Jennifer Coolidge: How She Went From Legally Blonde To White Lotus

Jennifer Coolidge has certainly been on a journey. While we all know her now as the comedy queen with the breathy voice and that instantly recognizable "Oh my gawd," there was a time when Coolidge was completely unknown. Born in Massachusetts, Coolidge struggled for years to break into the business. After getting off to a slowish start, Coolidge hit Hollywood by storm in her 30s. She became a household name after numerous iconic, scene-stealing performances in comedies like "Best in Show," "A Cinderella Story," "American Pie," and "Legally Blonde." 

And then a lull. For years, Coolidge's career seemed to have well and truly cooled off. However, all of that changed in 2018 when Ariana Grande happened to cast Coolidge in her music video for the song "thank u next." Suddenly, Coolidge was everywhere again, with a series of acclaimed roles in "Promising Young Woman," "The Watcher," and "The White Lotus." It was official — it was the era of the Jennifer Coolidge comeback.

Read on to discover a little more about her roller coaster through the peaks and troughs of Hollywood.

Jennifer Coolidge grew up in Massachusetts with little interest in acting

Jennifer Coolidge was born in 1961 and grew up on the outskirts of Boston (via Empire). Though Coolidge may seem like a natural-born comedian, it seems that as a child, her talent took a while to show through. In fact, when she was young, she came across as a little spaced out — her parents actually worried she had a cognitive disability. She was even given a series of cognitive tests. "The questions were like, 'Which one of these things is a tree, and which is a spoon?'" Coolidge recalled to InStyle. This was followed by tests at a hearing doctor. "They thought I was deaf because they'd call me, and I wouldn't answer," she said, adding, "I just wasn't, you know, present."

For Coolidge, the thought of performing couldn't have been further from her mind. "If you were a girl in my town you just didn't think that way," she told the Irish Times. "We went to see men perform in bands and in comedy. As a girl, you were just supposed to be pretty. You were supposed to be a nice girl."

Jennifer Coolidge moved to New York with big expectations for her career but soon got a reality check

As a young woman, Jennifer Coolidge decided to pursue a career in acting — serious acting. "I was trying to be a serious actor," she told the Irish Times. "Meryl Streep was my idol." So, she packed up and moved to New York City in her early 20s. Coolidge arrived in New York with huge ambitions — "I had grand thoughts," she told Du Jour. "Massive. I thought I could come from my little town and have a lead in something like 'Pretty Woman.'" 

However, she soon found that the industry wasn't exactly easy to break into. In fact, she did more waitressing than acting. She even briefly worked alongside Sandra Bullock. As she told InStyle, her main problem was connecting with her emotions. So, she struggled along until one day; a friend recommended she try improv. And just like that, Coolidge discovered the world of comedy.

Jennifer Coolidge got wrapped up in the 1980s NYC party scene and went to rehab

After a difficult decade in New York as an out-of-work actor, Jennifer Coolidge found herself slipping into the underworld of New York's late-night party scene. "Palladium, Limelight, Area, Save the Robots, all those clubs," she told InStyle. "I was going nowhere fast." 

Soon, she had developed a cocaine habit. "Well, I was born low-energy," Coolidge explained. "So there was this drug that was invented for people like me. It made me very alive, you know? Unfortunately, it's a terrible drug." Eventually, Coolidge realized that her habit had become dangerous, and she ended up in rehab at the age of 27. In some ways, it was a blessing in disguise. "I hit my bottom at 27," she said to Los Angeles Times. "Thank God for cocaine, it all came to a head at 27. And I sort of went to rehab, and then I actually was able to refocus my life. And in some ways my life became so simple." Shortly after getting sober, Coolidge moved to L.A., and soon, she landed her first few significant roles.

Jennifer Coolidge's big break came with a Seinfeld role

After years of perseverance in both New York and Hollywood, Jennifer Coolidge finally landed a role that would prove to set the wheels in motion when she was 31. She was cast as a masseuse on "Seinfeld," who briefly dated Jerry. As the actress told GQ, it was her first real role — and she only got it thanks to a resume filled with made-up shows. "I didn't really have any jobs before that," she said, adding, "I only had lies on my resume."

While it was a small role, it helped put her on the map. "After my episode aired, all these people, all these casting directors that would never let me through the door, well, it kind of changed a lot for me," she said. 

And Coolidge was thrilled for another reason — she got the chance to prove herself to her mother. "My mother was dying at that point," she told the Los Angeles Times. "But she knew that had happened and I was glad. I was having a terrible time navigating everything and she thought nothing cool would ever happen for me. So that was good."

Jennifer Coolidge frequently collaborated with Christopher Guest

After "Seinfeld," Jennifer Coolidge soon found herself landing role after role after role. She soon found a kindred spirit in cult comedy mockumentary director Christopher Guest. " "When I met her," Guest told Variety, "I knew there was something going on that was special. And I was right, fortunately." In the early 2000s, she joined him for four separate films, "Best in Show," "A Mighty Wind," "For Your Consideration," and "Mascots."

For Coolidge, these comedies gave her a chance to really show off her improv skills. "I really felt like I'd peaked when we were filming that movie," she told The Times of "Best in Show." And,  "The great thing about doing a job with Christopher is that it is the ultimate creative experience," she told the Irish Times. "You can't believe the power he gives you. He is such a smart person."

She soon landed a string of comedy roles that gave her icon character actor status

Alongside her improvisational work in Christopher Guest's films, Jennifer Coolidge also began to land starring and supporting roles in other big blockbuster comedies. First came the OG MILF, Stifler's Mom in "American Pie," then Paulette, the ditzy manicurist in "Legally Blonde," then Fiona, the vain wicked stepmother in Hilary Duff's "A Cinderella Story."

Despite all of the success, Coolidge's blossoming comedy had its downsides. "I did these jobs that I felt like locked me into a certain perception," Coolidge told Vanity Fair. "I was in this weird bubble for a really long time. And it just goes to show that you should really hold out and not just keep repeating yourself, but I was always desperate for the job. A lot of the time I was like, 'I don't know if I'll ever have an offer again.'" And so, Coolidge became Hollywood's go-to comedic character actor — for a time, anyway.

Jennifer Coolidge's career went through what she called a dead zone

After skyrocketing to fame in Hollywood, Jennifer Coolidge's career began to slow down. Though she continued to work pretty steadily, the parts were smaller and fewer and farther between — and usually, carbon copies of her cult-favorite roles from the past. There was "Gentlemen Broncos," the 2009 comedy by the makers of "Napolean Dynamite." There was "Beauty and the Briefcase," a 2010 TV movie starring Hilary Duff. And then there was "Austenland," a 2013 comedy about Jane Austen superfans. 

"Truly, except for a few fun little movie jobs like 'Austenland,' it wasn't until Mike White really gave me a part [in 'The White Lotus'] where I was really playing something very different," she told Vanity Fair later. "I sort of, you know, I was going through a dead zone and not much was going on," Coolidge explained to Jimmy Fallon in 2022 (via YouTube). 

The Jennifer Coolidge Renaissance began with Ariana Grande

Jennifer Coolidge's so-called career "dead zone" finally came to an end in 2018 when pop star Ariana Grande happened to do an imitation of the actress on "The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon." "You should know that it was sort of the beginning of a lot of cool things happening for me... this got the ball rolling," she told Fallon later (via YouTube).

When Coolidge saw the impression, she was struck by inspiration. A friend suggested that she DM Grande to compliment her on the imitation. "Then next thing you know, I was going to her house, getting fit for a wardrobe fitting for 'thank u, next,'" she said. 

In the music video, Coolidge reprises her famous role from "Legally Blonde." As she later told The Guardian, appearing in the music video "helped get [her] back in the game and I'm so glad." 

In Promising Young Woman, Jennifer Coolidge got the chance to subvert expectations and show her range

After the Ariana Grande music video came another huge opportunity for Jennifer Coolidge — her first big dramatic role in Emerald Fennel's dark drama "Promising Young Woman." 

"I like when directors take chances and give you something completely different to do, and sometimes they haven't even seen you do anything and they just sort of think you can, and that's the ultimate compliment because I'm sure the possibility of going wrong is there, too," Coolidge said to GQ. "But I like when directors take risks. And look, it's so freaking fun to be in this movie because it's so different than most stuff I get to do."

In the film, Coolidge plays Carey Mulligan's mother. It's a relatively small role, but it certainly proved to the industry that she was capable of more than comedy. "People assumed I could only do certain kinds of role – that lady who comes in, opens a door, says something funny, then closes it," she told The Guardian. After "Promising Young Woman," people began to see her differently.

Jennifer Coolidge nearly missed out on her 'comeback' career-defining role

Just as Jennifer Coolidge's career seemed to be on the up, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. For Coolidge, it couldn't have come at a worse time. She found herself locked down with her young assistant becoming reliant on vegan pizzas. "It was just very lonely times," Coolidge told People. "You can sort of numb out any worry you have in the world if you just eat another pizza." Coolidge spiraled into a depression, fearing that the lockdown would last forever. "I just felt like it was the darkest time and I never thought we would really come back from it," she told The Times. "I was just thinking, 'Who do I leave my things to?' "

After spending the lockdown feeling depressed and gaining a fair amount of weight, Coolidge didn't exactly feel ready to accept a new role — even a career-making role in Mike White's latest drama, "The White Lotus." So, when she got the part, she almost turned it down. "I just looked like crap and didn't want to be on camera," she confessed to InStyle. Thankfully, a friend convinced her that she had to take the part — and she did.

The White Lotus transformed Jennifer Coolidge's career

It's a good thing Jennifer Coolidge accepted the role of Tanya in "The White Lotus" because it completely transformed her career. As she told Vogue, having the chance to play "someone who's complicated and f***ed up" was "a gift." "It was a lucky moment in my life and it's changed things drastically," she said. 

As Tanya, a vain and selfish heiress, Coolidge entered new acting territory — instead of playing a caricature, she was playing a three-dimensional, authentic character. She apparently used her own experience of losing her mother at a young age to inform her performance (via The Guardian) — and Tanya was a huge hit. In fact, the role even earned her her first Emmy nomination and win.

It's clear that "The White Lotus" didn't just change her career; it also changed her life. As she gushed to Variety, "Whatever Mike White did for me, I would wish that for every actor."

Jennifer Coolidge is working on being more accepting of her appearance

Like many other actors and actresses in Hollywood, Jennifer Coolidge hasn't always found it easy to age in the public eye. In an interview with Allure, Coolidge confessed that she sometimes felt she was "shallow." "If I sit down at my vanity and I see my face, then I start to put the makeup on, and then it just gets out of control," she said. On the other hand, if she doesn't look in the mirror, she can forget about her appearance. "If I don't have to see myself, I'm 100 percent okay and checked in and I know the world is so much bigger than what we look like," she said, adding, "I wish I was less critical when I saw my reflection because it would save me a lot of time."

These days, Coolidge is less focused on her looks than ever — even if she is still aware of her looks. Plus, she's a big fan of how the beauty industry has become more and more inclusive over the years. "I think being really good looking is overrated... it doesn't get you out of your misery and it doesn't really help people," she said to People in 2022.

Jennifer Coolidge is looking forward to more dramatic roles in her future

After winning her first Emmy in "The White Lotus," the sky really does seem to be the limit for Jennifer Coolidge. She may have thought that she'd always be typecast as ditzy blondes, but now, anything could come next. "I would love to do dramatic stuff, more of it, definitely," she told GQ. And it seems that she's finally at that stage in her career when people might be willing to trust her with meatier parts.

What kind of dramatic roles can we expect to see? Well, ideally the troubled ones. "I feel like I can relate,"  she mused to Vogue in 2022. As she put it, "A lot of comedy people are sad clowns." We might even see Coolidge pop up on stage. "I'd love to go back to theater and do a serious play," she said to The Guardian. "And then the Melania biopic, of course."

Jennifer Coolidge's big return will come full circle with Legally Blonde 3

Even though Jennifer Coolidge's renaissance is upon us, the actress is still more than happy to revisit roles from previous eras of her career. In fact, soon, we can expect to see her reprising Paulette from "Legally Blonde" for a third installment in the franchise. 

So far, the project's release date hasn't been announced. However, as writer Mindy Kaling told Time, the film will pick up with Elle Woods in her 40s. "Her brightness and her cheerfulness really worked when she was 22, but how has life changed her perspective on things?" Kaling mused.

It seems that Coolidge is thrilled to be part of the project — even if it's coming together slowly. "We've done reunions on Zoom," she told The Guardian. "Mindy Kaling is writing the script and obviously Reese [Witherspoon] is very involved too. I can't wait." And neither can we.