25 Famous Women on Achieving Success Later in Life

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

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 teen ingenues may look like they have it made, the reality is that plenty of famous women achieve success long after their teens, 20s, or even 50s. Below, 25 women, including Ava DuVernay, Chloe Zhao, and Vera Wang, discuss the benefits of being a late bloomer in your career and why it’s okay to succeed later in life.

Chloe Zhao

“In this industry, if you’re not honest about who you are, you’re going to attract people that you don’t want to be working with anyways. By being authentically who you are, you might be a little slower in becoming successful, but you’re going to be slowly gathering people who are your tribe, your kinda folks.” — The Atlantic, February 2021

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

Ava DuVernay

“I picked up the camera pretty late for someone becoming a director. Usually people are going to film school and they’re picking up their first camera either in high school or in college years. I was just starting to learn about it at 32 years old. I really think the conversation is about change. Can you change your mind about who you are and what you want to do later in the game? I think in our society and our culture, [encourage you] to find what you want to do, who you want to be and who you want to be with right now and stick with it for the rest of your life. That is success, that is you’re doing well, and I think that there needs to be some flexibility there for people to change, to learn, to grow, to evolve, and to experience new things. If there’s any kind of through line to my story, whether it be gender, race, age, whatever, it is to step out boldly and explore your desires and your instincts and see what it’s about.” — Forbes, December 2021

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

Yuh-Jung Youn

“Me, a 73-year-old Asian woman could have never even dreamed about being nominated for an Oscar. Minari brought me a lot of gifts.” — The New York Times, April 2021

Anna Marie Tendler

“I am in a place where I am able to make money from my art, which is amazing and is great but is also terrifying because I have a very strong inner critic, which is constantly reminding me that this could and will disappear if you don’t continue to make new work. And what if the next project that I work on doesn’t resonate with people in the way that this did? I feel lucky that I get to be standing on the precipice of all of these new things, that I get to possibly experience, and who knows how they will go? And there is certainly something exciting about that.” — Harper’s Bazaar, January 2022

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

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

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

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

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

Laverne Cox

“I was just devastated by turning 40 and my life was kind of in shambles, like, financially, and I had worked and trained a lot and my dream of being a working actress had not come to fruition. I was just like, ‘I’ve got to do something else. Who do I think I am? I’m a Black trans woman — no one’s ever done this before, let me go and do something, have a real job or something.’ So I was going to go to grad school. I was studying for the GRE and then the audition for Orange happened and I didn’t go to grad school — Orange turned out to be my grad school.” — People, June 2021

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

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


“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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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25 Famous Women on Achieving Success Later in Life