Brittany O’Grady Is Just as Afraid of Gen Z as You Are

Fashion

Back in July, when a small boat of messy American tourists with big egos, deep pockets, and bad attitudes arrived on our TV screens, there was a seismic shift in dinner conversation that would not cease. The White Lotus dropped on HBO with a star-studded cast, including Jennifer Coolidge, Connie Britton, and Natasha Rothwell. It also introduced us to our new favorite Gen Z bully, Paula, deftly played by newcomer Brittany O’Grady.

The show had everything: mediocre white men, mommy issues, massage therapy, even the use of Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams as an ironic prop. Over the course of a week, viewers navigate the fraught lives of three families on their respective escapes to the titular resort in Hawaii, and the hotel staff forced to put up with them—much to their dismay. Each character is unhinged and problematic in their own unique way.

brittany o grady, celine

Sweater, top, socks, and shoes, Celine.

Amar Daved

As with most pop culture phenomena these days, it took over the internet. Everyone and their mother talked about the outlandish plot points, including but not limited to a murder and a massive shit. (Yes, you read that right.) Also of note were a few viral stills-turned-memes, like the photo of Olivia (Euphoria’s Sydney Sweeney) sporting clear aviators and ample judgement, sitting next to Paula who dons a not-so-subtle smirk and a perfectly raised eyebrow, one I can’t help but compliment. Her go-to brow hack? “I have a lot of hair.” A solid answer to a difficult question. “My grandma had really thick eyebrows,” she adds. “When I was growing up, my eyebrows were not in. I would get comments calling me a Wookiee.” [Ed. note: the fictional alien in Star Wars.]

But O’Grady has always had the look. Not only was she the cutest kid ever, she can positively stun in head-to-toe Celine. Seriously, get you a girl who can look this good in athleisure and give you a contemporary Blair Waldorf-on-The-Met-steps serve. Gone are the days of the early 2000s thin eyebrow trend, and good riddance to that. Though O’Grady is now the proud owner of two perfectly full brows, know that if it was you who was making those snarky comments way back when, The White Lotus hive is coming for you.

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Left: Jacket and barrette, Celine. Right: Top, pants, shoes, and bracelet, Celine.

Amar Daved

Yes, there are entire YouTube edits, fancams, and Reddit threads dedicated to O’Grady and Sweeney’s characters, who were introduced to us as moody college sophomores hunting for ketamine and a good hang, but grew into full-blown frenemies with a lot of vengeance and little understanding or compassion for one another.

Though, at 25 years old, O’Grady herself is on the cusp of Gen Z and millennial, tapping into this particular role wasn’t exactly effortless. I can confirm that O’Grady is a nice girl. Paula… not so much. Both she and Olivia traumatized all of Twitter and bullied millennial and Gen X viewers across the country (and probably beyond).

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“We did our job,” O’Grady says confidently. “It was funny to see people say that they were terrified of the characters, because Gen Z is… kind of terrifying.” All generations have exceptions, of course, but there’s something particularly powerful and occasionally threatening about teens these days. She continues: “They’re really terrifying and they’re bold. And they’re calm about being bold. They stick up for what’s right and they just put you in your place in two seconds. But there’s no filter.” O’Grady has firsthand experience thanks in no small part to her younger brother. “His commentary on life is just hysterical,” she says. “He just roasts us all.” Leave it to your little sibling to simultaneously drag you and help you at the same time.

The White Lotus creator Mike White knew exactly what he was doing with these young characters: how they moved about the space, whispered with one another about fellow hotel patrons, what books they read by the pool. Hot college girls reading Nietzsche and Freud is definitively camp, but The White Lotus is a satire. A tragicomedy of sorts. It’s a genre I can’t quite find the word for that marries white excellence with white mess. Think Big Little Lies or (for its time!) Gossip Girl (the original, obviously). As iconic as these series both are, they shouldn’t be placed on a pedestal. In fact, this exact exploration of whiteness leaves little room to tap into the true depths of its characters of color. These shows have their flaws, surely, but the genre is also highly entertaining due to its uncanny ability to play with and poke fun at its white protagonists.

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Jacket, top, belt, jeans, bag, necklace, and sandals, Celine. Falke socks.

Amar Daved

When asked about her favorite white mess-meets-white excellence show, O’Grady responds candidly: “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.” It should be noted that her goal is to merely act as a real housewife, not be one. She’s too kind to be dealing with Erika Jayne IRL. “My dream role is to play a woman on a show like that,” she says.

Mike, if you’re reading this, please bring back O’Grady as a young woman from Potomac, Maryland with an overbearing mother and a short temper. “I’m ready to cry and smash champagne and be like, ‘I’m so miserable!’” she says jokingly. If Paula stays friends with Olivia, it’s easy to see that character come back to The White Lotus.

“It was funny to see people say that they were terrified of the characters, because Gen Z is… kind of terrifying.”

Last month, it was announced that Coolidge would return for the highly anticipated second season of the hit series. No word yet on any other season 1 cast members. Though O’Grady is comfortable and arguably excited to get to be an audience member this time around, that’s not to say she doesn’t have some plot suggestions. “I wonder if Salma Hayek would do it,” she proposes with a playful, knowing grin. Considering that Hayek starred alongside Britton in White’s Beatriz at Dinner, it would only be a seamless fit, not to mention a very exciting reunion.

During my Zoom call with O’Grady, I can’t help but gush over Britton. Fortunately, it doesn’t phase the young actress one bit. “I’ve never not met somebody who was like, ‘Oh, how is Connie Britton?!’” She assures me, “She’s great, she’s strong, she’s independent, and her hair is fabulous.” We can all rest easy knowing that our assumptions were 100 percent correct.

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Jacket, bodysuit, hat, necklace, and bag, Celine.

Amar Daved

Toward the end of our chat, O’Grady graciously accepts my invitation to play a White Lotus-themed version of the cheeky game “Fuck, Shit in a Suitcase, Kill” with Olivia Mossbacher (Sweeney), Nicole Mossbacher (Britton), and Kitty Patton (Molly Shannon). It’s hard to pick a lesser evil. “I’d marry Olivia probably, just because I think that she’s the closest thing that Paula has to marriage at this point,” O’Grady begins. “I feel like she’s the closest to some sort of redemption or understanding. I think I’d shit in Kitty’s suitcase because I think that would be worse than death for her. And I’d probably kill Nicole. Respectfully.” There’s simply no way to kill a Connie Britton character with disrespect.

I considered throwing in Coolidge, but it felt too easy. “I’d marry her in a second,” O’Grady says, without missing a beat. Marrying Coolidge is always the goal, but working alongside her, and on a show like this, is a close second. “Connie gave me some great advice, so did Jennifer [Coolidge]—we just all bonded, everybody. The whole cast.” The actors naturally grew close quickly while filming and living on the island, in their own COVID-safe bubble.

O’Grady was a sponge with all the veteran actors, but it was Rothwell who really swept the rising star under her wing. They were the only Black women on the series, after all. Their lived experiences—Rothwell on Insecure, O’Grady on Fox’s Star—and bond helped them both navigate roles that required them to be passive, othered, and, rightfully, angry. Like Rothwell, O’Grady has been unintentionally preparing for this role for a while now. She’s navigated a Mossbacher conversation or two… or 12. Harmful and entitled rhetoric paired with a white savior complex and a lot of privilege was—as it is with most young Black women—part of her life. “I usually have more experiences like Paula, where I observe it and it hurts me,” says O’Grady, who is mixed race, with an Irish father and a Creole mother. “There are these little microaggressions that kind of poke at you. It’s like, ‘Is this real? Is this actually happening?’” Familiar questions for many of us.

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Jacket, belt, necklace, bracelet, and sandals, Celine. Falke socks.

Amar Daved

Working with Rothwell helped O’Grady process these complex feelings and bring Paula to life onscreen. “Natasha helped me dissect my character in ways that were so helpful from her perspective, being a writer, a director, and an actress,” O’Grady says. “[Rothwell] is a Renaissance woman and a powerhouse. And as a woman of color, I felt like I could ask her about the perspective from my character.” It’s a relationship she doesn’t take for granted—and one this writer wishes was explored a bit more with their characters in the show.

O’Grady’s time on The White Lotus set allowed her to evolve as an actress. “It’s a really nice chapter for me, at 25, to start delving into roles that are meatier,” she says. “I’m excited to tell more stories and to really go for it.” Real ones also remember her (and her voice!) from Apple TV’s short-lived comedy-drama Little Voice, but it’s still a joy to see her get her flowers.

From getting engaged to her longtime boyfriend Ben Huyard to the explosive reaction to The White Lotus, it’s safe to say O’Grady had a huge summer. Though she may be relaxing in Santa Barbara with her fiancé’s family at the moment, she has no plans to slow down anytime soon. “I’m excited for this new chapter,” O’Grady says. “I’m trying to manifest some things for 2022. We’ll see what comes to fruition.” Fingers crossed. Vision boards up. We know we’ll be seeing more great things from her.

Jacket, bodysuit, pants, necklace, and bag, Celine.

Photographer: Amar Daved; stylist: Rachael Wang; hair: David Von Cannon using Oribe; makeup: Kayleen McAdams using Chanel; stylist assistant: Storm Monteiro Tyler; producer / visual editor: Sameet Sharma

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