Debby Ryan is a “treasure hunter by nature.”
“Thrifting is in my blood,” the actress says, while flipping through the racks at Tokio 7, a consignment store in the East Village frequented by both local style disciples and the likes of Kanye West. “If you set me loose in Barney’s, I would have no idea what to do.”
Ryan, who is squeezing in the shopping trip before heading off to Philadelphia for the weekend to spend some time with her fiancé, Twenty One Pilots drummer Josh Dun, is currently starring on the Netflix series Insatiable, in which she plays a a high school girl bullied for her weight who eventually becomes a pageant queen. In real life, the Alabama-born former Disney starlet would surely win Miss Congeniality, given her warm hugs and almost nerdy enthusiasm, especially when it comes to clothes. “These trousers are so good!” she gushes, holding up a pair of black pants with floral embroidery. “She’s wider leg, she’s got embellishment.” And then she quickly unearths another treasure. “Oh my god, these Comme des Garçons pants!” she exclaims, then pauses to think of how she would style them if they were hers. “Harem-y snakeskin…with a boot? With a pump?”
Ryan’s zeal for vintage dates back to her childhood. She moved around a lot— to Texas, to Germany—and always had her eye out for a Goodwill store. “My dad worked with this company for the government. He had a job opportunity [in Germany] and they wanted us to be able to travel and experience different cultures at a young age,” she explains. “While we were there, we went to German public school, and American public school on the base, and they also homeschooled us so we could build a curriculum around where we could drive and travel. We were learning about ancient Rome, so we went to Italy.”
That global high school experience, she believes, equipped her for her current career. “My life requires a lot of constant change, and adapting very quickly and no time for jet lag,” she says. “Being able to switch hit in that way is much easier when you grew adapting to ever-changing, chaotic stimuli. To be at home anywhere you go, and always be the new kid in school, makes you a specific kind of way.”
At this point in the conversation, Ryan has moved on to the shoe racks, where pair of Chanel pumps, some black Coach Keith Haring boots, and the square toed Eckhaus Latta Uggs (which Ryan describes as “Christian Girl Fall, in a shoe,” instantly indicating her meme prowess) catch her attention. She picks up a pair of Fendi heels. “These are great. The heel is unmanageable, but the toe is great. Sorry Fendi, I’m leaving you! You know when Kanye wore that slide that was too small? That’s like this. I’m like, how small is too small for a mule? You know the iconic Jaden Smith tweet that’s like: You Must Not Know Fashion? I save that and send it to people when I’m really acting up and wearing, like, a tie dye shirt from river rafting and zebra pants. People are like, Oh wow…and I’m like, You must not know fashion!”
Ryan has been performing since childhood, but her realization that acting could be her career came from an unconventional place: mascot camp. “Well, they don’t just give you the suit. You have to train!” she says, explaining that, after she moved from Germany to Texas, she attended a camp to become Willie the Wildcat. “It was so fun and so lovely. It was me and another girl helping out with the mascot thing, and like 18 cheerleaders. So we’re like watching SNL sketches and memorizing them, and they’re so cute and having a more traditionally glamorous time. I was already acting, but I think that really locked it in for me.”
She’s also spent some time in the music world, opening for Fifth Harmony in 2015 with her band The Never Ending, though she’s now reticent to identify as a musician. “Music only happened because I was writing songs and there were a few that were so personal it felt weird to give them away to someone else,” she says. “Singing was just the only way for me to tell those stories. But I realized the medical requirements in order to maintain being a vocalist. I know a lot of really talented, hard working musicians, and those people give it everything they have, and if I can’t afford to give it everything I have, then it’s not doing respect to the industry.”
Fashion, like singing, has always been about self-expression for Ryan. “I think because I moved so much style became a really quick way to introduce yourself at first sight. It’s one of the only things you can have control over in terms of how people read you.” It’s that idea—the centrality of image—that drives the plot of Insatiable, in which Ryan’s character, Patty, experiences a total visual transformation after losing a ton of weight.
When the show’s first season premiered on Netflix last year, it was criticized for what some called fat shaming, because Ryan appeared in a fat suit in the first episode. “It’s a different show than the original awareness of the show indicated,” Ryan says now. “It definitely had room to evolve in every direction, and I love the directions that it went in. I couldn’t have predicted any of them. In the second season we really got to step into subjects of racial identity, sexuality, polyamory, disordered eating, recovery, honesty, morality—all of those things.”
The second season has indeed upped the ante. There is pageantry. There is murder. The main character is, most of the time, supremely unlikeable. “It’s a challenge, and I try to keep her likable,” Ryan says. “Every single one of us is human. If I told you about how I’ve handled things out of insecurity and hurt and fear. I’ve pushed away the people closest to me because they are calling me out on something that I’m not ready to address. It’s not cute or fun, it’s hard to root for that person, and hard to root for [Patty]. But obviously, I’m protective of her.”
Going from a squeaky clean Disney persona on shows like Jessie and The Suite Life on Deck with Dylan and Cole Sprouse to a very adult concoction of controversies like Insatiable was also a big challenge. “When you are on kids TV, there’s a responsibility,” she says. “Initially, when I signed up for Insatiable I was like, I don’t know if I want to be pitching it to teens, it feels really heavy for them. But then I was like, kids are seeing this stuff and reading about it anyway, but without a compass.”
In an effort to see the humanity behind someone like Patty (who makes poor choices like acting impulsively and committing murder, for example) Ryan has looked to her own younger years. “I have messed up and been like, Oh I wish I could erase this and do this differently. There’s a lot of ways to find healing. None of them exist without honesty, or without seeing yourself and your grossness for what it is, or your mess and damage and fears.”
These days, however, Ryan seems more focused on bliss than regret. She credits her relationship with Dun, to whom she got engaged last December, with giving her “this otherworldly calmness I’ve never had before. And there were people in my life for a long time that didn’t make me feel that way, and didn’t make me feel valued. It’s been a ride. He’s perfect.”
As for their upcoming wedding, she only has one rule: “I just want it to feel like us,” she says.
In the midst of the wedding talk, an emotional look fills Ryan’s eyes, but she’s not getting gushy about her impending nuptials. It’s the clothes. She grabs a Philip Lim bomber jacket with pastel pom poms. “I love him so much,” she says of the designer. “He’s so sweet. I was wearing one of his suits and he told me to keep my head up, and I was like, Dude, I feel really confident in this, and I love this piece and it really makes a difference.”
Finally, the time comes to narrow down her purchases. “This is when growing up with not a lot of money comes in handy,” Ryan says with a laugh. After a momentary internal debate, she makes an executive decision: today’s purchase will be an oversized, army-green, Marc Jacobs trench coat—even though she admits she already has a bunch of green trench coats. Now she has one more to add to her collection. The woman clearly knows what she likes.