Blake Lively brings her unerring eye, Southern roots, and love of storytelling to her latest venture—a Web site called Preserve. Jonathan Van Meter heads West to meet up with the Gossip Girl turned Internet entrepreneur.
Jackson Hole, Wyoming, is one of those startling American places where “purple mountain majesties” becomes gloriously real, no longer a patriotic abstraction from a song learned in grade school. But it is also home to some of the most expensive real estate imaginable—great, logged-up monuments to show-business wealth and fame. Oh, give me a twelve-bedroom, fourteen-bath home, where the buffalo still sort of occasionally roam!
Blake Lively has never been here until today, but when I meet her in the soaring lobby of the Amangani resort one evening in late May she is dressed as if she has taken the landscape into consideration. Not many women can wear denim overalls, strappy Louboutin stilettos, and a Navajo-blanket poncho and get away with it, but Blake Lively can. When I compliment her, she describes the look as “if Sling Blade and Pocahontas had a baby.” Lively has a tendency toward deadpan humor, often delivered with a laconic stare that can make it difficult to figure out whether she is joking or not. “When I say something funny, I don’t laugh,” she says, “so my friends are always like, ‘Hahahahaaaa!’ so people know. When I’m not with them, I always think, This person doesn’t know I’m funny; they just think I’m a jerk.”
Lively, who is back from Cannes, where she was obliged to make appearances as a L’Oréal “ambassador,” as well as stroll the red carpet with her husband, Ryan Reynolds, for the premiere of his film The Captive, is both jet-lagged and feeling unwell. “I ate some mystery meat on the plane, and I feel poisoned,” she says. As we head out to the car that will take us to dinner in town, she says, “Do you mind if I sit in the front? I get motion sickness.” Pause. “God, I’m like a toddler. I hope you have Cheerios in your bag.” And then, once in the car: “Now, to be triply annoying, I have to make a work-related call. I’m so sorry.”
Having spent the last two years building a Web site called Preserve that is about to launch, Lively—like a mother with a newborn—has to grab opportunities to work whenever she can. As we’re driving, she tries to reach one of the dozen people on her team in Los Angeles (the company will eventually move to New York City). Much like the woman who founded it, Preserve is a fundamentally curious and free-spirited enterprise. Part digital monthly magazine, part e-commerce venture, part video blog, the site will seek out and celebrate people all over America who are making things—food, clothes, pillows, dishes, dining-room tables—with their hands. Its design evokes a kind of moody-spooky beauty that one associates with Savannah or New Orleans (a favorite place of Lively and Reynolds’s).
Lively is hoping to tap into her generation’s obsession with all things small-batch: the perfectly imperfect handcrafted, the exquisitely bespoke, the deliciously artisanal. She is, in essence, using all the modern-day digital tricks of the trade to shine a light on—to preserve—all those finer, simpler things in American life that are in danger of getting touch-screened into extinction, trampled on by the medium itself. It will be a neat trick if she can pull it off.
“I am really excited about it,” says Ivanka Trump, another willowy workaholic who knows a thing or two about brand extension. “Through curation, storytelling, nurturing creativity, she’s really sharing another side of herself with a much larger audience.” I ask Ivanka if she was surprised by her friend’s new career direction. “I don’t think there’s such a disconnect between what she’s traditionally done as an actress and this new platform. Her ability to story-tell is something that she’s clearly cultivated since childhood.”
Back in the car, when she finally gets the editor on the phone, Lively—the 26-year-old who starred in Gossip Girl for six years as Serena van der Woodsen and who became a fashion plate famous for her distinct (no-stylist) style—surprises me with the authority of her vision. “With the bow-tie story,” she says, “I think by shifting into the first person, he would be able to make it a lot more personal . . . that authentic, sort of flawed voice that we’ve been trying to accomplish. I was a little liberal with my revisions. But the humor was already there, so I just went with it.” She flips through the pile of manuscripts in her lap, turning to a different piece. “I think the writer should just scrap it and start over. Because this guy’s work is beautiful . . . but what’s the story? Why bags? Why leather? Why the European military influence?” She pauses for a moment. “And one small thing, which shows up in every piece: the word things. My dad was an English professor. There’s always a more eloquent, descriptive word.”
When we pull up to the restaurant, Lively is still on the call, which she continues up the steps, through the door, and right up to the minute that the hostess appears in front of us. Lively is a serious foodie. She has apprenticed for the day alongside chefs in restaurants from Barcelona to New Orleans and is, by all accounts, a pretty accomplished cook herself. So when we find ourselves in a windowless dining room with a handful of older couples quietly eating lamb chops, our hearts sink. She stares at me with a look that says, Really? It came highly recommended, I say. “By whom,” she asks, “someone who hates us?” It takes a second for me to get that she’s kidding (I think). A waiter approaches us to ask if we’d like to start with something to drink. “Can I have the French onion soup to drink?” says Lively.
“I’m sorry?” says the waiter.
“See what happens?” Lively says to me. “You have to be my laugh track.” And then to the waiter with a big grin: “I’m starving.” When the waiter leaves, she explains that she is like a perpetual growing boy: always hungry. “You know that old saying, A way to a man’s heart is through his stomach—that’s me.”
Lively attributes her obsession with food and cooking to her Southern roots. Though she (the youngest of five) was raised near Burbank in Los Angeles and looks every inch the Malibu surfer girl, her father grew up in Virginia and her mother in Tallapoosa, a speck of a place on the border between Georgia and Alabama. “My mother had very humble beginnings—to put it mildly,” says Lively. “Her dad built their home out of timber that he cut down on their land. No heat, no air-conditioning—no foolishness, as he would call it. She worked in the fields from sunup to sundown, from the time she could walk. She’s strong as an ox. She learned how to break a chicken’s neck and pluck the feathers when she was a little girl. Food to me is love. When the whole family comes together, my mom makes a big meal, usually a family dish that was passed down,” she says. Indeed, Lively talks so much about the South—her wedding near Charleston, her multistate road trips with Reynolds—that it’s easy to forget that she grew up in a family of showfolk in California.
Lively didn’t start cooking until she moved to New York City when she was still a teenager. She quickly got caught up in Manhattan’s foodie culture, where every chef is now a celebrity chef and the obsession with artisanal foods—Small-Batch Brooklyn—seems to grow exponentially, year after year. Why, I ask, are people your age so interested in food? “My theory is that people used to love that they could go anywhere in the world and find that same cup of coffee. They could be in the most rural place and—surprise!—there’s a Starbucks. But something’s shifted. People want to get back to the magic of smaller, special, and handmade. We grew up getting every bit of information we needed instantly. So we want to know the backstory; we want to know why something is the way it is. And if there’s no answer other than because it’s big, because it makes money, because it’s corporate—we don’t connect with that. People want things with meaning. I know that because I want that. This space doesn’t exist, so I’m creating it.”
After dinner we head back to the hotel, and Lively shows me a binder that is about a foot thick, filled with information and images she has been collecting for the past decade. “I’ve been doing this my whole adult life. When I see something I love—a lamp, a piece of art—I say, Where did you get that? And I will go to the store, take pictures, and get the business card. I have everything from food to fashion to home goods; you name it.” She starts to flip through. “Here are cutting boards and muddlers and lighting. And bike racks and bitters and tea. This is an artist I love: Travis Louie. And here’s this ceramicist who does these drawings and then these weird dolls that go with them. I like things that have a fairy-tale aspect, but with a sinister twist.” Very obsessive, I say. “I don’t know why I have been saving all this stuff. Isn’t it weird? It’s totally weird!”
Perhaps because of the scorn that has been heaped on Gwyneth Paltrow and her Web site, Goop, Lively is quick to point out that she is “not trying to show you the perfect life or the aspirational life. It’s real life. It’s the thing that blindsides you on an idle Tuesday that’s tragic but that also makes you who you are. It’s not about me. And it’s not about watching my journey of learning how-to, it’s about me sharing that with you so we all sort of learn together.”
When I ask if she is worried about being mocked à la Paltrow, she says, “I’m sure there will be plenty of people who will say horrible things. I’m sure this interview will be picked apart. But you can’t worry about it. There have been so many things written about me that are untrue and horrifying. I can’t even believe that my family has to read this stuff. You just have to do what makes you happy, because you’ll never get a unanimous vote. People like to gossip. They bond over it. They don’t bond over complimenting famous people. I’m always the first person to defend Gwyneth Paltrow. Or any woman in a position of power, like Martha Stewart or Oprah, who gets burned. Because they have paved the path for so many other women who are doing something they believe in.”
Given that the first line of Lively’s Wikipedia entry is “Blake Ellender Lively is an American actress, model, and celebrity homemaker,” I suppose it should not come as a surprise to hear that her “idol” is Martha Stewart. Lively, who has been renovating a big farmhouse in upstate New York, not far from Stewart’s, has become friendly with the mother of all how-to tastemakers. “I’ve only ever found her to be completely generous and kind,” says Lively. “She’s one of those people who connect people with each other. She’s there for you.” Stewart also acted as a fairy godmother, watching over Blake and Ryan’s wedding. “Our wedding was becoming a disaster, and we didn’t know what to do, so we called Martha! She said, ‘Don’t worry. I’ll handle it.’ She sent her team down to save us. And then she called her friends who have a home in South Carolina and set us up at the most amazing getaway. This is the day of our wedding!”
The two met through a mutual acquaintance, says Stewart, “and then I invited them for my big Easter do. We had her entire family—maybe twelve of them came for brunch, and they were all very fun. Quite the close-knit family on Blake’s side.” When I ask Stewart about their shared passion, she replies, “I think she considers me a kind of mentor. And I think anyone who is as home-oriented as she is, this new venture doesn’t surprise me.” Besides, she adds, “actresses have a lot of free time between takes. They sit around and they watch stuff and they learn.”
Ryan Reynolds is not officially on the Preserve team, but his fingerprints will be all over it. “He’s a part of it because everything we do in life we do together,” says Lively. “If I’m working on a movie, he helps me with my character; I do the same with him. Picking out a coffee table. What we’re going to eat. He’s a beautiful writer—he’s written a lot of stuff for us. And he’s got a great barometer and he knows me, so he will tell me if it’s not as good as it can be.”
If Lively is comfortable enough looking at the big picture to create a panoramic Web site, she also takes the long view of her husband: “He’s going to be a great father and leader and patriarch—he’s so meant to be all of those things. The fact that he lived so much before we got together, he’s the exact realized person that he should be. And so I get to share my life with the person he’s become, and we get to grow from there.”
We wind up talking about how one of the best things about being in a relationship is the way it can change your thinking. “I find that all the time with Ryan,” she says. “I get really frustrated when something goes wrong. For example, my wedding dress. Florence Welch was singing at the reception, and they brought out these sparklers, and I’m watching her sing. I look down and my wedding dress has a big burn mark from one of the sparklers. Right on the front! And it was just so heartbreaking to me. And later, my dress was hanging up and Ryan said, ‘Isn’t that beautiful?’ I said, ‘What?’ And he pointed to the burn. My heart just stopped, because it was such a sensitive little subject. And he said, ‘You’ll always remember that moment with Florence singing and the sparklers. You have that forever, right there, preserved.’ Now that’s my favorite part of the dress.”
A week later, I meet Lively at the Bowery Hotel in Manhattan at 10:00 a.m. When she answers the door to her room, she is wearing sleek gray pajamas and has spectacular bedhead. She had been at the CFDA Fashion Awards the night before and then to an after-party for Michael Kors that went late, which is why she woke up three minutes ago. She disappears into the bathroom to brush her teeth and, when she comes out, catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror, cups both of her breasts, and says, “Oh, my God, I’m giving you the full Barbarella.”
Next she orders an eggs-and-sausage feast from room service, which we spread out on the coffee table and promptly devour. How this girl keeps her curves in the right places is a mystery to be solved by another writer. I tell her that I watched Ben Affleck’s The Town the night before and was struck by how effortlessly someone who’s never had a drink in her life managed to inhabit such a drugged-up mess of a girl. She laughs. “Yeah, and ever since then, every single role I get offered is a prostitute. You do a movie to change the way people think about you, and then they never see you any other way. It didn’t help matters that I followed it up with Savages and another sexually charged, drug-addled young woman.”
When Gossip Girl ended in 2012, Lively decided to take a year off. “I just needed time to regenerate,” she says. “I was reading scripts that I liked, but I felt like I had atrophied in a way. We had to produce so many episodes so quickly. And when you’re working fifteen-hour days, ten months a year, the only time you have for real life is between takes. So you’re not really acting anymore. You’re reciting. I could have fought harder and made Gossip Girlsomething different, but I also needed to have a life, you know? So I wanted a break to figure things out.” Here she slips into a faux-dreamy voice. “What type of prostitute will I play next? Will it be a Wild West prostitute? A prostitute in the future?” She laughs. “I just wanted time to feel like I could be good again.”
Instead she took all that material she had been collecting and decided to turn it into a business. “If I hadn’t ever been an actor,” she says, “this is what I would’ve done anyway. Acting is very transactional: You’re hired to do the job, and you walk off set and you see the movie a year later. You don’t have a hand in any of that. Whereas this is something where every single step of the way, every decision, comes from my heart.”
Photographed by Mario Testino
Read more: Vogue.com