22 Famous Women Share Their Role Models
Dec. 08, 2017
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Former first lady Michelle Obama, activist Janet Mock and actress Sophia Bush are just a few of the people who’ve inspired generations of women to overcome the challenges posed by America’s patriarchal society. But who did they look up to most as they were growing up and starting their careers? New York Magazine scoured the internet and quoted 22 famous women on their mentors. Read on for warm reminders about the importance of representation, motherhood, mentorship and companionship.
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Salma Hayek, actress and producer
Salma Hayek tells O, the Oprah Magazine that she’d always been moved by the women in her family who didn’t get to live up to their full potential. “My grandmother was energetic and fearless — a talented poet and songwriter. She was also interested in chemistry, history and medicine. ... She could have become anything, but this was the 1930s, and she was forced into an arranged marriage.” And though Hayek’s mother dreamed of becoming a singer, she followed the path more acceptable by marrying and having children. “Thinking about them impacts every aspect of my life — including how I raise my daughter, Valentina.”
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Lena Dunham, actress, writer, producer and director
Lena Dunham writes in The New Yorker that the late Nora Ephron influenced both her choice to enter the film industry and the minute aspects of her everyday life. “Over the course of our year-and-a-half-long friendship, Nora introduced me to, in no particular order: ... the photography of Julius Shulman; the concept of eating lunch at Barneys; self-respect; the complex legend of Helen Gurley Brown; the Jell-O mold; her beloved sister Delia,” Dunham writes. “The opportunity to be friends with Nora in the last year of her life informs the entirety of mine.”
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Viola Davis, actress and producer
Viola Davis discusses her admiration for actress Meryl Streep’s affable guidance in Elle: “Meryl [gives lessons in confidence] all the time. I think she does it in a way that she doesn’t even understand or think she’s doing it,” Davis says. She recalls an email Streep sent her last February, shortly after she had renewed her vows with her husband of 14 years, Julius Tennon. “She was like, ‘Viola, now that you’ve just had your vow renewal … this is the best part of your life now. There’s not anything that you don’t know anymore in terms of what’s good and bad out there, so now you can just fly.’ She’s always imparting wisdom like that.”
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Mindy Kaling, actress, producer and director
Many of us can relate when Mindy Kaling names her mother as her biggest role model: “I would say that my mother is the single biggest role model in my life, but that term doesn’t seem to encompass enough when I use it about her,” Kaling says in “Rookie: Yearbook Two.” “She was the love of my life.” Kaling’s mother passed away of pancreatic cancer in 2012, when the actress was 33 years old.
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Janelle Monae, musician, performer and actress
Janelle Monae tells The Frame about how she drew inspiration from her mother when she embodied the role of Teresa in “Moonlight,” a movie about identity, family and friendship. “I see so much of my mom in Teresa. When I think about the strong African woman who was there for me and all of my cousins — she was always there to listen to us and not judge us,” she says. Monae’s mom gave birth to her as a senior in high school, and it was her mom who encouraged her to follow her dreams of becoming a singer and performer.
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Amandla Stenberg, actress
Upon receiving a Black Girls Rock award, musician and performer Rihanna noted on stage that she doesn’t normally get awarded for being a role model. But Amandla Stenberg tells W Magazine that she caught up with her afterward to say, “You really are a role model, and you probably don’t realize it. You’re a huge role model to teenage girls who experience all kinds of crap for enjoying their sexuality, for being themselves, for getting what they want, for not letting the perceptions of men get in the way of what they want to do.” Stenberg says that as a teenager, she often let boys dictate what she wore and how she presented herself. “But then a Rihanna song comes on and I don’t care about that anymore.”
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Janet Mock, writer, editor, TV host and trans rights advocate
On her website, Janet Mock nods to the many individuals and communities who supported her throughout her life. “It took a village for me to be who I am today, and it still takes a village to assist me in the journey ahead,” she says. “I am a product of my support system, a community that included straight parents and siblings; gay and lesbian classmates; gender-nonconforming teen support group members; drag queens who practiced at the community recreation center where I hung out as a kid; queer volleyball teammates; and older trans women who used their transition to light my path.”
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Laverne Cox, actress, producer and LGBTQ advocate
Laverne Cox is an actress who’s best known for her portrayal of trans woman Sophia Burset on the Netflix television series, “Orange Is the New Black.” For inspiration, Laverne Cox looks to trailblazer Tracey “Africa” Norman, a black trans woman who, in the 1970s, modeled for cosmetic companies and had a contract with Clairol. “People think, ‘Oh, this trans revolution is just starting,’ but we’ve been around for a very long time,” she tells Cosmopolitan. “It’s important to know that there’s been a path blazed for me.”
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Margaret Cho, comedian
In 2014 the world lost Robin Williams and Joan Rivers, two giants in the realm of comedy. “In my own life, there is [the loss of] Robin Williams and Joan Rivers, and so I guess it’s also about the passage — about becoming a mentor after your own mentors die,” Margaret Cho tells AlterNet. “You have to become that. So I think that’s what I’m trying to do.” To pave the way for a new generation of comedian-activists, Cho speaks out about topics that many public figures shun, including her experiences with sexual abuse and rape as a teenager.
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Sheryl Sandberg, technology executive, activist and author
Chief operating officer of Facebook Sheryl Sandberg, who launched Leanin.org and Google.org, draws inspiration from her philanthropic grandmother. “She grew up poor and her parents divorced, which was unheard of during that time. She ended up graduating from Berkeley and was the first generation to go to college,” she tells Lena Dunham for Lenny Letter. “She was diagnosed with breast cancer in her 30s and started raising money for breast-cancer screenings for other women.” To raise funds, Sandberg’s grandmother sold watches door-to-door. And when her husband’s business began to fail, Sandberg’s grandmother took over and resuscitated it.
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Christina Tosi, chef, founder and owner of Momofuku Milk Bar
Christina Tosi grew up baking with her grandmother in Washington, D.C. She got her start in the culinary industry making desserts at Wylie Dufresne’s restaurant WD-50, “the place she credits for her intellectually rigorous attitude toward food quality,” Bloomberg reports. Shortly after, she met Momofuku founder David Chang, who offered her the opportunity to open Milk Bar. Tosi says that she gets her take-no-prisoners work ethic from her mother: “She grew up in the cornfields of Ohio and worked her way to a managing partner of a huge accounting firm,” she tells Forbes.
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Melissa Harris-Perry, writer, professor, and political commentator
When Melissa Harris-Perry attempted to drop a college course taught by Maya Angelou, the famous poet and civil rights activist offered her a job as an assistant so she could remain eligible for her academic scholarship. “At the very moment I expected to be rejected, Dr. Angelou initiated a mentoring relationship that endured for more than two-and-a-half decades. It altered the trajectory of my life and gave me opportunities I could never have previously imagined,” she writes for Elle.
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Constance Wu, actress
In an interview with The New York Times, “Fresh Off the Boat” actress Constance Wu notes that when she was growing up Asians were rarely represented on screen, and the ones who were lacked complexity. “In terms of pure acting, my role model has always been Philip Seymour Hoffman; I really always loved what he did. I love what Mark Ruffalo does. When I was younger, I liked Cate Blanchett a lot,” she says. “These are all actors who are given stories and allowed to carry the whole story. You get to see a human at their highest point, their lowest point and everything in between. Asian-Americans haven’t been allowed that.”
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Jane Fonda, actress, writer and political activist
It’s tough to believe that Jane Fonda ever lacked a fashion sense. But according to an interview she gave The Hollywood Reporter in 2011, she didn’t start thinking about style until her 40s. “I think the only actor who ever taught me much about life, more than acting, was Katharine Hepburn in ‘On Golden Pond,’” she says. “I was 45 when I made that movie and it was she who taught me to be self-conscious. I used to think that was a bad thing, but that means being conscious of the self you project to the public; having a persona, a style, a presence.”
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Sloane Crosley, writer
Among her inspirations, essayist and novelist Sloane Crosley includes writers Jonathan Lethem and Lorrie Moore, who where “incredibly encouraging,” she tells Big Issue North. “In terms of influences for nonfiction, David Rakoff, Joan Didion, Joseph Mitchell, Ian Fraser. For fiction, if I woke up tomorrow and wrote like Zadie Smith I wouldn’t be mad about it.”
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Abbi Jacobson, comedian, writer and actress
“Broad City” actress Abbi Jacobson was once a writer for Channel Guide Magazine, which was co-founded by comedian Amy Poehler. Through a friend, Jacobson and her writing partner, Ilana Glazer, were able to contact Poehler and ask her to be a producer on the TV version of their web series. “Throughout the whole writing period, Amy’s on all the notes calls, she directed the finale episode of the show and she’s also in it,” Jacobson says. “She gives feedback on all the stuff, and she has a broader view of the series and our careers. She’s a great role model.”
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Sophia Bush, actress, director and activist
Sophia Bush’s team of supporters is totally stacked with Hollywood superstars. “Eva Longoria. Connie Britton. Debra Messing. Those ladies are always there for me,” she tells Makers. “More recently I’ve been spending time with Ava DuVernay and Sarah Lewis — she is a beyond-brilliant Harvard professor and fellow [Oprah Winfrey] SuperSoul 100 change maker — and they both just blow my mind.”
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Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic and third woman appointed to the United States Supreme Court, didn’t have a role model until she met Judge Jose Cabranes. “A role model in the flesh provides more than an inspiration; his or her very existence is confirmation of possibilities one may have every reason to doubt, saying, ‘Yes, someone like me can do this,’” she writes in her autobiography, “My Beloved World.” “Jose, the first I had the chance to observe up close, not only transcended the academic role, but also managed to uphold his identity as a Puerto Rican, serving vigorously in both worlds.”
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Bette Midler, singer, songwriter, actress, comedian and film producer
Bette Midler, who was born to a poor family in Honolulu, Hawaii, tells O, the Oprah Magazine about a humbling experience. “One of my first role models was Eugene Land, a wealthy businessman who went back to his elementary school in East Harlem and addressed the sixth-grade class. He looked out at the sea of faces and said, ‘If any of you wants to go to college, I will pay for it.’ When I read that, I burst into tears,” she says. “It was so generous and so basic. Not fluffy. I can’t understand why we scrimp on education and shortchange our kids. Why would the citizenry do that to the people who are going to inherit its republic?”
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Tina Turner, recording artist, actress, dancer and author
Tina Turner’s blue-blooded role model was nothing like her when she was young — and it shaped her career as an artist. “My role model was always Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. ... Of course, you’re talking about a farm girl who stood in the fields, dreaming, years ago, wishing she was that kind of person,” she tells Rolling Stone. “But if I had been that kind of person, do you think I could sing with the emotions I do? You sing with those emotions because you’ve had pain in your heart.”
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Chelsea Clinton, daughter of former president Bill Clinton
Like many of us, Chelsea Clinton’s role model is her mother, Hillary. “She’s my role model as a mother. She’s my role model as a working mother. And so I just am so grateful that she raised me with unconditional love, but also by her magnificent example,” she says during an interview with “Entertainment Tonight.” “I hope I can give that same gift to my kids. I hope they are even just a fraction of as proud of me as I am about my mom.” Clinton and her husband, Marc Mezvinsky, have two children.
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Michelle Obama, former first lady of the United States
Many people look up to Michelle Obama as a standard of excellence, but who does she look up to? “I just went to see Cicely Tyson on Broadway. She is in her 80s and did a two-hour play with stamina and passion. I told her, ‘I want to be you when I grow up!’ [And] there’s Jane Fonda, a beautiful, engaged, politically savvy, sharp woman.”
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What Do YOU Think?
Who inspires you? Tell us about an influential mentor you’ve had. If you could have lunch with one of the women on this list, who would you choose and why? Let us know in the comments section!
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