“It haunts me that celebrities are just theater kids that made it,” a Tumblr user once shudderingly observed.
To some, there will always be something utterly spine-chilling about the fact that just underneath the red-carpet poise of their favorite actor lies the beating heart of someone who was once, at any given point, roughly two opening chords away from bursting into a show tune. Or worse—still is.
Rachel Zegler, more than most, wears that heart on her sleeve. The 20-year-old actress made her film debut in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, after being chosen over 29,999 other would-be Marías in a 2019 open casting call. As a regular teenager in New Jersey, Zegler did what lead sopranos do, and got cast as the star of all her high school musicals. Then she was catapulted into household-name territory. This kind of whiplash, even if she had wanted to, would not have allowed Zegler the chance to bury or shed her theater-kid self.
There are no second chances at a first impression—and Zegler’s was, for most, a viral video of her belting out Lady Gaga’s “Shallow” on an auditorium stage during sound check. It was the dictionary definition of “theater kid.” And even after all the late-night appearances, splashy magazine spreads, and Vogue makeup tutorials, she comes off as she is: a theater kid thrust suddenly under a global spotlight—earnest, gently bewildered, and hungry to prove herself.
But that naked authenticity, ironically enough, can come off as inauthenticity, especially to people who a) spend time in insular pockets of the internet where scorn and open hostility are considered personality traits, and b) grew up sick to the back teeth of the kids in the cafeteria screeching lines from The Crucible at one another.
To them, Zegler’s rise is unforgivable, though they may not be able to articulate exactly why they feel that way. Instead, they talk about her general aura, why it sucks, and why that justifies praying for her downfall.
Zegler’s “vibe is so abhorrent,” one Twitter user sniffed recently, adding that “something about her just doesn’t sit right with me.”
“Not to be a bitch,” another remarked, “but I’m glad everyone is talking about how obnoxious Rachel Zegler is because she’s been annoying me for OVER A YEAR NOW.”
“[I]t’s baffling how Rachel Zegler has 3% of a career and she’s already moving THIS weird,” a third wrote.
The peanut gallery’s combative comments reached critical mass earlier this week, when Zegler conceptualized, filmed, and uploaded a dramatic reading of a Britney Spears Notes app message from Jan. 14, in which the pop star slammed her younger sister amid their ongoing public feud.
It was quite the about-face for somebody who, eight days earlier, had won a Golden Globe. The video was tacky and misguided. It had none of the requisite self-awareness that a Gen Z celebrity, especially one who has made the choice to continue to be Extremely Online, should have. (Zegler has since removed the video and apologized.) It had pick-me girl energy. It was Rachel Berry-meets-Tori Vega. It was cringe.
But to some, it was more. It was all the proof they needed that Zegler didn’t “deserve” her celebrity. A howling chorus, largely having fallen silent since Zegler removed the phrase “Believe Survivors” from her Twitter bio in the wake of the sexual-assault allegations made against her West Side Story co-star Ansel Elgort, was vindicated and bayed for blood again. Spielberg may have plucked her from the chorus of the normies, but the video was a request for attention in neon letters, betraying the telltale heart of—gasp—a celebrity who was still a theater kid.
Sure, the acrimony comes from people who are trolling to soothe their own low self-esteem. There are decidedly more complicated structures of racism and misogyny at play, too. But Zegler has indirectly and directly made it abundantly clear that she sees the hate, even the tweets that get fewer than a dozen likes.
And though she hasn’t commented on it extensively, we have testimony that it feels like a punch “in the gut.” As Anne Hathaway, perhaps the most famous historical example of the “‘actorly’ female celebrity we just kinda loathe,” put it to Harper’s Bazaar in 2014, glimpsing one nasty headline “shocked and slapped and embarrassed” her. And she doesn’t even have a Twitter account.
Hathahate surged to an all-time high in 2013, after she climbed on stage to accept an acting Oscar for her work in Les Mis, and fatally, joyfully whispered, “It came true!” It was simpering and disingenuous. The vitriol that hit her in response, though, was completely out of proportion to the line’s awkward hamminess.
Now, Zegler is generating Oscar buzz of her own. As María, she’s been called “inarguably the biggest breakout star of the year” by Variety, with The Hollywood Reporter lauding her onscreen presence for “a delicacy that makes her appear to be floating on air.” Ahead of Feb. 8, when the nominations for the 94th Academy Awards will be unveiled, Zegler’s name is already being heartily tossed around in the salad bowl of viable contenders for the Best Actress race.
Hers will be an uphill battle against a set of established titans likely armed with surnames like Kidman, Colman, Stewart, and Gaga. What’s more, despite the Golden Globe snag, Zegler was completely snubbed by the Screen Actors Guild earlier this month—and no performer has ever won the Best Actress Oscar without a SAG nomination.
But, if you can imagine it, she could still be the first. If she’s nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars this year, Zegler will be the youngest Latina nominee ever. If she wins, she’ll be the youngest winner full-stop, breaking the record that actress Marlee Matlin has held for 34 years. Matlin was 21 years and 218 days old when she took her gold statuette in hand; Zegler would be 20 years and 328 days old.
And if you can imagine it, then it’s not such a stretch to picture what people will say afterward. It’s an unfortunate fact of the internet we now live on: whenever someone is feeling pretty and witty and bright, there’ll always be someone lying in wait to try and cut them down.