Rachel Bloom Sings And Dances To Her Own Tune
From viral success on YouTube to critical acclaim on The CW's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, everything's coming up roses for Rachel Bloom.
They're very beautiful, nobody will notice, and besides, my son will be so pleased, I tell myself, as I mull over surreptitiously snapping a close-up of Rachel Bloom's breasts. (Not a naked photo. Just Bloom in a low-cut gown. What kind of a mother do you think I am?)
I'm at Watch!'s photo shoot, and my 15-year-old son, who introduced me to the actress through two of her viral videos, "You Can Touch My Boobies" and "Heavy Boobs," had asked me to please confirm whether they are real and as spectacular in person. (They are.)
It is not lost on me, as I'm considering this awful thing, that it is exactly the kind of behavior you'd expect from someone like Rebecca Bunch, the character Bloom plays on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, her groundbreaking musical comedy series on The CW: inappropriate, borderline illegal, yet totally rationalizable in someone's head. Well, Rebecca's head. Or mine, apparently.
Therein lies the beauty of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which is about to start its third season: we have all been Rebecca Bunch. Maybe we haven't forsaken our high-powered New York careers and moved to a nowhere town for a sweet but dim jock we slept with 10 years ago. Or abandoned a great potential soulmate mid-date to have sex with a vegan stranger wearing a man-bun.
Or, you know, burned down an ex's house when he wouldn't leave his wife and taken a trip to the mental ward. Maybe we haven't done those things. But there is not a single human being who hasn't thought about it. Who hasn't wanted to stalk and—when that didn't work out so well—rain down rage and pain on someone who's hurt us? Including Bloom herself.
"With me it was more subtle and boring, how I would delude myself," Bloom tells me. "It was the things I'd write in my own diary, like, 'Oh, I'm going to this place, and this person happens to be there.' I never wanted to seem crazy to men—which is a kind of internalized misogyny. But that's why it's so fun to play this character, because I've bottled up a lot of my own rage and desire for revenge."
We are taking a break from the shoot where the theme is, perhaps not surprisingly, "Full Bloom," with lovely party dresses, vintage wallpaper, and a lot of flowers. ("If I made up a song about this shoot, I'd riff off 'Baby It's Cold Outside,'" she says, breaking into her dulcet Broadway tones: "It's snow outside, but it's spring in here/I feel like a plant... but a pretty plant.")
While the shifting friendships and love triangles that fuel the show are the stuff of conventional romantic comedy—Crazy Ex-Girlfriend's co-creator, Aline Brosh McKenna, wrote the screenplay for The Devil Wears Prada—there's a sense that many of the over-the-top scenarios, from scavenging antidepressants off a therapist's bathroom floor to breaking into someone's house to intercept a mistakenly sent text, were moments that lived for years in Bloom's and Brosh McKenna's heads. In other words, there is a reality to the unreality—a fantasy fulfillment that makes the show resonate deeply.
"I would say the show is an emotional biography," Bloom says. "I would not outwardly stalk people, but I was boy crazy from a young age." And the anger always millimeters from the surface? "I mean, sometimes you're like, 'Well, I want to throw hot coffee in someone's face and they f*cking deserve it.' But for me there was too much self-control and self-awareness."
Not to mention good-girlness. Rachel Bloom grew up the cosseted only child of a Jewish, musical-theater-loving family in Manhattan Beach, California; her imaginary sister and brother were Pippi Longstocking and Kevin McCallister, the little boy from Home Alone. At one point in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Rebecca Bunch says, "I imagine my life as a series of musical numbers"—and in fact, it is this idea that has propelled Bloom, both in art and in life.
As a tot she would act out the entire movie of Beauty and the Beast, word for word; she saw Guys and Dolls in a local production when she was 5 and knew she could be Adelaide. By sixth grade she was getting the attention she coveted by writing her own skits: "The first thing I wrote was for a talent show, and it was really a rip-off of Gilda Radner's 'The Judy Miller Show' on Saturday Night Live. I called it 'The Me Station,' and the idea was that it was a TV station with only one person."
In high school her work got both less derivative and darker. "The issue became, How do I combine my interest in show tunes and serial killers?" she says cheerfully. (In fact, Bloom went on to do that quite brilliantly. The first season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend includes a song called "Feeling Kinda Naughty" that contains the lyrics, "I wanna kill you and wear your skin as a dress." And later, having one or two concerns about a one-night stand, Rebecca mulls the possible outcomes in the Nicki Minaj-inspired "Sex with a Stranger": "Hey, sexy stranger/Come back to my place/And I hope you're not a murderer/Kiss me, baby, all over the place/And please don't be a murderer...")
While Bloom's parents and teachers were always encouraging, other kids were not. Geeky and scrawny, Bloom says she was the target of bullies, in the way that many kids who aren't good at coolly hiding their emotions are. She didn't exactly have a Valencia in her life, the woman on the show who goes from bitter rival to bestie to—well, who knows what next season holds? But Bloom sees Valencia as an important character, a way for women to examine how they are threatened by other women. "Some of us are raised to believe that other women are the enemy and that they are to be feared. She's a projection of how some women see each other, and I like playing with that idea."
At any rate, the pain of being bullied has gotten mixed up in Bloom's psyche with those romantic notions of love and longing. "My first very passionate crush was when I was 7. Zach was the class clown, kind of a badass kid who didn't care about rules. I was funny but a drama geek who cared very much about rules. First we were friends, but then he began making fun of me. So my first crush, I associate with someone making me cry and me wanting him more." The pattern didn’t exactly end in high school and college, when Bloom pined after a series of men who were unattainable. "I felt crazy toward them—the not eating and not sleeping and always thinking about them crazy—and imagined we were dancing together in some sort of musical," she says.
But one of the points of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend—the way Bloom weaves in the back story of her abandoning father and hypercritical mother—is that people throw themselves into hopeless romantic situations as a way of avoiding their own lives. "I dealt with considerable anxiety and depression throughout my life, without actually labeling it as such. By focusing on some guy, I could escape from that."
Fortunately, she did manage to focus on the right guy rather early. When she was a musical theater major at New York University, she met Dan Gregor, a nice Jewish boy from Long Island who was five years older and already performing stand-up around town, including work at the Upright Citizens Brigade, the famous New York sketch-comedy group. Bloom got involved with UCB, and Gregor helped her see the advantage—indeed, necessity—of developing material for herself rather than waiting to be someone's wacky sidekick in a cookie-cutter TV comedy, which is how she started making videos that went viral, like "F*ck Me, Ray Bradbury" and "I Steal Pets." These videos soon got the attention of Brosh McKenna and then the networks.
Gregor had gotten an agent by age 23, Bloom says, and "his career was really a template for mine." They were dating by the end of college. Bloom, frightened to be the first to say The Words, one day told him, "I really, really like you," and he followed with "I love you." So obviously he was The One. "Most of the other relationships I had before then made me more irresponsible and selfish," Bloom wrote on her wedding site. "But Gregor [she calls him by his last name] is such a wonderful person, I kind of have no choice but to try and match him."
Gregor currently writes for Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (past writing credits include CBS’s How I Met Your Mother and FX’s The Comedians). Forget about romantic love; Bloom clearly has the respect for him that we all wish our mates had for us. And not just as a writer. Asked who her favorite photographer is, Bloom is quick to answer, "My husband. No one captures the beauty of food like he does. He makes a half-eaten pastrami sandwich look like a Monet."
With a 2016 Golden Globe for best actress, hosannas from critics, and renewal for a third season, Bloom is certainly having a moment of professional fulfillment—and financial, too, though her wishes and desires in that arena don't make it into Learjet territory. "How would I spend a million dollars on myself if someone forced me to? I think I'd get a massage every day for the rest of my life," she says. She is also quietly enjoying her newfound ability to buy any shoes she wants. "Last night I bought some Prada platforms on Net-a-Porter, and I don't know who I am anymore."
But her fame has done little to quell the nagging anxieties that have dogged her life, which may be just as well since they fuel her comedy. "I still have all those insecurities, that I am somehow 'lesser than' as a woman—I don't understand fashion, I don't know how to decorate a house." But wouldn't you love to visit the home of a woman who, when asked what her "dream piece" for her home would be, replies: "A tortoise. That’s my dream pet"? And the perfect piece of art for her house? "A photograph of me crowning out of my mother’s vagina. Wouldn’t that be crazy to own that?!"
And her sense of herself as Not All That hasn't exactly disappeared. On the one hand, she is happy to pose topless, crowned in flowers, for the Watch! shoot; on the other, her body, which one of the characters dubbed "British Nanny," is a source of endless jokes on the show. In the world of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a once-scrawny kid is fretting about a laughably small amount of chub, even though this very imperfection is essential to Bloom's character. As New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum wrote in her review of the show, Bloom uses her body "for slapstick humiliation and also for being sexy, with no apparent contradiction." She is sexual, sexually eager, and yet keenly aware that she is not Victoria's Secret material—the condition of most of us.
Season 3? Bloom will allow only that there are going to be some shocking surprises in the life of the West Covina denizens. There are lots of different musical genres she wants to hit, starting, alarmingly, with ABBA—and she and co-writer Brosh McKenna plan to deepen the show's examination of romantic obsession. "Romantic comedies tend to look at love as this sacred thing," Bloom says. "I'm proud that we look at it more scientifically. It can be a pathology. It can be a way of avoiding your life."
As Rebecca Bunch evolves, so does the other RB, Rachel Bloom. It's not so much a question of shedding all neuroses in some false quest for happiness as much as "learning to embrace all aspects of myself. I used to think there was a kind of girl who likes sci-fi and one who likes makeup. Why can't I be both? Being a feminist, being a humanist, is all about embracing and accepting the contradictions in ourselves."
Well, if Bloom can't tell us about specific plot twists, perhaps she can name-drop a few guest stars? Not yet. But she does have one person she aspires to cast more than anyone. "My dream is to get Elizabeth Warren on the show. Maybe she'd play, like, God."
Incidentally, my son might be interested to know that so many people Google "Rachel Bloom breasts" that she made a video discussing her measurement, just to clear up any confusion. Because, you know, she's a giver. (She's 32DD, Henry. Happy now?)
By Judith Newman | Photography by Christopher Ross | Styled by Nadia Rath.
Originally published in Watch! Magazine, June 2017.
Look for Season 3 of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend this fall on The CW.