Ask Fiona Apple to describe her friend Cara Delevingne, and she compares her to a foreign country where you instantly feel at home. “Like if Paris were populated by Chicagoans,” Apple writes in an email to Variety. “At first sight, you may notice the fancy threads and sleek silhouettes and highbrow art — but in live action, she’s a big, hearty hug of a woman, with a salty spirit and a loving kind of strength.”
For most of her life, Delevingne wasn’t sure what to make of her own desires: whether she could claim them, or even say them out loud. On this day in May, during a Zoom conversation from Los Angeles, Delevingne says that her path to acceptance involved discarding labels. “The thing is with me, I change a lot,” says the 27-year-old British actor, model, singer and star of the Amazon TV series “Carnival Row,” set in a fantasy universe. “I feel different all the time. Some days, I feel more womanly. Some days, I feel more like a man.”
Delevingne settles on a word to describe her identity. “I always will remain, I think, pansexual,” she says, meaning that she’s attracted to all genders. “However one defines themselves, whether it’s ‘they’ or ‘he’ or ‘she,’ I fall in love with the person — and that’s that. I’m attracted to the person.”
With nearly 45 million followers on Instagram, Delevingne is one of Hollywood’s most visible queer actors. She’s proved that she can be out, photographed by the paparazzi strolling with her girlfriend, without sacrificing her career in studio movies — among them, the 2016 comic book vehicle “Suicide Squad,” in which she played an evil enchantress, and the 2015 teen mystery “Paper Towns,” set in a high school. More importantly, she’s used her spotlight to foster understanding of mental health issues, particularly among LGBTQ youth.
Acceptance has not always come easily for Delevingne, particularly in Hollywood. She remembers how in the early days of her career, Harvey Weinstein called her one night out of the blue. “Harvey was one of the people that told me I couldn’t be with a woman and also be an actress,” she says. “I had to have a beard.” In 2017, on an Instagram post, Delevingne shared a story about a subsequent encounter with the movie mogul, who is now serving a 23-year prison sentence for rape and sexual assault. According to Delevingne, Weinstein invited her to his hotel room and tried to kiss her, which she resisted, before offering her a role in the drama “Tulip Fever.”
She’s talked about Weinstein’s ominous phone call before, but not with the same sad afterthought. “To me, the idea of having a beard was — I’d heard it happen before — I just felt so disheartened by it,” Delevingne says. “Do you have a conversation with a dude, and they’re like, ‘I’m going to pretend to be with you but not really love you’? I kind of think when I was pushed more that way, I realized how much more I needed to go the other way.”
In 2018, Delevingne told her fans that she identified as sexually fluid. “I never thought I needed to come out,” she says. “It was just kind of like, ‘This is who I am. Just so you know.’” This year, in time for Pride, she’s launching a clothing line for Puma (think rainbow-colored sandals and tank tops), with a portion of the proceeds benefiting LGBTQ+ foundations. As an ambassador for the apparel brand, she facilitated a $1 million partnership between Puma and The Trevor Project, the nonprofit devoted to suicide prevention for queer and questioning young people. “She was instrumental,” says Sam Gold, the organization’s talent engagement manager. “We hear from young people every day who draw inspiration from their idols like Cara.”
A year ago, Delevingne accepted an award at The Trevor Project’s annual gala, reading a poem she wrote as a teenager and speaking honestly about learning what love felt like. She says that appearing on the cover of Variety’s Pride issue is something that her younger self wouldn’t have been able to grasp: “I wish I could have told my 16-year-old self that, because honestly, I never would have believed it.”
Those who are close to Delevingne describe her as a non-famous famous person. She has a knack for making friends easily, with a feminist posse of some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Her Instagram account features frequent appearances from the likes of Rihanna, Ellie Goulding, Kendall Jenner, Rita Ora and Taylor Swift, whom Delevingne says she once moved in with for a summer in New York on a whim.
“Cara is extreme, eccentric, hilarious, loving and deeply loyal,” Swift writes in an email to Variety. “She’s an explorer by nature and is always on the hunt for the next adventure, which makes it a wild ride being her friend. You legitimately never know where the night will take you when she’s around. But while she’s spirited and outgoing, she’s also the person you’ll find in the corner of a party talking to someone she’s just met for hours, just because they’re going through a rough time. She’s deeply curious about others and profoundly sensitive. It’s that mixture of curiosity and sensitivity that I think makes her such a natural at becoming someone else on camera.”
Orlando Bloom, Delevingne’s co-star on “Carnival Row,” has noticed that she’s continuously in motion — one way or another. “She’s uniquely herself,” he says. “She’s always moving, clicking her fingers, tapping.” Bloom believes this is a key ingredient to her success as an actor: “When she has moments of stillness in juxtaposition with her nervous energy, it works.”
It’s been a surreal year for Delevingne, as it has been for everyone. She started the winter in Prague, filming the second season of “Carnival Row,” where she plays the pansexual fairy Vignette. But production shut down in March due to the coronavirus, forcing her to leave the set for her home in Los Angeles. She says that she filmed six of the eight planned episodes, but she’s not sure when the season will air. “The second season is going to be so good, but I don’t know when we’re going to finish it,” Delevingne says. “And probably not until the winter, because it has to be cold outside and snowing and miserable.”
When she’s not acting, Delevingne moonlights as a musician, writing her own material (though she’s yet to release a full record). She clocked a cameo on Apple’s recent phenomenon of an album, singing background vocals on the title track, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters.” The song is a meditation on liberating yourself (which feels especially poignant for those of us trapped inside our homes). Apple first started corresponding with Delevingne over a text chain with Delevingne’s then-girlfriend Annie Clark (perhaps better known as St. Vincent). “We would all text each other in a thread, and that went on until they broke up, at which point I kept in touch with both of them separately,” Apple explains. “I think Annie gave me my first impression of Cara, by referring to her as ‘goof.’ She’s pretty goofy, and that made me comfortable! After that, Cara and I would FaceTime, and semiregularly text lyrics back and forth for our imaginary (but still possible!) band, the Rug Burns.”
They eventually decided to meet in person. “I felt like I met my musical soul mate; she allowed me to feel like a kid,” Delevingne says of Apple. They locked themselves in a room and started recording. “Incredible story,” Delevingne says. “She had her cats cremated and then got their bones. I guess not cremated, but whatever — somehow. She makes music from her cat bones, so it means that her cats are in the song. I think it’s a really somewhat insane but wonderful idea.”
More recently, Delevingne broke up with her latest girlfriend, the former “Pretty Little Liars” star Ashley Benson. For two years, they were the “it” couple that the paparazzi trailed all over Los Angeles, following them as they went for walks or returned home. Delevingne declines to speak about the relationship in specifics, but she acknowledges the toll that comes from dating someone so publicly. “I’ve always felt bad for anyone I’ve ever been in a relationship with,” she says. “It’s very hard to maintain the normality in it. I think it’s why I tend to keep my private life a lot more private now, because that public thing can actually ruin a lot of things.”
She’s trying to make the best of this time in self-isolation. “I have been keeping busy,” Delevingne says. “I have a whole drum kit-piano-guitar setup, which is really great. My dogs have been really important to have around. Just keeping a daily pattern.” She schedules regular Zoom calls with her yoga teacher. “I really want to come out of it knowing that I’ve grown,” Delevingne says. “I’m still trying to create and do things.”
Delevingne was born into an upper-class family in Hammersmith, London. Her father, Charles, is a property developer; her mother, Pandora, is a socialite who has battled bipolar disorder. “I grew up in an old-fashioned, repressed English family,” Delevingne says. “And I used the word ‘gay’ to describe things which were s— all the time: ‘That’s so f—ing gay of you, man.’ Everyone used to talk about ‘Oh, my God, imagine going down on a woman.’ I’d be like, ‘That’s disgusting.’ I think that came from the fact that I just didn’t want to admit who I was. I didn’t want to upset my family. I was deeply unhappy and depressed. When you don’t accept a part of yourself or love yourself, it’s like you’re not there, almost.”
Delevingne had a lot of boyfriends growing up, but she felt a deep closeness with another girl when she was around 11. “I had this best friend, who I really connected with on a level, because we spoke a lot about our families,” Delevingne says. “You know how trauma connects people? And I just remember being so in admiration of her strength. She also played the harp, which I really enjoyed to sit and watch.”
The young Delevingne came to an epiphany one day. “I remember realizing, ‘I like her more than she likes me,’” she says. “And I remember she made friends with someone else and I was heartbroken. I felt like ‘This is the beginning.’”
Her parents didn’t suspect that their daughter was interested in women. “I had a big basement, and when you’re a teenager, you fit a lot of people in your bed,” Delevingne says. “I would have boys and girls, and they wouldn’t really think anything of that.” At 15, she had a mental breakdown. “By the time I was 17, my antidepressants weren’t working anymore,” she says. “I hated myself at that point. I was like, ‘I’m never going to amount to anything.’ I was really like, ‘I’m going to be dead by …’”
Looking back, she attributes part of her pain to not being able to live openly. “I think holding that thing in was fundamental to why I exploded in the way I did mentally,” she says. “But I’m not ashamed of it. I wear my scars like it’s jewelry.”
Delevingne had her first romantic relationship with a woman when she was 18. After it ended, she found herself emotionally wrecked. “I’ve never been very good at talking about my emotions with my father,” Delevingne says. “And I remember one day, I was so upset because I was heartbroken. And my dad was like, ‘You never talk to me.’ And I screamed at him, ‘I’m f—ing heartbroken.’ I ran downstairs. I remember he gave me a hug, and I started crying so much. I said, ‘She broke my heart.’ I thought at the moment, he might kick me out. I was that scared; I was honestly terrified. And he was like, ‘She isn’t worth the energy. You deserve to be loved.’ He was so sweet, I could cry about it right now.”
At boarding school, Delevingne got her first taste of acting, landing supporting roles — but never the lead — in plays such as “Jane Eyre.” When movie producers scouted her school for British productions, she tried out for the “Harry Potter” movies (she didn’t get too far) and Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” (narrowly missing out on the lead role that went to Mia Wasikowska).
Since acting didn’t seem to be in the cards, she pursued a career in modeling. But even as she found success on the runway, she kept looking for parts on-screen. “I thought I would do anything,” Delevingne says. “But my agent would give me scripts, and I was like, ‘I’m not playing the dumb girl that gets killed.’” Or she’d take issue with the dialogue of female characters in scripts. “No woman would say that. I’m sorry. It’s ridiculous,” she’d think.
Her breakthrough role was in “Paper Towns,” a comedy based on John Green’s book where she plays the coolest girl in school. “It was just so funny,” Delevingne says. “It was my dream to go to an American high school. And look, I went to an amazing boarding school in England. But it was really the idea of lockers that got me. I don’t know why.” Living in the U.K., she’d been a fan of the ’90s sitcom “Saved by the Bell,” where the students always congregated in front of their lockers between classes.
After the success of “Paper Towns,” she was suddenly being considered for more studio projects. On “Suicide Squad,” she experienced her first big-budget tentpole with an A-list ensemble that included Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Jared Leto and Viola Davis. “I was just so shocked,” Delevingne says. “I was like, ‘How am I with these people? What is happening?’ I was so scared. I felt very out of my depth. I was like, ‘How did I trick them into getting me here?’”
Robbie remembers the first time she laid eyes on Delevingne, shortly before they shot the film, at a posh event at Windsor Castle. “I was muttering to my friend quietly, because they were serving Champagne, ‘God, I wouldn’t hate a tequila,’” Robbie says. From a few feet away, Delevingne’s ears pricked up, and she turned to ask if they were in fact drinking tequila. “I was like, ‘No, but nice to meet you. I think we’re going to be really good friends’” Robbie says. “And we’ve been friends ever since.”
Delevingne also feels a kinship with her fans, who often remind her of herself when she was less certain about the future. Asked what message she’d share with them, she thinks about it, then says: “Pride to me is a sense of something that I never really had as a kid. A sense of pride is like a sense of belonging, a family outside your family, a place where you don’t have to apologize or feel ashamed. I guess I never felt like I belonged anywhere as a kid. Or I always felt like I didn’t belong in my own body. I felt so lost.”
She acknowledges that she can still feel that way, but she’s better equipped to handle it. “Once I could talk about my sexuality freely, I wasn’t hiding anything anymore,” Delevingne says. “And the person I hid it from the most was myself.”