It’s difficult to pinpoint the moment Kristen Stewart went from being one of the most loathed celebrities on the planet to one of the most beloved. For so long Stewart was That Girl from Twilight. Then she was That Girl from Twilight Who Cheated On Her Hunky Twilight Boyfriend. But eventually all that slid away, and the true Stewart emerged, the Stewart with whom the internet fell in love. That Stewart was brash and unrepentantly herself. She gave incredible performances in independent films from female and foreign directors. She was an establishment-approved style icon that seemingly never compromised her personal taste for a brand’s generic idea.
Stewart is a case study in growing up in the public eye, becoming exactly who you want to be, and saying “fuck you” to anyone who doesn’t like that. And while she’s still shaking off some of the assumptions that have followed her ever since she became a teen phenomenon, she’s also transformed into something of the ultimate Internet Girlfriend—someone who is desirable in all senses of the word.
Before Twilight came along, Kristen Stewart was a promising child actress. Her career seemed to parallel that of Jodie Foster, her costar in David Fincher’s Panic Room. But then she got the role of Bella Swan in the film adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s already immensely popular book series. The Twilight movies were melodramatic and campy, and taken incredibly seriously by their army of devoted fans. The fervent devotion was met by intense mockery, much of it aimed directly at Stewart, who, by the way, was totally aware of what kind of performance she was giving. She recently told Howard Stern she wanted to do a “cult-y, weird, indulgent . . . girly” role.
During the heyday of Twilight mania she was a young woman still figuring out her voice, who now admits she was suffering from debilitating anxiety. Her visible discomfort with media appearances made her the butt of jokes and subject of lists like “Kristen Stewart’s 7 Most Awkward ‘Twilight’ Interviews.” But it wasn’t just Twilight that made her a target: It was her high-profile romance with costar Robert Pattinson, which was the subject of manic tabloid fascination. And then her life imploded. She was caught cheating with her Snow White and the Huntsman director.
Sometime around 2014 and 2015, something changed. The nervous, uncomfortable person she seemed to be through most of the Twilight saga was replaced by someone who was fully confident in who she is. She took on a defensive posture but didn’t seem to want to shut the world out anymore. Instead, she started giving interviews that were brutally honest. She told Marie Claire: “Lately, I’ve been doing less of the [assumes whiny cry voice] ‘I’m sooooo sorry.’ And more of the [drops several octaves] ‘No. Fuck. Jesus.’” (That phrase became such a mantra for me that I once put NFJ charms on a necklace for a friend.)
She appeared in lauded films like Clouds of Sils Maria and won the French equivalent of an Oscar for that. She cut her hair. She cursed as much as she wanted. She put the letters A-S-S on her basement wall. By early 2017, she came out, casually, in a Saturday Night Live monologue, explaining in a direct address and challenge to President Trump, who was weirdly obsessed with her relationship with RPattz, that she was “like so gay, dude.” That same SNL she riffed on her new reputation as an arty queer icon in a sketch about Totino’s pizza rolls wherein she awakens Vanessa Bayer’s housewife from her life of robotic subservience. As silly as it may seem, the Totino’s sketch captures the intoxicatingly rebellious energy of Kristen Stewart so well. It’s easy to picture her breaking into your kitchen, embracing you, and opening you up to a whole universe of possibilities. And did we mention she’s really funny? It’s just in her nature to have the ability to turn an eye roll or an off-the-cuff remark into high art.
Her evolving style seemed to complement that. Now, no matter what Stewart wears she radiates a punk energy. Her neck is always hanging with chains. Her hair is cropped into a messy shag. Whether she’s in heels or sneakers, she seems at ease in her own skin in a way that is aspirational. You just need to look at the way she moves to be in awe: The Rolling Stones video “Ride ’Em On Down” encapsulates this as she dances and drives in a crop top and jeans. She’s our James Dean.
But the refreshing thing about Kristen Stewart is that even though she continually projects an air of DGAF cool, she clearly does GAF in a way that is truly, actually cool. When she talks about her work as an actress and the projects she chooses, she does so in a way that’s brimming with unguarded passion. She’s made multiple shorts and is planning to direct her own feature film about a woman coming to terms with her bisexuality. And as far back as 2009, she was challenging the idea that she had to act the part of someone who was always enthusiastic. “I am just trying not to say something totally un-genuine about something I love,” she said in an interview with Dazed. “People have to try to understand that it’s very weird for me to talk to people I don’t know about something I care about so much.”
Kristen Stewart never deserved the scorn she got. Even during the Twilight years her commitment and fundamental coolness were always there. The rest of the world just had to catch up. These days it’s thrilling to see Stewart being loved for exactly who she is.
Esther Zuckerman’s illustrated gift book A Field Guide to Internet Boyfriends: Meme-Worthy Celebrity Crushes from A to Z, published by Running Press, will go on sale Nov. 10, 2020.