Nazanin Mandi has led an interesting life. By age 15, the model/actor/singer had already played Carnegie Hall. That same year, Mandi clawed her way to the top 35 on American Idol — only for her age to be discovered. The lower limit was 16 then, and she was summarily booted from the show, her dreams of beating out Kelly Clarkson vanished in a crushing blow. 

The disappointment pushed her further into modeling where she’s found success with major brands like Rihanna’s Savage X Fenty line. But with big shoots came big pressure — mostly pressure Mandi put on herself. But love came calling, too. In 2018 Mandi married long-time partner, R&B superstar Miguel. The two collaborated on her debut single, which she dropped in 2019.

After all this, movies came calling as well. Mandi is now starring in a major studio production, a slasher horror film about a killer on the loose at a music festival, Dreamcatcher. Fitting title maybe. This polyglot performer who Elle declared was going to take over in 2021 sat down with Nicki Swift to talk about her life, her marriage, her struggles, and her sudden rise to movie stardom.

Dreamcatcher star Nazanin Mandi reveals her favorite horror films

The first thing we liked about this film is it has a little bit of Scream vibes. And without any spoilers, you play sort of the Drew Barrymore role from the original film. If you get what we mean. Are you a horror film fan and what brought you to this movie?

I absolutely know what you mean. We actually used that reference throughout the film when we were shooting it. I am a huge horror and thriller fanatic. I grew up watching films. So to be cast in one was definitely on my bucket list. I was so excited. And then to actually film it was amazing.

What are some of your favorite horror movies?

I love a good psychological thriller. I just watched Nocturnal Animals. It actually came out a few years ago, but was really good. I enjoyed that a lot. A good cult classic like Scream. Definitely love it. And again, to be a part of one, totally awesome.

So you play a celebrity publicist in this movie, no spoilers, but let’s say it’s not the most flattering of portrayals. You really embrace the Hollywood stereotype right down to cocaine in the purse, the pretentious phone call — is any of this based on your deep experience in the biz?

I have come across people like that, but they’re never on my team. I choose to surround myself with very like-minded and positive people who are about their business and are very strong, but I have come across people like Kaia and I definitely keep my distance.

That makes sense. So this film is a little bit about a music festival that turns into a bit of a slasher blood bath. In real life, would you risk this venue or the next version of Fyre Festival?

Oh, that’s a hard one. Would I? I would pick this venue for sure.

You’d risk battling a murderer rather than those bologna sandwiches in tinfoil in a hurricane?

The thought of being stuck on an island that I can’t get off of … at least in a festival, an underground festival, I can fight my way out.

Yeah. Maybe call an Uber, something like that.

You never know, but being stuck on an island with nothing, that’s just not really my vibe. So I’ll stick with the underground festival.

Nazanin Mandi reveals how she fights negative thoughts about her body

You’ve been super open about tough stuff, like body dysmorphia and overcoming an eating disorder. We found that very relatable. Is there anything that you would tell your younger self to skip all that hardship or do you have to learn from living it?

That’s a great question. I’ve actually asked myself that. Part of me would tell my younger self, don’t be so hard on yourself. We’re all insecure about something, let it go, be yourself, live imperfectly. But then again, those experiences and what I’ve been through have completely shaped me into who I am today. And I’m open to talking about it. I’m open to helping other men and women who are going through the same things, cope with it. It’s a yes to no place for me.

You’re famously beautiful. But obviously, in feeling that way, it’s like the mirror is lying to you. But at some point you overcame it. Was there a moment where you started to see yourself more as other people do — as this incredibly stunning woman?

Oh. Well, first of all, thank you very much. And secondly, yes, around 27, 28, I got to this place where I was just really tired of my own and I didn’t want to live my life that way. So I knew in order to get better, in order to see myself how others see me, I went to therapy and I still go to therapy. It’s something that I live by. Something that I look forward to. It’s an emotional gym. And when it comes to body dysmorphia, it’s something that I have to work on a lot. Sometimes it comes back and I’m like, uh-oh, I’m going down this road again. And then I have to stop myself. And I have to use the tools that I learned in therapy to stop myself.

Was some of that cognitive-behavioral therapy? It’s kind of about confronting negative thoughts as thoughts rather than as synonymous with your real self right?

Yes and that has helped me. Stopping a thought as it’s happening and confronting it helps me. Saying not everything you think about yourself is true and take control of that thought. So I have to constantly remind myself of that.

Are there any mantras that you like in this regard?

Not any that I can think of in particular, but again, just reminding myself that not everything we think is true. And that pertains to so many things. That pertains to body dysmorphia. That pertains to people. That pertains to places. We perceive things differently and I think it’s just very important to remember that. That not everything we think is fact.

Nazanin Mandi on American Idol and working with husband Miguel

We wanted to back up a little bit to the beginning of your career. Obviously, that situation with American Idol has been well-documented. We wanted to know if you felt in that moment, surely it was catastrophic at the time, did you feel your career was over?

Absolutely. But I was only 15. So everything is dramatic at 15. You think the world is over and that was my only shot and life hasn’t even started yet at 15. So yeah, it was definitely a very, very dramatic, sad moment for me.

You also played Carnegie Hall at 15, you’re a polyglot, meaning you speak five languages. Meanwhile, your husband Miguel is considered maybe the best male R&B singer, while you have this big skill set as well. Is there any competitiveness there?

No, not in music at all. We keep things really, really separate. He has his own thing. I just really love music, but if we’re at an arcade, we’re very competitive. But nothing professionally, no.

Who hits higher notes, you or him?

You know what, his range is incredible. I won’t even try to compete with that. So I’m just going to give it all to him. Let’s give that to him.

Miguel’s “Adorn” is the sexiest song since “Sexual Healing.” Agree or strongly agree?

Agree. I agree.

Now Miguel is also producing your music. Working with your partner can be a little tricky sometimes. Any tips on that?

Yeah. When we [work] together, we are in the workspace, we’re working. We don’t really mix the two. We’re focused, we’re working on this job and then we go home and we’re husband and wife. So it’s really important to remember that. There’s a work respect and a home respect and we really take both seriously.

You and Miguel recently collaborated on a shoot for Savage X Fenty Valentine’s Day campaign. And you’ve been modeling for a long time. What was that experience like modeling such a sexy shoot together?

Thank you. When it comes to modeling, it’s just super natural. Him and I in photographs, it’s always been easy and natural and we’re just ourselves and we have fun and being a part of that campaign was super, super special. Valentine’s day. Really, really cute. We had a great time.

You'll find Nazanin Mandi on the screen before you'll find her on the stage

Are you focusing more on acting and modeling than your music now then?

Yeah, definitely. I put out my single in 2019 and it went amazing. I love the experience, but music isn’t something that I would choose to do full-time. It’s just something that I am passionate about, but it’s not something I would want to do as a career. Now, if I put out music again, it’ll be a single here and there. It definitely won’t be an album. And I definitely do not want a tour.

Why is that?

Because I see what it takes and I’ve been around it for so long and I’m at an age and a place in my life where that lifestyle is no longer exciting to me.

It becomes a grind, right?

Yeah and a different kind of grind. The grind for acting is crazy and it’s nonstop, but that’s my ultimate passion. If I could do it till the day I die, I’m happy, but music, I don’t hold it to that regard. So to live that kind of lifestyle, I just don’t have it in me.

What is Nazanin Mandi's dream collaboration?

Now, Elle recently declared 2021 was the year of you actually. Are you feeling any pressure about this big declaration?

No, no. I’m honored. I was not expecting that at all. All I can do is stay focused and work hard and everything that is meant to happen and meant to come my way, will. So no pressure there at all. I’m just really honored that it was said.

You’re also a certified life coach now. Right? We were reading this post where you’re saying how life doesn’t end at 25 and you can even easily start over at 40 or 50 or whatever. You’re still really young obviously. And you’ve accomplished a lot, but is there something in your career that you want most going forward? A big thing? An EGOT? Something like that?

I mean, that would be absolutely incredible, but I really, really want to just book a serious regular role on a prominent show. I want to book more lead roles in feature films. I just want to create timeless art. And I want to also help men and women reach their highest potential and be their best selves. So those are my ultimate goals at the end of the day.

Who do you look up to in a TV and film world that you’re dying to work with?

Oh my gosh. Growing up, I didn’t see a lot of female actresses that I could relate to or that looked similar to me or was from my same background, but I see women like Selma Hayek and Penelope Cruz. I would love to meet them. I would love to work with them. I’ve always been a huge Julia Roberts fan ever since I was a kid. I mean, would love to work with her. Quentin Tarantino, I mean, that’s on my bucket list. To be in a film by Quentin Tarantino is definitely something I would love to do.

Dreamcatcher is available on-demand and on digital now.

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