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Emma Roberts, early for an interview at the Chateau Marmont restaurant and slumped in an oversize armchair that consumes her small frame, isn’t deliberately trying to intimidate the starry-eyed waiter, who, like most in his position in Los Angeles, probably would rather solicit her advice than her order.
This story first appeared in the April 9, 2010 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
No wonder that he’s slightly awestruck. Though only 19, Roberts is already a Hollywood veteran, shooting to fame first as a teen queen, thanks to the long-running Nickelodeon hit Unfabulous. For the last few years, though, she’s been working avidly to shed the label, culminating with a jam-packed 2010 in which no fewer than five films with Roberts are scheduled for release.
Roberts’ order is what the waiter gets, though: an un-Hollywood carb- and calorie-packed lunch of spaghetti Bolognese with an Arnold Palmer. While she waits, the pint-size actress resorts to the teenager habits of fidgeting with her hair and cell phone (her mom warns her she might get carpal tunnel). Her outfit is out of the playbook of the cosmopolitan and mostly private schooled: sunglasses on the head, a hoodie, corduroys, boots ascending to the midcalf, a soft T-shirt and layers of gold costume jewelry.
When and if stars are out among us, some argue, they tend not to look and behave spectacularly different from us. In Roberts, they find proof. Of course, she’s gorgeous. Her milky skin presents no detectable flaws, and her impeccable wardrobe is enviable. Still, her beauty and clothing choices are accessible. She’s thin, but not by design; she sports designer duds, but enjoys a good sale, and she’s famous, but not haughty. She could be your best friend or your daughter’s best friend.
“I think I’m relatable,” offers Roberts, uncomfortable when asked to assess her appeal. “I am really normal for someone who is in the business. I am definitely not like the hottest young actress, the most beautiful or whatever. I have my own thing going.”
Roberts’ “thing,” however it is defined, is familiar to her peers in the Facebook generation because their passions are very much her passions. She is obsessed—a word she seems to litter in every other sentence—with beauty, music, media and technology, but fashion and shopping most of all. Roberts can quickly rally off a list of her current favorite designer brands—Alexander Wang, See by Chloé, Miu Miu and Dior are in the tops—and her favorite models, which include Lily Donaldson, Gemma Ward and Kate Moss.
Roberts’ fashion obsession is not without purpose. “I would like to be recognized for my style, because I love clothes,” she says, naming Audrey Hepburn and Sienna Miller as two women she’d like to follow into the actress-cum-fashion plate stratosphere. “Audrey Hepburn is amazing because she was so beautiful, but at the same time, she wasn’t a big-boobed bombshell,” says Roberts. Of Miller, she adds: “She always looks so cool.”
Not one for imitation, Roberts is doing her best to hone her own look. She gobbles up fashion magazines. On the red carpet, Roberts has been taking more risks, mixing and matching pieces, and adding accessories to jazz up outfits with the aid of wardrobe stylists Emily Current and Merritt Elliott. The work has been paying off: trendsetting blog WhoWhatWear last year named Roberts a “Girl of the Month,” lauding her ability to go from prim to playful, and she has scored plaudits for the sparkly Jenny Packham minidress and towering Brian Atwood heels she sported to the Los Angeles premiere of Valentine’s Day.
Roberts dreams of eventually landing a spot in a leading designer’s advertising campaign and launching her own line. “I want to do something in fashion that wouldn’t be cheesy,” she says. “I wouldn’t do, like, Emma Roberts for Target. I’d want do to something more like the Olsen twins did, Elizabeth and James and The Row, something that is really cool, wearable and still unique.”
The corporate world has come calling, too. Roberts has served as a brand ambassador for Johnson & Johnson’s Neutrogena brand since February 2009, chosen for her capacity to relate to girls. It helps that she isn’t far removed from their experiences. “When I was younger, I would get pimples, and I would try everything, and I was like, ‘None of this works. This is so annoying,’” recalls Roberts. “Kids just want stuff that’s going to clear up your skin. If it says it’s going to clear up your skin, it should do that. That’s why I love being a part of the Neutrogena stuff.”
Beauty, fashion or otherwise, if Roberts has a hankering to do something, it’s a good bet she will. Unlike people her age lambasted for talking, tweeting or texting and not putting in the effort, she has a unique ability to turn her passions into résumé bullet points. She caught the acting bug as a child, landing her fi rst role at nine as Johnny Depp’s daughter in the 2001 cocaine smuggler biopic Blow after her first audition. At 13, she secured the role of Addie Singer in Nickelodeon’s 2004-07 series Unfabulous.
Roberts’ most recent mission is to broaden her acting portfolio, and she’s certainly begun to achieve that in both mainstream and independent fare. In the former group are 2007’s Nancy Drew, 2009’s Hotel for Dogs and Valentine’s Day, the blockbuster released in February in which she is Grace, the slightly neurotic high school student plotting to have sex with her boyfriend. “It’s just a good thing to have in my pocket,” says Roberts of the last film. “This was a really fun, commercial, big-studio movie that is definitely good for exposure. It gave me an amazing opportunity to work with big people like [director] Garry Marshall.” Marshall also happens to be the director who propelled Roberts’ aunt, Julia, to fame with the 1990 smash hit Pretty Woman.
But it’s in the smaller films in which Roberts has been truly expanding her range. In 2008’s Lymelife, the actress broke out of the Nickelodeon mold as a sexy, Long Island Lolita type, and she has continued to mature on-screen in a string of edgier movies. Later this year, Roberts finds herself in the wrong crowd in the gritty British movie 188.8.131.52, in a mental hospital in It’s Kind of a Funny Story, as a young Mormon in What’s Wrong With Virginia and as the moral counterpart to drug dealer White Mike, played by Chace Crawford, in Twelve.
Adult themes don’t faze Roberts, according to Dustin Lance Black, director of What’s Wrong With Virginia, who praises her acting acumen. “Some of these young actors do feel like they have lived inside of the young-actor bubble, and they’re very Nickelodeon or Disney. That’s not Emma,” he says. “You can put stuff in front of her that is layered, and she gets it. She might even teach you a few things about it.”
Skeptics aren’t so sure, crediting Roberts’ family ties—in addition to Aunt Julia, her father is actor Eric Roberts, a former boyfriend of her mother, Kelly Cunningham—with catapulting her career. Hollywood isn’t that simple, Roberts asserts. “People that like my family will have an interest in me or want to meet me, but at the same time, people who don’t like my family are like, ‘We don’t even want to meet her.’ It works both ways,” she says. “I’m my own person, and am trying to carve out a career on my own.”
Joel Schumacher, who directed Roberts in Twelve, believes she has the ambition—and talent—to go far. “She has chops, and, like a lot of young people who become famous when they are young, there is an old soul there. She is not some silly young thing on any level,” he says. “I would work again with her in a flash. If there is one part that she has never ever done even near before, I would audition her. She has surprising stuff in her.”
Polishing off her spaghetti Bolognese, Roberts is self-effacingly ebullient about what she’s already achieved as an actress. “A month ago probably, I was like, ‘I love doing this,’ and then I was like, ‘Oh, this is my job.’ I always think of it as fun,” says Roberts, the words coming a mile a minute. “When I’m not working, I think, ‘Maybe I’ll get an internship and do a real thing,’” she continues, before a slight pause. Then, I’m like, ‘This is the real thing.’”