"A lighthouse doesn’t save the ships; it doesn’t go out and rescue them, it’s just this pillar that helps to guide people home," says Michele three months later. The supertite 5’3" actress is dressed in track pants and a black T-shirt, her bare feet tucked under her on a patio char outside by the pool at her modest airy West Hollywood home. "Someone once told me that, and I love the image. Lately, I’ve been using it as a guiding metaphor." Exactly waht the metaphor stands for isn’t immediately clear: Is she the lighthouse? Is "home" simply a safe haven? But it seems to be her way of describing what she’s searching for, and perhaps what she tried to be for Monteith, before it was too late. "I never thought I would be in this position in my whole life," she continues, both hands wrapped around a mug of tea. Glee was on hiatus when Monteith died, but now the fifth season is under way and Michele finds herself mourning a private loss in public.
In the show’s recently aired tribute, Glee creator Ryan Murphy and his team chose not to explain how Monteith’s character, Finn, died, opting instead to bring together members of the glee club, past and present, to mourn through song. Throughout the episode, the emotional suffering of the characters obviously reflects that of the actors themselves. And none more so than Michele-ever the professional, she recites Rachel Berry’s scripted dialogue but the tears seem real. Her rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Make You feel My Love” reasonates with genuine heartbreak.
"Before Cory passed away, Lea was definitely the leader on set, and so was Cory," says Jane Lynch, who plays conniving cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester. "She has been an absolute trouper. she’s the reason we’re back at work right now instead of taking a season off." In addition to the pressure of helping to keep the show together, Michele feels the pressure of knowing legions of grieving Glee fans read into her every move: Is she already dating again? Could their relationship have been a publicity stunt all along? "Now that I am in this position, you can choose to rise and that’s what I’m going to try to do," she says. "I know that Cory would want nothing more than for me to take this situation and use it to help people. I don’t know if I will. I don’t know how."
So far, Michele’s response has been to just give herself time; the 27-year-old actress pushed back the release of her as-of-yet untitled solo record into 2014. “It’s very hard,” she says, shaking her head. “And you have to be very strong to come out of this alive, but I think by doing the best for myself, by showing that you don’t have to lose yourself, maybe someone else will feel some sort of strength or comfort.”
Though four years his junior, Michele was by that point already a veteran performer, having been on Broadway since childhood. An award-winning role as Wendla in the Tony winning rock musical Spring Awakening had christened her a bona fide star. Plus, everyone knew Glee had been developed with Michele in mind. Monteith liked to talk about how intimidated he felt by her accomplishments and how nervous he was to meet her, a thought that still makes Michele smile. “From the minute I met Cory, I was like, This is the most handsome man I’ve ever seen in my whole life,” she remembers.
The pair briefly dated at the beginning of Glee, but no one really caught on,” the actress says. They were both adjusting to celebrity life in Los Angeles, being followed by paparazzi and obsessed over by some 10 million viewers who’d fallen in love with their show overnight. Together, they became a spokescouple for the increasingly powerful Glee brand. Since its debut, the show has become a cross-genre phenomenon. In addition to winning six Emmys and four Golden Globes, the show’s soundtracks have sold more than 13 million copies worldwide, helping to fuel several Glee Live! tours, in which Monteith and Michele performed.
By late 2011, Monteith and Michele were officially a couple. “One day we just looked at each other and we were like, ‘You wanna do this?’ We knew.” But by March of 2013, Monteith was back in rehab, and his history with drugs became public. Michele is circumspect about what she knew when, and how she tried to help. “I can only imagine what it looks like from the outside,” she allows. “It was such a short period of time between when people found out to, you know, July, but there are so manyy personal aspects of this whole journey that people are not invited to know. We had a full life, and that had lots of different details that will be ours forever, for only us to know.” Asked if she was worried about him, her response is quick. “Of course,” she says. “Who wouldn’t be worried?”
Considering her well-documented focus and ambition-and those extraordinary pipes- Michele might strike you as someone who was a musical-theater-fanatic kid, the kind who breaks into Annie songs at the dinner table. In fact, she didn’t even sing as a child. Born Lea Sarfati, the actress was definitely a natural performer, but, always doing voices and accents, she seemed more like a comedian than a vocalist. When Michele was in elementary school, her mom drove another girl to an open call for Les Miserables as a favor, and eight-year-old Lea, on a whim, decided to audition as well. “My mom was like, ‘What do you mean? You don’t sing! This is for Broadway!’” Miraculously, she got the part of Young Cosette-having never taken a voice lesson or performed professionally in her life. “‘Don’t ever let me stop. I want to do this for the rest of my life,’” she told her parents after her first performance. “I just knew. And that comes with such relief. You don’t have this internal agita-what should I do with my life?!-you can just go forward 100 percent. My parents were encouraging but chill.” she says. “There was none of that pageant show-pony ‘perform for us’ thing. My family respects that this is really, truly what I love, but it’s also my job. When I’m with them, I’m Lea Sarfati.”
Michele’s parents met in their Bronx neighborhood when they were barely teenagers. He was Jewish; she was an Italian Catholic. Their courtship was “not quite accepted,” Michele says, but they’ve been together “for, like, a hundred years.” “It’s a blessing to come from such great, strong, solid parents who are still together,” Michele says. “But it’s also a little bit like, ‘Woah, they achieved it-can I as well?’” They raised Michele in Tenafly, New Jersey, where her dad worked in a deli and her mom was a nurse. An only child, she got their full attention. “Both of my parents are such hard workers,” the actress says. “But my father, specifically, is the most active, perfectionist, on-it multitasker in the world. I get that ability to really focus, that drive, from him. I always wanted to show them that I was on point and professional, ever since I was a kid.”
After Les Mis, she continued to work steadily on Broadway, next appearing as Jewish immigrant Tateh’s daughter, the face of innocence and promise, in the original cast of Ragtime. At high school in New Jersey, “I was on the volleyball team, I was on the debate team, I went to summer camp, I went to my prom, I was at my graduation, I was at spring break,” she remembers proudly. “I had a normal school experience.” Or as normal as it could have been, heading off to 42nd Street after school when most kids were going to soccer practice.
When Michele was 14, she began participating in readings and workshops for a new musical. Spring Awakening was set in nineteenth-century Germany but featured rowdy pop rock by ’90s singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik; the show preceded the wash of rock musicals we’ve seen since (American Idiot, Rock of Ages, Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark). It was groundbreaking, not only for its anachronistic fusion of place, time, and musical genre, but also for its brave exploration of adolescent sexual desire and the costs of suppressing it, themes that would later echo on an even bigger cultural stage with Glee. Michele knew Spring Awakening was the perfect launching pad for her own blend of talents-the classic chipper musical-theater song-and-dance plus the magnificently moody, grown-up voice and physicality. The show took five years to launch, and Michele was there the whole way. “I was sitting on this golden egg,” she recalls. “I knew it was magic.” The bet paid off: “Once we finally performed on the show Off-Broadway, everything was like, bam, bam, bam: Off-Broadway, Broadway, reviews, eight Tony Awards- we checked every box of what makes a successful Broadway show.” And Michele’s perfect pitch, arresting stage presence, and what Murphy has called her “once-in-a-generation voice” were no small part of what set the show apart.
Michele says her secret weapon has long been her capacity to maintain some balance in an off-kilter world. These days she’s a kundalini yoga devotee with a bathroom full of holistic soaks and health-nut supplements. The actress hopes to communicate that spiritual side to her young fans with Brunette Ambition, a book out next May, which will tell girls that “it’s possible to live a really fun lifestyle that’s still grounded and centered.” Part how-to, part memoir, the book will be made up of recipes, stories about her family, and, of course, a chapter on Glee.
"A trend with Lea is that moments of uncertainty always end up reaping her great rewards," says her best friend, Jonathan Groff, who has known Michele since he played her love interest in Spring Awakening. (Groff also guest starred as rival Jesse St. James on Glee.) "When something happens to her and a feeling comes up, she does not go above it, below it, or around it. She always goes through it, completely, and experiences it."
Groff is responsible for having introduced Michele to Ryan Murphy. “I was told my whole life that I would never do television because my look was too ethnic,” says Michele in a tone more of pragmatism than resentment. “I was 100 percent focused and ready to be the best in the world that I was in.” She figured she’d do Broadway shows for the rest of her life and maybe come out to L.A. for the odd bit part, “like a little car-crash victim on Grey’s Anatomy,” she says.
And then her plans came undone. All at once, her boyfriend broke up with her (“He’s just like, ‘We’re done’”) and Spring Awakening’s stagehands went on strike, shutting down the show. “I’m like, ‘Okay, this is the universe starting to do some crazy shit,’” she says. Michele called Groff, who was in L.A. working on a pilot. He persuaded her to fly to California immediately. A few days later, she and Groff met Murphy for dinner at the Chateau Marmont, and Rachel Berry was born. “She’d been bemoaning the fact that there were no roles for girls like her, not a lot of musical romantic-comedy roles,” Murphy remembers. “I really wrote the role for her, to give her something where she could really strut her stuff.” Rachel Berry was one of the two Glee parts written specifically for a particular actor; the other was Lynch’s Sue Sylvester. They shot the pilot less than a year later, and since then Michele has been nominated for two Golden Globes, and an Emmy. “Lea’s the heart of the show,” says Murphy. “Her character and her spirit embody what the show is about, which is first times and discoveries and the trajectory that you take on your way to becoming a star. That’s all very intertwined with Lea and her persona.”
In some ways, though, Michele is too closely aligned with her character. Of course the real woman is a much more fully drawn and complex person than the one she plays on TV-but it’s not hard to see how her personality can be misread as difficult. Michele is exacting. She likes things a certain way-take for example, the careful neatness of her home, the encyclopedic list of recommendations she rattles off for great L.A. sushi restaurants, the way she can’t help but correct me when I confuse two of her song titles. She has very high standards and defines herself by her ability to meet them. You would not want to be on her bad side. “Totally,” Groff concurs. “You’re in or you’re out with Lea. Her friendship is extreme in a good way.”
There is, however, a warmth underlying that fierceness. Kate Hudson, the actress MIchele was rumored to be feuding with on the set of Glee back in the summer of 2012, is in fact one of her closest friends. “The media just wants to pit girls against each other,” Hudson says of rumors that she called Michele a “nightmare” to work with and a “total diva.” In reality, “it’s one of those jokes where you sit in the makeup chair and you start a pool to see when the story’s going come out that we hate each other, you know?” Glee’s Murphy sees the smack talk as plain old sexism. “Every woman, like Lea Michele, who has become very celebrated throughout the history of show business-be it Bette Davis or Barbra Streisand-if they’re anything but demure, they’d get shit for it all the time. If you’re a man and you claim yourself to be ambitious, you’re celebrated. A woman who says the same is looked upon as cold or a shrew. That’s the culture.”
Immediately following Monteith’s death, Michele turned to Hudson. “I called her and said, ‘I don’t know where I’m going to go because my house is swarmed [with reporters],’” Michele remembers. “She was like, ‘Oh, you’re going to stay at my house.’ Like it was nothing.” The seclusion was just what she needed. “No one knew I was there, which was so great,” she says. “She let my family stay there, and any of my friends. She made sure that in the refrigerator there were my favorite juices. I’ll never really be able to thank her, truly, for what she did for me.” Hudson still gets choked up talking about those weeks. “Honestly, she was inspiring,” the actress says. “She’s a very strong, special, loving woman. She really has dealt with the emotional side of it in a way that has been very healthy.”
"Okay, this song really makes me want to fucking kill myself," Michele says, half-jokingly. "I can only listen to it once every six months. "We’re sitting at Pulse Recording studio in Los Angeles with the singer’s production team, playing the tracks Michele has recorded for her long-awaited album. Michele is a whole different person when talking about her music-a saucier, flashier, more animated version of the composed, wounded girl she was at home. Today she’s dressed like a hipster superhero in skintight jeans, Fiorentini and Baker biker boots, and a paper-thin suede tank accessorized with a Starbucks coffee (black with just a splash of skim milk).
After trying out a few different sounds, Michele and her team had settled on the record’s current vibe-big, splashy, anthemic pop, a cross between Evanescence and Kelly Clarkson without a whiff of a show tune-when Monteith died. “The album was done, and the label said, ‘Do you want to add anything?’” Michele recalls. At first she didn’t think she did, but she reconsidered. “I was like, ‘I might regret it if I don’t.’”
To help write a song about Monteith, she reached out to Sia Furler, the Australian singer-songwriter who has worked with Katy Perry, Rihanna, and Christina Aguilera and has five songs on Michele’s album. When they met, “it took her a second, and then I guess she had me right, and she knew that her secrets were safe with me,” Furler says. They co-wrote “If You say So”-named for the last words Monteith said to Michele. The track isn’t finished yet, but it will definitely be on the album Michele says, as will another track added after Monteith died, called “Cannonball.” While working with Furler on that song the actress broke down in sobs. “I said [to Furler], ‘I feel like I’m starting to just sink in it, and he would never want me to do that. I need to remember that you have to live, because you can want to die.’”
Telling this story, Michele quotes the “Cannonball” lyrics: “I’ve got to get out into the world again/ I won’t hide inside/ I’ve got to get out/ Got to get out/ Lonely inside but I’m going to light the fuse…and now I will start living.”
Over the curse of two days together for this story, Michele’s eyes mist up a few times. But it’s not until she plays another song, “You’re mine,” recorded well before Monteith’s death, that she actually lets go. It’s a comparatively upbeat track built around the notion that one person can belong to another for life. It’s about the way love makes you feel invincible-everything else seems possible, because you have this person on your team forever. As it plays, Michele closes her eyes, sings along, and cries. “It makes me so happy, this song,” she shouts over the backbeat, grinning through her tears. “It makes me think so much of Cory. It was ours. When I think of him, I play this.”