25 Famous Women on Achieving Success Later in Life

Vera Wang, Toni Morrison, and Iris Apfel. Photo-Illustration: by Stevie Remsberg; Photos: Getty

Doing the Most is a special series about ambition — how we define it, harness it, and conquer it.

For many women, the window of career opportunity seems to get narrower and narrower with age. And while dewy teen ingenues may look like they have it made, the reality is that plenty of famous women achieve success way after their teens, 20s, or even 50s. Below, 25 women including Ava DuVernay, Iris Apfel, and Vera Wang discuss the benefits of being a late bloomer in their careers.

1) Leslie Jones
“I remember some nights where I was, like, All right, this comedy shit just ain’t working out. And not just when I was 25. Like, when I was 45 … I’m glad this whole success thing is happening now. I can’t even imagine a 23-year-old Leslie in this position. They would have kicked me off the set [of Ghostbusters] after two days. I would have fucked half the dudes in the crew. I was a less confident person back then. And damn sure not as funny.” — The New Yorker, January 2016

2) Viola Davis
“[For years,] I was trying to fit in, stifling my voice, stifling who I was, in order to be seen as pretty, in order for people to like me. And then going home, not being able to sleep and having anxiety. I have found that the labelling of me, and having to fit into that box, has cost me a great deal. I’ve had a lot of lost years … [but] I feel like my past has been the perfect foundation to teach me everything about this business and about life … I know what it’s like not to have food. I know what it means to even have half of my refrigerator full, or not to have electricity and hot water, to have a job and a paycheck. It was ripe ground to study human behaviour. Everyone knew who the town drunk was, who was beating their wife, everyone knew everyone’s mess. So that’s helped me greatly, informing my work.” — The Guardian, October 2018

3) Sheryl Crow
“I would safely say that I’ve been relatively untouched by my success, because I got a late start. I wasn’t successful at the age of 5 with people trying to get at me and surrounding my limousine. My situation was much, much different. And I can safely say that I enjoy a certain amount of anonymity.” — NPR, July 2014

4) Tiffany Haddish
“People been telling me that for years, like, ‘Your turn is coming, you’re about to blow up.’ But now that billboards are all over the city and stuff, it’s so funny because all those guys that I used to date that were like, ‘I don’t know why you’re wasting your time with this comedy stuff. It’s never going to pan out. You just need to have a baby,’ now they’re all like, ‘Hey girl. I’m so proud of you. I knew you would make it.’ I just laugh at them.” – Indiewire, July 2017

5) Iris Apfel
“I’ve always been well known in my field but since the first show [in 2005, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute], it’s gotten insane. I’m very grateful at my stage of the game to have all this happen. It makes me laugh and laugh; it’s ridiculous, because underneath, I’m the same person I’ve always been.” – The Telegraph, October 2011

6) Rosamund Pike
“I’m definitely at an exciting time, with the ability to headline some films. The film I’m about to start working on, that’s really on my shoulders, and that’s a new feeling. The relief is that I think I’m ready for that now. I wouldn’t have been in my 20s … I’ve become free. I don’t give a shit. I’ve lost my vanity. I don’t care, really! I just don’t care. Once you’ve shed the pressure of being a young woman, you’re allowed to just be a woman. It’s freeing.” — Vulture, December 2017

7) Edie Falco
“I’m the same person who, 15 years ago, couldn’t get an audition … That’s what I worry about when kids get success early on … When they start to assume: This must be because I really am hot stuff. When, in fact, they haven’t put in the time, they don’t recognize themselves as just another struggling actor. If success comes early, it can mess with you. As rough as my early days were, I wouldn’t change five seconds. I’m always grateful to work.” — The New York Times, December 2015

8) Constance Wu
“Why is the ‘It’ girl even a thing? I always played younger, and sometimes people, once they found out I was older, would be like, Oh. Knowing I was older and not so fresh to the game diminished my value in their eyes. And that has absolutely no basis, because usually somebody who’s older is way more valuable, especially on a set and in terms of being an actor and having more life experiences from which to draw.” — Vulture, June 2016

9) Ali Wong
“I got the crazy out of the way … [In my 20s] I was definitely a drinker — like 40 ounces of malt liquor. I could do probably two of those … At the time, I didn’t know any better, and I thought it was delicious, or I made myself think it was delicious. And then you grow old. Then you become a responsible adult, and you’re like, Oh, I was drinking pee … [My daughters] came into my life after Baby Cobra, so they don’t know my journey to get where I am — what made me who I am.” — Vanity Fair, April 2019

10) Vera Wang
On starting her business at 40: “Is [40] old? Perhaps I would have preferred to start off at 20 or 30, but I don’t think I would have been anywhere near equipped to know what it takes to be in business. Even at 40, I wasn’t entirely sure I should be doing it. It wasn’t an era for start-ups. I’d always felt I should learn and earn, and I’d already had two incredible careers working for others — at Condé Nast and then Ralph Lauren — the best in the industry. Still, I didn’t feel very qualified or secure. I never thought I deserved to found a company … To think I could start, and run, and sustain a business? I knew how hard it was. My father was the reason I did it. When I got engaged, at 39, I was a little beyond the age of most brides and on a quest for a dress. I looked everywhere, from department stores to Chanel couture. My father identified that as an opportunity. He didn’t work in the garment industry, but he was a businessman, and he saw that bridal came with lower risks: It had low inventory, few fabrics at that time, and, since people will always want to get married, a steady stream of customers, though they don’t usually repeat. I didn’t know anything about dress design. I didn’t feel ready. And when I left Ralph, a lot of doors that had been open to me slammed shut, whether it was a fabric manufacturer or a party I wanted to go to, because I was now so small. Harsh. But my DNA was to find something I felt passionate about, to make a difference, and to work, so that’s what I did.” — Harvard Business Review, July/August 2019

11) Lizzo
“If I was 19 right now, I would be f—ing terrified. But I’m older, I’m wiser, I’m feeling like I’m getting actualized. I genuinely care about living a quality life, and if y’all gonna look up to that, then that’s cool! I want people to be happier. I’ve seen how sick the world is, I’ve seen how sad people can be — I’ve been that person — and I genuinely want to use my gifts and the talents that I was blessed with to make sure that shit is even a fraction less sad than it is now.” — Entertainment Weekly, April 2019

12) Jessica Chastain
“I spent four years in Los Angeles before I ever got a film audition. And in that time I created my own curriculum. I would go to movement class every day. I found a donation-based yoga studio because I had no money and did yoga every day. I would go to the public library and research plays … If you don’t show up prepared, that’s it. This isn’t the kind of business where if you mess up many times they’ll still cast you. If you do something every single day that makes you an actor, you are an actor.” — Backstage, March 2017

13) Ava DuVernay
“When people tell [my story], it’s about race and gender, ‘Black woman director,’ but my story’s also really about age, because I didn’t pick up a camera until I was 32. That’s older in filmmaking years, like dog years. In comparison, Ryan Coogler is 31, and he’s on his third film … For me to pick up a camera as a black woman who did not go to film school — this is a testament to whatever path you’re on right now is not necessarily the path you have to stay on. If you’re on a path that’s not the one that you want to be on, you can also pivot, and you can also move, and age doesn’t make a difference, race, gender. It’s about putting one step in front of another, about forward movement to where you wanna be.” — Refinery29, March 2018

14) Toni Morrison
On recognizing that she had a gift for writing: “It was very late. I always thought I was probably adept, because people used to say so, but their criteria might not have been mine. So, I wasn’t interested in what they said. It meant nothing. It was by the time I was writing Song of Solomon, the third book, that I began to think that this was the central part of my life … It’s almost as if you needed permission to write. When I read women’s biographies and autobiographies, even accounts of how they got started writing, almost every one of them had a little anecdote that told about the moment someone gave them permission to do it. A mother, a husband, a teacher — somebody — said, OK, go ahead — you can do it.” — The Paris Review, fall 1993

15) J.K. Rowling
“Why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.” – Harvard Commencement Speech, June 2008

16) Marina Abramovic
“Artists should never think of themselves as an idol. Fame is a side effect of one’s work. I’ve put 40 years into this. Some young artists who are 25 [and become famous] overdose and die, but my success came so slow. So it does not really affect my ego because ego is a huge obstacle in art. If you think you’re great, then something is seriously wrong with you.” — Harper’s Bazaar, February 2012

17) Sia
On refusing to show her face during public appearances: “People say, ‘Enough of this shit where she doesn’t show her face,’ and ‘It’s a gimmick.’ For sure. I’m trying to do this differently, for serenity. And it’s a fun game for me as well. I have nothing to lose. But of course I want to be loved. So when people say, ‘Show your face, you’re not ugly.’ I want to say, ‘I know. I’m not doing it because I think I’m ugly; I’m trying to have some control over my image. And I’m allowed to maintain some modicum of privacy. But also I would like not to be picked apart or for people to observe when I put on ten pounds or take off ten pounds or I have a hair extension out of place or my fake tan is botched.’ I’m just trying to work out a way to be a singer and to create cool content. I’m willing to do that as an entertainer. But I’m not willing to give up my actual self … I’m 39, and I would like to be able to make great pop music for another 20 years. And it feels like creating a sort of inanimate blond bob and allowing other people to play the role of the pop singer, it affords me a little bit more freedom in terms of my expiration date.” — Interview, March 2015

18) Tracee Ellis Ross
“I do feel like so many doors are open to me now. And it started for me in my 40s … I’m really grateful I have a mom [Diana Ross] who’s 75 and her face looks like a woman who swallowed the sun. She’s gorgeous, sexy, and full of agency. So that’s what I long to walk toward.” — Variety, June 2019

19) Kris Jenner
“I had always had the energy and motivation and passion to pursue all these dreams, but it took a show like Keeping Up with the Kardashians to be the vehicle that could channel all my energies and turn them into viable opportunities. I started to look at our careers like pieces on a chessboard. Every day, I woke up and walked into my office and asked myself, What move do you need to make today? It was very calculated. My business decisions and strategies were very intentional, definite, and planned to the nth degree.” – Kris Jenner … and All Things Kardashian, November 2011

20) Cheryl Strayed
“”I’ve spent my whole, I mean my whole adult life, really working on this thing: becoming a writer, becoming the sort of writer who would find an audience … I never set my sights on fame or being on the bestseller list or any of those things because all of you in the room who are writers or artists of any sort know that that sort of external recognition is not the measure by which artists can measure their success. The way we measure success, and often for artists what looks like failure is often success and that it takes a long time to develop that craft and to do anything as simple as write a really bad book, you know. I mean truly, it’s really hard even to write a really bad book. Trust me, I know. But I think that this fame thing, it feels in some ways, thankfully, very much separate from the work I’ve been doing all these years as a writer. My job was to write the best book I could ever write at that moment of my life, and that’s what I’ve done with each of my three books, and then the thing that happens to it in the world is really outside of me.” — NYPL, January 2015

21) Octavia Spencer
“Making The Help and getting my first Oscar nomination was wonderful. It felt special to all of us women who worked on it … Finding fame in my 40s allowed me an adult perspective on my career. I truly understood that you have to enjoy it — and appreciate it.” — The Guardian, February 2018

22) Jane Lynch
“I was 40 by the time I started making money at this … and I was happy before that … If you’ve got some goal that you think you need to be somewhere by the time you’re some age, that’s so stupid. Don’t do it. I never had that goal.” — CNBC, July 2017

23) Kathy Bates
“I’m not a stunning woman. I never was an ingenue; I’ve always just been a character actor. When I was younger it was a real problem, because I was never pretty enough for the roles that other young women were being cast in. The roles I was lucky enough to get were real stretches for me: usually a character who was older, or a little weird, or whatever. And it was hard, not just for the lack of work but because you have to face up to how people are looking at you.” — The New York Times, January 1991

24) Ina Garten
“I was 50 years old and I thought the best years of my career were over. [Barefoot Contessa, the store] wasn’t stimulating to me and I tried to figure out what to do next. Type A people think they can figure out what to do next while they’re doing something, and they can’t. An important part of changing and figuring out what to do next is you have to just stop. I had to get good and bored before I could decide what was next — I thought maybe I’ll write a cookbook [The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook] while I figure it out.” — Forbes, June 2015

25) Kerry Washington
“For me, 40 feels like a beginning. I’m in the middle of so much new — with this career, the kids, and I’m still sort of a newlywed. I’m excited to be at this stage in life.” — Glamour, May 2017

25 Famous Women on Achieving Success Later in Life