Editor’s Note: After great deliberation and several conversations with our lawyers and Rafaelala’s lawyers, the editorial staff of Virtue magazine has unanimously decided to publish this story. Ariana Thomas is no longer a staff writer for Virtue, as we cannot condone the behavior she exhibits in this article.
The last thing I expect to do with Rafaelala is call an ambulance for her. The second-to-last thing I expect to do is wait for her in the parking lot of a hospital while one of her tiny white dogs pees in my lap.
But let’s back up seven hours, before I conduct the most disastrous interview of my career. I’m deep in the Hollywood Hills, here to interview supermodel-turned-actress-turned-entrepreneur Rafaelala for Virtue magazine’s cover feature. Today will be the second time I’ve met her, though at the cover shoot the day before, I lurked on the sidelines. I watched her spin, nearly nude, in a sea of silk Hermès scarves that four production assistants threw in the air surrounding her as she twirled and the shutter clicked. Each time she spun, her skin glistened in the hot lights as if illuminated from a molten inner core.
Rafaelala was born Rafaela Lane, daughter of the famous Mexican artist Lucía Estrada and British businessman Lincoln M. Lane. Young Rafaela divided her time between Mexico City and the greater Dallas area until, in 2010, at 17 years old, she moved to New York City by herself to become a model. I’ve scoured her earliest modeling photos for the exact moment she went from model to superstar. It’s tough to call, but it’s likely the same year that she first walked for Dior — fall 2011. She made her acting debut in 2014’s How Tall the Sky, where she played an alcoholic astronaut’s slutty daughter and received rave reviews despite the movie’s critical failure. (“This movie’s plot might as well have vanished into a black hole,” wrote The New York Times, “but Rafaelala’s star continues to ascend.”) Next came a small but profound part as a cocaine-addicted prostitute in the 2017 film UnRighteous, which led to an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
Reading about Rafaelala, I can’t help but start making a list of the adjectives other writers use to describe her trademark bleach-white hair: “an angel’s halo,” “a candle’s white-hot flame,” “a feathery nest for doves.” I resolve not to fall into this trap myself, though my favorite description comes from her best friend and fellow supermodel Lolly Odibe. “You’re always briefly blinded by her hair,” Lolly told Frida Magazine in 2016. “It’s like seeing sunlight glint off of snow for the very first time.”
Virtue did our own, much smaller feature on her just before UnRighteous, calling her “a young model-actress to watch, luminous in everything she does.” But now she’s cover-worthy, an established model-actress who finds success in all that she touches. I’m here to interview her about her new skincare line, Lalalineage.
On the day of our interview, I park my rental car on her street as instructed and walk up to the security gate, where I am buzzed in by an unseen hand. I follow a waterfall that spills down the side of the house and pools in a moat of stones before winding its way to her door. Rafaelala’s assistant texted me before the interview to apologize that no one but close friends and family are allowed to park on the property, so when I reach the door, I expect to be greeted by the same assistant, or at least a housekeeper. I expect Rafaelala to be enshrined in a sitting room, her makeup impeccable, utterly aloof. I expect to spend an hour at the house, tops, and to be ushered out as soon as those 60 minutes are up, if not sooner.
But when I knock tentatively on her door, Rafaelala throws it open as if she’s been waiting for me. She’s barefoot, wearing a Fendi sweatshirt and distressed Reformation jeans. She beams benevolently, fresh-faced and quite possibly not wearing any makeup at all. She’s all bright-white teeth and, yes, bleached white hair.
She hands me a cup of tea in what looks like a clay flowerpot.
“Hey, you!” she says, and I wonder if she’s forgotten my name, or if her assistant forgot to mention it to her. “Drink this! My healer gave it to me.” Her healer, she tells me, is a man named Bear. “I just find that it lets me connect to my art better,” she tells me as she ushers me inside, and I take the tea without asking what it is. I don’t even like tea, but how can you say no to an Oscar-nominated superstar with the most flawless skin you’ve ever seen?
Lalalineage is a series of all-organic serums that Rafaelala calls her “potions.” She describes each one as she gives me a tour of the house, all stark white walls, gray marble, blue glass, and an occasional spike of fuchsia. Her home shares a color palate with the distinctive Lalalineage branding: elegant blue bottles with a fuchsia top and a dove-gray label.
She tells me to call her Raf, because that’s what her friends call her. She introduces me to three tiny white Maltese-Pomeranian puppies — “Maltipoms,” she tells me. “How cute is that?” I meet their live-in dog nanny Brenda, and we end the tour in one of Raf’s bathrooms, which is bigger than my bedroom back in New York and has a 14-foot ceiling.
“This potion is called refreshdaisy,” Raf tells me as she picks up one of the four blue bottles next to the sink. She tells me the serum is sourced from real daisies and proprietary herbs gathered from near where her mother grew up in Mexico. She went on a scouting trip there and rented a house for a month while she learned about local plants’ healing properties.
“Want to try it?” she asks.
Of course I want to try it. I place my mug of tea on the counter — it is bitter and almost salty, like no other tea I’ve had, but with a final hit of sweetness that lingers in the back of my throat. Licorice, maybe. I take the refreshdaisy serum into my hands and pat it onto my face. It smells impossibly, well, fresh for something that comes out of a bottle. Though I’ve tried two of the other serums Raf’s publicist sent over last week — sleepperfect and hydranation — refreshdaisy renders my face almost as radiant as Raf’s. It helps that the lighting in her bathroom haloes me in a forgiving pink glow.
Onscreen and in real life, Raf looks as though she’s eaten a bowl of real moons for breakfast, not the bowl of half-eaten Lucky Charms that her assistant Misha whisks away when we pass through the kitchen. Done testing her serums, we make our way to a stunning veranda tiled in marble the same light gray as Raf’s Lalalineage labels. Raf has lived in this house for three years now, she tells me. She bought it for the view, and sure enough, all of Los Angeles sprawls below us.
Raf is notoriously reluctant to discuss her childhood in interviews. When I ask her about it now, she says, “Growing up, I had nearly everything I wanted,” then quickly changes the subject to acting. “I love how acting revolves around your talent,” she tells me, “not just who you know or how you look.” Raf is nothing if not earnest, assuring me that while she was born into privilege, yes, she has worked hard for her fame.
I choose not to remind her that her father’s money ensured that she could pursue any career path she wanted. I do not tell her that her natural beauty is its own kind of currency. Still, I can’t deny that she is devoted to her craft. In preparing to shoot UnRighteous, she spent a week eating nothing but rice cakes and drinking only water and kombucha. She allowed herself only four hours of sleep each night during filming. “I spent hours and hours in the makeup chair,” she says, “which is so much harder than I expected. Your neck tenses up and your legs fall asleep. You almost forget the reason you’re there.” But it was all worth it, Raf tells me, to achieve her character’s distressingly gaunt and haunted look.
“Despite the intense physical labor of acting,” she says, “it feels instinctive, as if acting has always been in my blood. Acting is my birthright.” And then she does speak about her childhood, briefly. Raf grew up attending her mother’s gallery openings, spending time with world-renowned artists.
“I longed to care about something that deeply,” she tells me, “to care the way my mother and her friends cared for their sculptures, their paintings, their performance art. And I’ve found that now, but it’s taken until now.” I ask whether she means her acting, her modeling, or her new business venture, and she sweeps her hands up, up, as if summoning the spirit of the entire city that stretches before us. “All of it!” she exclaims.
As Misha brings us refills of the salty, bitter tea, I bring up what I haven’t mentioned until now: that Raf has been to rehab three times for cocaine addiction but has, by all reports, been clean for a year. She skillfully evades my questions about her drug use. “My past is my past,” she says, “and I prefer to live in a limitless future.” But when I ask if her life experience prepared her for that star turn in UnRighteous, she pauses and briefly opens up, telling me she regrets nothing. “To be able to tap into my wounds for my art is a tremendous privilege,” she says. “It’s the privilege of my life, really.” Then she’s back to joking about her skincare line and asking if I think the names are dumb. “They might be a little silly,” she tells me, “but I wanted them to be playful, too.” This seems to be the essence of her personality: Rafaelala may be aloof and luminescent, but Raf is down-to-earth, friendly, even funny.
By the time she offers me a hit of weed, holding a joint that’s appeared seemingly from thin air, I am already feeling the most relaxed I’ve ever been during a celebrity interview. I wonder briefly if perhaps I’m coming down with something, if that’s the reason I feel a little feverish or if this is just what it’s like to be in her presence. Maybe all of my nerves about profiling her have vanished because she’s been such a gracious hostess. I imagine her serum reverberating deep within my pores. I tell her she should name one of her potions “sunswallow,” or maybe “sunswallower,” and she laughs and says she’ll name it Ariana, after me. She knows my name after all!
I hesitate before I take the joint. After all, I’m on the job, already feeling a little bit woozy in her presence. She’s a recovering addict; is she even allowed to smoke marijuana? But I accept the hit anyway, and after we smoke together — I only take two small puffs, because I’m working — she asks if I want to join her for yoga downstairs in her studio. Her private teacher is arriving soon.
Our interview was supposed to conclude an hour ago, but this is how I end up doing yoga with Raf, which, in and of itself, is not abnormal for a celebrity profile. As part of my job, I’ve gotten pedicures with football players. I’ve taken movie stars bowling. But I’ve never been loaned clothing from a star’s personal closet so I can accompany her to a private yoga class.
The yoga instructor, Kin, seems unsurprised to see me, and as I take a mat from a pile near the door — it’s gray, blue, and sparkly, but not in a tacky way — I observe that there are four other matching mats. Raf explains that friends often join her, and I wonder if this means we’re friends now. I don’t need to tell you how naïve of me this is, but between the weed and the tea, I am feeling very calm. Too calm, maybe; at one point during yoga, I think I might pass out. I’m feeling a little nauseated, too, which I blame on Kin’s rapid sequence of poses. As I rest for a few minutes in child’s pose and Raf hovers in a complicated headstand, Kin comes over and gently kneads my neck the way my cat kneads my stomach every night. I imagine that I am a kitten, all small warm softness, and Kin in her fuchsia leopard-print leggings is my cat mother. I wonder then how strong Raf’s weed was. I think, but cannot confirm for certain, that I spent the second half of the yoga session mewling quietly to myself. (When I try to contact Kin later, she declines to comment for this interview.)
After yoga, Raf and I head to the kitchen, still in our yoga clothes — her yoga clothes — and she boils hot water for still more tea, tells me how much she loves living alone, how much she loves her life, do I love my life? Without waiting for an answer (but I do love my life! I love it so much!) she hands me another clay mug full of her tea. I realize I should probably eat something; I haven’t eaten since breakfast, and the sun is starting to set. From the kitchen window, the city twinkles below us, and I imagine its yellow lights as marshmallows, scooping them up in a giant spoon and letting them burn my tongue with their brightness. My tongue tingles at the thought. What does Raf eat besides Lucky Charms, I wonder? Suddenly I long for a bowl of Lucky Charms, a longing so intense that it cramps painfully in my stomach.
But instead of asking Raf for something to eat, I am briefly lost in a memory of my childhood Saturday mornings, how I would mix together all the sugary cereals in the pantry and sit in front of the television watching cartoons for hours as my mother slept in, tired from late-night shifts at the restaurant where she waited tables. My stomach-cramp longing turns into an overwhelming desire, then, to see my mother, though she has been dead for two years. I picture her in front of me, can almost smell her perfume, lilacs and sandalwood. As the doorbell rings and Raf leaves to buzz in another visitor, I begin to cry.
Through my tears, I see Raf opening the door to Bear, the healer she told me about earlier. I know he is Bear because Raf screeches it as she opens the door: “Bear! You’re here!” He picks her up and twirls her around like she’s a child. He looks to be nearing 50, with sun-weathered skin and a handsome, if scruffy, face. As I use a fuchsia dish towel to wipe the tears off my cheeks, Raf squeals again and kisses him on the lips, not for a brief amount of time. I wonder if she’s forgotten that I’m here, but she introduces me to Bear, saying she wants him to meet “my friend Ari T.” She tells him I only write about famous people and isn’t that great, how I’m here because she’s famous? She’s so famous now! Bear smiles at her and gives me a long embrace. He suggests we all sit down in Raf’s living room, which, I’ve failed to mention, incorporates the blue-stoned moat from outside. It’s as if there’s a small river weaving through the room, snaking around the perimeter until it pools in front of a huge white marble fireplace. I shiver because I hate snakes, even the word snakes with its sneaky ses. I wonder whether Raf swims in the moat, not that you could swim in a snaking moat that’s barely a foot deep. I wonder whether I should swim in it now, whether that would cement or ruin our new friendship.
As I step into the moat, Bear pours a white powder onto Raf’s marble coffee table. Raf lowers her face to snort it up, and I decide I will swim in the bathtub instead, because I have only seen people do cocaine in movies and I’m not about to start now. “Ari T!” she calls. “Want some?” I don’t, but I also don’t want to be rude, so I dart over to the coffee table, leaving wet footprints across the floor because I’ve been standing in the moat. Raf is kissing Bear again, so I lick my pinkie and pretend to dip it into the white powder and take a lick. “Mmm!” I say in what I hope is a polite voice before I shuffle out of the room and into the bathroom with the pale pink glow and the 14-foot ceilings.
I turn on the bathwater in Raf’s enormous tub and take a few notes in the notebook I always carry with me on interviews. Here is what my notes say: Coke. Coca-Cola. Cola kiss. Collaboration? Sunswallow! swallow me whole me Ariana Ari T Arianana Aaronana NO nah nah nah nah hey hey goodbye no yes no yes HOORAY! jackpot POT hahaha kettle weed kettle black white hair moooooooon. God I’m hungry. Where are the Lucky Charms? I decide it’s not worth going back out there where the drugs are because I am a very good girl and always have been, or at least I’ve tried my best. I look at my handwriting and every O on the page glows like a baby full moon. I stare at the words until they blur. I stare at myself in the mirror. I blur. As my own face scrambles like a Picasso — the word Picasso has a moon in it too, I think, and so does the word too and so does the word word, why didn’t I grab the Lucky Charms?! — I realize what I’m feeling can’t possibly be just the weed or even the magical serum and the mirror that makes me look like I have my own personal lighting director. Something is wrong, desperately wrong with my stomach, and then I am throwing up in Rafaelala’s toilet, vomiting in the most beautiful bathroom I’ve ever seen, while bathwater continues to run in the background. As I puke, I hear Raf banging on the door, saying “Hurry up, Ari T!” and then it sounds like maybe she is throwing up outside the bathroom even though — I look up the listing later — this house has at least seven other bathrooms. The last time I threw up this much, I was dating my college boyfriend, and thinking of that time in my life makes me hurl even harder. I want my mother, I think between heaves. I want her to hand me a spoonful of something that will burn as it goes down and then cure me, all better, shhh. I want her to stroke my hair like I’m her kitten daughter.
Bear’s voice cuts into my thoughts. I think he’s asking something about the tea. He is saying “my tea” or the word “mighty” or maybe “Ari T” but I can’t be sure, I can’t be sure of anything because Raf is puking more and I am puking too and thinking about what it would have been like to be friends with Raf when she was a small child, what she must have been like before she started bleaching her hair, back when I was impossibly dorky, staying after school for chess club and failing gym class and interviewing our cafeteria workers for the school paper. I imagine Raf as my sister, the two of us with matching white ribbons in our hair, telling my mother that it’s okay, we have each other now, so we understand if she has to leave us.
I see myself, adult me, walking toward this younger version of me. But now younger-me’s hair is bleached paper-white and Raf is not there. Adult-me takes the ribbon out of younger-me’s hair and I am both of us and we are crying and I am handing us a tissue and a bowl of glittering Los Angeles stars and smiling and wiping away our tears, which aren’t tears at all but marshmallows that stick to our cheeks and turn our faces into radiant, white-hot balls of moonlight.
My recording device, I should mention, is running this entire time. I am nothing if not professional; I turned it off for weed and yoga but turned it back on just before my longing for Lucky Charms. All you can hear on it while this is happening is vomiting and muffled voices — mine, Raf’s, Bear’s, all of it incoherent. At one point I am completely silent, then say, quietly, “Mom? Is that you?” I have no memory of seeing her appear, but I hear myself talking to her, mumbling how much I’ve missed her and telling her how beautiful she is, how much I love her. And then there’s a whole hour in which I stop the bathwater just before it overflows, strip off Raf’s clothes and fold them neatly next to the bathtub, then step into the tub — it does overflow a little bit then — and start talking to the ceiling of the bathroom, laughing and telling the ceiling it is as tall as the sky and laughing again. I remember seeing trees up there, although at most there was a small skylight.
After my bath, I drain the tub, put the yoga clothes back on, and emerge from the bathroom to find Raf passed out on the floor, a fuchsia throw pillow tucked under her head. Bear is nowhere to be found, and if she did throw up, someone’s cleaned up after her. I try to call out for the dog’s caretaker, though I cannot remember her name, and I think to myself, Bearenda, Mishrenda, Brendisha. On the recording, just before my recorder runs out of battery, I am muttering these names softly to myself, over and over. I shake Raf gently and she moans but her eyes don’t open. I shake her again, harder, starting to panic — maybe Raf is dying, oh god oh god my career is over — and I call 911. I stroke Raf’s hair as we wait. When the paramedics finally arrive and rouse her, I sit in the moat again and sob. I tell them I’m fine, I’m just so, so sad because my mom died.
As they carry Raf out to the ambulance on a stretcher, she becomes momentarily lucid, suddenly frantic that one of the dogs, Lucy, will be left behind. “Bring Lucy!” she calls to me, her words garbled. “Bring my Lucía.”
In my not-quite-sober state, I decide to bring the dog to the hospital. I request an Uber for the dog and me because I’m in no state to drive, and once the car is on the way I call the driver twice to check that it’s okay if I bring a dog. When I contact Mike the Uber Driver two days later to confirm his account of the evening, he tells me that first time I called, I asked over and over again if it was okay that Lucy is coming. “I’m bringing Lucy. Can I bring Lucy?” I failed to tell him Lucy was a dog. When I called him the second time, I asked him why Raf named the dog after her mother.
I let myself out the gate — it’s easy to get out, not at all like getting in — and I cry while Mike drives the dog and me to the hospital. By the time we get there, I am feeling like myself again. Better than myself. I’m feeling A+ excellent fanfreakingtastic! A stern nurse ejects the dog and me from the waiting room, but that does not deter us. We sit on a bench outside and sing to ourselves and wait. After 45 minutes out there, I am soberer, still unbearably hungry, and cold in my yoga clothes, which are still damp from the moat. Lucy won’t stop whimpering. We take another Uber back to Raf’s house, where I figure I’ll drop Lucy off, retrieve my rental car, and go home to sleep. But I’ve forgotten about the locked gate. When I ring the doorbell this time, no one buzzes me in. So Lucy and I drive back to the hospital, this time in the rental car. I try calling Raf’s assistant; I leave a voicemail for her publicist. By now, it’s after three in the morning.
Lucy falls asleep in my lap and I’m nodding off in the front seat too when a petite blonde woman — someone new, neither Misha nor Brenda — appears at my car window to reclaim the canine. The dog and I are both startled, but only one of us pees a little in my lap.
A week after the interview, Raf’s publicist sends Virtue the bill for the ambulance. Janet, my editor, sends it back to their office, unpaid and accompanied by a large bouquet of white roses. She sends a note saying that I was drugged against my will but I’ve decided not to press charges. She shows me the note before she sends it. Calling the ambulance may have saved Rafaelala’s life, Janet has written. Virtue will not be paying for any ambulances.
“We have to fire you,” Janet tells me later that day. “Yes, there was probably something in that tea, but you also acted like a child, not a journalist.” When I try to protest, insisting that the magazine has published articles where writers have done far worse, she waves a manicured hand to stop me. “We’ll still publish the profile,” she says. “It’s still the cover.” I ask her if I can put our conversation into this story, and she tells me what she always says whenever I ask what she considers a dumb question.
“Follow your instincts, Ariana,” Janet says. “Even if those instincts lead you right into a ditch, at least you’ll have your integrity in that ditch.” I respond how I always do. I nod at her like this makes sense.
“Listen,” she continues, “They’re saying we can’t publish the profile, but she drugged you.” Janet is from New Jersey, and when she’s angry a hint of an accent shimmers out from under her clipped vowels. Dah-RUGGED ya, she says to me now. “Finish the story. We’ll throw a disclaimer at the top and fire you to appease their lawyers. Then you ride out the tabloids as they follow her to rehab, sell whatever book or film rights you can get. Triple your freelance rate and you’ll be fine.”
God, I love Janet.
The night of the interview, after I drive home to my hotel room, I crawl right into bed without washing my face or changing my clothes. When I wake up, my skin has erupted in hives. I’ll never know whether I reacted to the tea, the serum, or something else. Still, I continue to use the serums Raf’s publicist sent me until the little blue bottles are empty. I apply sleepperfect at night, hydranation in the morning. When I finally run out, I order more, though the price of them combined is nearly a quarter the cost of my rent in New York.
But I would swear to you that something is different about me now. I’m better, happier, glowier. The day after I was fired, I met up with two friends for drinks. I asked whether they noticed any change in me, in my skin, and they said no, but I felt different.
As this story goes to print, it’s been three months since the interview. I still feel different, like a more enlightened version of myself. Sometimes I eat Lucky Charms for dinner. Sometimes when I’m really missing my mom, I smoke a little weed and take a bath and tell her out loud how much I love her. As I duck my head under the warm water, I imagine her saying it back. I do yoga twice a week now, and I can almost do a headstand; Kin would be proud. I washed the dog piss and vomit out of the yoga clothes Raf loaned me. I wear them every time.
Featured image: LILAWA.COM / Shutterstock
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