Avantika Is Embracing the Unknown, Duh

The 'Mean Girls' star is ushering in a new era for Hollywood’s beloved bimbo. In her own life, however, she’ll leave the labels behind.

(Image credit: Chinazam Ojukwu)

It’s a dreary Thursday afternoon in early December at a Taco Bell in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. A table of two girls, in high school from the looks of it, lean over surreptitiously. “Oh my God, is that her?” one whispers to me, holding out her iPhone that’s lit up with an Instagram account.

I nod yes, and smile at my dining partner, 18-year-old actress Avantika Vandanapu (who goes professionally by just her first name). The girls have overheard our conversation and are a bit shocked to find themselves eating burritos next to the person set to appear as Karen in the much buzzed about new Mean Girls

“Can we take a picture?” one of them asks. Avantika happily obliges, and the trio shuffle around to get a selfie. “I’m shaking, I’m so sorry,” the fan admits as she snaps the pic.

And suddenly, I know what it’s like to have lunch with the Plastics.

This happens often throughout our chat, with neighboring tables and passersby preening their necks or hushing their convos to listen in as Avantika talks about her life and acting pursuits. She’s not instantly recognizable like her now-A-list Mean Girls predecessors, but with her perfectly glossy pout and long mane of dark curls, there’s something undeniably shiny and star-quality-esque about her—like, well, the most popular girl at your school. Avantika demures that she currently looks less glam than she typically appears on her social media account. She jokingly describes her low-key ‘fit today—teal green lounge pants, a knit sweater, an oversized motorcycle jacket, and Ugg boots—as “rat attire” due to her chaotic schedule. Our meetup falls smack dab in between finals week at Columbia University (where she’s just wrapping up her first semester) and the start of her splashy Mean Girls press tour.

Avantika in Cormio top and skirt; Marc Jacobs boots

Cormio top and skirt; Marc Jacobs boots

(Image credit: Chinazam Ojukwu)

The new film, out January 12, serves as a silver screen adaptation of the Broadway musical which was based on the now iconic film co-written by Tina Fey, which was adapted from the 2002 book, Queen Bees and Wannabes. Apart from Fey and Tim Meadows, the cast is entirely composed of fellow fresh faces taking the reins from the mid-aughts players: Reneé Rapp as Regina George; Auli’i Cravalho as Janis 'Imi'ike; Angourie Rice as Cady Heron; Bebe Wood as Gretchen Wieners; Christopher Briney as Aaron Samuels; Jaquel Spivey as Damian Hubbard; and Avantika as Karen, the lovable, wide-eyed airhead (first brought to life by Amanda Seyfried) who is unwittingly roped into the power struggles of her high school’s hierarchy. 

Karen’s more interested in meteorology and trips to Taco Bell—that’s one similarity with her character Avantika didn’t have to reach far for. When it came time to pick a spot for our lunch, the decision was easy: “Wanna go to Taco Bell?”

When did we ever think that someone Brown was going to play an iteration of a character who's known for being blonde and pretty and stupid?


Avantika wasn’t even born yet when Mean Girls first hit theaters in the spring of 2004, but she still considers herself a diehard fan. The first time she watched the movie was on a DVD at the age of seven alongside her dad: “We're big into watching chick flicks, the both of us together, which I think is very cute.” While her dad fell asleep 10 minutes into the viewing, it was A Moment for Avantika. “My friends and I quoted it on such a frequent basis,” she says in between bites of her Crunchwrap Supreme (with chicken, her go-to TB order). “[The movie] is very important to me. Growing up and being bullied a little bit; growing up in an industry like Hollywood which feels very competitive, all aspects of my life felt documented and represented by that movie which I think speaks to Tina Fey's talent. Some part of you just feels so incredibly seen by that film.”

Avantika in Loewe top and skirt; Bea Bongiasca ring

Loewe top and skirt; Bea Bongiasca ring

(Image credit: Chinazam Ojukwu)

But Avantika's deep-seated love of the teen comedy made going out for the job considerably more daunting, afraid of the pink shoes she’d have to step into if it came to fruition. She still went for it though, submitting a self-taped audition in September 2022.

She admits she wasn’t particularly hopeful. It was a very popular casting call going around young Hollywood at the time. She didn’t think her singing was strong enough for a marquee musical number. And, most crucially, the character’s description didn’t mention anything about Karen being a person of color. Avantika feared being South Asian, especially, would work against her—after all, Indians on screen were the smart girl, not the sexy girl. In North Shore High speak: they were Mathletes not Spring Fling Queens. Avantika’s resumé alone was proof enough of that, with her credits ranging from “Chem Class Girl” in the 2021 film Moxie to class valedictorian Janet Singh in Netflix’s Senior Year.

Avantika in Mowalola dress; Erin Fader ring (left hand); Pamela Love ring (right hand); Sportmax shoes

Mowalola dress; Erin Fader ring (left hand); Pamela Love ring (right hand); Sportmax shoes

(Image credit: Chinazam Ojukwu)

She didn’t hear back about the audition for three months, but when she did it was a direct offer. Karen Smith would now be Karen Shetty to accommodate for Avantika’s South Asian identity.  It was a switch that was just as surprising to Avantika as it was to anyone else.

“When did we ever think that someone Brown was going to play an iteration of a character who's known for being blonde and pretty and stupid? It's the antithesis of everything that we've been told our community is from the very beginning. And while nobody wants to be called dumb, there's something liberating in feeling like there's no expectation around our intelligence anymore,” she says.

According to the film’s directors, Arturo Perez Jr. and Samantha Jayne, Avantika was a shoo-in. “Her [audition] choices were brilliant—from her vacant stare to how she got lost in her own mind during her intro to ‘Sexy,’” they write in an email to Marie Claire. “Everything she did felt truthful, spontaneous, and hilarious. She embodied the role in such an effortless way.” 

Perez Jr. and Jayne add that, once filming began, Avantika brought lots of fresh funny ideas to the role, including one bit in which Karen falls, face forward, into the crowd in that gymnasium therapy scene. “She feels a little bit louder,” Avantika says of her version of Karen. 

I hope that this film opens up the industry…and it shows Brown girls that options have opened up for you now as to what you can do in the world.


The film largely stays true to its source material (Fey also wrote this screenplay), with a few Gen Z-slang updates, social media plot devices, and much-welcome modifications to be more culturally sensitive. But one particularly meaningful decision for Avantika’s Karen was having her wear her signature hair naturally curly in the movie. She hopes it moves the needle on showing that to be considered pretty and popular and powerful you don’t have to fit into a Eurocentric standard of beauty.

“I hope this movie is, like, if you're Brown, you can be the popular girl in school!” She adds, “I hope that this film opens up the industry…[and it shows Brown girls that] options have opened up for you now as to what you can do in the world.”

Avantika in  Andreas Kronthaler for Vivienne Westwood dress; Marc Jacobs boots

 Andreas Kronthaler for Vivienne Westwood dress; Marc Jacobs boots

(Image credit: Chinazam Ojukwu)

Growing up, Avantika wasn’t necessarily the popular girl or the nerdy one at school. In fact, she was barely there long enough to establish a clique. She was born and raised in Northern California, but moved to India when she was 9 after her mom applied to a Facebook casting call for the Telugu-language film Brahmotsavam. Avantika booked the part, and she and her mom moved in with her grandparents for what was supposed to be a three or four month gig. But Avantika kept booking parts and they wound up staying abroad for four years.

She’s thankful that her parents supported her artistic endeavors, no matter how untraditional. “Anything I wanted to do, my mom was like, ‘Try it, do it, but if you decide to stay in it, you must be the best at it.’ She didn't really put a lot of pressure on me for school, but, say if I wanted to pursue horse riding—which I did temporarily—she was like, ‘You must be incredible at it. You must excel.’ Which I think was good. I think it's nice to be pushed in things that you like to do.” 

When she got a callback for a Disney film (2021’s Spin—the network’s first original movie to feature an Indian American lead) her family moved stateside, settling down in Los Angeles. She was just 13 at the time but she could sense that the tide had finally begun to turn in Hollywood, and was becoming much more welcoming to diverse actors and storytelling. Since then, she’s appeared in the series Diary of a Future President, HBO Max’s Sex Lives of College Girls, and sold a project to Disney+, an adaptation of the YA series A Crown of Wishes, which she’ll star in and executive produce.

She’d love to return to Indian cinema one day, perhaps to star in the kind of larger-than-life, song-and-dance romance films that Bollywood is synonymous with. But for now she’s still discouraged by the culture in the film industry there.  “[In South Asia] it feels so against you systematically because of nepotism,” she says.  “And there's so much colorism. It’s just insane to be pitted against somebody who you know you're more technically trained than but [they are] getting a better opportunity than you because they're just lighter skin.” 

Avantika in Maisie Wilen dress; Pamela Love bracelet; Ali Weiss pave bracelet; Giuseppe Zanotti shoes

Maisie Wilen dress; Pamela Love bracelet; Ali Weiss pave bracelet; Giuseppe Zanotti shoes

(Image credit: Chinazam Ojukwu)

The same way school was the thing standing between the Plastics and world domination, it was what stood between Avantika and her burgeoning on-screen career. Or at least that’s how she saw it as a kid. 

Like many child actors, she had on-set tutors but opted to “do the bare minimum” coursework so she could breeze through middle school, eventually getting her GED-equivalent (CHSPE) at the age of 13. It allowed her to work as “an adult” on sets, no longer needing to break for calculus and chemistry lessons. (When she returned to LA, she still attended high school to rack up AP credits.)

It was only when the SAG-AFTRA strike happened last summer, and Hollywood went on an extended pause, that Avantika felt she could turn her full focus back towards her education.

“I have a passion for learning,” she says, adding with a laugh, “I have a constant fear of getting stupid...I feel like it's a very Brown thing, the gifted child syndrome of like, Oh my God, I was so smart as a kid. Am I still up to par with my peers?  

She clearly was, getting accepted into her “dream school,” Columbia. She explains that she manifested the moment in a way even Regina George would be proud of: by shopping. Two days before Ivy Day (the day when the top universities release their admissions decisions) Avantika went to Marshalls and bought a Columbia sweatshirt. “It was the only Ivy that I ended up getting into and it was the only Ivy that I deep down really wanted to get into. It felt like destiny,” she says.

Avantika Versace top and skirt; Lionheart bracelet; Jimmy Choo shoes

Versace top and skirt; Lionheart bracelet; Jimmy Choo shoes

(Image credit: Chinazam Ojukwu)

At first, Avantika was concerned about her ability to transition from set life to school life. “My whole life I've been friends with actors and just surrounded by people in the entertainment industry,” she says. “I think coming to college, I was like, What am I possibly gonna talk to them about.” It didn’t take long for her to settle in. “It's been really nice to have my identity not just tied to my career,” she says. “To have all these people in my life who are now helping me cultivate all these other facets of myself that I have never before got to really dive into.” 

She’s majoring in cultural anthropology and thinking about doing a double minor in religious studies and—not to stray too far from home—film. “[At Columbia] I’m pushing myself to write and I’m writing with people where there's no expectation of, This is Hollywood, and we're on this big project, and I'm intimidated by you. There’s none of that. It’s just people who are really creatively talented. And everybody's just starting out. There's something really simple and pure and beautiful about that.” 

Avantika’s motivated to attend her spring semester, but she’s not sure if she’ll be able to stick around to earn her diploma. Her Mean Girls attention has turned her into a rising Hollywood It-Girl, and paired with the recent end to the actor’s strike, she’s receiving more opportunities than ever before. Not to mention, she has her eye on very specific industry goals that would be harder to accomplish from her dorm room: filming an indie project, producing a short film, collaborating with a fashion brand. 

She’s totally fine not having a clearly defined path forward. “I have realized very early on that planning is quite useless,” she says with the experience of someone who has moved all over the world and worked countless jobs before the age most people get their driver’s license. “Either [what you plan] never happens, or something better happens so there's no point to it.”

In short, she’s not ready to pick a label yet—smart girl, popular girl, Hollywood girl—the whole cafeteria world is her oyster.

That, much like Karen, is a no-brainer.

Photographer: Chinazam Ojukwu | Styling: Ryan Young | Hair: Marc Mena for Exclusive Artists | Makeup: Colby Smith

Neha Prakash
Entertainment Director

As Marie Claire’s Entertainment Director, Neha oversees and executes strategy for all editorial talent bookings and culture coverage across the brand's print and digital entities, including covers, celebrity profiles and features, social takeovers, and video franchises as well as handles talent relations for MC's flagship summit, Power Trip. She's passionate about elevating diverse voices and stories, loves a hot-take, and generally hates reboots. She's worked in media for more than 10 years and her bylines about pop culture, film & tv, and fashion have appeared on Glamour, Vanity Fair, GQ, Allure, Teen Vogue, Brides, and Architectural Digest. She is a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism.