You probably know Busy Philipps as somebody’s friend. The 38-year-old actress first made her name on Freaks and Geeks in 1999, in the role of Kim Kelly, the baby-faced tough girl who let Lindsay Weir into the high-school cool crowd. Shortly thereafter, she graduated to the cast of Dawson’s Creek, playing Audrey Liddell, the bubbly college roommate who got studious Joey Potter to freakin’ live a little. And later, she took her talents to Cougar Town, where, as Laurie Keller, she gulped wine and convinced Jules Cobb to go out with younger guys. With the easy laugh of your favorite sister and a poreless face made for ultra-high-definition 4K TV, she has played “best friend” as dependably as anyone in Hollywood for the last 20 years. Her latest project, a romantic comedy called I Feel Pretty, premieres this month. It was co-written and directed by her husband, Marc Silverstein, and it stars Amy Schumer as a woman who hits her head during a SoulCycle class and wakes up believing she’s model-gorgeous. Philipps plays Schumer’s best friend.
Does it get old? Not really, not for Philipps. Because, you guys, friendship is her thing. Helping other people, connecting them, gossiping, bonding — it’s just what she does. On a bright recent morning in Los Angeles, she sat at a wooden table outside a cold-pressed juice bar and ticked off the day’s promises. Tapping longish, manicured nails on the screen of her oversized iPhone, she confirmed that yes, she would definitely do that shoot for her stylist, Karla Welch, and duh, she was totally buying tickets to her friend Gillian Jacobs’s new play.
“I do everyone favors,” she said, adjusting her long, blonde ponytail and taking a sip of her juice, which was green. She was fresh from a workout, wearing bright pink sunglasses and a great attitude.
Michelle Williams, the Oscar-nominated star of Brokeback Mountain and the internet listicle “All the Times Michelle Williams and Busy Philipps Were BFF Goals IRL,” confirmed that Philipps’s magnanimity is real. Friendship is something Philipps “puts a lot of time and energy” into, Williams said.
“Her passion is people,” she said of Philipps. “She has this amazing quality: People just fall in love with her. Like, you spend ten minutes with her, and people are like, She’s incredible.” Williams fell in love with her on the set of Dawson’s Creek, and she’s been her best friend ever since.
To experience a satisfying facsimile of Philipps’s IRL magnetism, you need only to turn to Instagram. Over the last year and a half, Philipps has used the platform’s Stories feature to post daily (sometimes hourly) conversational videos about her charmed and wacky L.A. lifestyle. She talks directly to her iPhone’s front-facing camera and begins many of her videos with a conspiratorial “you guys,” drawing viewers in with the promise of unfiltered realness. Most of the time she’s not wearing makeup, not that she needs to wear makeup. She shoots her footage while sitting in her car or lounging on her couch, twirling her hair in her fingers.
Philipps has almost one million followers on Instagram, and at least 200,000 of them tune into her Stories every day. According to data from Instagram, they are mostly city-dwelling women, ages 25–34: older millennials who are nostalgic for Dawson’s Creek and younger ones who know her better from her appearances as Williams’s date at awards shows.
In her mini-documentaries, Philipps takes fans along on a myriad of excursions, both Hollywood and domestic. She films the school field trips she chaperones for her daughters Birdie, 9, and Cricket, 4. She documents her attempts at the Whole30 diet, and her binges on queso and margaritas. She also goes to awards shows. After she attended the Golden Globes with Williams last year, she came home drunk to find that she was locked out of her house, which is probably what would happen to you, too, if you went to the Golden Globes.
Sitting outside the juice bar, Philipps contemplated her growth on the platform, which she said happened mostly by accident. “I feel a little bit fraudulent,” she said, resting a protective hand on her iPhone, which she kept close throughout our time together. “I don’t have anything to say about the strategy of how this happened for me, other than it was A, very intuitive and B, that I wasn’t expecting anything in return. Like, I was just truly attempting a different type of connection and a different type of entertainment.”
Whatever she did, it worked. Last year, Simon & Schuster’s Touchstone division offered Philipps a deal to write her memoir, after an editor fell in love with her Instagram Stories. (She’s about 60 percent done with writing it, and she feels confident about her material so far. Writing is “something that I’m really good at,” she said. The book will be released in the fall.) On top of that, she has a slate of partnerships with mom-friendly brands like Campbell’s Well Yes! soup, Michaels craft stores, and Hidden Valley ranch dressing. In an entertainment industry that now includes both the movie star and the YouTube celebrity, Philipps has forged a lucrative path somewhere in between: She still takes acting roles, like in I Feel Pretty and the recent HBO series Vice Principals, but she makes more money from brand deals.
Many would like to emulate this success, she’s discovering. A few nights before we met, the husband of a certain actress came up to Philipps at a party and started hammering her with questions about her social-media strategy.
“He was like, ‘Talk to me about the strategy behind how you post and when you post and the things that you’re doing, because we’re really trying to build her numbers.’” she said, deepening her voice to imitate the man, who sounded rude. “And I was like, ‘Dude, I am the wrong fucking person for this conversation.’”
That’s not to say Philipps isn’t happy about the freedom her brand partnerships have afforded her financially. Now, instead of taking a part she doesn’t like or want, she can post an ad on Instagram and call it a day. “If I’m not being creatively fulfilled, I may as well not” act, she said. “I can stay here, be a mom to my two young daughters, doing my fucking Instagram Stories, and make the same amount of money doing a post for a brand.”
Accepting this new phase of her career has been a little difficult, she said. She’s worked as an actor for almost 20 years, and now some people think she’s just an internet celebrity. An internet mom celebrity. But “right now,” she smiled, “I feel like I’m beating the system. I’m making money, I’m able to support my family and make a living and support my expensive workout habits and juice habits …”
She picked up her green juice, which, after spending an hour sitting in the full California sun, was looking less appealing than it once did. “I mean, this was fucking seven dollars,” she said, laughing.
To witness Philipps’s content-creation magic in action, I joined her at her expensive workout of choice: LEKfit, a dance-inspired method that involves jumping on mini-trampolines. Almost every day, Philipps shares a video or two of her sweating, profusely, in class. (The studio is heated, a fact I discovered upon entering, which was too late.)
When I arrived at the modern, white-walled studio in the tony neighborhood of Hancock Park, Philipps was holding court in the front of the room, wearing a patterned gray crop-top-and-leggings ensemble and a gold nameplate necklace that read, “Anxiety.” (Philipps often discusses her struggle with anxiety on Instagram; she says exercise helps.)
The workout itself was delightfully insane, as is the case with most fitness classes that cost $35 a pop. For 50 frenetic minutes, Philipps and I hopped along in unison with eight other toned, mostly white women on our mini-trampolines, which everyone called rebounders. Philipps completed each sequence with the finesse of a former cheerleader, all while dripping, unself-consciously, in sweat, like a Workin’ Out Barbie come to life for the express purpose of experiencing thermoregulation. During a complicated series of leg lifts, she reached out and grabbed her iPhone, and in one fluid, balletic motion, both filmed herself and posted the footage.
Lauren Kleban, the petite, blonde founder of LEKfit, said in an interview that Philipps has been crucial to the growth of her business. “I think that women and moms, especially, just relate to Busy. She’s become so much more than an actress; she’s a real personality and an obvious influencer.”
And Kleban doesn’t even pay her to post about her workouts. “I think so many people follow her because she’s so real,” she said. “You know, she pays for class just like everybody else, and she’s really open about that. She posts things whether she’s being paid to post about it or not.”
Of course, Philipps gets paid to post about some things, like the Hidden Valley ranch dressing, and the Campbell’s Well Yes! Soup. Which is fine, you guys. She should be allowed to be monetarily compensated for the entertainment she provides on Instagram, she said, “in the same way that if you watch Modern Family, there are ads. And that’s what’s paying their million dollars an episode, you know?”
Philipps first realized her Instagram Stories were reaching a wider audience last year, when tabloids began picking up things she said and turning them into posts. She now makes regular appearances on people.com and the Daily Mail, usually for engaging in some new wellness fad. (“Busy Philipps Just Shot Garlic Up Her Nose to Relieve Sinus Congestion — and It Looks So Painful,” read one recent headline.) She rolls her eyes at the content cycle but is aware of her role within it.
“If I say something that’s controversial, or if there’s something crazy that happens to me, it’s going to get picked up by at least one, maybe multiple different kinds of rags,” she said. “But when you consider the amount of content that has to be put out on a daily basis by all of these different sites, it totally makes sense that they’re just scraping. Like, ‘Where the fuck can we get stories today?’”
The tabloids especially love when Philipps includes Williams in her Instagram Stories. In real life, Williams is the bigger star, but on Instagram, she plays a supporting role, laughing at Philipps’s crazed expressions and gamely playing along with her wine-fueled ideas. (At Paris Fashion Week last fall, a tipsy Philipps shared videos of herself dyeing Williams’s hair “millennial pink.” The transformation was quickly chronicled, with stunning completeness, by about nine different tabloids.)
Williams does not have her own social-media presence — she swore off the idea of engaging with the internet after she found an “I Hate Jen Lindley” website during her Dawson’s Creek days, Philipps said. But she likes to see Philipps do it. “I think it’s fascinating to her, because it’s so outside of what she would normally do or project,” Philipps said. “I think she’s very curious about the immediate feedback of fans and people you know, giving you reinforcement. Positive and negative.”
In January, Philipps received a wave of positive and negative feedback after she posted about the death of Williams’s former partner Heath Ledger. It was the tenth anniversary of his death, and it hit Philipps hard. She was driving around in her Volvo SUV when MGMT’s 2007 single “Time to Pretend” came on the Sirius radio, and it reminded her of Ledger — the song came out a few months before he died. As she listened, she started filming herself for an Instagram Story and crying.
A few hours later, Philipps flew to San Francisco, to be with Williams, who was shooting a film in the city. There, she shared a photo of Williams burying her face in her shoulder, with the caption, “It’s ok.” The tabloids quickly picked up the moment, with some variation of the headline, “Busy Philipps Flies to Be With BFF Michelle Williams on Anniversary of Heath Ledger’s Death.”
Sitting outside the juice bar, Philipps said the reaction to her posts that day was “mixed.”
“I think some people felt like I was being exploitative,” she said. “I’ve never even really spoken about [Ledger’s death], because I never would want to have it be misconstrued in that way, but it was the ten-year anniversary, and …”
She started to cry behind her sunglasses.
“It’s just been a long ten years, you know?” she said, her voice breaking. “That anniversary just brought up a lot of … I can’t believe it’s been ten years. I was pregnant with Birdie. I had seen him a couple months earlier, and you know, [Williams and Ledger] were broken up. I’ve never talked about it. I’ve never shared it, because I’m hyper protective of [Williams] and her daughter. But I also think … I think it’s okay. Everyone’s allowed to have their own feelings about something that happens.”
It’s hard, Philipps explained, because Ledger was such a beloved figure, and so many people — people who didn’t even know him! — feel a kind of ownership over his story, and she has to contend with all of that. “Certain people in the public feel protective of it,” she sighed. “And they’re like, ‘You shouldn’t be talking about it.’”
But Williams is “my best friend,” she said. “And like, my family … And if I want to talk about it, and I never have really done it before, and this, like, the anniversary, I really felt like …” It’s okay.
Williams said that she doesn’t look at what Philipps posts on Instagram. “I trust her judgment implicitly,” she said.
The tricky thing about sharing so much of your life online is that, at some point, you can’t go back. Philipps’s followers feel like they know her now: They know where she works out, and who she eats lunch with, and when she’s on a plane. They’ve seen the outside and the inside of her house and know her children by name and face. And they care about her! Last May, when she shared that a Tina Fey–produced pilot she starred in wasn’t going to get picked up by NBC, several of her followers found her on Venmo and started sending her money. She was like, you guys, don’t do that, but within an hour she had $500, which she donated to her favorite charity, Baby2Baby.
It’s all a little overwhelming.
At the beginning of the year, Philipps said, she considered quitting Instagram altogether. “It was getting to the point where … like, people are invested in my kids’ lives,” she said. “Like, what am I doing? Am I turning my life into a reality show? Is that what I need to be doing?”
But, you know, she got over it. Because, really, it’s only about 200,000 people who watch her Stories every day. And her kids don’t mind it. “It doesn’t interrupt our lives,” she said, taking her empty juice bottle to recycle it inside.
We parted ways, but not before Philipps turned her genuine gaze on me and offered one free, unrestricted favor to be cashed in at a future date of my choice. “If you’re ever in town and you’re like, Hey will you get me whatever,” she said, “I’ll be like, Of course!”