Haley Lu Richardson Opens Up Like Never Before on Therapy, Heartbreak and Learning to ‘Be Capable on My Own’
The ‘White Lotus’ star shares how she overcame difficult times through dance and her unexpected journey of self-discovery
Haley Lu Richardson exudes an effortless, self-deprecating charm. Between bites of pineapple and dragon fruit during a PEOPLE photo shoot in Malibu, the actress radiates good humor in the sweltering September heat. “Organic deodorant doesn’t work—it makes you sweat more,” she declares with a laugh, taking off her Akila sunglasses. “My shirt smells like feet.”
Moments later Richardson, 28, struts in with a new look, tossing back her golden-brown locks and tilting her head this way and that, considering her image in an oversize wooden mirror. “My hair is less in front. Do you think I’m balding?” she jokes with her team. As a photographer approaches, her vintage dress falls. “Free the nipple, baby!” she exclaims, quickly pulling her gown back up.
Richardson’s personality often gets compared to that of her breakout White Lotus season 2 character Portia, the quasi-nihilistic Gen Z assistant forced to vacation with her codependent boss Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge). Wearing wacky, mismatched outfits that launched 1,000 memes, Portia gallivants around an Italian resort, trying to find purpose in the world. But lately Richardson is experiencing a different kind of transformation.
In July she got vulnerable on Instagram, telling her 2.2 million followers that she was going through a difficult time. “I was experiencing deep heartbreak and fully letting myself feel how scary that was, how unknown,” she says. Richardson declines to give more specifics but has no regrets about posting.
“I don’t know if I’d ever just let myself actually feel those things without trying to fight it so much. It was a lot. I let myself feel sadness. And I just felt compelled to share that I wasn’t actually doing that great. It was so overwhelming, the effect that had, because I immediately felt less alone. Maybe because I hadn’t let myself feel that at other times in the past, where I’d felt lonely, down or lost—I just felt what I was feeling in that moment.”
Richardson garnered nearly 200,000 likes on the post, connecting deeply with her followers and feeling comforted by them. “It sounds so dumb that an Instagram post could affect me so much, but I just felt like people were being so honest and experiencing a shared feeling. We all go through these painful times, and to come together in that—that’s where compassion comes from. I felt like I was getting hugs from everyone.”
She takes a deep breath. There’s another side to the actress that many don’t know from her quirky onscreen persona. Her humor is a shield, but in the last few years—through life changes and therapy—she’s started to lean into her emotions.
That Instagram post wasn’t the first time Richardson had shown vulnerability. Last November she announced via an Instagram Story that she and her ex-fiancé (Jane the Virgin alum Brett Dier) had privately separated two years prior after more than seven years together. She had previously revealed on Busy Tonight in March 2019 that she popped the question to Dier while eating pizza at a strip mall, and he said yes. When articles continued circulating about their relationship, they felt it was time to tell everyone the truth.
“It was hard, but I got through it—that’s important and what matters. I was in a really long relationship. I spent a lot of life with someone, and it was very special,” she says, holding back tears. “I thought it could be forever, but it wasn’t. I had thought the whole time we were together that if it wasn’t going to be forever, my life would just stop.”
Three years after their breakup Richardson is proud of her strength. “The perspective of time to be able to be like, ‘Wow, I got through that, and I was capable of getting through something like that, and I’m capable of being on my own,’ . . . that’s been an amazing thing to learn.”
It’s that ability to embrace her feelings—she can’t help but be real—that truly sets Richardson apart from her Hollywood peers. She credits a lot of her self-awareness to therapy. “I’ve been doing therapy for six or seven years now, and I should have started long, long before that,” she says.
“Once you do it, and once you start feeling how it’s totally affecting, in the best ways, every single aspect of your life, it becomes a part of your life.” She pauses. “I hope this doesn’t come across like I’m giving a TED Talk on therapy and emotional growth,” she cracks.
Born in Phoenix to mom Valerie, a graphic designer, and dad Forrest, a golf course architect, Richardson began taking tap and jazz classes at age 3. By high school she was participating in regional dance competitions. As an only child, “I learned how to keep myself occupied and entertained,” she says. “I was a ham and still am today.”
At 16, she moved to Los Angeles with her mom and eventually booked a TV gig, as a backup dancer on Bella Thorne and Zendaya’s Disney sitcom Shake It Up.
“It was nuts because I was so sure of what I wanted, but there was no real reason why I should have been so sure or so sure in myself,” she says. “I just had an intense feeling that’s what I was supposed to be doing: dancing and acting. I honestly was just a girl with a dream.”
Though she’s best known as an actor, Richardson feels most like herself in movement, whether she’s twirling naked alone in her living room or teaching choreography to 80-year-olds at a weekly class. In the past year she’s shared several emotional videos of herself dancing, which she explains are her vulnerabilities on display.
“Dance has been a huge grounding thing for me because I feel so deeply,” she says. “It’s very cathartic to be able to connect your body to those emotions that I feel.”
As she finds her way in the industry, Richardson is learning to accept her insecurities. “Do I have cellulite?” she whispers, settling into a chair and feeling her thighs. “Yeah, I do!” Like many young women, she struggled with self-confidence growing up—especially as she danced in a leotard 40 hours a week, analyzing her form in a mirror.
“I definitely did have some body dysmorphia,” she says. “I still have hang-ups. But I was really lucky too, to have incredible friends in dance growing up, that just made me feel so safe.” She’s since learned to feel comfortable in her own skin. “I’ve had to learn that there’s a time and place to be realistic, see things how they are and not how we think they could be,” she says. “That includes how I view myself.”
Fittingly, her journey to self-acceptance helped manifest one of her longtime dreams. “This is really embarrassing to say, but it’s sincere,” she says, welling up. “One of the reasons [I became an actor] was because maybe I could get famous enough to meet the Jonas Brothers one day.”
Now she’s not only met Kevin, Joe and Nick, earlier this year the brothers cast Richardson as the star of their dance-heavy music video for “Wings,” the lead single off the band’s latest LP, The Album. Throughout the video Richardson dances with friends in a hotel suite and even kisses a cardboard cutout of Nick while blindfolded. She has been a fan of the band since she was a teen.
“Those kinds of dreams don’t come true, but it did for me,” she says of the gig. “And it’s not lost on me. I am very thankful. It was the coolest thing.”
At one point in this interview, she’s surprised with a video from the Jonas Brothers.
“Hey, Haley, what’s up? It’s us,” says Joe in the clip. “We’ve got a question for you. You’re stranded on a deserted island. You can only bring one Jonas Brothers album. Which album is that going to be?”
“I want to hear them say my name one more time,” she says, replaying the video.
Then she answers: “I’ve actually thought about this a lot, believe it or not. They just literally represent such important times in my life. So honestly, maybe just the Jonas Brothers album. Or A Little Bit Longer. I think those two are nearest and dearest to my heart.” She reflects, starstruck.
“I do really want to be their friend now, but I think they’re scared of me because I’m such a fan,” she jokes. “I really want them to know that I feel like I’m ready to be their friend if they would like that. I think it could happen.”
Later in the day Richardson sits inside the beachside bungalow serving as her makeshift dressing room, staring outside at the water.
“I feel shame a lot because of how sensitive I am, how much I feel and how much I can be, whether my happy moments are just so big and they overwhelm or annoy or embarrass other people, or if it’s just too much for a friend to hear Haley having a hard time again,” she shares, glancing at the “A Life That’s Good” tattoo on her forearm in her father’s handwriting. “But there’s something about the release and the freedom of this rushing waterfall that I feel like I am taking the power back. I’m liking that about myself.”
Indeed, there is so much to love about Richardson. She showers with her longhair cat named Darbin, who makes frequent appearances on her Instagram. She crochets and watches dating shows before going to bed early. As for her own dating life? “I’d love to share my life with someone,” she says.
But with newfound wisdom gained from recent years, she also knows what she’s looking for: a partner who makes her feel safe and supported, chooses her and loves being chosen by her. “All the time, no matter what,” she adds. “I guess that’s love with another person.” Not that she’s looking for boring. “I mean, I love dancing, I love acting, I love cheese. It’s like just something that’s inspiring and comforting and feels right. Like cheese.”
As Richardson shimmies toward the outdoor space ready to film a dance segment, famed Los Angeles-based choreographer Galen Hooks—who’s worked with Janet Jackson, Britney Spears, Ciara and Camila Cabello—greets the actress to help her practice a 45-degree jump for the shoot. Richardson throws her head back, turns on her toe, then shifts her leg far above her head in an ultra-sheer Christopher Esber lace top and matching tulle-panel maxi skirt. “This is a good representation of me,” she says of the striking pose. “It’s powerful.”
As the shoot wraps in the ocean, Richardson’s years of dance training are apparent as she leaps around freely to Olivia Rodrigo’s “Bad Idea Right?” The waves pound, each rhythmic crash wiping the foundation and the candy-glaze rouge lipstick off her glowing face. She bounds out of the crisp aqua water: worries drained from her mind, breathing deeply, bare feet firm beneath her. She seems to be more herself than ever.
And that’s enough.