by Leona

From a crazy moppet of hair to shiny tamed locks, Emma Watson has blossomed from a precocious 11-year old starring as Hermoine Granger in the Harry Potter series into a confident young woman who has taken to the United Nations stage to advocate gender equality and women’s rights.

Since she exploded onto the silver screen in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in 2001, Watson has charmed her way into our hearts throughout the Harry Potter saga and beyond. The mega-stardom that followed the success of the series didn’t get to the young British actress’s head. In fact, Watson grew up under the spotlight with grace and composure, escaping the self-destruction that has overwhelmed many child stars. Wise beyond her years, she’s shown intelligence, not just in her academic career and advocacy work, but also in her choice of roles as well.

Her latest, as the empathetic, bookish Belle in the live-action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast isn’t just a retelling of the 1991 animated movie, but a re-imagined one, with inputs from Watson herself. This updated version shows a more determined Belle, one who isn’t just a bookworm but an advocate for the importance of learning and is both industrious and inventive. Watson also weighed in on Belle’s wardrobe, working closely with the costume designer to update her look. The initial first scene of the movie saw Belle walking around the village in a flouncy dress, ballet flats, and carrying a basket, but Watson would have none of this. In the end, Belle strode around town in riding boots and bloomers that peeked out from her functional frock with tool-like pockets. She wanted to transform Belle from a Disney princess into a relatable, contemporary woman with a feminist edge.

There is a certain pressure to bring justice to the role. Not only was Belle one of Watson’s favourite Disney princesses when she was young, Beauty and the Beast also marks a coming-of-age role for the young actress, whose movies after Harry Potter have mostly seen her portraying adolescent characters.

After a phenomenal ten-year run as the young, fearless witch in eight Harry Potter movies, Watson took a break from Hollywood and sought refuge in books. She snipped her signature Hermoine mane and enrolled at Brown University, assimilating into a normal teenage routine. She graduated with a bachelor's degree in English literature in 2014. In between school breaks, she picked acting projects that allowed her to experience what she missed during her formative years in Harry Potter.

She went for a bit part in 2011 as Marilyn Monroe’s assistant in My Weekend with Marilyn before taking a leading role in the 2012 adolescent drama, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. In it, she plays free-spirited Sam, a high-school student who takes an awkward newcomer under her wing. The role could not be any more different from the stiff and proper Hermoine Granger, and that was exactly the basis of its appeal. In the movie, Watson experienced what she described as “accelerated adolescence” because it offered her the chance to go through all that she missed growing up on the Harry Potter set. While it was a role of a lifetime, playing Hermoine consumed her childhood and most of her teenhood. It was time to let her hair down. The Perks of Being a Wallflower explored delicate issues of growing up, such as love, self-worth, and mental health struggles, all with a touch of sensitivity, humour and good music.

She followed that with Sofia Coppola’s 2013 The Bling Ring, which is based on the real story of a group of teenagers who robbed a string of high profile celebrities and which caught the media’s attention. Her next role was a solemn one, as daughter to Russell Crowe’s Noah in 2014’s Noah directed by Darren Aronofsky.

Before she was approached to play Belle, Cinderella actually came knocking on Watson’s door. She declined the role because she didn’t connect with the character, unlike Belle who she sees as a role model, a woman who isn’t afraid to be different and stands up for what she believes in. This is exactly what Watson did when she recently came under fire for posing in a revealing Vanity Fair shoot. Detractors called her a hypocrite for being a feminist while willingly allowing herself to be sexualised. Instead of taking the haters head-on, she chose the high road and used the opportunity to highlight what feminism actually stands for - giving women freedom, liberation, and equality. This was all done with a passion and intensity that reminds us of the feisty Hermoine Granger that we first saw 16 years ago.

Except that Hermoine is now all grown up and is a force to be reckoned with. 

Emma Watson delivered a speech about feminism and gender equality at the UN Headquarters in New York