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Bellamy Young on Her 'Scandal' Character & Why She's Not as Tough as Hillary Clinton

By Amy Moeller | April 21, 2016 | People Feature

The First Lady of ABC, Bellamy Young, proves that 40-something is fierce, and talks Scandal, Hillary, and what draws her to DC.

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Bellamy Young is having her moment. When I catch up with her to talk about all that’s new and exciting in the Scandal star’s life, it’s Oscar weekend—she takes the call from her home in LA—and for someone whose mind must be racing, her tone is warm and her pace is relaxed, almost deliriously happy. So much to discuss: the impending Oscars, the latest season of Scandal, the Trust of the National Mall, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner weekend. While her feisty character, First Lady Mellie Grant, is a household name, Young commands her own attention.

On the show, Mellie—as spunky as she may be—has her matronly moments, and her clothing is a little bit old Washington. She doesn’t fog up the television screen as much as her female counterparts, save for maybe a few early steamy scenes with the former VP (played by Jon Tenney). But off set is another story. Young, 46, sizzles on the red carpet. She’s known for rocking curve-conscious gowns and deep Vs that Mellie likely wouldn’t go near. While she leaves the 4 a.m. gym wake-up calls to costar Kerry Washington—“That’s never going to be me!” says Young—her hourglass figure comes from diet and staying active. She tracks her steps, typically walking between six and nine miles a day—not surprising, given all that she’s doing. “I feel so profoundly blessed to be so busy right now, so many wonderful things!” she says.

Her latest real-life role—ambassador of the Trust of the National Mall—came about after performing at the National Christmas Tree Lighting in December. (She’s also a singer; her debut album, Far Away So Close, dropped last year.) “The Trust extended this beautiful invitation to be an ambassador for 2016, and I was so thrilled to take it up,” says Young. “They have so many initiatives right now to preserve, improve, and restore the Mall. To walk along the Mall and dream, that feels like the biggest gift, and it’s come into quite disrepair—we need to put love and care into the park that holds the story of America. It’s such a ripe, wonderful moment to restore this jewel, and I’m proud to lend my support.”

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Although the foray into “ambassador” is Young’s first philanthropic endorsement in an official capacity, she’s long been a behind-the-scenes advocate. “I’ve done a lot of work with animal rights organizations,” she says, “but that’s always been very personal, or on a smaller scale.”

I remind her that environmental and animal protection are dearly held values at GreenGale Publishing—that includes prohibiting furs and exotic skins at our fashion shoots, avoiding foie gras in our dining pieces, and serving sustainably sourced foods, as much as we can, at our events. “It matters, it matters!” she squeals. “And it lets people see: There’s luxury that is also conscionable, and I love it!”

Young has been vegan since 1988—long before veganism was remotely hip. She remembers one ill-plated piece of chicken that changed her life one night in college. “I was instantly on the other side of the factory farming equation. Of course, I didn’t know what the other side was—no one was talking about it in the ’80s!” she says. “My heart and mind knew immediately that it was the right choice, but it took a little searching back then. It’s so simple to be vegan now. Everyone has a little more conscience about sustainability. My body is happier vegan.”

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Young has a worldwide platform to share that passion now, but she didn’t set out to be a #TGIT (Thursday-night) tweeting star. In fact, she went to Yale for physics—and to sing in their a cappella groups on the side (“Singing is my heart’s solace,” she says). “My dad had just passed away and if I were going to leave my mom to go out of state, I needed an incredible reason.” But she was humbled quickly upon arrival. “I got to Yale, and good as I was in physics in North Carolina, I was not that good on the world stage.” She quickly switched to a double major in English and theater and “sang [my] heart out and had a remarkable four years!”

“My whole life I’ve watched [Hillary] break through glass ceilings and have venom bounce off her in a way that I am just not built for. I am far too thin-skinned.”

While Broadway, in her words, seemed “unattainable for a girl from [Asheville,] North Carolina,” singing had long been a part of her life. “I’m adopted… and by an absolute random act of the universe the mother who raised me set out to find opportunities for me to perform because she thought it was in my DNA,” says Young. She sang at church, and in local community summer productions and pageants—because it’s the South, she says. Right out of college, she landed a role in the first national tour of Meet Me in St. Louis and moved to New York. She made her way to Broadway—“and loved every minute of it!”—but at 30, her agency told her the clock was ticking on a move to Hollywood, and off she went.

She immediately landed a gig on The Drew Carey Show, followed by a few other minor roles, so she stayed. “Scandal, though, is the apex,” she says.

As First Lady and now presidential hopeful Mellie Grant, Bellamy has captured the TV-watching world’s attention. In 2014, she won The Critics’ Choice Television Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for her breakout season in Scandal.

“It’s ineffably wonderful,” she says of the role. “I don’t know how to find words to take the scope of the blessing in. As a 40-something woman in Hollywood, that I should get the material I get every week, that I should get to say these complicated, nuanced, flawed, victorious, villainous, beautiful monologues—much less that I should get to say them in the company of such openhearted actors, and supported by this crew of such unparalleled talent and heart—it is, for a person who is always the bridesmaid, for this to be my bridal moment is the blessing of a lifetime.”

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It’s been a whirlwind, for sure. At first, viewers didn’t really know what to make of Mellie, but in a matter of two or three seasons, she captured everyone’s hearts with her southern quirks, her hidden bottles of hooch, and her tenacity.

“I think that evolution was organic—Mellie was only supposed to be a three-episode arc,” Young reveals. “Shonda [Rhimes, Scandal’s creator] was going to write a presidential divorce and be done with it, but I think she and the writers realized Mellie’s power as a lover between Fitz [Grant, played by Tony Goldwyn] and Olivia [Pope, played by Kerry Washington]. A real friction point. Then they just started writing this delicious—you can bathe in it, it’s so horrible and wonderful all at once—drama for this reason.”

That drama was infectious. Last year, the Los Angeles Times reported that Scandal garnered more than 350,000 tweets per episode, and the entire cast gets in on the action each week. “We owe our gladiators everything,” says Young. “We wouldn’t have gotten a second season if it weren’t for them. Our numbers weren’t that great, but the grassroots commitment and the fervor, the excitement was there and it was undeniable, so they gave us a second chance. Then the ratings came, and it built its momentum. We only exist because of them.”

As for the live interaction, Young says it’s like doing a play every Thursday night. “You work 10 days to put this play together, and then you show it to the world,” she says. “You’re talking to people in Mozambique, England, Brazil, and Pennsylvania. You form what feels like quite intimate friendships with people all over the world. We live for it. It’s intoxicating.”

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The cast always appears cozy—from their Twitter exchanges to their red carpet appearances. But is it possible for such a dynamic group, who spend so much time together, to get along so genuinely? “We are like kittens tumbling around each other in a little bag,” says Young. “We just want to be always on each other, and purring, and settling down for a nap. We are shameless in our love for each other.” Her therapist, she says, tells her she’s being re-parented by her “work family.” “They are literally the best people! From Shonda and Betsy [Beers, executive producer], down to the actors, writers, crew, production, everybody is warmhearted and hardworking. Every moment is a gift.”

So who’s been her strongest mentor in Hollywood? “Kerry has this quarterback metaphor. She immediately took us all under her wing, because we were greener than green—the girls in particular,” Young says. “There’s so much to know because you have this whole other parallel life that is publicity. It’s how to not reveal anything but still say something interesting that’s worth listening to. It’s physical presentation. To be a woman and dressing for the press—which none of us knew anything about. She always manages to get through [everything] with the most grace, the most thoughtfulness. She’s always bringing out the best in [others] and being mindful of the larger picture, of why she is where she is, the moment and what the message is. She has been our moral compass, our tireless cheerleader, our dearest friend, and our highest, wisest mentor, and continues to be.”

As Bellamy, Young looks to Kerry. But as Mellie, the comparison is often to Hillary Clinton—something Young enjoys. “My whole life I’ve watched her break through glass ceilings and have venom bounce off her in a way that I am just not built for. I am far too thin-skinned,” she says. The two met for the first time last fall at an event in Menlo Park, California. “To meet her and to see that she still managed to keep some sort of soft heart and light in her eyes—the fierce wisdom and all the possibility—it was so inspiring. I believe her to be the most capable human we have as an option right now to lead the country forward, I really do.”

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As a Democrat in life, and a Republican on the show, Young says she’s inspired to keep more abreast of politics. “I was always proud to live in a democracy, but I felt edited, because of what I was interested in, what I believed in… now I have a wider scope,” she says. “I watch [politics] now with more hope, because I realize that these people are in a crucible and making a million thin-slicing decisions in a moment, and they have behind those decisions another million complicated little strings that are attached to different pacts or promises, and different dreams of their own.” In an age of television in which people are drawn to DC-centric dramas, Young hopes that Americans will turn that interest into civic engagement. “The fundamental truth of America is that everyone’s voice counts,” she says, “and we all must rise up and be enthusiastic in our celebration of our opportunity to live in a democratic society so that these few brave people don’t arbitrarily get given the chance to make all the decisions for us.”

In just a few weeks, Young will make the trek back to DC for White House Correspondents’ dinner weekend April 28–May 1, where she’ll host the brunch for the Trust of the National Mall on Thursday and Capitol File’s annual cocktail party on Friday, and attend the Correspondents’ dinner—President Obama’s last—on Saturday. “I’ve just loved this administration. To come and celebrate the Obamas’ last Correspondents’ dinner feels very, very special, and I’m deeply excited about that,” she says. “Washington continues to unfold herself to me, and I am so grateful and open to it. I just love every second that I’m here.”

Photography by: photography by BODE HELM