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Why Lili Reinhart Isn’t Afraid to Speak Out on Mental Health and Body Issues

A few years ago, Lili Reinhart was a Pier 1 sales associate trying to achieve her acting dreams while working through her often crippling anxiety. But when she landed the role of a thoroughly modern Betty Cooper on “Riverdale,” The CW’s dark and twisty adaptation of the beloved Archie comic books, she almost overnight amassed millions of young fans who hang on her every tweet, post and passionate word.

It would have been perfectly understandable if Reinhart (then 19) wanted to sit back and enjoy the ride. She had a dream job in “Riverdale,” and even on a turbulent drama best described as “Twin Peaks” meets daytime soap opera, Reinhart’s determined and quietly simmering Betty stands out. But she used her considerable platform to shed light on the realities of depression, anxiety and body dysmorphia by frankly discussing her own experiences with all of the above, reassuring her fans of their worth by daring to be honest with them.

“I’ve never been ashamed of having depression,” the 21-year-old told Variety in a rare free moment on set, where she was shooting a flashback episode in which she’ll portray a teenage version of Betty’s mother (usually played by TV veteran Mädchen Amick, who Reinhart says has taught her to “know her worth” on set). But she insists that there was no grand strategy behind her transparency. “If there’s something I feel really passionate about and feel the need to comment on, then I will,” says Reinhart, this year’s Variety + H&M Conscious Award winner.

Your Betty is a really interesting, modern update of the original Archie Comics character. What makes her fit so well in 2018?
She’s modern in the sense that her whole life doesn’t revolve around Archie, as it did in the comics. She’s quite independent and handles things on her own. She’s strong, and she’s fiery. Which I like.

You now have 2 million Twitter followers and over 11 million on Instagram. How do you approach what you post online, and how do you think social media can actually do good?
I think social media is good in the sense that it’s created a big platform for a lot of artists who might not have had an opportunity to be seen, and it’s given us a chance as actors to differentiate ourselves from the characters we play. I live a very different life than Betty, and I feel like if you’re just watching the show and I didn’t have social media, you wouldn’t think I’m as outspoken as I am. So it’s a chance for us to express ourselves in a very personal way that we’re in complete control of. It doesn’t go to an editing room; it’s all directly from our fingertips.

What made you want to use your platform to speak out on mental health and body issues?
I truly can say it was never something I had to stop and consider whether I was comfortable doing or not. I just did it. It didn’t really matter how many followers I had. I’ve always kind of spoken up about stuff like that, and been very open and honest about it.

What’s been one of the most rewarding aspects of doing that?
When I started doing conventions to meet fans, I was able to meet people face-to-face and have them tell me, “I didn’t know how to talk to my parents about [mental health], and then I heard you speak about it and was motivated to get help.” At first, people saying things like that didn’t really register. It was just like, “Oh, that’s a nice thing to say.” But then it kind of stops you in your tracks to think that something you did has actually influenced someone’s life. That’s such a deep thought, and something that you really just have to stop and process. It’s really quite emotional, and incredible.

I still feel like I don’t deserve the fans who tell me I’ve changed their lives. That’s something that I still can’t wrap my mind around, because I feel like I don’t really see that something I’m doing is so important. But slowly and surely, I’ve realized that it is, because of how little awareness there is out there [about mental health]. I’ve always been aware of depression, anxiety and body dysmorphia, because it’s something I’ve lived with for a while. But being exposed to this industry and so many more people from all around the world, I’m really seeing how closed off people are from talking about it, so it’s been a process of learning that what I’m doing is actually helping.

CREDIT: Janell Shirtcliff for Variety

Were there any celebrities growing up who you looked to for guidance like people are looking to you now?
I definitely looked up to Demi Lovato. I remember her as being the first person [I heard] talk about depression and growing up with an eating disorder. I personally have not had an eating disorder, but her openness and honesty about her mental health was really cool to me. I was like, “Oh, that’s how I feel! She’s famous and beautiful and has money, and it’s strange to think that she could still feel that way too.”

It was just an awareness that [depression] can affect anyone of any gender, any race, any age, no matter how much money you make or how famous you are. It’s just something you were born with, and you can get past it. It doesn’t have to define you, or make you [feel] any less of a person.

What’s something you know about managing your anxiety now that you wish you knew when you were younger?
It’s OK to not know what to do. I get asked, “What do you do when you feel anxious?” a lot, and what I do to help my anxiety is not necessarily going to help anyone else. It’s a very personal thing. You have to figure out what’s going to work for you and what doesn’t, and it’s going to change over time. Breathing exercises didn’t necessarily work for me. Writing did, and driving did, but driving makes some people anxious! It’s different for every person. So my advice would be to not feel so pressured to figure myself out so quickly because, well, I’m still figuring it out.

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