Fame was never the goal for ballet dancer Misty Copeland, but at this point, she just can't escape it. The American Ballet Theatre soloist made headlines this month for being one of the first African American dancers to star in a major company's production of Swan Lake. Her unexpected rise in the white-dominated classical ballet world (she started dancing at 13, much later than most dancers) has been the subject of a best-selling memoir and a documentary that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. Copeland is a face of Under Armour's viral "I Will What I Want" campaign and now a Time 100 cover star. On stage, with three lead roles under her belt and a fourth coming up, she could soon be promoted to principal dancer, the highest rank in a company.
But the hype around her is something she never saw coming. "It's not something that I ever thought that I wanted," the dancer told ELLE.com before the Tribeca premiere of A Ballerina's Tale. "What I want is to be a professional and to continue to grow as a dancer. All of this stuff that's happened because of my ballet career is just phenomenal."
Copeland talked to ELLE.com about dealing with fame, being a role model, and whether the ballet world is truly starting to embrace diversity.
What's it been like adjusting to fame?
I don't see myself in that way, and I feel like my daily life is just the same. I wake up every morning, and I go to ballet class no matter what's going on the night before. That's my priority and that's what makes me feel sane and not removed from the realities of my world. It's been hard for me to look at something like a Time magazine cover. [I] think like, "That's incredible, but that's not my reality every day." So I just try and stay in the moment of what's happening while it's happening and not hold on to those things in my everyday life because I think I'd go crazy!
The Time 100 cover is so huge, though. How did you feel when you found out?
I couldn't breathe. I was like, "There's NO way. Why me?" And just to think of the dancers who have come before me that have been on the cover, they're icons. And I'm like, "I don't understand." I just don't see myself in that way so it's hard to accept that this is a reality. It's pretty incredible.
Your Time 100 profile was written by Olympic gymnast Nadia Comaneci, who you said inspired you to start dancing (along with Mariah Carey). What was it like reading that?
It's crazy! It was a surprise, yes. She was one of the first people that I looked at, and I think that in my mind and in my heart she was a ballerina. I didn't have any exposure to what ballet was or really what dance was besides what I saw in music videos. So when I saw Nadia and this film that was made for Lifetime about her life, it was like this instant connection that I had to her—to see the struggles she experienced and [her] breaking barriers. It's pretty incredible that she wrote that.
You're a role model to so many people. How do you handle that pressure? Do you feel pressure?
It's something that I organically started doing around the age of 25, 26 years old. I would have young dancers come to me and ask me questions and want to know what my experiences were like: "What's it like being a black dancer?" So I just felt like it was necessary for me to share my experiences with them. More and more dancers have come into my life that I have taken under my wing. So when people [are] like, "You're a role model," and I'm like, "Oh, okay, if you want to put a label on it, then okay, then I am." But it's just been a part of my professional life.
In a recent BBC interview, you said that things are improving for black dancers. What has changed?
I think that it's harder for the ballet world to now exclude dancers of color as openly as they did in the past because of the focus that's being put on the lack of diversity in classical ballet. At least in my performances, the audience has become so diverse in a way that I don't think ballet has ever experienced. It's going to take a while before we see a real shift in the students and the dancers that are going into professional companies because it takes so many years of training, but I do think that there's a new crop of dancers, of minority dancers that are entering into the ballet world. I probably won't see them get opportunities in companies for another decade or so [because of training], but it's exciting.
I know you've mentioned that not having the "typical" ballerina body is something you struggled with. Has that pressure gotten any better?
For me, it was a learning process of accepting that my body is my instrument, and I have to take care of it, and that it's okay to be healthy and athletic. ABT (the American Ballet Theatre) supports that image, that you don't have to be anorexic and real thin, but you do have to take that responsibility [to take care of it]. As an adult, an athlete, and a performer, your body has to be in a certain form. But ABT is definitely setting that standard for a lot of the other elite international companies. You know, with the choreography that we're doing that's super athletic, our bodies are going to change and adapt. So they're going to have to accept our athletic bodies if they want us to do that type of movement!
You just played Odette/Odile in Swan Lake at the Washington Ballet alongside Brooklyn Meck, and the performance made history as one of the first at a major company with two African American leads. What was it like taking that final bow?
There were so many emotions—I'm still adjusting and trying to understand what happened. But in the bows, it was just like a feeling of pride. I remember just hugging Brooklyn, like, not even realizing the curtain's still up and just embracing him because I was just so proud of the both of us for getting to this point and not letting all the pressure and everything take over. No matter what we look like, we got through Swan Lake.
You're playing the lead in Romeo and Juliet next. What's the prep been like?
We just dove in headfirst and now I feel like I'm backtracking. I started working with Alessandra Ferri, who is Juliet (Ferri first performed the role in 1984 and retired in 2007). That's, like, her role. She's been coaching me on it, which is like a dream come true. I have moments in the studio where, you know, she's giving me corrections and she's telling me, "Oh, you need to do this..." and I'm, like, getting teary eyed because I just can't believe that Alessandra is coaching me. And I'm like, "Don't cry, she's gonna think you're crazy!" I learned the entire ballet in two or three weeks, and now I'm going back, and I'm working with an acting coach to really understand the story better and all of the characters. We've got a ways to go.
Do you ever get nervous before these shows?
More so lately, especially with Swan Lake. It's a huge deal for an African American woman so all of the expectation around it brings on those nerves. But typically I'm not someone who gets nervous before I perform. I love it.
That's amazing. And now you have this documentary and your book. What message do you hope to send to people?
They should have every opportunity that they can imagine, that things are possible. That they shouldn't limit themselves to what they see. They can do whatever it is they want to do.
And one last fun question: when you're not dancing, what are you up to?
I'm watching Black-ish. I'm drinking wine. I'm shopping. I'm traveling, lying on a beach. I'm going to concerts. I'm cooking. I love fish so I do a lot of baked fish or broiled salmon. Shrimp with pasta and peas!
Images above all Getty
From the editors of ELLE.com