Grace VanderWaal Is Not Your Manic Pixie Dream Girl
She captured America’s — and Taylor Swift’s — heart when she won America’s Got Talent at 12. Four years later, Grace VanderWaal is so much more than the girl with the ukulele.
“I’ve wanted to change my name so many times,” Grace VanderWaal tells me between taking sips of her latte. “I’ve always loved Eve or Evangela or Marie or Maria. I think all these names are so gorgeous and mysterious in a way. I just love them. Why didn’t they name me Evangela?”
That last question is directed at VanderWaal’s mom, Tina, who is sitting to my left, quietly knitting a rainbow beanie. They smirk at each other, in an instantly familiar way — Mom: Please stop. Daughter: Make me. This playfulness is one of VanderWaal’s most endearing qualities. It’s also proven to be pretty marketable. VanderWaal was just 12 years old when she first found fame on America’s Got Talent, performing an original song, “I Don’t Know My Name,” and showcasing a megawatt smile, bangs, and a voice that made even Simon Cowell say, “I think you’re the next Taylor Swift.”
Now 16, VanderWaal charmed more than just the show’s judges: Her victory at the end of AGT’s eleventh season would result in the show’s highest-rated finale in six years, with almost 15 million viewers tuning in to see her play her signature ukulele — she now has her own line with Fender — on the intimidatingly large stage. The show was the ideal platform for America to get to know the name Grace VanderWaal, which makes it all the more interesting that, four years later, VanderWaal isn’t even sure she wants it anymore. But maybe wanting to reconstruct your identity is to be expected when someone achieves so much fame, so quickly.
After winning AGT, VanderWaal lived up to the promise of her initial viral performance: Throughout the remainder of 2016 and into 2017, the pre-teen performed everywhere, from The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Austin City Limits, and even a few awards shows. She also released her first EP, Perfectly Imperfect, and later, an album, 2017’s Just the Beginning. Now, she’s perfecting the second half of her second EP, Letters, split into Volume 1, released in late 2019, and Volume 2, due out later this spring. Before that, though, comes her feature film debut as the titular Stargirl, based on the best-selling book by Jerry Spinelli, and out March 13 on Disney+.
Stargirl is an interesting role for VanderWaal, in part because she has more than a few things in common with the character she plays: They are both homeschooled, they are both talented singers, they both play the ukulele, they both develop a reputation of being unapologetically themselves, and they both find themselves with a very dedicated — and at times intimidating — fandom. And then there’s the fact that Stargirl literally renames herself, meaning that they both are working through some stuff when it comes to figuring out who they are in the world.
“I still am so confused about my actual identity,” VanderWaal says. “Like two nights ago, I literally hyperventilated in my bed. I'm like, I am in skin. I will be in the skin for the rest of my life.” She laughs, but she’s not entirely joking, and it’s clear that VanderWaal is trying to figure out how to match up how she feels on the inside with what people see on the outside.
One way she does this is through her art — Grace tells me she recently wrote a song when she felt like she was struggling because she wants her music to sustain her.
But her industry pragmatism is only part of her self-expression — lately, like so many of us do during an identity crisis, she’s been experimenting with her hair. After getting a short bob, she asked her hair stylist, with whom she’s been working since she was 12, to add two long, rattail-looking braids. VanderWaal can clip them in or take them out depending on her mood. “[My braids are] like accessories,” she says. “I just loved the way it made me feel.” Today, she’s braid-free, instead opting for a red and blue Chanel coat, which she doesn’t take off throughout the interview, with jeans and simple flats. (A few weeks after we meet, she’ll attend Chanel’s Paris Fashion Week show for the first time, joking that a photo from the event is her “clearest picture in 25 years.” Again, she’s 16.)
“I hate wearing something that I don't feel nice [in],” she says of her personal style. “My mom knows I won't leave the house if I don't — not in a vain way, [but] it will ruin my day.”
For someone who is hyperaware of and invested in defining her own image, VanderWaal has a challenge ahead of her when Stargirl comes out, since it’s natural that — given all her similarities to the character — people might start identifying them as being the same person. And she knows this. Speaking at a D23 panel in August, VanderWaal agreed that the role felt “meant to be,” but in front of me she’s more hesitant to say she’s the real-life Stargirl, as if identifying that way could prevent her from being seen as her own person, instead of just another manic pixie dream girl.
That doesn’t mean that VanderWaal sees Stargirl as just a trope — not at all. “She’s a real person — very real,” VanderWaal says. “That’s what’s supposed to be most apparent in the film.”
VanderWaal says she, along with her director, Julia Hart, and producer/screenwriter, Kristin Hahn, humanized the quirky character.
Hahn told me over email, “Stargirl has a profound acceptance of people for who they really are, which is a kind of innocence that shouldn’t be mistaken for naivety. Grace was able to capture this ineffable 'worldly innocence' that this character embodies in a way that never felt self-conscious — and that is a tall order, especially for your first big acting job. When I think of 'natural talent,' I think of Grace VanderWaal.”
VanderWaal’s innate abilities come up a lot when people talk about her; via email, Hart told me that one of the most noticeable things about the actress was her “unbelievable gift for communicating emotionally with audiences through art.”
VanderWaal’s talents aren’t just artistic, though. She’s also naturally empathetic; Hart said, “Grace has an uncanny ability to become friends with people no matter how old they are or where they come from. She became as close to my 4-year-old son as she did to me.”
It’s no wonder, then, that VanderWaal has developed such a huge fan base; as of writing this, she has 3.5 million followers on Instagram, and she’s still figuring out how to navigate it all, telling me: “People don’t look up to people; people look up to celebrities. You can’t be real.”
Authenticity comes up a lot in our conversation, but VanderWaal thinks she’s got an advantage compared to other celebrities, since she’s spent all her teenage years in the spotlight: “I'm so grateful I was young, because I think that’s my out.”
Of course, early fame isn’t without its own problems. VanderWaal is constantly asked about things that happened to her when she was 12, even though, at 16, her priorities are more normal things like getting her license, finishing her sophomore year of high school, and, oh yeah, completing her album and wondering if she’ll ever be more than just the girl with the ukulele from AGT.
In the movie, Stargirl grapples with what it means to abandon one identity and grow into another. VanderWaal faces a similar struggle, in figuring out how to exit the first phase of her life and smoothly end up on the other side, releasing music inspired by a combination of Kanye West and lo-fi jazz. The problem is that VanderWaal doesn’t quite know how to do that in a not-too-dramatic way. Her plan — one she’s had since she was little — is to run away somewhere and live a new life.
“You know that’s literally the ending of Stargirl,” I tell her.
“Dang it!” she says, grimacing. “But mine will be different. I will disappear. My mother will be worried. But I want you to know that my name is Evangela, I’m somewhere in France, I have long black hair, and I put on 20 pounds. Unrecognizable.”
This story has been updated.