When Olivia Munn first arrived in Los Angeles, it wasn’t the sunny weather that struck her as different—it was the style. “I grew up in a military family, so I’m very much used to always being the new girl, feeling like I’m on the outs and figuring out a way to find a place for myself,” the self-described introvert says with a softness that somehow hints she’s not just referring to her school days. “But Hollywood is a whole other ballgame.”
“When I moved here, I’d go to auditions and I had it in my head that I was supposed to be dressed in my Sunday best, like I was going to church. There I would be, in heels and a skirt, while everyone else was wearing flats, skinny jeans and a tank top. Their attitude was very much, ‘Oh, I just showed up here. What’s up? Are you guys here for me?’ They were all so cool, and I just cared so much…I cared so, so much.”
“That part was tough, but then I started noticing how thin people were and I kept trying to figure out how they did it, and that was a losing game. It was the first time I heard about the Atkins diet and I wanted to know more—I wanted to try anything that would make me castable—but I honestly didn’t know what to do.”
After Munn says she couldn’t “whittle down and be waif-thin to fit the look at the time,” she made a trip to that always-reliable shopping destination of J.Crew: “I bought a pair of jeans that were two sizes too big, and I got them long. Then, I went to Urban Outfitters, and they had these moccasin wedges that looked flat from the front, but when you looked in the back, they were a wedge. I cut the insides of the jeans so they flared over the moccasins just enough, so it hid the wedge. For my top, I bought a Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirt that was designed to look vintage at Target—one of those new ones that was all beat up. I tied it around my back, did a little knot, and you could really see the definition of how large the pants were on me. I was literally wearing an outfit that was two sizes too big, but it looked like I had lost weight. It looked like I was thinner than I was.”
“Then, I started booking, which just shows how warped the standards were.”
“I’m happy that I’m more comfortable embracing who I am now,” Munn says, admitting that that level of acceptance—even after numerous advertising campaigns, notable roles, a bit of a sex-symbol status, and a long list of business investments, charity work and activism—can be a tough pill to swallow.
“There are a lot of situations I look back on and I’m like, ‘Wow, I really didn’t know.’ I really had no idea what I should be wearing; what my makeup and hair should look like. It was always hard being Chinese, Vietnamese and white, and having all these makeup artists, who didn’t really know how to work with an Amerasian face, doing my makeup. There’s a period of time that’s a bit of a blur for me—where someone would dress me up and put me out there and it just didn’t feel or look like me. I would walk out of a photo shoot not really understanding how we got there…not knowing how to tell them I didn’t look or feel like me. But how do you tell someone you don’t look like yourself when they’re the experts and you’re not even sure how you’re supposed to look.”
I’m happy that I’m more comfortable embracing who I am now.
Growing up as the youngest of five (her parents divorced when she was young, and she spent time living overseas in Japan and various locations in the U.S., but still considers Oklahoma City home and a place she wishes was “within driving distance of California”), Munn remembers that, when her sisters ripped into hot-roller sets on Christmas Day, she would get a skateboard.
“Everyone knew I could barely comb my hair, so beauty and fashion have always been kind of foreign to me. Now, I love them so much more, I understand them so much more, and I can appreciate them so much more,” she says, noting that she sees aesthetician Shani Darden for regular facials, follows a somewhat-simple skin-care routine of serum, masks and sunscreen (but has a personal goal to get better about applying retinol), and relies on an inside-out approach that involves eating healthy, mainly because of an autoimmune disorder.
As far as turning 41 this summer, she doesn’t give much thought to it.
“We are so much kinder to the aging male than we are to the aging female. No one thinks twice when a guy turns 40. When I turned 40, so many people made it seem like I would wake up the next day and feel like my life was over and that there was some sort of shame to getting older. [laughs] It’s kind of ridiculous, considering none of us can control the day or the year we were born. And, honestly, I’m happier at 40 than I’ve been at any other age.”
“I think the bigger question with all of it is: Are you happy? Just because your life may not look like what society tells you it should look like at a certain age, doesn’t mean you’re not living a full, rewarding life.”
I think the bigger question with all of it is: Are you happy?
Something Munn says did make her happy this past year: spending time slowing down a bit. “I had my dogs, I had a little pod, and those things kept me sane. If I could make just one request: I’d like everyone to keep wearing flannels and sweatpants all day long. Yesterday, I had to put on heels, and it was very much a baby-giraffe situation.”
When we speak, the “situation” she is referring to is a not-so-casual appointment at The White House on behalf of her work with The Asian American Foundation (TAAF), something she’s been vocal about on her social-media platforms.
“We were so grateful to be able to meet with President Biden and Vice President Harris just moments after the president signed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act into law. They both made it very clear that the hate we are witnessing against Asian Americans since the pandemic was weaponized against us is simply un-American and that we have the full support of this administration. It’s critical for us to build a country that respects and values our contributions to the American story, and it was a really special thing to be able to have one-on-one conversations to discuss how we can work together to help our communities.”
In terms of other conversations she wants to have, there are many: “I rescued my two dogs, and we’re part of a campaign across the country right now for the Humane Society and the Shelter Pet Project to show people that shelter pets are amazing, which both of my dogs are. We actually had a rough week in the ICU recently with my dog Chance, and that was so scary. He thankfully turned a corner and will make a full recovery, but it was just the most helpless feeling in the world to see him in so much pain.”
“My dogs are my whole world and I love them so much. During last year’s lockdown, I worked with GreaterGood.org and Wag to help shelter pets find homes. [Munn is an investor in Wag, the dog-walking app, and racks up a long list of companies she invests in, including Uber, Vital Protiens, Skinny Dipped Almonds, Bulletproof, Health-Ade Kombucha, and gut-health prebiotic drink Poppi that counts Billie Eilish as a fan] “We’ve worked with different shelters and places to help people adopt dogs in their cities easier. Last year ‘How do you foster a dog?’ was one of the top Google searches, which just shows us how many people wanted to open their homes to animals in need during the pandemic.”
When asked how the “other” Google searches and corresponding tabloid scrutiny of her personal life makes her feel (the latest are reports of her relationship with comedian John Mulaney), she admits it can be hard to take at times.
“I think what’s more surprising is how much is incorrect,” she says after a long pause. “There is so much attention on things that aren’t the truth. And if you speak up and try to say the truth, you’re accused of being messy or just not believed. I’ve gotten used to it, but it hasn’t made it easier.”
Photography by John Russo at 1 Hotel West Hollywood; Makeup: Diane Buzzetta; Hair: Ericka Verrett; Styling: Jessica Paster at Uncommon Artists; Top: Devon Windsor; Nails: Shigeko Taylor