BY CHANNING HARGROVE
PHOTOGRAPHER MAX HEMPHILL
STYLISTS DANI + EMMA
HAIR JOHN D
MAKEUP CAROLA GONZALEZ
In partnership with Dolce & Gabbana
Leslie Grace is in Los Angeles just trying to stay cool. Sure, it’s middle of summer and temperatures are rising in L.A., but she’s also hot off a press run for the sizzling blockbuster In The Heights. Grace is getting rave reviews for her first feature film performance in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical adaptation of Quiara Alegría Hudes’s book. Playing Nina Rosario, “the one who made it out” of Washington Heights—a Dominican neighborhood in Upper Manhattan—was an experience Grace says she’s been preparing for all her life.
For the Bronx-born and Florida-raised Afro-Latina actress, In the Heights truly mirrors her own lived experience, from “having parents that were born in the Dominican Republic, and being first generation growing up in New York,” to “then moving at 10 to Florida,” she tells Grazia Gazette: The Hamptons.
Grace’s mother owned a neighborhood salon and it’s there that she absorbed many crucial life lessons, she says, such as “navigating how to explain myself to people in certain spaces and really leaning on the value of community that my mom had built.” Those lessons, of course, found their way into In the Heights.
Not only did the cast film the movie near one of her mom’s first salons; but also, Grace called upon the experience of her own journey to inform Nina’s on-screen path.
“In this story you see there’s so much value in chosen family and community and in feeling validated in who you are and where you come from and the things that your ancestors have done for you when you’re free,” Grace, 26, explains.
“I wanted to display Nina’s kind of identity crisis and her feeling of not belonging anywhere, because she has dreams bigger than her block,” Grace continues, “but also all her dreams are for her block. She feels like all her family and her friends’ dreams are on her shoulders to kind of make a reality by going out into the world, even though she’d rather stay right where she’s been raised all along.”
That’s a sentiment that hits home for the actress. “I still am a person that—even though I was raised kind of half in Florida and half in New York—when I go to New York, I feel like that’s home for me,” Grace says. “I’ve been searching for that kind of feeling of home and taking that with me as much as I can all my life, no matter where. I’m in L.A. now. And, like Nina, I’m still trying to find my community.”
It’s probably because she grew up with such a strong sense of community that Grace seeks it out wherever she is. At a young age, she felt the value of finding a sanctuary among chosen people at her mother’s hair salon in Florida. For her, visits to her mom’s shop illustrated what she called “the sacredness of setting time apart and going to a place where you take off the mask,” because “you not only figuratively, but literally have somebody touch your mane”—an incredibly intimate process, especially for women of color. “In certain spaces, you go out and you mask a lot of who you are to assimilate into the space,” Grace points out.
At the salon, though, “I saw women of all shapes, and sizes, and colors, and shades, from different backgrounds come in one way and leave another, in terms of spirit” as much as physical appearance, she says. Seeing her mother raise her clients’ confidence with the simple act of grooming created in Grace a deep respect for the often-overlooked women who do that task, including her own mom. “People think that it’s just a magic wand and then the artist shows up,” she explains. “But I always was in the back watching my mom and knew how much time, effort, and love it took and how delicate that process is.”
Grace, on the contrary, is used to being up front and center as an actress and singer. In middle school, she released Pasión, a nine-song project with a family friend. “At that point in my life, if there was any opportunity that would allow me to sing and allow me to record myself singing, I was down,” she recalls. A friend from church offered her a few songs he wrote and co-wrote, before turning a home closet in her parents’ home into a recording studio where Grace would record every day after school. “My Spanish was not at all perfect,” she admits. “I was very insecure. And then I started. Once the CD was done, I started singing from church to church. I always knew how great I felt singing, how great it made me feel to perform.”
While that experience first taught Grace what a privilege it is to be able to transmit a feeling to people in the audience, she laughs thinking back on it. “That time in my life taught me a lot. But when I listen back to it, I cringe because I’m like, Oh my God, that is on Spotify,” she giggles.
Indeed, she’s come a long way from the days in her parents’ closet: In 2013, Grace was nominated for a Latin Grammy (Contemporary Tropical Album) for her self-titled album, and in 2015, she was nominated for two (Contemporary Tropical Album and Tropical Song for Lloviendo Estrellas and “Cómo Duele El Silencio,” respectively).
Earlier this year, Grace released a song with rapper Meek Mill called “Conga” as part of a global campaign with Bacardi. Grace had no idea that the Estebans were close with Bacardi (Gloria’s husband Emilio used to work there!), so when she was offered the opportunity to remake the song, she was in disbelief. “I was like, first of all, is this allowed? Because this song, I grew up on it,” she says. “It’s played at every quinceañera, every wedding, every family gathering. I’ve never heard anybody even interpolate this song. That’s one. And Gloria and Emilio on board. And three, are you sure you want us to do this? Are you sure?!” The result was a resounding success for Grace, and an opportunity to introduce a classic song to younger generations—yet another example of what would be a dream come true, if she’d even dared to dream it.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that these days Grace is walking in, well, grace. As someone who’s dreamed of singing professionally her whole life, she says, “I know there are a lot of people that feel that way and don’t end up having that life path that I did. I just feel privileged and blessed and want to pay it forward as much as I can, making people feel things with what I attach myself to, and also, just paying it back to my family. Really, without their support I wouldn’t be able to be doing this at all. For real.”
In a lot of ways, Grace’s family members were her first fans. She says her performances were encouraged from a very young age but never in a way that felt unnatural. So, she learned to express herself through music, performances, dance, and whatever little thing she learned that week in her house. “Typical Dominican home,” she laughs. “I feel so blessed that that was my circumstance. And that I never thought about not doing it.”
Grace’s audience spans beyond her relatives now, but she says she is still working hard to stay in tune with her roots as she grows. “I was just talking about this yesterday,” she reveals. “I was like, Yo, I’m just trying to, in between all this work, stay human and give myself a little bit of time before I go crazy every day. Just in small increments where I can just tap back into myself because you could just easily create the distance of that breach when you’re working, working, working, and you haven’t tapped into your feelings.” What does that look like? She’s taking dance classes for fun, is in therapy, and is gearing up to release new music—though she’s keeping the details of that under wraps for now.
“I can’t say what’s next, but you will see soon,” she hints. “I’m working on a music project but I don’t want to give any dates because every time I do, it’s an issue. But you will have new music soon from Leslie Grace that I’ve been working on for some time. I want to keep the element of surprise with what’s going to be on it, but you’ll be hearing it very, very soon. I know fans have been waiting for some new music for a long time.” If her path so far is any indication, it will be the perfect mix of where she’s come from, where she is today, and where she’s headed.