so bad before? It didn't really seem to be.

And yet, looking around the theater at the mostly white, female audience, I accepted that my feelings didn't seem to be shared. But that almost seems to be by design; this feels like a movie for a white, female audience. There is only one person of color in the movie who even has a name: It's Isabelle (Priyanka Chopra), who shows up about halfway through the film—after everything has been rom-com filtered—as a yoga ambassador and swimsuit model. But a name is all Isabella has. A supporting character at best, she doesn't have any connection to anyone other than her white boyfriend, and is sketchily drawn. We learn nothing of her familial or ethnic background, and, even when she is shown at her wedding, there is nobody from her family celebrating with her. This huge oversight is particularly bizarre, given that Natalie has already bemoaned the lack of diversity in romantic films.

Another huge oversight? The presence of the word "fat." I don't think I heard it used a single time. Natalie only references her weight indirectly, by commenting on the appearance of straight-sized women; when talking about her own body, the word "fat" is replaced with "girl like me." But by ignoring this aspect of herself, and refusing to address it head-on, Natalie is succumbing to the same fatphobia that shapes her world, whether she identifies it as being a problem or not.

Before her life becomes a rom-com, Natalie feels invisible at work and in the world. Some of this is certainly her fault, but fatphobia is also at play. Fatphobia chips away at the humanity of fat people from different angles. It means that Natalie gets used to being dehumanized; she doesn't expect others to have empathy for her when she's physically hurt, because they don't value her body. And it's no coincidence that Natalie's fantasy world includes a magically bigger apartment with unlimited clothing options, because discrimination against fat people isn't just a matter aesthetics and preferences—it affects everything from our ability to dress ourselves to our ability to make and save money, since there's a price to pay for being fat, even if it's just having to pay more to travel. Just as much as gender and race intersect with fat bodies, so, too, do economics and class.

I knew I could count on a plus-sized white comedian to take down a genre of films that prioritized thin women. But I ventured to see if Wilson could go further than that, and challenge what it means to be white and well-off and fat in the process; it isn't just about taking down rom-coms but about doing so in a way that isn't just a mouthpiece for white feminist values. But, in the end, that isn't what happened. Isn't It Romantic is fine, but it needed to do more than target an audience of girls who are 10 to 30 pounds overweight and still too jolted by the word "fat" to ever apply it to themselves, so they go for acceptable alternatives, like curvy, plus-sized—or thicc, if they're hip. But I'm not afraid to say I'm fat, I'm just disappointed I will be waiting even longer to see a realistic reflection of that experience onscreen.

Isn't It Romantic is in theaters now.