beginnings

25 Famous Women on Their Career Breakthroughs

With hard work, determination, and a bit of luck, the ever-elusive “big break” is always possible, and it often comes when you least expect it. Below, 25 women including Ali Wong, Joan Rivers, Phillipa Soo, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor share the chance moments, encounters, and jobs that changed their career paths and eventually catapulted them into the limelight — whether it was meeting Big Boi, designing a chic wrap dress, or landing a Netflix special.

Madeleine Albright

“In a sense, one thing just led to another. But working for Sen. Muskie was probably my biggest break. I had been doing volunteer work, but getting that job allowed me to learn how Congress worked and how the system worked. It got me to the Carter White House.” — Forbes, May 2006

Aubrey Plaza

“Getting cast in Funny People has really changed my life. I put myself on tape for that movie in New York thinking no one would ever see it, and the fact that it even got into Judd’s hands was kind of a miracle, and the fact that he liked it and asked me to come out to L.A. to do a chemistry read was just crazy. So, the week I went out to L.A. to do a chemistry read with Seth Rogen for Funny People, I had a couple of other meetings with people who were kind of taking a risk on me, thinking, Well, she has Judd Apatow’s attention … so I went on a couple of different meetings, and ended up booking three jobs in a row — Funny People, Scott Pilgrim, and Parks and Recreation. So it happened really fast.” — The Daily Beast, July 2013

Janelle Monáe

Interviewer: Was meeting Big Boi your big break? “Yeah, absolutely. He helped me grab my first nationally released album, which was about really letting go of nine-to-five that you don’t believe in, and going with your heart, taking that risk, even if it means being broke and living in a boarding house, or not driving the car that you want. You’re sacrificing for your art and for a bigger picture, and what you know is meant to be for you.” — Miami, November 2013

Ali Wong

On Baby Cobra: “It was very much my ‘big break.’ I used to worry that nobody would come to my shows. Now I have anxiety about scalpers snatching up all the tickets because they know they can charge double on the secondary market. I wish I could jump through the Internet and kick those motherfuckers in the face … The two most unexpected and exciting things that have happened since were New York Fashion Week and Halloween. In September, I walked the runway for Opening Ceremony with Rashida Jones, Whoopi Goldberg, Natasha Lyonne, Diane Guerrero, models, and all of these other incredible women. And then in October, I was shocked at how many women and men dressed up as me, while I was pregnant and performing Baby Cobra, for Halloween. It really surprised me and I was so touched.” — Portland Monthly, March 2017

Priyanka Chopra

On Quantico: “I don’t look at Hollywood as a big break. Indian film stands on its own. The reason I decided to work here is because the work came to me. I’ve always gone where my work takes me. This was an incredible character, an incredible show, an incredible opportunity. For me, it’s not about boundaries or crossing over. It’s about what the work is. I’m doing Hindi movies, I’m doing a show in America. I might just go and do a Russian movie tomorrow.” — Vulture, September 2015

Kristen Wiig

“It depends on how you look at it. I guess most people would think it would be Bridesmaids, and some would think it would be SNL. But I think for me I would even go back to the Groundlings Theater in L.A. and getting into the main company, because it was the first time I had worked so hard to get this one thing and then it happened. I remember getting that phone call when I got into the main company like it was yesterday. It was the biggest, happiest moment. It’s a lot of work, and it’s years of classes and shows and writing and being vulnerable and putting yourself out there and finding characters and improvising and being nervous and it’s a whole life. When I got into the main company, that was really a big deal for me.” — IndieWire, July 2013

Anne Hathaway

On the set of The Dark Knight Rises: “It was funny for me because when I got my start, I kind of got my big break with The Princess Diaries and during the press rounds for that everyone asked me: ‘Did you always want to be a princess growing up?’ And the truth was, no I wanted to be Catwoman. And I think a lot of women feel that way. And the fact that I am actually her is such a dream come true. It’s such a pinch me moment.” – Collider, May 2012

Tig Notaro

“When I walked on stage at Largo, I couldn’t imagine what was to come in my life. I thought that in time word would trickle out, and I would maybe run into comedians a few years down the line and they would say, ‘Oh, I heard you had cancer. How are you?’… I remember thinking when I was on stage, ‘This is maybe a really special moment in my life. This feels good.’ [The comedians watching] were all mouths agape because none of them had known what was going on. They were like, ‘What the hell just happened?!’ And then they all started tweeting.” — Independent, August 2013

Laverne Cox

“I was discovered on the subway. It sounds more glamorous than it was. It was for a film that I don’t think anybody has seen. I play, the character was called ‘Drag Queen’ … she didn’t even have a name! But by the time I auditioned for Orange Is the New Black, I’d done a couple episodes of Law and Order, I’d done a guest spot on an HBO show, and I’d done several independent films. But nothing that obviously really launched me in the same way OITNB has … Producer, Emmy-nominated actress … this is all new for me. Just a few years ago, I was still struggling to pay my rent. I was thinking of going back to graduate school [for women’s studies] actually because I hadn’t had an acting role for nine months. All the success just reminds me of how far I have come and how much work is still yet to be done.” — Women’s Health, September 2015

Idina Menzel

“I was a struggling wedding singer. Rent was my first show, and it got me out of the club-date scene. After Rent I got a record deal. Then I got dropped (by the label). I had lots of pitfalls, and when Wicked came that was years later. I’d been kicking around for a while. You never know when the fame is going to end.” — The Orange County Register, November 2010

Justice Sonia Sotomayor

“I can’t tell you that there was one second, one moment, one event that actually said this is going to define my career. It was a sequence of events and each of them sort of culminating in the moment I stood before the president when he nominated me as his candidate for the Supreme Court. I’ve often been asked did I really believe it was going to happen, and my answer often is you may have dreams of things but you don’t really believe they’re going to happen, do you? How many of you have been ace pitchers on a major league team? How many of us have dreamt of being president at some point in your life? How many have seen themselves up on a big screen? And yes, some people do achieve those roles, but I think most of us, myself in particular, I wanted to be a lawyer when I was nine-and-a- half, ten years old and my reasons were very simple, really uninformed, and a little Pollyann-ic … each moment that came after in which I made career choices, including when I graduated from law school, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that I was going to be a prosecutor. I had a fortuitous meeting with Bob Morgenthal, the most venerable prosecutor in New York, and completely by accident met him at a conference. We stood next to each other, had a conversation, and he said to me:

‘Come interview with me tomorrow.’ I was going to the State Department. And instead I went to interview with him and to make a long story short, he offered me a job and I went a little bit with my intuition and took the job.”— Kansas State University Landon Lecture, January 2011

Diane von Furstenberg

“It’s so strange: This little dress paid all my bills, paid for my children’s education, made me famous, gave me a voice — I mean that little dress did everything for me — but for the longest time I took it for granted. I never honored it. When people said, ‘Diane von Furstenberg, the wrap dress!’ I’d say, ‘But I do other things, too.’ It was only last year, as I prepared the [“Journey of Dress”] exhibit, that I realized how important it was … My first husband organized the Diana Vreeland meeting shortly after I arrived in America — and I arrived here privileged; I arrived as a princess. I had married this good-looking prince. That opens a lot of doors. But even so, before Diana Vreeland, no one I showed my clothes to was interested … She tried it on two girls, said ‘Terrific, terrific, terrific,’ and then, poof, I was out of her office. I said to another editor, ‘Well, what do I do next?’ And she said, ‘Take out a little announcement about the dress in Women’s Wear Daily.’… I started working in ‘72, and in ‘76, only four years later, I was selling 25,000 dresses a week, and I was on the cover of Newsweek and the front page of The Wall Street Journal. I was 29.” — O, The Oprah Magazine, December 2014

Debbie Reynolds

“Well, mostly I thought it was a joke that I won this contest and then all of a sudden I’m in movies. It’s the silliest thing I ever — It was Miss Burbank. I was Miss Burbank. Yeah … It’s changed my whole life and made my whole life wonderful, marvelous, travel all over the world and meet all these fabulous, interesting people and see different countries. So I’m very proud to say I was Miss Burbank and had a hole in my bathing suit and my rear end was hanging out and I didn’t have shoes, high heel shoes. So I’m very grateful for stumbling into show business … They took me to Warner Brothers and made a little screen test and asked me why I wanted to be a movie star. So of course I told them I didn’t want to and after they laughed and they said, ‘Of course you do.’ I said, ‘No. I don’t. I don’t really — this is just fun. You’re kidding around, right?’” — Here’s The Thing, April 2013

Gigi Hadid

“I wanted to be a volleyball player, [but] I decided to go to college in New York because I wanted to model. If I had decided to play volleyball, I probably would have gone to a UC in California or somewhere with a Division I volleyball team, but in New York, sports aren’t big at universities so I had to give that up. Obviously people weren’t paying attention to me at that point in my career, and I was doing everything that everyone does, all the crazy long castings, and go-sees in weird places in dungeons in the middle of London where you don’t know where you are. I’ve done all of it. There was one point where my agent called me and he said, ‘Carine Roitfeld wants to meet you.’ And I said, “Are you sure she said the right name?” Because, like, I have boobs and a butt and whatever, but so that day I went to meet Bruce Weber, Stephen Gan, and Carine Roitfeld. And that’s when I got my CR cover and then shot the Tom Ford campaign later that month and that’s where it started for me.” — W magazine, October 2016

Hari Nef

“I did a theater internship, and it was awful, so I tried fashion, first at VFiles and then with Jennifer Venditti, the casting director. She needed me during Fashion Week, but I was helping my friends who were designers with their shows on the side, and she could tell I was distracted, so she fired me. She probably thought I had All About Eve’d her. I also worked for Fabien Baron, the creative director, where I was known as the intern who always fell asleep at her desk. It was right around when I started hormone-replacement therapy, and I was sleepy for the first six months…I felt vulnerable about my body, so I had to kick my coping mechanisms into high gear and ask myself, ‘Are you going to be this sad little trans girl and miss out on all this stuff because you don’t like the way your body looks, or are you going to see where it goes?’ It was just about me having this instinct, not understanding what my role was or why I was put on the planet. I followed the scent of something that smelled sweet until suddenly all these things fell into place.” — Time, September 2016

Jennifer Lopez

On her album, On the 6: “It was a great process. I was working with Corey [Rooney], who 15 years later is still with me. Everything was so new to me: I had never been in the studio. I had never recorded music. I had only sang at shows and plays. It was one of those things where ignorance was bliss. I knew I was making an album, but you’re so young it’s not hitting you how big it is. I remember going back and doing the vocals over and over again. I was a perfectionist about it. Everything went from there …” — Billboard, May 2014

Mary Barra

“I spent my teenage years working at our local grocery store. But by age 18 — and thanks to my co-op through Kettering University — I was already learning about a large corporation and manufacturing by applying engineering skills at a GM assembly plant … During my co-op, my first experience was perhaps the most significant — and what I would consider my big break. I started as a quality inspector on the assembly line at Pontiac Motor Division. It was terrific because I learned how cars were built and how important every step of the assembly process was to make a great car. I became intrigued by building cars and while I enjoyed all of my rotations, my first assignment on the assembly line was the reason that I chose to be sponsored by the Fiero assembly plant for my thesis. When I graduated, my first full-time job was as an electrical engineer, and a number of years later I became the plant manager of our Detroit Hamtramck assembly plant — one of my most interesting assignments.” — LinkedIn, September 2016

Phillipa Soo

On getting cast in Hamilton: “So Tommy Kail, the director, and Lin-Manuel Miranda came to the show I was in before, which was my New York theatrical debut. It was called Natasha Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. That was how they were introduced to me and my work. Last December, Tommy asked me to be part of a table read for Act II, because they still hadn’t heard it all in one time. So from then on, I was asked to come in and work with Tommy on some stuff, so that was kind of my audition, but it was mostly just a work session. Then they asked me to be part of the first workshop in January, the first time the whole show had been put together. I continued to work with them throughout last year, and here we are.” — Jezebel, May 2015

Joan Rivers

On The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson: “I had been rejected by Carson seven or eight times over a year and a half. One night this other comic went on and bombed, and Bill Cosby, who was already a big star by that time, said: ‘You may as well put Joan Rivers on, she can’t be any worse than that guy.’ So I got my chance, did my set and after it Carson said, on air: ‘You’re going to be a star,’ and that was it, the next day my life changed.” — Time Out London, May 2009

Tina Fey

“[In 1997], I moved from Chicago to New York to work at Saturday Night Live. I packed up and was going through my things to see what I would take with me and what I’d leave behind. I found an orange folder — a regular school folder — in a bookshelf. As soon as I saw it, I knew what it was. There were quotes written all over the front of it. Some of them were: Greet everything with ‘Yes, and… ’ ‘Make statements instead of putting the burden on others with questions.’ ‘Stay in the present, as opposed to focusing on the past or future.’ ‘The fun is always on the other side of a yes.’ Years before, I was a student at Second City, an improvisational acting school in Chicago, and took a class with artistic director Martin de Maat. These quotes were some of the rules of improv he gave us. When I found the folder, I realized that taking that class had completely changed my life. It certainly sent me down a career path that I never would have ended up on otherwise. It also sent me down a personal path — my friends were all part of the improv community. My husband was a piano player at the ImprovOlympic, and we met there. All those rules and exercises defined us and our outlook on the world.” — O, the Oprah Magazine, June 2003

Kate Winslet

“[Titanic] was a huge moment of course in my life. It was a big turning point moment. And my life did change really overnight. And I remember people saying to me before the film came out, ‘How are you going to cope? Your life is going to be … how are you going to not change?’ And I would feel almost defensive and angry and think, ‘Well of course I’m not going to change. I’m not going to change, what are you talking about? My life’s not going to change’. And it truly did, overnight. I remember one day being able to go and buy a newspaper and a pint of milk, no problem, and the next day I actually couldn’t get out of the house because of paparazzi. And that was a huge shock. And nothing really prepares you for that. No one really can tell you about what to expect because it’s so sort of unknowable. And so weird.” — A Life In Pictures, December 2015

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

“I was completely unknown. I wrote short stories, got many rejections and then finally got an acceptance. I wrote a large and terrible novel that I sent out and that was rejected multiple times. And then I wrote Purple Hibiscus and a nice agent said she would ‘take a chance on me.’” — The Guardian, August 2016

Natalie Dormer

“I was cast by Lasse Hallstrom in Casanova, and it was very exciting to be acting next to Heath Ledger and Jeremy Irons in one of the most beautiful cities in Europe for my first proper job. I then promptly fell into nine months of unemployment, which was a big shock to the system. I had to go back to temping in an office to pay for Christmas that year. But it was definitely the most invaluable lesson I could have learned early in my career: never take anything for granted, never believe you are simply entitled to work. A few months later, I found myself chemistry reading with Jonny Rhys Meyers [for The Tudors] in a casting office in New York in front of a group of executives, and the rest is history. Quite literally, History! (the English Reformation) It was my first time in New York City and though I am always a Londoner in my heart, I have had a love affair with New York ever since, and hope to get on Broadway when my schedule allows.” — Crash, October 2015

Karlie Kloss

“I was discovered at 13, but we lived in St. Louis, so I worked in Chicago. I did this Abercrombie Kids thing with Bruce Weber. But he didn’t even know I was there. The dogs were more important than me. It didn’t explode for me until I was 15 and came to New York to walk for Calvin [Klein]. Those runway shows can really catapult you. They put you in front of designers and top editors. And on the Internet…I had a lot of luck. I was the right girl at the right time. But I was also a sponge. I didn’t talk a lot. I just listened and kept my eyes open and tried to soak up everything I could.” — The New York Times, September 2015

Betty White

“My big break came when a local disc jockey, Al Jarvis, in Los Angeles invited me to be his Girl Friday on his talk show ‘Hollywood On Television’ – so would I be his Girl Friday? Sure, Friday, that’s great. Well, what he meant and I didn’t realize was Friday, Saturday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. Five-and-a-half hours a day, six days a week live – whatever happened you had to handle it. There was never any rehearsal or script or anything. Whoever came in that door, it was on, and you were interviewing them.” — NPR, November 2014

25 Famous Women on Their Career Breakthroughs