Leanne Cope: A Briton in Manhattan

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Leanne Cope doesn’t feel quite dressed for a fashion interview. “I’m wearing the oldest pair of leg warmers and an old top that’s ripped at the neck,” the British ballerina says. “It’s just the comfiest clothes. Before a show, I just want to be comfy and warm.“

She’s sitting down with her An American in Paris costar and friend Max von Essen before a show. The two met at a 2013 workshop for the musical, which is an adaptation of the 1951 Oscar-winning film, and while Cope will headline the show’s West End bow in 2017, she and von Essen will part ways when the show closes on Broadway on October 9. The two reflect on the time they’ve spent together, chatting about style, travel, and romance.

Max von Essen: The first thing I was curious about, because you have lived in London, Paris, and New York—and I know London is home—but, if it wasn’t home, which city speaks to you the most?
Leanne Cope: I guess aesthetically, Paris. It’s so beautiful. You can wander down the streets and get lost and just go back in time. In New York, you can do the same thing. You can kind of get lost here, but you can’t really on this grid system.

Until you’re way downtown.
And I have to say downtown is where I feel most at home—the cobbled streets, the lower buildings. Yeah, I like places with history…For me, it’s the old New York that I love. You know the Waldorf-Astoria has the deco kind of side of New York? I like that. The Gatsby side.

So we’re all almost finished with the show here. And then you will be bringing American in Paris to London. What is the first thing you can wait to do when you get back to London?
I live in a place called Richmond, which is about 20 minutes outside of central London. So it’s not even classed as London—it’s classed as Surrey. So I guess it’s like living in Brooklyn or Jersey. And just down from us is a place called Kew Gardens. And I used to walk down on Sunday mornings and pick up a newspaper, pick up a coffee for Paul and take it home. And that was my favorite thing to do on a Sunday morning. So I think my first Sunday morning I’m going to do that and I’m going to take Pippin with me.

That’s right because you have the new dog! Tell everyone how that came about this year—you adding this new little member to your family.
I was just a little bit lonely. And we’d done Broadway Barks in the summer, and I did look into adopting a dog. But as soon as I told them I was going back to England, they were like, “Oh no no no no. We can’t let you adopt because we don’t know what life you can give this dog back in England.” So I was like, “Ok, that’s fine.” So I ended up buying my dog Pippin, and she’s changed my life here. She makes me get outdoors on the coldest days and the hottest days and we go and explore the park, and she’s so happy to see me at the end of the day.

And she’s taken to Paul, because she was basically just with you first.
She loves Paul more than she loves me. She’s going to be really upset when he leaves next week.

Now, Paul is your husband.
Yes. Not just some random person.

I know how you met Paul, but tell everyone.
We were at a dance competition when we were about 9 years old. And of course, there were about three boys and like 40 girls. And I remember watching this boy dance, and I thought, “My god he’s amazing.” And even my mum and my grandma were like, “Oh my god. That boy is amazing.” And we were joint winners at the competition. And there’s a picture of us at like 9 years old holding this cup.

Oh no.
We put it up at our wedding actually, which is funny. And then, he lives in Devon, I lived in Bath, so I didn’t see him again until the first day at the Royal Ballet School. And he walks in, and I was l like, “Oh my god, that’s the boy from that competition.” We did five years at the Royal Ballet lower school, and we didn’t speak to each other once. But I remember saying when I was about 13 that I’m going to marry Paul K. And the girls in my dormitory were like, “Don’t be stupid!” At the same time, I said I wanted to marry Prince William. Prince William was very handsome and single at the time. I think he did better off with Kate.

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Shut up.
But yeah, so that’s how it happened. We got together when we were 16, and we’ve been together ever since. We got married two years ago.

I love that. So when you were 9 years old, what was your dream for like your 20s, your 30s?
It’s strange, I don’t think I’d really thought about it.

Did you see yourself in ballet?
No, I don’t think it was ballet. I definitely wanted to be a performer, and I think that was the year I went to see Cats. And I think from that moment, from watching Cats, I was like, that’s what I want to do. I wanted to be the white cat. And I don’t think the ballet thing came into play until a couple of years later…So there’s always been this little thing at the back of my mind that I wanted to be in a musical…And to originate a role as well is kind of crazy.

Isn’t it just unbelievable what we’ve done?
It is. And I am now being nostalgic and thinking back. And I get very emotional thinking about it now.

And it was so new to you. But for someone like me, I dreamed of this my whole life, this kind of a moment. And I’ve been working almost 20 years professionally as an actor, and I’ve had some great moments but nothing like this. Really. And it’s been so magical. And I wanted to ask you—alright we’re both crying by the way. But it really has been that kind of thing. Even if it’s someone like me who has dreamed about it and thought about what would it feel like to have a show do well and to get a Tony nomination and to experience all this, and for someone like you, I imagine you didn’t think about it, what it would be like to be in a Broadway show.
I didn’t.

But it’s probably just as special.
Yeah, it is special, and I was just caught up in this whirlwind. It’s been just first after first after first.

What was it like navigating through Tony season [last year]? Because I know I thought I was going to be fine and all of the sudden we were going to so many events, and I was like, I need help! I mean literally just for clothing.
Sometimes it was three events in one day.

Did you have help?
I didn’t have help.

So you just spent thousands of dollars.
I just spent a lot of money.

You had to have some help on some things.
For the Tonys and opening night, I did because they were so kind to put us in contact with Randy Rahm, who is an investor in the show. So she dressed me and Jill [Paice], which was amazing. But I remember the Tony press junket—which was the day after the nominations were announced—I turned up in a dress that was $12 from H&M.

See that’s amazing.
Their clothes fit me really well. And I just know I can go in there and the proportions are right for me. And I can remember looking around thinking, “Oh my god all these people are in ridiculously expensive clothing.” But I still really love that dress and I’ve kept it. I’m going to wear it again.

Do you find yourself also investing in some like major pieces as well?
Sometimes I like thought, “Ok, I feel really special”—not that I didn’t feel special in H&M stuff—but there were some moments where I thought, “I need help with my confidence.”

Well you always look amazing. So other than like Tonys and our opening night, were there any other events that you were actually dressed for and designers?
Randy gave me the dress I wore to the Astaire Awards, which I loved. It was the blue one—it’s called “The Periwinkle”—and it was covered in sequins and beads and it was beautiful.

So here in New York, where do you find yourself shopping the most and how would you describe your current style?
It’s weird. I feel like my style has changed since I cut my hair.

I was going to ask you that too. Has your style changed even since doing this show?
I think so because I cut my hair slightly as a rebellion that I don’t need to put my hair in a bun anymore. And also because [director/choreographer] Christopher Wheeldon once mentioned on a whim, “Oh maybe you should cut your hair like Leslie Caron [in the film].” And I was like, “Let’s cut it!” And then I felt—because long beautiful hair is so feminine—that if I wore jeans and a t-shirt, I felt like a boy so I think I dress more feminine. I feel like I have a lot more dresses in my wardrobe now. And the weather’s so good here. In the summer you can actually wear dresses, whereas in England most of the time it’s a bit dismal.

I love that because I’ve found that my style this year has kicked it up a few gears. Luckily I had a lot of help too with Brooks Brothers. It’s helped me figure out my style a little more because I kind of needed to because there were so many events and attending so many things.
It’s also like, you leave stage door and you have a photograph with someone and it turns up on Instagram, and you’re like I really should not have worn that.

Oh gosh I need to think about that more.
In the winter it’s great. You stick a hat on and a coat and you’re fine. In the summer, it’s a little bit more difficult. But I seem to gravitate towards the same shops here as I do in London or Paris. Cos is amazing.

I feel like I didn’t shop much when we were in Paris. We were so busy. But is there something that you still have that you really love?
Yeah, the stuff from Cos. And I think it is very Parisian. I think their style is very simple and they always look so chic. It’s great for winter stuff. And there’s a shop called & Other Stories, which is here. And I’ve fallen in love with it.

Really? Where is it?
It’s on Fifth Avenue. And they have jewelry and bags and sunglasses and shoes and clothes and underwear. They have everything. I got very excited about it, and I remember wearing a dress when I went home in May and then I walk out into London and I see a girl in the same dress and I thought, “Damn they’ve got it here as well.”

What’s been your favorite purchase since you’ve been in New York?
I bought a pair of shoes. They are Louboutin nude shoes that I wore to everything. I think I haven’t worn any other shoes because they go with everything. So they were a real investment. I wore them to the Tonys, I wore them to opening night. So they were my biggest investment and the best investment. Like, I already know I’m wearing them to my brother’s wedding when I get home.

Just to close out, there are so many similarities between you and Leslie Caron, and she’s a style icon as well. Tell me a little bit about some of your memories of meeting her.
The thing that struck me, because she’s so beautiful, is that she never thought she was. She thought she was weird-looking. She thought she had huge lips, which are so appealing now. I mean maybe in those days it wasn’t so appealing, but since Angelina Jolie, everyone wants big lips. I was like Leslie Caron was the first Angelina Jolie. She had these amazing lips.

She wasn’t the normal sort of Hollywood bombshell.
She had these amazing cat-like eyes. And she cut her hair out of rebellion as well. She wanted short hair and she cut her own hair and I kind of love that about her.

And got in trouble.
And got in trouble for it! The week she was here I got to spend nearly every day with her. We were doing stuff every day. And she said she shops at Zara, and I was like, “I love Zara!’”

See? You don’t have to spend a fortune.
No you don’t. You can look like Leslie Caron and shop in Zara. And I remember the story she told us about getting one of her first paychecks from MGM. And she was like, “I can buy a pair of shoes every week.” She couldn’t believe that. She’d just come out of the war; they couldn’t afford to buy bread. And she was like, “I can actually afford to buy myself a pair of shoes.” She didn’t because she still had the war mentality, but she knew that she could. And she also told us a story about when she was making American in Paris, each week on payday a jeweler would come to the studio lots, and with her first paycheck, she bought herself a ring and she still wears it now. It’s a hand with the world inside and she felt it was her like taking hold of her own destiny, her own life.

Styling by James Brown III
Additional Styling by Allegra Levy
Makeup by Steve Schepis
Clothing by St. John, Milly and Cynthia Rowley