Jessica Alba has a chip on her shoulder. I know this after hanging out with her for all of ten minutes. Not because it shows – it doesn’t – but because she tells me. That’s how she is: plain-spoken and direct. “I guess naysayers give me energy,” the 38-year-old actress says, blowing on her coffee. We’re sitting on the couch in her capacious living room on a Friday morning, her hair still wet from the shower. “When no one believes that you can be something, there’s nowhere to go but up. Right?”
Surely everyone believes that Alba can be something, though? She already is. And how much further “up” is there to go? She’s been a celebrated actress for nearly 20 years, with fans all over the world. In 2012, she founded The Honest Company, a modern wellness lifestyle brand that was valued in the region of $1bn in 2017. And, from what I can tell, she lives literally near the top of Beverly Hills. This is her third – possibly fourth – house in the area, and the view from this living room is hilltops and canyons all the way to the Pacific. Her other homes are further down the hill, but she wanted the elevation, so in August she moved. “It’s quiet here,” she says. “You don’t feel like you’re in the city.”
“Naysayers give me ENERGY. When no one BELIEVES that you can be something, there’s NOWHERE to go but up”
Quiet has been in short supply in Alba’s life of late. Besides building a major corporation, she’s also a mother of three: Honor, Haven and Hayes, who are 10, seven and one years old respectively. All of which explains her hiatus from acting. “My company absorbed most of my professional capacity, and my kids absorbed my heart,” she says. “I just didn’t have the space.” Now, however, she’s installed a new CEO for Honest, so she feels there’s room to act again. And, typically for Alba, she’s gone big. A weekly TV show, L.A.’s Finest, will effectively launch the new Spectrum network, “like House of Cards did for Netflix”. It stars Alba and Gabrielle Union as a pair of buddy cops, a spinoff of the ’90s Michael Bay movie Bad Boys starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence.
It’s a show that has “women doing cool and interesting things instead of just playing archetypes,” she says. Both Union and Alba are recent moms, so one minute they’re taking down bad guys and kicking ass, and the next they’re feeding their babies in their trailers. “I was like, ‘My kids are coming to set, and I don’t need anyone making me feel bad if they need to eat!’”
When I ask why she’s doing a TV show at all, given how busy she already is, Alba makes a helpless face. “I missed it, I guess. I wanted to be someone else. That’s why I liked acting in the first place. I was a really sick kid and acting allowed me to escape. I think when the pressure of life is intense, it’s nice to disconnect.”
“I missed [acting]. I wanted to be someone ELSE. That’s why I liked it in the FIRST place…it allowed me to ESCAPE”
She’s known for her beauty and talent, but the most remarkable thing about Alba is her drive. There’s something unstoppable in her, and it’s central to her story. She was born to a white mom (part Danish, part French) and a Mexican father, who’d married so young (her mom was 19) that, until Alba was 15, she grew up in her grandparents’ house in Pomona, a humble town east of Los Angeles. Her grandparents on her father’s side, that is – her mother had been disowned by her family for marrying a Mexican, and Alba has nothing to do with them. “They’re racist, basically,” she says. Racism has been a steady shadow in Alba’s life. It’s a part of that chip on her shoulder.
She shows me a wall in her house full of family photos – her grandfather, who started picking fruit at 12; her grandmother, who had done some local theater. “[California] was completely segregated back then,” she says. “Mexicans had to drink from different water fountains. You only got to swim in the public pool on the last day, after all the white kids had been in there, just before they were going to drain it.”
Her family was poor when she was growing up. “When my dad was in the military,” she says, “my parents sometimes had three jobs each.” And though her parents shielded her from poverty as best they could, she saw their struggle. “Work was a burden to them,” she says. “And I thought, ‘Why can’t they have jobs that they like? Why should other people have that and not us?’ I never gave in to the idea that because I wasn’t born with privilege, I wasn’t allowed to have that freedom to not stress about money and be happy.”
“Most of the stuff I’ve done I’d NEVER watch myself! But my choices were mostly financially driven. I wanted a GLOBAL audience, because then I’d have more LONGEVITY. That was my mentality”
Alba started acting young, in her early teens. “It was just me and white girls,” she says. “And if they wanted a Latina, you had to fit some kind of stereotype. So I had to figure out my own lane and just kick the doors open. No one in Hollywood was like, ‘Yeah, come on in!’”
Still, she was successful. At 17, James Cameron cast her as the lead in Dark Angel. She went on to make Honey, Sin City, and then the Fantastic Four movies, which made her a global star. And yet it was a patchy career, by her own admission. “Most of the stuff I’ve done I’d never watch myself! But when I started, my choices were mostly financially driven. I wanted a global audience, because then maybe I’d have more longevity. That was my mentality.”
It was in 2008, the year she married film producer and entrepreneur Cash Warren and had her first child, that her thinking started to shift. “I was really insecure before,” she says. “I felt like if I wasn’t working harder than everyone, it was all going to disappear. And it was Cash who opened my eyes to the idea that I didn’t always have to struggle and push against the world. He said, ‘You don’t need to be so angry, you can also just be happy and relax. Your career isn’t going away. The real question is, what do you want to do with it?’ And that’s when I moved into business.”
“It was just ME and white girls [auditioning]. I had to figure out my own lane and kick the doors OPEN. No one in Hollywood was like, ‘Yeah, come ON in!’”
Honest – which she named after her first child, Honor – is Alba’s brand of safe and effective products for baby, beauty and home. It was conceived as a legacy for her children, a force for positive values in their world. But it was the tallest of orders. Alba had graduated high school at 16 then gone straight into acting, and here she was building a company from the ground up. And yet by 2016, Honest was valued at $1.7bn, with Alba named by Forbes as one of America’s richest self-made women under 40, with a net worth of $340 million.
It wasn’t all plain sailing – in 2017 Alba spearheaded a change in leadership, bringing in a new CEO, and also a lot more women, from 15% to 50% of senior positions. “I was having to ‘mansplain’ certain values and fundamentals,” she says. “It’s just easier if half the room gets it. Like how the customer thinks and feels, what’s going through her head when she’s pregnant and hormonal and reading about ingredients. Pregnancy was the most vulnerable I’ve ever been, and the most sensitive and lonely – for all three of my pregnancies. Even with Hayes, it was like I’d never done it before.” (She’s not considering a fourth child: “I love kids, but I do not like being pregnant.”)
Naturally, there have been comparisons to Gwyneth Paltrow, the other actress-slash-entrepreneur whose wellness brand has largely eclipsed her acting career. Alba will be attending the Goop summit in May, and the two have shared many stories about their journeys, in particular about raising money. “Banking’s so male-dominated,” she says. “Half the time they take the meeting so that they can get a photo, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to give you money.” She’s quick to draw distinctions between Paltrow and herself, though. “She’s an Academy Award-winning actress, she went to private schools, her dad was this big star, so we couldn’t have more different backgrounds…”
A further distinction is that Alba is returning to acting in a serious way. She has a meeting at Warner Bros. in half an hour, in fact. As we talk, she finishes up her makeup, applying mascara and lipstick. You can see that ambition again, that drive pulsing within her. I ask her if she has a chip on her shoulder about acting. She laughs. “Yeah, probably. I haven’t been able to flex as an actress in the way that I know I can. And it’s a better environment now, after #MeToo. Men are forced to give us a different seat at the table.” And with that, she gets up to say her goodbyes. I suspect this meeting is going to go her way.
L.A.’s Finest premieres on Spectrum on May 13
From what’s inside her beach beauty bag to her favorite out-of-office cocktail, Jessica Alba shares her essential tips for a feel-good vacation
The people featured in this story are not associated with NET-A-PORTER and do not endorse it or the products shown.