“Becoming a mum gave me respect for my body”
She may be one of the world’s hottest women, but Jessica Alba has only now found inner peace
Say Jessica Alba’s name to most people and, depending on their age and gender, they will either wax lyrical about the hip-hop dancer with the heart of gold in <Honey>, the stripper in <Sin City> (go figure), or the Invisible Woman in <The Fantastic Four>. Or they might just love her as the leather-clad biker chick in Taylor Swift’s <Bad Blood> video. With her perfect “bronde” hair, caramel skin – Alba’s father is Mexican-American and her mother has Danish, English and French ancestry – and knockout body, Alba regularly topped all the hottest women in the world polls in Noughties. She even inspired an entire story arc in <Entourage> about the boys’ quest to sleep with her.
But underestimate Jessica Alba as the “hot girl in a bikini” at your peril. Over the last five years she’s been quietly writing a new role for herself – that of billion-dollar business mogul. The Hollywood star, 35, now spends her days at a cobalt-steel desk in the open-plan offices of Honest HQ, the sustainable products company she founded in 2011. A company which is now worth an estimated $1.7billion. Yes, that’s BILLIONS. It launched in Korea in 2015 and is planning to expand into other international markets in the coming years. Alba is said to own a 20% stake in it, which means she is now worth more than Beyonce. Forbes magazine called her “America’s richest self-made woman”.
The actress-turned-CEO is on her way to the office to manage her almost 500 employees when she calls me, 15 minutes later than scheduled. The night before we speak, she’s given an emotional speech at the Teen Choice Awards, appearing on stage with ten teenagers whose family have been recent victims of gun crime. When I ask her about the reaction she’s received to such a heartfelt public moment she seems confused and a bit defensive. “What do you mean? Uh…my father-in-law and my sister-in-law told me I did a good job”. But she eventually warms up. “You can’t really appreciate grief on that scale unless you’ve experienced it. It was extremely tough to get through that speech and, like, I wasn’t even sure that I had made it through it until afterwards,” she says, in a Californian drawl, sounding like a teenager herself. “I knew it was going to be heavy but in the moment it was just beyond hard. I can’t imagine living every day without my dad, my mom, my brother and that’s the horrible reality they’re living.”
We’re talking today because Alba has a new movie to promote – <Mechanic Resurrection>, in which she’s back kicking butt in a bikini with Jason Statham. Ten years ago, Alba complained about not being offered serious roles, saying: “The scripts I get are always for the whore, or the motorcycle chick in leather, or the horny maid. I get all these screenplays that start, ‘Tawnya is in the shower. The water streams down her naked, perky breasts’…I don’t think that this is happening to Natalie Portman.”
Today she’s more sanguine about the parts she gets offered. “Those types of movies will always get made but I always made a conscious decision not to play them,” she says. “I’ve only ever been attracted to characters who have that strength and toughness. That’s why I wanted to play Gina [in Machinist: Resurrection]. I do enjoy action films and I’ve seen pretty much every Jason Statham movie, and she’s bringing something to the table that’s not just the damsel in distress waiting to be rescued. Women today are resourceful and strong and we can kick butt.” She says Statham was very hands on during filming – “he knows where the camera should go, he’s very very savvy…and he approved of my work which is all you can ask for!”
Alba breezily calls <Machinist: Resurrection> a “popcorn movie”, and says she couldn’t care less what the critics make of it. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a good review and you know what? I don’t really care. If people walk away smiling and enjoying themselves after watching something I’m in, that’s all I care about. I’m not in control of the edit or the writing or the promotion. No one sets out to make a bad movie – we all want it to be good. But it’s a complicated thing to do and really it’s a miracle when it all comes together.”
She probably has more insight into the business side of movie-making than most, and not just because of running her own company. Alba met her husband, film producer Cash Warren, on the set of <The Fantastic Four> in 2004. They married when she was eight months’ pregnant with her first baby Honor (now 8). Three years later they had a second daughter, Haven. For Alba meeting Warren was love at first sight. “Right after I met Cash, I called my best friend and was like ‘I’ve met this guy and I feel like I’ve known him forever and I’m gonna know him for the rest of my life.”
Eight years of marriage later and Alba constantly posts loved-up Insta pictures of them on ‘date nights’. “The romantic stuff comes and goes, but it’s like, does that person have your back?” she says. “You have to be a team navigating through wherever life may lead you and I want a friend for that.” She says there’s no secret to sustaining a long-lasting marriage in Hollywood. “I think we have an incredible amount of respect for each other and we value each other’s opinions. I feel like we’re in it together and we communicate a lot.” Tonight she’s looking forward to a bit of Netflix and chill time. “We love twisted shows like <Stranger Things>. And I like wine!” she laughs.
Although her incredible body is the object of envy and desire from millions, Alba sounds noticeably bored when I ask her about how she keeps in shape. “I did a couple of weeks of weight training for this film – you have to be fit to do these kind of movies,” she sighs. “Before that I’d fallen off the wagon with exercise. I go back and forth between crazy exercising and doing nothing at all. On an ideal day I’ll wake up at 6am and go to a spin class or a hot yoga class before I take the kids to school. A class is good because it was just me by myself I’d never get around to it.”
She’s refreshingly honest when I ask her how she finds time to workout alongside running a company, raising two kids. “Um…I don’t!” she laughs. “I was much more stressed and concerned about my body before I had kids. I was so critical of myself. But now I know how silly and unimportant it is, so it’s certainly given me perspective. Being pregnant and giving birth gave me newfound respect for my body, it’s amazing. It made me realise ‘Oh right, this is why we have all the bits that we have!’ There’s a real reason for it,” she giggles.
Alba is touchingly enthusiastic and passionate when I ask her what she enjoys the most about motherhood. “God…there really isn’t anything I don’t enjoy,” she gushes. “It’s incredible. They’re funny, they’re curious and of course they can be little brats sometimes when they’re overly tired or hungry or fighting. But there’s so much optimism and hope, right in your child? You can’t be cynical. To be in the presence of open hearts and minds. It’s pretty awesome.”
Becoming a mother changed her life in other ways too. It was while pregnant with Honor, that Alba realised she was allergic to the washing powder she had bought to wash her baby clothes. After the birth of her second daughter, she launched The Honest Company, a non-toxic household goods company. She’s spoken before about how skeptical people were of her business idea – it was turned down by numerous investors before getting off the ground – so she must feel incredibly validated by its financial success. “First of all, the value of my company has all been speculative,” she says cautiously. “But having that idea and seeing it to the finish line and creating something with meaning that people want in their life is a great feeling. I had no experience in consumer goods or marketing or retail or design so I had to learn all of it,” she says proudly.
Although Alba took Hollywood by surprise with her entrepreneurial flair, those who know her best saw her steely determination from the start. Director James Cameron, gave a 17-year-old Alba her big break in 1998 when he cast her as the lead in the TV series Dark Angel. He isn’t shocked by Honest’s success: “If you went back to the day I met Jessica and told me, ‘This girl is going to build a billion-dollar company,’ I would’ve said, ‘I believe it.’ ” Cameron’s production company auditioned more than 1,000 actresses for the part before he discovered her. “She was slumped over with her hair in her face and a look of defiance,” he recalls. “But when the camera hit her – wham! – there was such punk attitude.” That can-do mentality is clearly still there when I ask Alba what advice she’d give to other women who want to set up a business. “You just have to do it!”
Alba is also keen to distance Honest from the Goops of this world. “I was never trying to create a website or a blog so I think I’m very different in that way,” she says pointedly. “I didn’t put my name on it, I was addressing a real issue in the marketplace because lots of these ingredients in products were adversely affecting people’s health.”
But the road to billion-dollar business empire hasn’t always been easy. The Honest Company has been served with lawsuits for false claims on products, and last year, photos of sunburnt customers who had used Honest sunscreen went viral. “The media really likes to take things that they know nothing about and blow it up,” she says, with the world-weary air of someone who’s been asked this question one too many times. “This kind of thing is pretty typical in consumer products in any company, it’s par for the course, but because I am who I am it gets turned into something it’s not.”
Despite these difficulties, Alba says that she finds being a businesswoman is more fulfilling than being in front of the camera. “I feel like Honest is my purpose. I’m in the office every single day and run every facet of the business, so acting feels like a vacation. It’s fun to be able to dive into a character but the acting process is quite self-indulgent. When you’re acting you have to be open and vulnerable and tap into a humanity. But in business it’s very strategic and logical so it’s a totally different mindset.”
Alba grew up in a working-class, military family in the suburbs of California and was just 11-years-old when she begged her mother to take her to an acting competition. Now that she’s the mother of two young girls, how would she feel if they wanted to become a child star like her? “I wasn’t a child star,” she instantly snaps back. “I was a child actor. I wasn’t famous or popular, I was working. But I would not recommend my kids to work at a young age. I worked my ass off to give them a life where they can do whatever makes them happy. There’s nothing like the time that you get when you’re young to feed your brain with science or chemistry or literature or music. It’s a great luxury for them to be able to stay in school as long as possible. They don’t have that pressure of having to support their family.”
Alba has talked before about her tough upbringing, saying “we didn’t have a ton of money”. So how does she make sure her daughters stay grounded amid all the luxury a life in Hollywood brings? “A lot of your kids’ behaviour mirrors your own. If they see me or their father acting shitty to people than that’s how they’ll act. So we try to be respectful and thankful and appreciative and live our lives in a way that’s a direct reflection of that.”
As someone who is remarkably savvy with a Snapchat filter, Alba isn’t too worried about her kids growing up in the social media age. “There’s a generation who don’t understand social media and feel disconnected from how their kids are using it,” she says. “But I’m of the digital age, so I’ll understand the platforms that my kids will be on.” And she says every generation worries about the youth of today. “When I look back at my childhood, I mean, I used to eat radioactive fake food! I grew up on microwave dinners, but my kids won’t ever eat packaged food, they eat real stuff. I never got to travel when I was little and my kids get to experience different cultures. So there’s a give and take.”
It’s almost time for Alba to get back to the office. Those organic nappies aren’t going to design themselves. So I ask her what lesson she’d like to pass on to her daughters. “That’s hard!” she squeals. “There’s so many lessons I want to pass down to them. I want them to create their own way and figure out their own path. When I was younger the lesson I learned was ‘Don’t put so much focus on boys’. When you got older people say ‘Don’t worry if people don’t like you’. And then later in life it’s ‘Work hard, show up on time and be professional and eventually the stars will align’. Will one of those do?”