Melissa Barrera Is Hollywood’s New Kid on the Block

As theaters open up, the all-singing, all-dancing star of In The Heights takes the new Dioriviera collection for a spin on the Santa Barbara shores

Photography by EMMAN MONTALVAN
Fashion Direction by SAMANTHA TRAINA



Melissa Barrera is recalling the time her mom and three sisters visited her from Mexico on the set of her first feature, In the Heights — the highly anticipated Hollywood adaptation of the musical which Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote back in college. “My family has no shame,” laughs the actor. “They were like, ‘Hey Lin, we haven’t seen Hamilton,’ wink wink, trying to get tickets out of him.” The problem was, Barrera confesses, “I hadn’t actually seen Hamilton, but I had never told Lin because I was embarrassed. [When I did] he was like, ‘what?’ ”


DIOR Dioriviera jacket, $2,150, and Dioriviera shorts, $810. Dior Maison Dioriviera surfboard, price upon request.


She has, however, seen In the Heights on Broadway — “more than 15 times,” which was ample preparation to take on the lead role of Vanessa. The musical follows a group of residents in New York City’s Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights, and it is a lead contender for the feel-good movie of the summer. “It’s the perfect film to lure people back into the theaters,” says Barrera, 30, with a smile. She’s casually dressed in an oversize gray sweater and talking from her apartment in Studio City, which is around the corner from the set of Vida, the popular Latinx drama she landed when she first arrived in Los Angeles in 2017 that ran for three seasons on Starz.


DIOR Dioriviera dress, $4,700.


The role of Vanessa — the love interest of narrator Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) — swiftly followed by the lead in Benjamin Millepied’s big-screen reimagining of Carmen (opposite Normal People’s breakout star Paul Mescal) and a part in 2022’s Scream relaunch cement Barrera’s status as one of Hollywood’s most exciting new stars. But that’s not the only way In the Heights has changed her life path.


DIOR Dioriviera bralette, $810, and Dioriviera skirt, price upon request. Vespa 946 Christian Dior by Piaggio Group in collaboration with DIOR. Top case in original Dior Oblique jacquard technical canvas. Dior Vespa helmet in original Dior Oblique jacquard technical canvas. 


“I’m a very reserved person, so I had anxiety about the choreography. After one rehearsal I cried for 20 minutes.”

Melissa Barrera


She’s been gearing up to play Vanessa for more than a decade: auditioning for the Broadway show from the age of 18 and studying musical theater at the Tisch School at New York University. A Broadway career wasn’t to be, however, as visa issues initially forced her back to Mexico, where she starred in the telenovelas Siempre tuya Acapulco (2014) and Tanto amor (2015) — but Barrera never gave up.


DIOR Dioriviera shirt, $1,300, Dioriviera bikini bottoms, price upon request, and Dioriviera scarf, $500.


After a lengthy audition process for the film, her perseverance paid off. “After I sang ‘It Won’t Be Long Now,’ Lin was teary-eyed and I was like, ‘OK, I think that’s a good sign.’ I walked 40 blocks down the road and felt like I was floating.”

Then the hard work really began. “Blood, sweat and actual tears” went into training with salsa choreographer Eddie Torres Jr. for the grueling dance scenes. “I’m a very reserved person, so I had anxiety about the choreography,” Barrera explains. “After one rehearsal I cried for 20 minutes. That was a pivotal moment of, wow, you need to not keep things bottled up. I’m grateful to the choreography team who trusted that I was going to get there when I didn’t believe it myself.”


DIOR Dioriviera anorak, $3,400, and Dioriviera bikini bottoms, $400.


“I was raised by a supermom who was working full-time [as an accountant] but somehow managed to be at every dance recital or field trip.”

Melissa Barrera


The eldest of four children, raised in Monterrey, Mexico, by a single “supermom who was working full-time [as an accountant] but somehow managed to be at every dance recital or field trip,” Barrera was “very outdoorsy, climbing trees.” Mexico will always be home, but after attending a U.S. school and having spoken English her whole life, she often feels “torn between two countries,” she says. “Why do I have to choose one if I love both?”

L.A. has clearly stolen her heart. She enjoys people-watching and longboarding on Venice Beach, drinking “stinky” tea — green with a splash of apple cider vinegar — and ordering from Khao Soi Thai on Ventura Boulevard “at least once a week.” For Mexican food she loves Guelaguetza in Koreatown or, if she’s feeling fancy, some seafood at Catch in West Hollywood.



Barrera spent quarantine with her husband Paco Zazueta — a singer who runs his family’s butcher business — at their home in Sonora, Mexico, and at her family’s in Monterrey. The couple only married in 2019, so it felt like an extended honeymoon. “We got to eat dinner together every day and wake up next to each other — months together I didn’t think we’d have in our entire lives!” she exclaims.


“I was obsessed with Friends, so when I met Courteney I was like, how am I going to keep my cool?”

Melissa Barrera


When we talk, Barrera has just wrapped filming Carmen and Scream back-to-back, the latter opposite original cast members Courteney Cox, Neve Campbell and David Arquette. “I was obsessed with Friends, so when I met Courteney I was like, how am I going to keep my cool?,” she recalls. “But she is so chill and generous and has Sunday family dinners on her patio overlooking the ocean in Malibu. I can’t believe she’s my friend now!”


DIOR Dioriviera J’Adior California sweater, $1,200, Dioriviera skirt, $4,500, and Dioriviera bikini bottoms, price upon request. MEJURI gold hoop earrings, seen throughout.


Barrera might only be getting started, but she has ambitious plans, including developing a TV show and producing films. “I want to have more say in the stories put out there so they’re not always stereotyping us,” she explains. “I have a responsibility with the huge deficiency of content for Latinos out there, so I need to create; that’s the only way we’re going to feel seen.” In other words: Hollywood, watch this space.


DIOR Dioriviera bucket hat, price upon request.


The Dioriviera takeover of two bungalows at the Rosewood Miramar Beach in Montecito runs May 27 through September 6. The public is invited to experience the collection in the pop-up boutique and around the bocce court and pool.

Availability: Dior at Rosewood  Miramar Beach in Montecito, California, 1-800-929-DIOR.

Hair by CLAYTON HAWKINS at A-Frame Agency.
Makeup by LILLY KEYS at A-Frame Agency.


Feature Image: DIOR Dioriviera swimsuit, $880, and bucket hat, price upon request.


This story originally appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of C Magazine.

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