It's fairly impossible to not be impressed by Lea Michele.
Whether or not you consider yourself a Gleek or have ever heard of Spring Awakening, even a glimpse at Michele's life story—particularly the past three and a half years of it—is enough to prompt a serious case of the feelings.
Four years ago, aside from her own celebrity status as an actress best known for Broadway turned star of Fox's Glee, which upon arrival became one of the most talked about shows on TV, Michele was one half of a beloved onscreen couple that also happened to be the real deal in real life.
So when Cory Monteithdied of a drug overdose in July 2013, a fact that still seems utterly surreal to this day, our hearts shattered for Michele, who couldn't even properly distract herself with work since Rachel Berry had to mourn the loss of Finn Hudson on camera, too.
Courtesy: Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Chrysalis
After dating Monteith for the better part of two years and then all of a sudden getting the call on the night of July 13, 2013, that he was gone, basically any way that Michele had reacted would have been perfectly fair.
If she had wanted to never speak his name again, fine. If she had wanted to talk about Cory every chance she got, to anyone and everyone—fine. If she started dating the next day, that's her business. If she felt as though she never wanted to look at another man for the foreseeable future...completely understandable, too.
Whatever Michele's personal experience was, she had no choice but to do it in public. All eyes were on her as the "grieving girlfriend," a role she could have never imagined she would have to play. It was unfair, it was tragic and, ultimately, there was no way she could have reacted that would have satisfied everybody who was watching.
"If you smile it's like, 'She's so happy!' and if you look sad, they're like, 'She's terrible.' It's just really hard," Michele described the experience on Ellen in December 2013. Asked about what it was like to return to Glee without Monteith, she said it was definitely difficult but better than it might sound to others.
Michele said that she told Glee creator Ryan Murphythat she had to go back to work, no question.
"They're my family," she explained. "What people also don't understand is that going to work is no harder than being at home and being in the house and opening up a closet and seeing a pair of shoes. There's this is grief goes with you everyday, whatever you're doing—when there are great moments, when there are hard moments—so I'd rather be at work with the people who I love that are going through it.
"[Being on the set] obviously has it's own triggers, but at the end of the day, I feel so safe there," she added. "And like I said, they're my family."
We've rooted for her every step of the way since, as she put out her first album, Louder, in 2014; wrote her first book, Brunette Ambition; rolled the dice on love again with now ex-boyfriend Matthew Paetz; graduated from Glee to Ryan Murphy's Scream Queens in 2015; and again now, as she gears up to release her sophomore album, Places.
And while she's talked about how Places is a departure from Louder, which she was still working on in the immediate wake of Monteith's death, it's still that unexpected, incomprehensible fork in her personal journey that has led to this moment in her creative evolution.
"I poured myself the biggest glass of red wine, I put Fleetwood Mac on my vinyl, I lit candles, and I legit started praying and looking for a sign," Michele recalled to Billboardabout her quest to find a title for the new album.
"I have this incredible book that Stevie Nicks gave me in 2013 when my boyfriend died. She gave me this art book of hers that she put notes in over the years and song lyrics, and then she rewrote personal notes for me that say things like, 'Keep singing, and have faith.'"
Pardon the interruption while we sob for a good hour...
"I was looking through this book and praying that there was an answer in it, somewhere," she continued. "And there was something in there that said, 'The only thing that matters is you, and who you are.' That's what I've been trying to do with this whole record—just connect to me and where I'm from."
It was ultimately her longtime BFF Jonathan Groff who, on the phone from New York, suggested "Places," which the Hamilton star meant as a reference to a theater director saying "Places, everyone!" when a show is about to start.
Without going into detail yet, Michele has indicated that her relationship with Monteith will come up in Places—and a never-before-seen picture of her and Cory landed like an emotional nostalgia bomb when she shared it on Instagram earlier this week, one of a series of Polaroid-styled images representing important moments (or places) in her life that she was posting as a lead-up to her album announcement.
And while fans are ecstatic that a new album is dropping soon, Michele is well aware that she'll always have her critics.
But considering what it took to get here, the now 30-year-old artist had no qualms about making the album she wanted to make.
"F--k it if people don't like it," she told Billboard. "This record deserves all of my time and care, and that's what I plan on doing this year."
Michele also deserves that time, as Places more and more sounds like the culmination of a simple hope she had for herself after Monteith died, which was to somehow mine her sorrow in the most positive way possible.
"At the start, it's hard because you're so physically and mentally shocked and damaged, but after a while you get tired of physically feeling so horrendous, so I started doing yoga, which really helped," she told Glamour UKabout six months after Monteith's death. "Then gradually your mind catches up with your body.
"Now I feel a little bit more back together and I have this blank canvas in front of me, which is what my life can be. There's something sad about that but also something good, because I will take that blank canvas and make something beautiful out of it."
Her commitment to fitness and overall wellness landed her on the covers of both Shape and Women's Health UK last year. In fact, she posed for the latter completely naked, the "Finn" tattoo on her hip a visible reminder of her initial motivation for focusing on her health.
"Right now, I feel physically in my best shape and emotionally in my best place," Michele told the magazine. "I'm not perfect. I'm not trying to represent myself as being some perfect girl, but I love myself, flaws and all."
"There are a lot of love songs on this album, and they're about all different kinds of love," Michele told the crowd before launching into a new track called "Run to You." "And I'm the kind of person that, when I fall in love with someone, I will do anything for them. I will cross a country for them...and when I heard this song, it just reminded me of that kind of love, where you would just cross oceans for people."
"I've already sent it to, like, three guys I have crushes on," she ended with a joke, feigning assurance. "'You're the only person I've sent it to!'"
Her next stop is at the Broad Theater in Los Angeles on Jan. 30—and after that...