In many ways, Misty Copeland’s story could have been plucked from a turn-of-the-century ballet: an impoverished girl sharing a room with her mother and five siblings happens, by chance, to enroll in a local ballet class, reveals herself to be a prodigy, and ends up pirouetting on the world’s biggest stages. The brand endorsements from Under Armour and Estée Lauder (she wears 4W1Honey Bronze), the 1.5 million Instagram followers, the collaboration with Prince, theBarbie doll—maybe those could have come from a more modern libretto, but the facts remain fairy-tale-esque. Copeland has shattered just about every conception of what it means to be a ballerina, becoming the first African American female principal dancer in American Ballet Theatre’s 75-year history in 2015 and injecting fresh energy into an art form long viewed as fusty and uptight.
“The confidence I have has been built,”she says one muggy Monday at a brasserie down the street from her New York apartment, in between rehearsals, international trips, and taping segments for Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, out next month, in which she stars as the Ballerina.“I’m often in situations where I don’t realize the magnitude of things until they’re happening,” she says. “And then I look back and think, Oh my God, how did I do that?” Over a glass of sparkling water with lemon, we ask her to zero in on a few moments that illuminate just how she did.
ELLE: Who’s the person you talk to most frequently?
Misty Copeland: My manager.
Is it rare for ballet dancers to have managers?
Yes. In 2011, I was on tour with Prince, and she [Gilda Squire] was at a Christmas party with someone who works at ABT, and they were talking about this black ballerina en pointe on the top of a piano at Madison Square Garden. Gilda was like, Wait, what?
So did she sit you down over a coffee and lay out a master plan?
It started with a phone call. She wanted to prove that there was still good in the world, that we can make someone who is a positive role model reach the kind of success of a Kim Kardashian.
Did you always strive for that kind of recognition?
I’m a Virgo. We tend to be shy and keep to ourselves. The L.A. Times called my house to do an interview when I was first dancing, and I just hung up the phone in the middle of the interview. But it got to a point where I felt like it was necessary to speak. A lot of people see Under Armour and they think it’s happened overnight. But it’s been a slow and steady build.
Why do you think that commercial has been viewed more than 10 million times onYouTube?
It was reaching men and showcasing ballet as athletic, but still artistic. To show me with my muscles, to show me jumping, it was a huge step in opening and broadening people’s eyes to respecting ballet.
Was there a specific moment onstage when you felt the audience respond differently to you?
Firebird [her first leading role at ABT]. Right before the show, some of the dancers came up to me and asked if it was my family out there. And I was like, I don’t have 500 family members. No. That’s black people. The black community.
Does that kind of attention ever lead to focus problems?
It’s kind of silly—like, “Why are they yelling this loud? I’m just walking around in a circle!” But Firebird wasn’t silly. I knew what it meant. It wasn’t like I was a celebrity like Justin Timberlake. It felt like they were embracing me, like we were all in this together. It was insane to see all these brown people out there.
Was that when you felt like you’d really made it?
There’s one moment I can pinpoint. I was a soloist at ABT, and I met this black woman, so tiny, shorter than me, who had a ballet school in Harlem that performs The Nutcracker at the Apollo with an all-black cast. This little girl, Jade, was doing Clara and was unbelievable—naturally talented, a beautiful body. I found out later that she was one of 10 kids. I got her mom’s phone number and convinced her to let her audition for ABT’s summer program, but her mom didn’t have the time to take her. So I went with her instead.
Sort of a full-circle situation.
Yes. I said, I’ll be responsible for her. She ended up getting a full scholarship in training at ABT.
You became a principal dancer at 32. That’s considered late, right?
I’m such a late bloomer. Having been in the company for as long as I’ve been, and having been promoted at this stage—I think that it’s been hard for me to accept that I belong here, that I’m good enough. Maybe it’s just that I’m so exhausted and I’m 35 now and it was my breaking point, but I believe that I deserve to be here. The power that I have in bringing people to the ballet, and for what I represent—I don’t need to be working like a slave. I can say no to certain things and decide to do something else that will enrich who I am.
But you did say yes to being in Disney’s Nutcracker.
It’s so exciting, specifically for the next generation, which is where we need to go in terms of moving the art form forward and diversifying it. I think it’s going to influence even more young brown kids to feel like,“Oh, that’s me, I can do that!” A black Disney princess. That’s huge.