Who Is The Actor Who Plays Karen In The Mean Girls Reboot?

You know who's so fetch right now? "Mean Girls" breakout star Avantika Vandanapu, better known by her mononym, Avantika. The musical reboot of the 2004 cult film "Mean Girls" has created a major buzz — particularly around the South Asian actor who plays Karen. Avantika is becoming known for her acting talent, bouncy signature curls, and glossy smile. And who could forget that iconic line in which she praises Regina's pimple as "sexy ... like a face breast"? Led by Reneé Rapp as Regina George, The Plastics look a little different two decades later — and we're so here for it.

As for Avantika, she got her start in Bollywood and even scored a few Hollywood roles prior to 2024. For American audiences, Avantika's role as the ditzy but lovable Karen Shetty in the "Mean Girls" comedy musical is the one that put her on the map. Still, she's not stopping at playing Karen — although that doesn't necessarily mean she has a well-defined plan for her future. "I have realized very early on that planning is quite useless," she admitted to Marie Claire. "Either [what you plan] never happens, or something better happens so there's no point to it." Plan or no plan, this actor is going places.

She started dancing when she was 5 years old

Avantika was always destined to be a performer — she started dancing at 5 years old. "I was always drawn towards the creative arts and, especially, the expressional aspects of dancing," she told Unclear. When she was 10 years old, she competed in a dance reality show that was held in Mumbai, India. It was actually Avantika's dance career that led her to the acting world. "After experiencing the hub of Bollywood, I fell in love with the film industry," she told the publication.

Avantika booked a role in a Telugu-language film titled "Brahmotsavam" after her mom responded to a Facebook casting call. Her family moved from California, where Avantika was born, to India to support her career. While Avantika admits leaving the United States was an adjustment, she is grateful she took that leap of faith. Avantika credits her parents' unwavering support for her success.

"Anything I wanted to do, my mom was like, 'Try it, do it, but if you decide to stay in it, you must be the best at it,'" Avantika told Marie Claire. "She didn't really put a lot of pressure on me for school, but, say if I wanted to pursue horse riding — which I did temporarily — she was like, 'You must be incredible at it. You must excel.'" Ultimately, Avantika appreciated this ethos. "I think it's nice to be pushed in things that you like to do," the actor added.

She found success in Indian cinema

When Avantika and her family moved to India after she booked her first role, it was supposed to be temporary — four months tops. However, her career took off, and she kept booking role after role. She and her family ended up staying in India for three years. During her time there, the child star appeared in several films including "Manamantha" and "Agnyaathavaasi."

When she was 13, Avantika moved back to the United States. "I felt that opportunities for POC [people of color] were growing in Hollywood and I wanted to take a shot at pursuing my dreams in my homeland," she told Unclear. She was right; she made history as the first Indian American person to star as the lead in a Disney film when she landed the part of Rhea in the 2021 film "Spin." She starred in the TV movie alongside "To All The Boys' I've Loved Before" star Anna Cathcart. The following year, Avantika appeared in the film "Senior Year" starring Rebel Wilson. Previously, Avantika also had a recurring role in the Disney+ original comedy series "Diary of a Future President."

She was home-schooled from a young age

In "Mean Girls," Avantika plays a character who rules the high school hallways. In real life, Avantika was home-schooled from the age of 5. Due to the unpredictable travel schedules of the film industry, Avantika enrolled in online school. "The online teachers were very cooperative but I definitely missed the environment of a regular school and the ability to attend classes with friends," the actor told Unclear. "However, my online teachers were extremely helpful and homeschooling has significantly improved my coping mechanism with stress and time management."

When filming, Avantika also had on-set tutors, but she admitted to Maire Claire that she did the "bare minimum" while in middle school. She was more focused on her film career and saw the time she needed to take away from filming for schooling as an obstacle. When she was 13, she received her GED-equivalent. However, she enrolled in high school in Los Angeles in order to gain AP credits.

Avantika was a fan of the original Mean Girls movie

Avantika wasn't able to see the original "Mean Girls" film in theaters, considering she wasn't born until 2005. However, she did watch it later.  The 7-year-old actor and her dad saw it on DVD. "We're big into watching chick flicks, the both of us together, which I think is very cute," she told Marie Claire. She went on to spill the fact her dad fell asleep 10 minutes into the movie.

Like the rest of the world, Avantika was an instant fan and rewatched the film countless times. "My friends and I quoted it on such a frequent basis," she said of her younger self, who had no idea she was practicing her future lines. As Avantika detailed to Marie Claire, she was bullied growing up, so the film resonated with her in a unique way and made her feel seen. "It was one of the first films that captured how nuanced female bullying in schools can be — it was never outright, it was so sharp that you didn't even know when it cut and before you knew it, you were bleeding out," she told Teen Vogue. 

Ironically, Karen was always her favorite character (and she luckily got to meet the actor who played her, Amanda Seyfried), finding her "stupid, funny, silly, and kind" personality endearing. "It's very difficult for me to glamorize cruelty in film, so Karen was easily my favorite. I thought there was something really pure and beautiful about watching somebody retain how kind of a person they are despite their circumstances," she told Teen Vogue.

She was accepted into Columbia University

"Get in losers, we're going shopping!" — this was practically Avantika's mantra to manifest her admittance into Columbia University, which only accepts around 4% of applicants. Two days before the Ivy League schools sent out their acceptance letters, Avantika went shopping and bought a Columbia sweatshirt. "It was the only Ivy that I ended up getting into and it was the only Ivy that I deep down really wanted to get into. It felt like destiny," she told Marie Claire.

When the 2023 SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes started, she took it as an opportunity to focus on her education. "I have a passion for learning," she told the outlet. "I have a constant fear of getting stupid ... I feel like it's a very Brown thing, the gifted child syndrome of like, Oh my God, I was so smart as a kid. Am I still up to par with my peers?"

Avantika chose cultural anthropology as her major and, as of this writing, is considering a double minor in religious studies and film. The actor, who is also an aspiring film producer, is enjoying a university experience that is devoid of Hollywood pressure. "It's just people who are really creatively talented. And everybody's just starting out. There's something really simple and pure and beautiful about that," she said.

She didn't think she would land the role of Karen

Pop culture often perpetuates stereotypes that the popular girls are always blonde and the smart students are always of South Asian descent. Think back even to the original "Mean Girls" movie — Regina George is the Spring Fling Queen and Kevin Gnapoor is the smart but uncool mathlete. That's exactly why Avantika didn't think she had a shot at landing the role of Karen. "When did we ever think that someone Brown was going to play an iteration of a character who's known for being blonde and pretty and stupid? It's the antithesis of everything that we've been told our community is from the very beginning. And while nobody wants to be called dumb, there's something liberating in feeling like there's no expectation around our intelligence anymore," she said. 

Avantika was also worried she wasn't a good enough singer to book a role in a musical, especially when so many talented women were vying for the part. But her self-taped audition blew the directors away. When she finally heard back three months later, she was offered the part. In an email written to Marie Claire, directors Arturo Perez Jr. and Samantha Jayne revealed, "Her [audition] choices were brilliant — from her vacant stare to how she got lost in her own mind during her intro to 'Sexy.' Everything she did felt truthful, spontaneous, and hilarious. She embodied the role in such an effortless way." 

She's breaking stereotypes

According to Avantika, the first time she ever felt represented on screen in Hollywood was in "Bridgerton," which, as the actor pointed out, is fairly recent. Avantika is hopeful that her portrayal of Karen will show other brown girls that they don't need to be defined by the stereotypes they've grown up watching. "I hope this movie is, like, if you're Brown, you can be the popular girl in school!" she told Marie Claire. She also hopes it shows other actors of color that their roles aren't limited to ones that feed into those stereotypes. "I hope that this film opens up the industry ... [and it shows Brown girls that] options have opened up for you now as to what you can do in the world," she said.

Avantika believes women can learn something from Karen, too. Women have traditionally been taught to reject things deemed too "girly," but the tides are changing. Thanks to stars like Taylor Swift and movies like "Barbie," women of late are embracing their girlhood. It's no longer uncool or vapid to like the color pink or be obsessed with makeup — it's celebrated. "The movie felt like an epitome of everything I wanted to experience but never could like being glamorous and popular, and being able to talk about boys and what outfit we're wearing. Basically, things that kids at my school would snub as vain," she told Vogue India.

She's not bothered by haters and online trolls

While the majority of the world applauded the new "Mean Girls" movie for choosing to depart from its original all-white group of Plastics, not everyone was pleased. Avantika was subject to insensitive and even racist hate online. However, Avantika refused to let the hate tear her down. Instead, she posted screenshots of the nasty comments on Instagram with the caption "mean girls." Avantika commented on the controversy to Teen Vogue, saying, "I thought it was funny how the movie was called Mean Girls and everybody was being a mean girl on Twitter."

Her post was met with support from other people of color in the industry, like Mindy Kaling, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, and Alyah Chanelle Scott. "The only reason I would ever watch this is BECAUSE there's a brown girl in it. Specifically you. So proud," commented "Never Have I Ever" actor Richa Moorjani.

Avantika isn't fazed by the haters. "If anybody says anything about my acting, I'm like 'please tell me more.' If you don't feel like you're connecting to the character on screen, I should know," she told Teen Vogue. "But if you're talking about how you can smell the character from the screen, you're simply an ignorant person and a bigot, and there's nothing I can do about that."

She had a lot of input into her Mean Girls character

You can thank Avantika for that hilarious change-up in the trust-fall scene in the "Mean Girls" comedy musical. According to the actor, Tina Fey was very receptive to suggestions from the cast to help set the reboot apart from the original. "It was a very open, free space for us to play around and experiment," Avantika told Teen Vogue. For the fall scene, Avantika suggested Karen fall face-first into the crowd instead of backwards. If you've seen the new movie, you'll know it's a suggestion Fey took on.

It was also Avantika's idea to change Karen's last name from "Smith" to "Shetty" to keep the character authentic. While Fey offered a few common last names from North India, Avantika suggested Shetty to match her South Asian roots. "This is a rare occasion in which South Indians, specifically someone of Telugu heritage, could get representation," Avantika revealed. "I told Tina [to name her Shetty] and the next day it was in the script." It was also important to Avantika that she wear her natural curls in an effort to break away from Eurocentric beauty standards.

"I love being in Hollywood and doing a role like this where it feels like I'm breaking a stereotype. But it's also difficult when you have to retrofit characters that weren't written for your brownness," Avantika admitted to Vogue India. 

She's producing and starring in the TV adaption of one of her favorite books

From actor to movie producer, Avantika is proving just how much she can do. In November 2022, she took to Instagram to announce that she would be executive producing and starring in the Disney+ TV adaption of the book "A Crown of Wishes." "I genuinely have tears in my eyes posting this right now. [Roshani Chokshi] wrote one of my favorite books [to] date. ... Ever since I read 'A Crown of Wishes' two years ago, it became my passion to see the novel come to life," Avantika wrote.

Based on Hindu mythology, the story follows Princess Gauri, played by Avantika, as she escapes imprisonment and teams up with a cunning and charming prince to compete in a tournament where winners are granted one wish. Avantika is executive producing the film with Zanne Devine, who is behind hit films "Easy A" and "I, Tonya," as well as the Disney+ series "Spin," in which Avantika starred. In her Instagram caption, Avantika expressed hope that the show will usher in a new wave of Disney princesses — ones that look like her. While we've seen a lot of live-action Disney remakes over the years, this is one we're extra excited about. 

Avantika has big dreams for the future

When Variety named Avantika on their Power of Young Hollywood "Up Next" list in 2021, Avantika was only just getting started. We expect to see many more films and TV shows produced by the budding filmmaker in the near future, particularly ones that showcase the diversity within South Asian groups. "I would love to have a thriving production company in the next five years," she told Teen Vogue.

The actor and executive producer also wants to return to Indian cinema and star in Bollywood films, but she has become wary of the industry. "[In South Asia] it feels so against you systematically because of nepotism," she told Marie Claire. "And there's so much colorism. It's just insane to be pitted against somebody who you know you're more technically trained than but [they are] getting a better opportunity than you because they're just lighter skin." With Avantika proving she can tackle the systemic obstacles in Hollywood, though, we have no doubt she won't be deterred by the ones in Bollywood, either.