Binaries feel distinctly archaic these days, an ill-equipped means of categorizing—let alone understanding—our world and the people in it. But, I wasn't going to let that stop me from asking Madelaine Petsch a very important question: Does she see herself as more of a cult joiner or a cult leader?
"Cult joiner, for sure," Petsch told me, without a moment's hesitation.
"Not because I'm a sheep," she continued. "I'm not a sheeple. However, I don't think I have the charismatic personality to get people to follow me."
Petsch told me this toward the end of a long day together. We were sitting on a couch at the back of the photo studio where this story's images had been captured; the stylist was packing up the racks of jewel-toned clothes; someone else was re-boxing pair after pair of towering heels; other people were scurrying around, clearing off tables, rolling up backdrops, putting away makeup and sparkling hair accessories.
We sat apart from the action, but it was never unclear where the center of gravity lay; nor was it ever unclear who was the star in the room.
I had spent enough time talking with Petsch to recognize that she wasn't being purely self-deprecating, and was, in fact, sincere when she said she didn't think she has what it takes to compel people to flock to her. But I also only had to look around us to be reminded of who in the room was the natural leader, and could easily amass legions of followers. And, it's not just that Petsch could amass legions of followers, it's more that she already has: As of this writing, Petsch has 16 million followers on Instagram, as well as 4.6 million subscribers to her YouTube channel, which is called Madelaine Petsch.
These followers, at least in part, come courtesy of what Petsch is best known for as an actress: her role as Cheryl Blossom on the wildly popular TV show Riverdale. Cheryl is not exactly the star of the show; rather, Riverdale has a pair of binary stars at its core: Archie and Veronica, Betty and Jughead. And yet, Cheryl feels like the show's center; she gives the show its heat. And that's due in no small part to Petsch's vivid portrayal of a character whose life might be full of cartoonish twists and turns, but whose credibility as a real person remains intact thanks to Petsch's clear commitment to the role.
"I would say Cheryl is one of my friends," Petsch told me, explaining how it is that she approaches this role—and all roles. "It's really beautiful to be able to portray another human being in an accurate way—even if they're not a real person."
Riverdale costar Camila Mendes spoke to me about what it is that makes Petsch's acting so special; she said, "You can't half-ass a character like Cheryl, and one of the many great things about Madelaine's portrayal of Cheryl is that she's committed. She basks in the absurdity of her character and never shies away from that quality." And, Mendes finished, "Then she'll deliver these raw moments of vulnerability that make her character that much more complex. That's what makes her a fan favorite. Her performances are unforgettable."
Another reason Petsch is so beloved is Cheryl's same-sex relationship with Toni Topaz (played by Vanessa Morgan), which has not only earned the onscreen couple, aka Choni, an enormous fan base, but has also made clear to Petsch the power of her profession, and its ability to potentially change lives.
"The response that I've gotten from real human beings—in person—telling me that my art has allowed them to come out to their parents, or to be comfortable with their parents not being comfortable with them being out," Petsch said, has been "the most rewarding part of playing Cheryl… lots of people tell me they were able to own their sexuality because of my character on a TV show. I'll probably never be able to get over it."
It's a responsibility that Petsch takes incredibly seriously; even though Choni is a fictional couple, Petsch knows that Cheryl and Toni's relationship provides real inspiration to countless young people, and so she even refrained from playing a lighthearted round of Fuck Marry Kill with the characters of Toni, Betty, and Veronica, lest fans get upset at her choices.
“Lots of people tell me they were able to own their sexuality because of my character. I'll probably never be able to get over it.”
This might sound a little like overkill—after all, FMK is just a game, and these characters aren't real people. Nobody would really think that Petsch could actually want to cause the literal death of any of them, right? Well, wrong. Because Riverdale fans are intensely devoted, and it was this intensity that inspired Petsch to start her YouTube channel in the first place, so that she could show the world that Madelaine Petsch was not Cheryl Blossom, and Cheryl Blossom was not Madelaine Petsch.
And though Petsch's YouTube channel was initially conceived as being a handful of videos to let followers see how different her low-key and laid-back personality was from that of the high-strung, manipulative Cheryl, it became something ongoing, as Petsch soon discovered her affinity, not only for communicating with an audience through the platform but also for the filming and editing that went into each video.
So, while Petsch loves what Riverdale has given her—"I don't think there's one day that I'm on set where I feel like I'm working… It's like a creative playground with a bunch of people who are passionate about what they're doing. It's the coolest thing"—she also said that if she weren't acting, she'd love to work as an editor, because of how much joy she gets from crafting the videos she posts on her channel every Wednesday.
And, of course, it's not just the videos she's constructing with her edits, but it's also Madelaine Petsch that she's constructing—or, rather, it's the character Madelaine Petsch, who both is and isn't the same thing as the actual Madelaine Petsch.
"I'm like, 'What is Madelaine?'" Petsch said to me, after I asked her where she draws the line on what she shares with her audience. Petsch explained that there are certain things she never reveals: "My home. A lot of people are like, 'I want a home tour,' and I'm like, 'That's my safe space'—especially my Vancouver home and my L.A. home." She continued listing off things that are too private for her public: "My friendships… my family. You will never see my parents or my brother on my YouTube channel."
And, Petsch said, there are some things that she once was, but is now no longer comfortable having public: "My relationship [with musician Travis Mills]. I used to share a lot about it online, and now that I don't, people just assume we're no longer together. But in reality, I realize that it's so much more special and safe if I don't share a lot of it."
Instead of vignettes from her life, then, Petsch's YouTube channel is populated with the kind of funny, snackable videos that are among the internet's most valuable currency right now. By design, they offer the illusion of intimacy, with none of the vulnerability. "What I love about YouTube is that I have all the creative control," Petsch told me. "It's not necessarily protecting myself, it's that I can actually have full control of the narrative that's going on about me."
But while Petsch's control over her own narrative is evident, it would be wrong to say that it isn't also revealing, because—as anyone familiar with editing knows—stories are just as easily told via omission as they are through inclusion. And there is, by necessity, a lot that Petsch omits. The whole day that we spent together, including the time when we were sitting down for this interview, Petsch was being filmed by her friend, Taylor, so that she could have material for a behind-the-scenes video of this cover shoot for her YouTube channel. Hours and hours of footage was taken for what will, inevitably, be a less-than-five-minute-long clip. And that's just one example; there's also that list of things Petsch told me she keeps off her channel: her family, her friends, her home, her relationship. So, what's left to include in her videos? Basically, only Petsch herself. But, in her own words: "What is Madelaine?"
There is a way in which this level of acknowledged narrative control from someone who is simultaneously saying that she is offering fans insight into her life can feel disingenuous— particularly when the persona she's interested in conveying is one noted for its spontaneity and whimsy. But then, there's another way in which it's just a fucking smart way of navigating a treacherous industry, and a canny recognition of the fact that any time a celebrity reveals an aspect of their lives or opinion on a potentially controversial subject, it's often weaponized against them. Why not head that kind of thing off at the pass and make sure that every word you utter is one which you've put out into the world with intention? Or, as Petsch said to me when explaining why YouTube is such an important platform for her, "I can say exactly what I need to say"—and there's nothing anyone else can do with those words.
Listening to Petsch talk about all the different things of which she needs to be wary made me sympathize with how exhausting it must be to have to interrogate constantly what you're doing and saying, lest your actions and words be misconstrued. I asked her if that kind of consciousness ever felt like a burden, some never-ending struggle not to say the wrong thing.
But Petsch's answer was quick and emphatic. "I would rather be in a place," she said, "where we have to be more socially aware than for it to be a place that's totally free and there are no consequences for inflicting physical, emotional, or verbal harm on others."
"Like, the #MeToo movement, I'm sure, is scary for a lot of men now, and they're probably a lot more protective of what they do," Petsch said. "But in reality, they should be. I feel very passionately about this." She continued: "When that came around, I saw a lot of men tweeting, like, 'Oh god, like now we have to be careful,' or whatever. And it's honestly like, you should always be careful."
Petsch comes across as someone who is always careful, and yet that vigilance doesn't come from fear, but rather from a sense of responsibility. Petsch told me, "I'm happy that we're in a place where we are all aware of what we are doing, and we're more careful, because we should be more respectful to people. And that's a no-brainer to me… I'm actually really proud and honored to be a part of a generation that is calling people out on their bullshit." She paused, and then said: "I don't know if I'm allowed to swear, but whatever."
The start of the #MeToo movement was a pivotal time for Petsch. It was late 2017, and Riverdale had just started its second season; she was at a new height of her public visibility, and it would have made complete sense not to draw attention to herself by joining into the conversation. But, that's not what Petsch did. Instead, with one tweet, she expressed her solidarity with all the other people who'd experienced sexual violence.
"I joined the #MeToo movement. I think what people don't understand is that #MeToo doesn't necessarily only relate to the industry, it relates to any kind of sexual assault," she told me. "The #MeToo movement was huge and incredibly empowering for women to be able to stand up and be like, 'That happened to me, as well.' It connected this whole group of women from all over the world together in this kind of beautiful way. I mean, it's sad that that happened, but, at the same time, it's like, the fact that we can own that is huge."
There's an interesting dichotomy that exists in much of the online space right now, and that certainly exists in Petsch's own constructed corner of the internet; namely, while some seemingly innocuous things—like friendships, family, etc.—are deemed off-limits for public consumption, other things that are thought of as being taboo—like sexual assault—have been made more public than ever. It can feel counterintuitive, maybe, to realize that a person's personal boundaries don't encompass things that were long considered to be private, but engaging in that area of discomfort is precisely how important conversations get started, and progress gets made. This is why Petsch is also vocal about going to therapy, and how it's helped her get over social anxiety and panic attacks.
"I'm actually really proud and honored to be a part of a generation that is calling people out on their bullshit."
"Talk about stigma, dude," Petsch said, as we talked about what made her seek out therapy. "I mean, I didn't even know what it was, but I used to get really bad panic attacks right before I booked Riverdale. Then, I started getting really bad social anxiety, and I only was able to home in on what those things are and work through them [with therapy]."
She continued, "I'm not saying I've even made a dent in all the work I need to do, but just being able to home in on what it is and identify it is the first step. I only could have done that with therapy. So I understand that maybe people think that there is some kind of stigma around therapy, but, like, you talk to your mom, you talk to your friends—it's the same thing."
And, much in the same way that Petsch had mentioned that being part of a community was an important aspect of the #MeToo movement, she noted that it's a similar thing with mental wellness. She said, "Mental health is incredibly important to me, and I'm so happy that I'm part of a group of women with the [Riverdale] cast that all speak so vocally about it. If I'm having a bad day and I'm feeling like my anxiety is through the roof, I will call Cami[la Mendes], and I will go to her place, and we'll eat dried apricots and talk about all of my problems until I have vented it out."
And even though Petsch's community might consist broadly of millions of followers, and more immediately of her Riverdale costars, the lesson that she's imparting by sharing the power of community is a universal one: Remember that you're not alone; remember that nobody is perfect and you don't have to be either.
"I realized that no one's life is perfect. My life is certainly nowhere near it."
This last part is something that Petsch struggled with for a while, she said, until she came to terms with the fact that art—and life— are inherently messy. She told me, "I don't think perfectionism and art can even be in the same sentence, but I wasn't aware of that when I first started… Not even necessarily with Cheryl, but more with Madelaine as a person—like, my life had to be perfect. But I realized that no one's life is perfect. My life is certainly nowhere near it. There's no such thing as perfect art and artist."
Maybe it's funny to think that the further Petsch gets away from trying to achieve perfection for herself as an artist—for Madelaine Petsch, the person—the more tightly she's controlling the image of, and essentially perfecting, Madelaine Petsch, the persona. It feels like another of those contradictory binaries that demand you make a choice—be one or the other, person or persona, leader or follower, but never both.
But, what Petsch has shown—what so many other young people are showing as they compartmentalize their real lives from those they live online—is that previously existing binaries are inadequate for understanding the way things are now, and that holds particularly true for our conceptions of what's public and what's private.
So, yes, it might seem odd, a little, that Petsch can seamlessly transition between being herself and being Madelaine Petsch, what becomes clear is that it's actually liberating, a way of acknowledging that authenticity is only ever a partial truth anyway, because as our lives evolve, who we are evolves, too.
Petsch knows perfection is not only unattainable, but uninteresting; she knows the priority lies in having control over her own story—or, rather, stories. How she will continue to use her voice in the service of those stories is yet to be determined. But it will be hers—and people will be listening to what each of the different Madelaines has to say. ◊
- PHOTOGRAPHER: LINDSEY BYRNES
- PHOTO ASSISTANT: JADE DEROSE
- LIGHTING: MANNY CONSECA
- DIGI TECH: PHOEBE SOLOMON
- SET DESIGN: LINDSEY BYRNES
- PRINT DESIGN: @HER_STUDIO_LONDON, REPRESENTED BY @HELLO.GOLDIE
- LINE PRODUCER/DIRECTOR OF VIDEO: CHARLOTTE PRAGER
- VIDEOGRAPHER: ALLI NAKAMURA
- PRODUCER: ALEXANDRA HSIE
- VIDEO EDITOR: DANI OKON
- 2ND CAMERA/PA: CLAIRE O'NEIL
- STYLIST: DANASIA SUTTON
- HAIR STYLIST: MARC MENA USING AVEDA PRODUCTS
- MAKEUP ARTIST: ELIE MALOOUF
- STYLIST ASSISTANT: OLIVIA GABAREE