Who’s That Girl? Why, it’s Hannah Simone, our New Girl-crush! She’s not only model-gorgeous, super smart and disgustingly accomplished, she’s pretty darn funny too.
ISSUE: Spring 2012
DEPT: Cover Feature
Photographer: Diana King
Wardrobe: Caley Lawson
Makeup: Marina Gravani
Hair: Paul Norton
Photo Assistant: Kevin Kozicki
Stylist Assistant: Amy Margolin
Story: Janice Jann
As the perennial new girl, Hannah Simone has a couple of tricks to get people to warm up to her quickly. The first is a hug, which she warmly doled out right as she arrived to our photo shoot bright and early one Friday morning. It was a solid hug, one that gave off the impression that this girl is comfortable with people. Another is her wit. “My family moved countries every three or four years,” Simone remembers, “so I had to find the fastest way to make friends. And there’s no better way in middle school and high school to endear people to you than to make them laugh.” Hence, the 31-year-old of Indian (on her dad’s side) and German-Italian- Greek-Cypriot (on her mother’s side) descent was a regular member of local theater clubs in all the different countries she lived in, from London to Saudi Arabia, India to Greece.
Simone’s theater skills helped her land her current role as the scene- stealing BFF to Zooey Deschanel’s Jess in the FOX freshman hit comedy, New Girl. However, the journey that led Simone there was a long and winding one. “Everybody asks me how I got into the industry and I literally fell backwards into it,” Simone says with a throaty laugh. “I don’t really understand it.”
Because of her nomadic upbringing, Simone was exposed to different worlds at an early age — especially worlds in turmoil. “I grew up in Saudi Arabia and a war broke out when I was really young,” she remembers. “That really forces you from that point on to see the greater picture of what’s happening.” At age 11, Simone’s family uprooted to Cypress, Greece, a country still healing from the aftermath of war; it was then that the inquisitive child educated herself on the political conflict that split the country in half. When the 16-year-old Simone got to India, the AIDS epidemic was in full swing. “People in India don’t talk about the harsher realities,” says Simone, so she decided to take it upon herself to educate her community. She organized a big AIDS benefit concert complete with poetry competitions and art displays. “That was the best way I knew to communicate what I cared about to everybody else,” Simone explains. “I got all my hippy friends together who sang and danced and we raised enough money to build a safe house in the mountains for women and children who had been ostracized because of the AIDS virus.”
Simone’s passion for human rights led to a bachelor’s degree in international relations and political science at the University of British Columbia. Upon graduation, Simone conducted research for a book on women’s and children’s rights under Lloyd Axworthy, a former Canadian foreign affairs minister, and then served as a human rights and refugee officer with the United Nations in London. Through it all, Simone kept doing theater on the side for her personal enjoyment.
“My family’s said to me from the beginning, ‘People are always going to tell you to pick what you want to be when you grow up,’” says Simone. “‘You take that and throw it out the window, that’s garbage. People are complicated and we love many things and we’re passionate about many things. You can be a human rights ac- tivist and also be doing these comedy plays in your community and that’s OK. All those things are a part of who you are and you can love them equally.’ So I was happy doing that.”
Simone eventually went back to school at Ryerson University for another degree in radio and television arts. While there, she decided to take on an agent in the hopes of landing better theater roles. On her first audition, Simone landed a HGTV hosting gig that afforded her the chance to travel all over the world. After two seasons on the show, Canada’s music and pop culture channel MuchMusic contacted her about becoming their social news VJ, interviewing pop icons and world leaders, and doing specials on HIV/AIDS, bullying and climate change. The offer put Simone in a difficult position. “So I have two degrees and I had been really focused on working on human and in- ternational rights,” Simone recalls. “But all of a sudden there was this opportunity to be on this platform where I would have an empowered voice to talk about these compelling issues that I cared so much about, to what I consider the most important demographic — young people, the ones who are going to change the world for the next genera- tion.” Simone accepted the job because “I trust myself with that role. I don’t know if I trust everybody who goes into the world of hosting, who gets to speak about it. I don’t know if they really care and understand the responsibility you have with your voice.”
Her hosting gigs eventually took her to Los Angeles, and Simone’s agency asked her if she’d be interested to try her hand at acting during a pilot season that happened to need a lot of Indian actors. Though Simone was considered for the pilots Outsourced and Nevermind Nirvana that year, she didn’t get cast until early last year when she read for the part of Cece Meyers, the smart, stunning model best friend to Zooey Deschanel’s kooky Jess Day in New Girl. “I’m so shocked I got into the world of professional acting,” says Simone. “The fact that somebody would give me a dollar to act is amazing.”
For Simone, the world of comedy is a familiar one, despite her more serious former professions. “I think it’s something that other people struggle with — women who are educated also being funny,” says Simone. “They don’t assume that’s the way you want to go. They assume you want to go the drama route ‘cause you worked with the UN. That’s just not the case at all. Sometimes when you work around really se- rious issues, being able to laugh is your creative relief and outlet.”
There are other perks to the job besides laughter. “Because my family moved so much, I’ve never been precious about things, but I get very attached to experiences,” she explains. One experience that Simone won’t be able to forget is bringing her father as her date to the Golden Globes. “People asked me what the best part of the night was and it was looking over and watch- ing my dad’s face,” she says. “I just can’t believe my job gave me that moment to share with him.”
Looking back at where life has taken her, Simone shakes her head in disbelief. “If you look at my résumé, it looks like a total mess, but to me it all makes sense,” she laughs. “Never in a day in my life have I done something that I didn’t feel inspired or challenged by. I really connected to the message that I want for young women, which is, don’t be afraid to be smart and beautiful and sexy and own it.”
As for where she’ll go from here — movies, commercials, endorsement deals? — she’s excited but keeping it all in perspective. “I’ve been in this indus- try for a long time in many different ways,” she says. “I know sometimes there are big chapters and sometimes there are just pages, and you just have to live it in a way that is in the present and appreciate it and understand that you can’t take anything for granted.”
Even if her life were to change — once again — in the blink of an eye, Simone says she can handle it. “Moving country to country, you could see it as something that was so hard, but I was never made to feel that way,” she says. “My family was always able to see the positive power of change.”
Let’s just hope that, this time, change doesn’t come too soon.
Buy the Spring ’12 issue here!