Lily Collins is still able to enjoy relative peace and quiet as she sips mint tea in a West Hollywood hotel café. This over-40 business lunch crowd is preoccupied with deals and salads, but if the place were more populated by young social-media
savants, she’d be discreetly (or not) snapped and tagged to no end. To her 5.6-million-and-counting Instagram followers, she’s a glamorous but still candid ingénue, supplying a steady stream of coy selfies highlighting her distinctive ink-black eyebrows.
This March Collins’s fans will get an even more intimate look at her life when she publishes Unfiltered: No Shame, No Regrets, Just Me, a collection of personal essays inspired by the confessional stories her Instagram community has shared with her. Encouraged by their bravery, Collins, 27, says she showed a “side of myself that was completely raw” in Unfiltered, hence the title. “I can feel a bit freer because I’m not holding as much in.”
In the film world, where she’s been making great strides since débuting as Sandra Bullock’s daughter in The Blind Side seven years ago, Collins is still on the rise. Growing up adjacent to the spotlight as the daughter of ’80s pop icon Phil Collins, she understands that she’s one of many starlets in a race to the top. She’s inching ever closer: Her turn as a ’50s pageant queen in Warren Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply snagged her a Golden Globe nomination. Emma Stone (La La Land) took home the award, but Collins won the Instagram battle: The red-carpet video of her spinning in a pink Zuhair Murad gown garnered more than a million views in 24 hours.
Despite Collins’s very-now brand of social-media fame, her appearance is utterly throwback. Her petite frame swimming in a cozy black sweater, Collins conjures images of Audrey Hepburn, whose boyish femininity and sharp wit “changed a lot of people’s perspectives about what it was to be a woman at that time,” she says. Collins isn’t surprised she’s been tapped for homages to Old Hollywood, including the upcoming Amazon series The Last Tycoon, based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1941 novel.
“I’ve always been fascinated with old movie stars and the history of the place that I live in,” Collins says, sweetening her tea with her own bottle of Stevia. “I really love the romanticism and the mystery surrounding the period.”
Born in England, Collins was raised mostly in Beverly Hills by her mother, Jill Tavelman, a furniture dealer, after her parents split up when she was 5 (they officially divorced a few years later). Before she dedicated herself to acting in her early 20s, she modeled a bit and still serves as an ambassador to Lancôme. Modeling, however, wasn’t her first love; that distinction belongs to writing. As a teen she wrote for several outlets, including the Los Angeles Times, Teen Vogue, and the now-shuttered Elle Girl UK, where she penned a monthly column, a gig she got by cold-calling the magazine.
For her collection of autobiographical essays, Collins returned to writing once more for its “incredibly therapeutic” powers. Don’t call Unfiltered a memoir, though: At her age, she says, “it’s not like I know everything.” It’s more like a secret diary crossed with a best friend’s guide to living (like the chapter titled “Be Silly. It’s Attractive. Normal Is So Boring”). Collins’s perspective is fresh and uplifting even or especially when she documents her challenges. (The word “no,” Collins writes, can simply mean “No, this isn’t for you right now.”) She details her gains in self-confidence, like when she learns to love her bold eyebrows after nearly plucking them bald. Unfiltered also delves into dark territory, chronicling troubled romantic relationships and her history of disordered eating, which started with obsessive calorie restrictions and exercise but eventually grew into full-blown bulimia.
Revealing her struggles wasn’t just therapy for herself but potentially for “all these amazing young women who would share their stories about their insecurities or problems or fears” on her Instagram feed. “Sometimes they would preface it by saying, ‘Now, I know you probably can’t relate to it or you probably won’t understand or no one in Hollywood feels this way … ’ It so shocked me because it’s the furthest from the truth. I understand why they feel that way, but I’m reading these things thinking, ‘If only you knew, because I can completely understand what you’re going through.’ ” Collins announced the book on Instagram in October, thanking her followers for their stories: “If you’re brave enough to share yours, I need to be brave enough to share mine.”
She sold the book proposal to Harper Teen in October 2015 and then landed three acting jobs, including a role as an anorexic young woman in Marti Noxon’s autobiographical dark comedy, To the Bone, which required her to lose and gain weight. Noxon’s film offered the star a chance to safely explore her past, which helped her write difficult passages of the book. The producers and director, all women, “were adamant I not put myself in any situation that felt dangerous or teetering. It was the perfect way to step into this situation and then write about it.”
If there’s a theme to Collins’s life now, it’s turning former struggles into causes for celebration. Today she seems only to revel in the pleasures of her image, especially dressing up. She describes her personal style as “classic, ever-changing, and daring,” and everything she’s wearing–from her rose gold watch to her minimalist gray coat–is subtly gorgeous. Collins dresses with her grandmother in mind, a ballerina who “didn’t have to have a lot of things, but she knew what she liked and how she wanted to feel.”
Calorie-counting has been re-placed with a passion for baking, especially vegan or gluten-free muffins, pies, cakes, you name it. In the chapter “Food As Fuel, Not Punishment,” Collins writes that experimenting in the kitchen “makes me feel good. It gives me time to myself when I can zone out and be creative.” Not all her dishes are pretty enough to earn a spot on Instagram, but it doesn’t matter. “I now view food as energy for my mind and body rather than something to be scared of.”
In one of the most touching stories in Unfiltered, Collins cooks a healthy dinner from scratch for her mother–steamed salmon and vegetables and, for dessert, her now-signature chocolate-chip quinoa cookies. “It’s lovely to have people enjoy something you’ve made, especially when that used to be a part of your insecurities,” says. Here at the table, she flashes an easy smile. “To take that and harness it and make it something empowering, that is a cool way of flipping it around.”