Interview by Jana Letonja

Actress, race car driver, custom car builder and television host Emelia Hartford starred in Sony’s biographical sports drama film ‘Gran Turismo’ this summer. She is best known for building one of the world’s fastest custom Corvette C8 and her performance car customization YouTube channel, which launched in 2017. Emelia is also an entrepreneur and passionate advocate for mental health.

full look PRADA

Emelia, you dominate as a force and as an entrepreneur in the male dominated, automotive industry. How was your love and passion for cars and racing born?

My love and passion for building and racing cars was something that came later in my life. I lost my dad to suicide at 15, right before getting my driver’s license, so getting my license to get out of the house was my focus. I bought a manual Japanese Sports car and fell in love with it. I never drove stick a day in my life.

I naturally want to be my best at whatever I do, so learning to drive and go fast was no different. My knowledge of cars really started to develop further when I moved to Indiana that same year. I went to a local car meet and met a crew called B-Crew, who taught me a ton about modifying and fixing cars. The car community pulled me out of a dark time and gave me the sense of family I had lost and longed for.

Fans best know you for building one of the world’s fastest custom Corvette C8s. Tell us more about the building process of this amazing car. What inspired you to do it?

When I purchased my C8 Corvette, I told everyone I would leave it stock, with no modifications, but that didn’t last long. On my way home from Kentucky with the car, I stopped in Texas to install a nitrous bottle and hit the drag strip. From there, I was hooked and helped remotely develop a twin turbo kit for the car during Covid. One advancement led to another, which led to eventually claiming the title of world’s fastest new generation Corvette. It always seems like an overnight success, but between myself and my team we probably put over 2.000 hours into the car and countless failed attempts. 

coat, heels, and sunglasses, DOLCE & GABBANA
top and Skirt, HUISHAN ZHANG

Which car is your absolute dream car?

It’s no secret to anyone that my absolute dream car is a Ferrari F40. Fun fact, it was the first road car to do more than 200 mph.

In 2017 you also launched your YouTube channel, where you document your performance car customization. How do you choose the cars you customize? Do you have ideas ahead of the projects or are they born when you get the car?

I started with what I had and what I could afford. Since 2017, it’s been a slow and steady grind with no overnight success. Just blood, sweat, tears and quite a bit of horsepower. 

Ultimately, I focus on what I’m most excited about. I like to think the cars and inspiration find me. When I get a bug about something, it consumes my mind and it’s all I can think about. I love to challenge the capabilities of various vehicles and find what their limiting factors are and learn how to improve on those designs. 

dress HANIFA

You have formed partnerships with many of the biggest car brands in the world, with which you are paving the way for women in this male-dominated automobile space. How does it feel being in the minority in this industry? How has the female presence in it changed in the recent years?

When I first started, the industry definitely lacked the representation that I didn’t know was needed. I always focused on being the best version of myself. I never wanted to leverage being known as a female, but just being known as a person. I used to not even like talking about female vs. male. It took me a couple years to realize I had a part in paving the way. It’s still hard sometimes to think of myself as a role model and there are and have been so many incredible women in this industry also paving the way that I’d hate to take too much credit. With all that said, I’m so happy to see the female presence today.

Tell us more about your racing years. Which racing experience left the biggest mark so far?

I started racing in local SCCA events. From there, I wanted to learn all different styles of racing, from circuit racing, drifting, cementing myself into drag racing and more. Because my high level goal is ultimately movies and acting, I haven’t jumped into a full blown series due to the challenge of balancing production and racing schedules, but I do continue to do world record attempts, exhibition racing and test days. I would say so far my biggest mark has been the world record runs done in my Corvette. I hope to eventually get to run in something like the 24 hr of Le Mans or Daytona and take my racing to another level.

jacket, top, and skirt, BALMAIN
boots, PATOU

You’ve hosted many unscripted programs, like Netflix’ reality show ‘Fastest Car’, and are one of the hosts of Motor Trend Group’s animated series ‘Super Turbo Story Time’. What do you enjoy the most about these hosting gigs? What excites you about them?

Whether they’re unscripted or scripted, I love to tell stories in the automotive space. Cars excite me so much that I hope to only continue to share this passion with others.

This summer, we’ve also been able to see you in Sony’s ‘Gran Tursimo’. How has this acting experience been for you? Would you like to explore acting further in the future?

Since as early as I can remember, acting is all I’ve ever wanted to do. So having the opportunity to be cast and involved in the ‘Gran Turismo’ movie, where I got to blend the worlds of film and automotive into one project, was an absolute dream come true. I never felt more at peace in my life than when I was out there filming. Neill Blomkamp did an incredible job with the film and telling such an incredible story in a way that really showcased what motorsports and filmmaking are all about. I feel super blessed too because everyone on this project was so talented and an absolutely joy to work with.

You are also a passionate advocate for mental health. Why is mental health of such importance in your opinion? And why is this something that is dear to you?

I experienced a personal tragedy that caused me to take a deep interest in mental health. After losing my dad to suicide and from suffering from depression and anxiety myself, it was evident to me that not only is mental health not discussed about enough, there’s also this stigma that’s attached with it. I wanted to turn my experiences into a positive and try to help anyone and everyone in need. 

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You are on the board of directors of the nonprofit Alive and Well Foundation, an organization dedicated to promoting mental fitness and optimizing mental health care through education and science. Tell us more about the projects you do with Alive and Well Foundation.

Prevention is the only cure when it comes to suicide and I wanted to work with a group that has an eye towards prevention. Our motto is “It’s better to put a fence around a cliff instead of an ambulance or a hearse at the bottom”.Therefore, education is an important step. Through public education, certification and youth engagement, Alive and Well Foundation both trains and certifies psychologists, school teachers, public servers and more. We teach kids through pro-social activities how to be mentally fit, to meditate and how to solve problems. We are also working on developing a virtual system for subsidized teletherapy for those in need.

What can you share with us about your upcoming, exciting projects?

I wish I could share what is coming up next. Until it is announced, please follow me on my socials to stay up to date with this crazy journey of mine. 

oversized shirt, PRABAL GURUNG

Talent EMELIA HARTFORD @ms.emelia
Photographer NICK RASMUSSEN @bynickrasmussen
Stylist MARISA ELLISON @marisa_ellison
Makeup LOREN CANBY @lorencanbymakeup
Hair RENA CALHOUN @rena.calhoun
Photography assistant ARGEL ROJO @argelrojo
Styling assistant ALEXIS KOSSEL @alexiskossel
Editor TIMI LETONJA @timiletonja
Editorial director & interview JANA LETONJA @janaletonja