From the classrooms of John Burroughs School and Harvard University to the hallways of Glee’s McKinley High, St. Louis native and Hollywood starlet Erinn Westbrook is acing it.
Westbrook, who plays resident mean girl Bree on Fox’s smash musical dramedy Glee, is seeing rising success in the entertainment industry. But she’s also seen her fair share of rejection, drawing strength from family, faith and perseverance.
Born in New York, Westbrook moved to Chesterfield when she was 6, giving her a “a great dual-living situation.” She attended Chesterfield Day School and Burroughs during the school year, and spent summers and winter breaks in New York City.
Westbrook found her passion for performance early in life. She played piano competitively and sang in the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s children’s choir. In sixth grade—as the only African American girl in her grade—she auditioned for the lead role in the school’s rendition of Annie. Friends told her she couldn’t play the part because the character was white.
“That was difficult for me to wrap my head around as a 12-year-old girl,” she says. “But I still went for it. That’s always been my personality, to go for what you want in life.”
Westbrook spent high school and college trying her hand at a broad range of talents. She was cheerleading captain at Burroughs; and wrote for the newspaper at Harvard, where she studied English, American literature and language, with a minor in dramatic arts. She interned at Vogue and Allure, and modeled for Nike, Nordstrom and Vineyard Vines. It wasn’t until she landed a gig VJ-ing for MTV that Westbrook says she realized she could actually perform as a profession. “I thought, Although this isn’t acting, it’s inching closer towards it, and it’s acting in its own way,” she says. “It’s just Erinn, amplified.”
After graduation, Westbrook had to decide which of her many talents she wanted to pursue most. She relocated to Los Angeles, giving herself three years to make it. “I’m very impatient,” she says. “If it’s meant to happen for me, it’s meant to happen. It’s something I’ve been building toward my entire life. It’s not going to take me 10, 15, 20 years. I can’t be twiddling my thumbs and waiting for my big break 10 years later.”
That first year in LA was difficult for Westbrook. The actress was “constantly told ‘no’,” or that she was good, but not good enough. “You face more rejection in a week in Hollywood than most people face in years,” she says. “The experiences with rejection will make or break you. For me, they humbled me and opened my eyes to the fact that maybe I had a little more work to do.”
Westbrook joined an acting studio and continued auditioning. She booked small parts on ABC Family dramas, and landed a larger role on the sitcom Mr. Box Office, staring Jon Lovitz, Bill Bellamy and Vivica Fox. She came close to scoring a lead role in an ABC Family spinoff, and acted in a Fox pilot that didn’t get picked up. Last July, she got an e-mail asking her to audition for Glee, beginning the month-long audition process that tested Westbrook’s dancing, singing and acting chops.
“I was devastated for the first couple of months in 2013, believe it or not, because I was so close to getting something so huge, and I didn’t understand why it wasn’t working out,” she says. “And six months later I got Glee, and I was like, I understand now.”
Playing mean girl and head-cheerleader Bree, Westbrook says, is easy, because the part is written so well. As a minion of Coach Sue Sylvester (played by Jane Lynch) Bree has donned a bikini made of caution tape, snarled a menacing monologue to a fellow cheerleader, and survived a pregnancy scare. So far, Westbrook is in eight of this season’s episodes, including City of Angels, set to air March 11. Though she’s currently billed as a recurring character, she’s crossing her fingers that the creators will sign her on to become a main cast member for the show’s final season.
In the meantime, Westbrook is reviewing scripts and looking at all her options. She says her next step is the big screen, but her dreams don’t stop at the movies. She’s co-written a TV pilot with a friend from Harvard, and has recorded a few singles to send to record labels.
“I’m lucky and blessed to be in Hollywood, which isn’t always the friendliest and brightest town,” she says. “It’s made me even more aware of my purpose there…I recognize that God has chosen me to do what I’m doing, and maybe add a brightness to it.”