Time for another #TBT! Occasionally, we release a past celeb cover story from our print-only archives. For this round, we’re throwin’ it back to our Summer 2020 cover story.
By Andréa Butler | Photographed by David Higgs | Hair by Rochelle Jones | Styled by Enrique Melendez | Makeup by Elie Maalouf
Accepting the challenge that is life, 19-year-old High School Musical: The Musical: The Series star Dara Reneé has overcome every L, celebrated every win, and met every new adventure with the boldness only a #boss could.
Posted up in her bathroom (the only room in her L.A. apartment that’s quiet at the moment, she explains), rockin’ a tie-dyed Bob Marley tee, her ‘fro free as ever, Dara Reneé is like all of us — trying to make it do what it do in the midst of a global pandemic. “It’s been really crazy. Every time I go outside to get groceries, it’s literally a ghost town; like, nobody’s there,” she says. “And it just really makes you appreciate all the essential workers because literally everything is shut down except for the things we need to survive.”
It’s mid-April when we’re on this Zoom call, weeks before any reopening phases begin, so the shutdowns and consequential adjustments to them are still pretty fresh. And that, of course, includes the disruption of filming for High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. “We were filming a scene, and then, we got that call, and we just had to stop. It was like a movie. I was like, ‘What genre is this ‘cause I’m scared,” she laughs.
Still haven’t binged the Disney+ series yet? Peep this: Filmed mocumentary style, it’s a show within a show. The current students of the real East High (where the original movies took place), played by an entirely new cast, are tasked with putting on a production of High School Musical. Dara plays Kourtney, a part of the junior class and BFF to Nini. Kourt helps in the costume department for this new performance, and later, has a chance to showcase her powerful vocals. Come season two, we’re sure to see a whole lot more of ya’ girl.
On 100, though, that almost didn’t happen.
After auditioning in 2015 at the open call for High School Musical 4, which never came to be, and being called in later to try out for every, single female student role for this new series, Dara was still only supposed to appear in one episode ever. “Finally, they had me go in for Kourtney, and I mean, the script wasn’t even written,” she says. “It wasn’t finished for Kourtney yet because she wasn’t supposed to be auditioned for. She was just supposed to be a quick, you know, like on to the next.”
But Dara, who grew up obsessed with the OG films (and their merch — she had everything from the T-shirts to the Barbie dolls to the bedsheets), was determined to show up and show out, improvising a lot of the dialogue and impressing the mess out of the audition panel. If she was going to rep in one ep, she was going to rep hard. “When I got the call, they were like, ‘You got Kourtney!’ And I was like, ‘OK, yay! One episode! We are Gucci, like, I’m straight.’ And they were like, ‘Oh, no. It’s a series regular.’ And I was like, ‘Wait? What?!’”
And it turns out, this was only the beginning. “As soon as I read the first two scripts [of season two], I was amazed,” Dara says. “There’s so much stuff coming, like more dancing, more singing, more story arcs for different characters.”
Including her own.
“Her story line is so fire,” Dara says of Kourtney’s next season. “I’m just going to leave it at that ‘cause I don’t want to spoil anything. But you’ll get to understand a little bit as to why Kourtney does what she does. You’ll get to see her grow as a person and just learn about herself and learn what she wants in life,” she continues. “I mean, Kourtney’s really — she’s a boss chick in this season. She’s not playing any games.”
For Dara, reaching this level of success in her own life has been a roller-coaster ride, so much so, she contemplated quitting. “Casting directors here [in L.A.], they were a little harsh at the beginning,” she confesses. “I was wearing my hair natural when they were like, ‘You should straighten it.’”
She’d actually tried that back in the day as a sixth grader in Baltimore — with disastrous results that she can laugh at now. “Actually, it’s a funny story. Um, I had to cut off all my hair,” she begins. “I was going through some things with my hair. All of my friends had long, straight hair, or they had natural, curly hair that was really big [and] my hair could not do that texture,” she continues. “So, I got a weave from a not-so-good place. No shade to that place — they’re the sweetest place, but they just didn’t do it right. And so, when I took it out, my hair was falling out … I mean, my hair was gone! It looked like it was shaved.”
So, yeah, “taming” her tresses to maybe get a part was a no for Dara. Since then, without having to alter her strands for no dang body, Dara’s landed parts on Black-ish, Disney’s 2018 remake of Freaky Friday, and hella others, in addition to her current gig on HSMTMTS. “I just love becoming new characters. I love when I play a role of a woman that’s empowered, that knows what she wants,” she says. “But I also always wanted to play someone in like Orange is the New Black or someone in American Horror Story … or voiceover [work]; I would love to do cartoons.” And her dream collab? That would be with Issa Rae or Lakeith Stanfield, no question.
“I’m so grateful to just be a part of this situation that’s happening in my life right now. I cannot believe all these wonderful things are currently happening,” she says. “I just know that the Lord has gotten me through so much stuff, and I wouldn’t be here today without Him and my mom and my family. They literally have told me to keep going.”
Despite Dara’s newfound fame, the whole concept of her being a rising celebrity still hasn’t quite hit her yet. “I’m still surprised when people come up to me, and they’re like, ‘Are you Kourtney?’” she admits. “I still have not accepted that people actually watch our show ‘cause I’m so used to it just being me and the cast just sitting together and watching our episodes … it’s amazing. It’s a dream come true. I love when people come up to me, and they’re like, ‘Your show has made such a difference, and I just really appreciate it’ … [and] they be coming up to me knowing my name, like my government name. They’re so sweet. I’m just like, ‘Y’all really know my name name.’ I love it.”
For real, though, Dara’s been training for this her entire life. Hailing from a long line of entertainers — her mom, an actress, opened a performing arts studio for kids right outside B’more when Dara was around 10 years old, and her grandma was a member of The Royalettes, a 1960s R&B girl group — Dara started prepping for her turn early, putting on original features at the house. “I’d be like, ‘Mom, I set you up a chair, I got you some water. Just sit here. We’re having a show in five minutes,’” she recalls. “It was even funnier when my friend would come over, and we would write scripts, and we would act it out … every, single show we did would always end with us waking up from a dream.”
My, how things have changed.