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Tyler Joe

The book’s cover is simple: a stick figure of a girl with a star over her head. Stargirl, by Jerry Spinelli, follows a pretty well-worn YA story line, as a ukulele-strumming manic pixie teenage dream girl teaches a male hero the joys of breaking the mold. The book was a best seller following its 2000 publication because it demonstrated the repercussions of uniqueness. That is to say (spoiler alert), Stargirl is bullied and ultimately leaves school.

Grace VanderWaal was born four years after the book’s release, but it seems that a film adaptation has been waiting for her all this time. The teenager—whose ukulele-centered America’s Got Talent audition was exactly the kind of weepy viral moment that talent shows aim for—stars in the Disney+ version of Stargirl, out March 13, updated slightly with a more 2020 take on bullying. “I was like, please, please Jesus, don’t let them make this a classic bullying movie, because I feel like that’s so hard to relate to these days,” VanderWaal says. She makes a sage distinction: “The message is not to be true to yourself but to be strong with yourself.” And in the process of celebrating your special self, “be prepared to go through really, really challenging struggles.”

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Since her discovery and eventual win on AGT (on the finale episode, Stevie Nicks noted that she saw a lot of herself in the then-12-year-old: “We like to be quirky, and we like to be a little weird and different and not exactly like everybody else”), VanderWaal has released an EP and an album and headlined two tours, in addition to opening for Imagine Dragons and Florence and the Machine. Another tour is in the works. Even with her exciting Disney+ debut, she doesn’t see a future in Hollywood. “I don’t want to be an actress,” she admits, “but when this was brought to me, I just kind of thought, I’ve never done this before and here it is in front of me. So what the hell?”

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Her heart remains in music, and she visibly cringes when asked about the songs she released right after her big TV moment. “I got on the show, everything happened, and then they threw me into a studio. I heard sounds, but I had no idea how to explain them or express them,” she says. “I was like 12, 13, in probably the most awkward phase of my life, and …” She pauses to choose her words carefully. “It was an uncomfortable experience. It was an unfamiliar place, unfamiliar people, most commonly unfamiliar men, and I was kind of embarrassed to say anything.”

The music on her EP Letters Vol. 1, from late 2019, is breathtakingly grown-up, from her Joni Mitchell meets Demi Lovato folksy-pop rasp to the indie-pop syncopations to the lyrical meditations on ego. “Wasted my college funds just to look cute / Forty minutes to look like I did it in two / Maybe I am vain, so are you,” VanderWaal sings on the opening track. “I wanted to focus on flex culture and, like, kind of poke fun at it,” she explains. “But also, as someone falling into it, what am I doing? Why do I even care about any of this?”

She’s particularly proud of that song, “Intro (Gucci Shoes),” not just for the lyrics but because of her firm hand in the production. “I wanted to emulate anxiety into sound, so that’s when the drums come in, and there’s a siren,” she says, getting excited as she explains. “Now, I’m just much more fearless. It’s easier to say, ‘No, that does not sound good. Let’s do this,’ ” she says, imitating the wah, wah, wah beat she wanted with her hands. “Then they’ll be like, ‘Blah, blah, blah,’ and I’m like, ‘No. Wah, wah, wah.’ ” She shrugs. “Before, I would get embarrassed and just kind of take it.”

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The high school sophomore (she attends an online school) is credited as the sole songwriter on the EP but says she’s “definitely not” carrying around a notebook to jot down daily drama. Instead, “in the studio, we start working, and then, all of a sudden, I start singing about something that might’ve just happened,” she says. “I’m like, Whoa, I didn’t know I felt that way about that. That’s the only time I really let that float out.”

Though she seems about 48 years old professionally and spiritually, VanderWaal has just turned sweet 16 when we meet. The big day was spent in Manhattan with friends, singing. “If anyone knows me, they know I’m in love with New York City and I want to live here really badly,” she says. (Her hometown is about 35 miles outside of the city.) “So obviously I came on my birthday, and we sang karaoke and it was really fun.”

Her age also makes itself apparent in a delightful overeagerness; when asked about her dog, Frankenstein, the grouchy silver pug overseeing her photo shoot from his carrier, she exclaims, “I would die for him. I would get tortured. If someone said, ‘I am going to torture you, let you slowly die in pain, black out, wake up, scream, die again,’ I would do it for that dog.”

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A list of her goals is rattled off with similar fervor. “This year, I’m releasing part two of my EP, and then I want to go on tour for that. I have so many dreams for this tour,” she says, raising her eyes to the ceiling as she envisions it. “Then I want to work with Chanel.” As of press time, she was planning to attend the brand’s show during Paris Fashion Week, calling it “a dream of mine for so many years. I have so many dreams. Probably too many. I’m ready for them to not come true, though.” She pauses at the terrible thought. “I’m ready for them to come true at the same time.”

Her parents have encouraged her to be more realistic, prepare for college and a normal job, “because I’m so young. I haven’t really broken through yet. It could easily fall out,” VanderWaal says. It seems especially impossible here at the shoot, when all adult conversation ceases because she’s just picked up her ukulele to sing. There’s a star dangling over her head.

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Photography: Tyler Joe
Styling: Julia Gall
Hair: Joseph Maine using Color Wow at The Wall Group
Makeup: Holly Gowers using CHANEL Beauty at The Wall Group
Manicure: Kayo Higuchi at Bryan Bantry Agency for Chanel Vernis
Location: Mirrortone Studios
Production: Sameet Sharma