25 Famous Women on Quitting or Keeping Your Day Job

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Sometimes it’s easy to forget that famous, successful, powerful women who cover magazines, headline international conferences, and win prestigious awards weren’t born ready to take on the world. They, too, were once mere mortals with big dreams who worked hard in a range of odd or completely normal day jobs to support themselves while honing their crafts.

Below, 25 female authors, actors, comedians, musicians, and artists including Hanya Yanagihara, Emma Stone, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Nancy Meyers reflect on various jobs they had while pursuing careers they were really passionate about. They discuss the challenges and benefits of quitting or not quitting their day jobs even after they tasted success. For some, quick stints as a cheesecake baker, cab driver, or mortuary beautician were easy to leave behind. For others, the phrase “Don’t quit your day job” remains ever-applicable.

Whoopi Goldberg

“I was young, homeless, and addicted to heroin. I’d dropped out of high school and into drugs. Simple as that. I was a child of the ‘60s so I ingested as many mind-altering substances as I could. It was a rite of passage. And when I got clean I was convinced I wanted to be an actor. I just needed a bit of time to convince the acting profession. So, in between, I needed a job … Well, I needed money and I needed to work. So I figured I would rather lay bricks than lay men for money. … I [also] did a course in beauty therapy, still have my beautician’s license too. I did people’s makeup. Dead people’s, actually. I was good at that too. I learned the trade and the first job that came up was with a mortician … It wasn’t such a bad job. And things could only get better.” – the Telegraph, May 2009

Aubrey Plaza

“There were a lot. I was an intern for Samba Post-Its and one day my job was to literally wallpaper a bathroom with Post-Its. That was one of the worst things I’ve ever had to do.” – “Page Six“, February 2010

Elizabeth Gilbert

“I was a bartender, I was a waitress, and I worked in a bookstore. And you know, my first two books were written when I had three jobs. So something when I hear people say, ‘I would love to do this but I don’t have time!’ Or, ‘Well, I have a real job and I would have to quit my job to write a book.’ And I’m like, you don’t have to quit your fucking job to write a book … You have to quit a bunch of other stuff you are doing in your life. Like you might have to quit staying out till 2 in the morning. But that idea that, ‘I am accountable for this work,’ and that, ‘I am going to become’ — and I remember this was a big commitment to me in my 20s — ‘that I am going to become my own patron. I am going to become my own sugar daddy. I am going to become my own great writer. I can take care of myself in the world and take care of my art at the same time.’ That is the kind of work that I am talking about. Because once you are a professional creator and you are actually making money from it, it is actually easier. The important part is, what are you doing before anyone wants to pay you for this? That is where the work is important.” – Cosmopolitan, October 2015

Roxane Gay

“I knew I wanted to be a writer even when my parents said, ‘You have to get a real job.’ I was going to write one way or another. That realization wasn’t something I came to: it has always been there … I worked a lot of crazy jobs along the way. I worked in retail, I was a bartender, and I did a year at a student loan company. The last job I had before I went to graduate school for my Ph.D. was working in university communications: I was writing, but I wasn’t doing the kind of writing I wanted. Those jobs allowed me to sustain my writing habit … I can’t live solely off my writing, but my job as a writing teacher, which I also love, makes it possible for me to do all manner of things. I’m able to go on book tours in the summer without losing my day job, and I can spend time writing or researching. I’m not teaching every day, so I can spend time doing the thinking I need to do in order to write. Getting to write is a pure joy. The fact that people read my writing is icing on the cake.” – The Great Discontent, June 2014

Tig Notaro

“I was already doing comedy when I got my job [on Xena: Warrior Princess]. That turned into comedy of its own, in that I was easily the world’s worst assistant. I was answering phone calls about these Xena and Hercules characters, meanwhile I had never really seen the show and was just watching the clock all day waiting to go do open mics after work. Lucy Lawless tells everyone the only reason they kept me around was because I amused everyone on the production. It was a great experience that I feel lucky to have had. It took care of me financially while I ran around the comedy-club scene. When I was in Denver working in music promotion, I was really just wanting to get into comedy. It wasn’t until I moved with my two childhood friends to L.A. that I finally got into it. There were a million opportunities to do comedy around L.A., so after watching two weeks of shows, I finally did my first open mic.” – 303 Magazine, January 2011

Isabel Allende

“I didn’t say, ‘I’m going to be a writer.’ It happened. I was living in Venezuela as a political refugee after the military coup in Chile, and I could not find a job as a journalist. I was working at a school, and I felt that I had so many stories inside me, but there was no outlet for them. And then on January 8, 1981, we got a phone call that my grandfather was dying in Chile, and I could not go back to say goodbye. So I started a letter to tell him that I remembered everything he had ever told me. He was a great storyteller. He died — he never received the letter — but I kept on writing in the kitchen every night after work, and in a year I had 500 pages of something that was obviously not a letter. That became The House of the Spirits. The book was published and became very successful, and it paved the way for my other books, but I didn’t quit my day job right away, because I didn’t feel that it was a career path. It seemed like a miracle that happened by chance … I [felt secure in my new career when] I was getting the checks. The books were translated to 35 languages and selling like hotcakes. I realized that if I could keep writing, I could support my family.” – Harvard Business Review, May 2016

Erykah Badu

“When I was 23 or 24, I was rapping and emceeing a lot with Free, but I was also working at Steve Harvey’s comedy house. He was my boss — the best boss ever. Funny, generous, considerate, and he knew I was an artist. When I started working there I was a waitress, and somehow I became a hostess. When he knew he could trust me, he moved me to the ticket booth. I handled money and helped organize transportation and hotel reservations for the comedians that came in. I noticed Steve didn’t have a stage manager, so I got that job, making sure everybody was taken care of. I love being of service to people — the whole act of it is really great to me. One day Steve was late going onstage, so I went out to the mic and threw out some jokes and stuff. People were laughing and heckling and having fun and Steve came onstage and scolded me in front of everybody. It was so funny. We started doing it every night. It felt like, This is where I want to be. Steve was really inspirational in that.” – GQ, November 2011

Hanya Yanagihara

“[Mostly] my work at [Conde Nast Traveler] and now at T magazine … was as an editor. Working at a magazine has taught me skills (unglamorous ones, perhaps) that’ve been useful in fiction: It teaches you how to pace and structure a story, whether that story is 500 or 5,000 or 50,000 words; it teaches you about deadlines, and the importance of obeying them; and it teaches you about turning in as clean a first draft as possible, about having respect for the story and for the first person — your editor — who’ll read it. And finally, it teaches you that after a certain point, you have to just file the piece. It may not be perfect. It never will be. But a few more hours or days or weeks of tinkering and fussing are likely never to elevate it from good to astonishing.” – The Millions, August 2015

Samira Wiley

“When I got hired [on Orange Is the New Black], I was just trying to figure out [if I was] going to be written in the next episode. I was a bartender the entire first season so I was really scared of not being in the next episode. I had no idea what was going to become of the show … It was after season one came out [when I left] and I told some of my friends that work was starting to get a little weird because people were recognizing me. They were like, ‘Samira, you need to stop bartending. Maybe this acting thing is going to work out and you should just stop.’ So I just stopped pretty much right when we were starting to film season two.” – Guff, 2015

Gina Rodriguez

“Oh, my God. I have been a server. I’ve been a twin-specialist nanny … I’d just come out to L.A., and I was working my butt off. My sister had twins, and I started working with her nanny, and her nanny was like, ‘You can make a killing at this.’ I was like, ‘Excuse me?’ ‘If you certify as a twin specialist, you can make a killing.’ I trained for three months, got my CPR, became a twin specialist, and started being a nanny. Let me tell you, you make a killing. It’s outrageous.” – Interview, May 2013

Annie Baker

“I feel embarrassed to talk about it because it’s such a privilege, to be like, ‘Oh, I miss having day jobs.’ But they were such incredible fodder for my writing, and I met so many amazing people from all walks of life, and now I hang out with theater and film people. And, obviously, I have family and very close friends who do things that have nothing to do with theater and film, but I don’t constantly meet new people who do something completely different, who have jobs that are completely different than mine. That’s something I tell my students: This period is so useful. Being sad and going out on terrible dates and having horrible breakups and then having a shitty job and then quitting the shitty job and then wondering if you shouldn’t have quit the shitty job and then getting a new shitty job that you get fired off of after six weeks, it’s all so good for your writing. I remember a few years ago was when I was just writing a play and not doing anything else in my life, and I wasn’t cheating on anything with playwriting, and suddenly I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can do this. I think maybe I have to be cheating on the thing I’m supposed to be doing with playwriting.’” – Interview, March 2017

Toni Morrison

“Writing before dawn began as a necessity — I had small children when I first began to write and I needed to use the time before they said, Mama — and that was always around five in the morning. Many years later, after I stopped working at Random House, I just stayed at home for a couple of years. I discovered things about myself I had never thought about before. At first I didn’t know when I wanted to eat, because I had always eaten when it was lunchtime or dinnertime or breakfast time. Work and the children had driven all of my habits … I didn’t know the weekday sounds of my own house; it all made me feel a little giddy.” – The Paris Review, Fall 1993

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

“I want to make it valid, to dream about books and writing. Because in Nigeria it’s very hard; people will say to you, what do you mean, ‘writing’? Nigerians are a very, very practical people. And while I admire practicality, I feel we need to make a space for dreaminess. But life is short. I’ll say, don’t give up your job. Get up earlier, make the space. If it matters to you, make it matter. I wrote Purple Hibiscus when I was an undergraduate. I was my sister’s unpaid housekeeper, I was cooking, taking care of my nephew — I got up at 2 a.m. to write.” – Vogue, November 2015

Janelle Monáe

“I was working at Office Depot, believe it or not, pushing ink. I was living in a boardinghouse with six other girls. I couldn’t afford my own apartment, selling CDs independently. And I didn’t have a computer. I couldn’t afford it. And so, Office Depot, you guys have like 200 computers on display. I used one to respond back to a fan who had seen me perform on the library steps at AUC. Shout out to Morehouse, Spelman, Clark in Atlanta. I used to perform on library stairs. I just loved performing … I never did it for money, I just wanted to know if my material was good enough. Long story short: I respond back to someone who was like, ‘I loved you. I saw you on the library steps — I was one of three people. You were amazing.’ Then this voice of God just came, Office Depot: ‘Janelle Robinson to the back.’ I go back and my boss said, ‘We’re going to make this easy for you: You’re fired. Go do what you love. You don’t want to be here.’ It was this big crime, I guess I had committed. But luckily it led me to stay focused on what I loved.” – The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, December 2016

Fran Lebowitz

On driving a cab in the 1970s: “I think that I probably got a little extra tips because I was a young girl. But I had to dissuade people, because of the era that it was, very frequently, people would try to tip me in joints. I mean, very frequently. They would put a joint in my hand, I would give it back. I would say: ‘Let me explain something to you! I cannot walk into a delicatessen and order a roast beef sandwich and give them this. I am not driving this cab to get high — I am driving this cab to support myself.’” – The New York Times, June 2011

Nancy Meyers

“When I was in the cheesecake biz, I lived in a small apartment at Peck and Olympic with one oven. Once I was making cheesecakes for Ma Maison and Mr Chow and a few other places, I needed more ovens, so I used the ovens of my neighbors, had keys to all of their apartments and helped pay their gas bills. Pretty funny when you think about it … I do remember once seeing Orson Welles at Ma Maison at his regular table inside and hoped he had a slice now and then … [I had] a crazy-great recipe that started with an aunt of mine. My grandmother made it, my mother made it. It’s very creamy and not pasty like other cheesecakes. Sort of melts in your mouth. I used to always make it to take to people’s homes for dinner parties, and at one dinner everyone insisted I turn it into a business. So I did. I called myself the Pacific Cheesecake Company and got so ‘huge,’ I had to hire an employee — my sister, Sally.” – The Hollywood Reporter, September 2015

Madeleine Albright

“I worked in Jocelyn’s Department Store in Denver, the summer between my junior and senior years of high school. I worked behind the counter, selling bras … I learned that you need to be willing to do anything. You use it as a learning experience; how to interact with people in situations that aren’t always easy.” – Forbes, May 2006

Kristen Wiig

On waiting tables at the Universal Pictures commissary: “A couple times I’ve seen executives and I’m like, ‘How do I know you?’ Oh, I used to give you Cobb salad and Arnold Palmers, and I had a tie and khaki pants on.” – the Los Angeles Times, May 2011

Connie Britton

“I’ve worked at the Gap, I worked at the Limited. I was appreciative for all those jobs. I probably didn’t do them very well and I didn’t do them for very long. It’s all about folding. I’m a terrible folder. I couldn’t stay at the Gap for very long [due to that] … I ultimately taught aerobics and that was kind of how I got through it. That’s what I did. I wore leg warmers, I wore a bandana — without question had to soak up the sweat with a bandana.” – E! News, September 2013

Mary Karr

“One of the hardest jobs I ever had was trekking crawfish, which I had to do to pay my grad-school tuition. Try to imagine the sucking sounds that a 40-pound bag of crustaceans make or the smell of them as I sat on the side of the road trying to keep them alive in 100 degree heat. If I hadn’t wanted to study poetry I wouldn’t have had to truck crawfish. But poetry has buttered my biscuit. So is it good for me or bad for me?” – Syracuse Commencement Speech, May 2015

Jennifer Hudson

“I was on a Disney cruise line the year I decided to audition for American Idol. I was Calliope the muse in Hercules: The Muse-ical and I was also the Circle of Life soloist in Disney’s cruise. So yes, that was the last time I was on stage doing theater. And in that show, I narrated the show, I did a lot of singing and we had a lot of choreography, as well. It’s part of how I got Dreamgirls because they took that as an acting credit … I thought it was great for then. It was great for my age. It was great for me as a talent that was trying to be a performer. And I actually gave myself that as a test to decide if I was going to go for American Idol. Like okay, I’m gonna go get on this ship. If I cannot get through this ship, I do not need to go [to] an audition for Idol. But if I get through it, then I can go. And I made it through it.” – W Magazine, December 2015

Rashida Jones

“I went straight into auditioning [after college], but that’s not really a job, you’re just trying to get a job all the time. The first two jobs out of college, I was a writer’s assistant on a pilot for MTV called World Famous that was about a hip-hop club; then I did some interning at Marie Claire for Mary Alice Stephenson. She was a stylist, she’s a TV personality now. I assisted her on a couple shoots … It was hard core. It is hard core. I worked at Barney’s for a summer in PR and that was super hard core. It’s no joke. Mary Alice is so nice that it was great, I got really lucky, but people can be slightly bitchy, for sure. Alek Wek was the model, and she was super nice on that very first job, but it’s demanding. Everything depends on you getting back on time, and having the right clothes, and it’s stressful. You have to really want it and really love it. I love fashion, but maybe I love it peripherally.” – Interview, August 2012

Jennifer Lopez

“My mom and I butted heads. I didn’t want to go to college — I wanted to try dance full-time. So she and I had a break. I started sleeping on the sofa in the dance studio. I was homeless, but I told her, ‘This is what I have to do.’ A few months later, I landed a job dancing in Europe. When I got back, I booked In Living Color. I became a Fly Girl and moved to L.A. It all happened in a year.” – W Magazine, August 2013

Samantha Bee

“I tried to be an actor in Toronto, and I did not get hired for two years. I waiter-ed, I auditioned for things, but I did not get hired for anything, ever … Cut to me, four years later, a shell of my former self, spirit-gumming a blonde anime wig onto my head for a five-day show as a costume character at a rural cider fest. Instead of pursuing an actual career, there I found myself, hard-scrabbling a career from gig to gig as a children’s performer at fall fairs and gymnatoriums, waxing on about social injustice to toddlers who mostly busied themselves gripping their crotches and talking at me at full volume about what the did at circle time that morning … The show itself was based on a Japanese cartoon called Sailor Moon that was a huge hit with girls age two to maybe six.” – I Know I Am, But What Are You?, June 2010

Emma Stone

On working part-time at a dog bakery: “I think three people called my specific cookies inedible to their dogs. I’m not a super-talented dog baker … I did Superbad in what would’ve been my senior year. I was playing a senior, and had I graduated I would’ve missed that opportunity, and had I missed that opportunity I wouldn’t be here right now.” – Vanity Fair, June 2011

25 Famous Women on Quitting or Keeping Your Day Job