It’s often the most recent (or major) milestone of a celeb's success story that earns the most attention: the fancy award, the recognizable name, the buzzy magazine cover. And that comes as no surprise when the award is a Grammy or the name is, well, Ciara. But just as important as the fame are the "firsts" that led to that star status, from the first job to the first failure — or the first sex scene, if you're Allison Williams of Girls.
So that's why we're hitting rewind on the careers of six women in the spotlight (such as the aforementioned HBO actress and mononymous singer) — specifically, the women fronting Keds' Ladies First campaign, which celebrates its centennial anniversary of designing women's shoes and launches tomorrow. Putting our own fresh spin on the idea of "firsts," we're asking the campaign ambassadors to revisit their own lives and professional initiations — even the cringe-worthy, awkward, I-had-no-idea-what-I-was-in-for stuff. Yep, we're going there. Ahead, you'll discover new sides to and little-known facts about these leading ladies, including cool-girl entertainers Tori Kelly and Soko, model/chanteuse Cailin Russo, and tech queen Billie Whitehouse.
Read on for our exclusive and candid convo about their "firsts," and see why this footwear icon's girl-power message feels right at home in the hands (and on the feet) of these trailblazers.
How you know her: Girls girl (specifically, Marnie Michaels), gravity defier (Peter Pan Live!), and master of moxie (also, Moxie). You’ve declared before that you first wanted to be an actor at age four but that you didn’t fully understand what it meant. When did you get what the profession entails and what it might take to find success? “I know from my parents, grandparents, and anyone who lived within an eight-mile radius from tiny Allison, that from the moment I came into existence, it was clear that I lived half in my own body and half in the bodies of characters — people that I observed or saw in movies or were in my imagination. When I started to watch movies — The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins, The Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan — I realized that those were people doing a job and the job was to inhabit other characters. And then I got to sit in my den and watch them do their job, and I just could not wrap my head around it. I think the most succinct way that I realized it was a job was by being a fan of Julie Andrews and realizing that Mary Poppins and Maria were the same person but in different movies and in different roles, and that blew my mind.” Girls was your first audition post-college when you started to pursue your career professionally. Safe to say it went well. What was so unique about that first audition experience? “I had just taken an audition class in [New York City with] Ellen Novack. She set up a system of preparation that I found really relaxing…so I was excited to implement the new things I’d learned. I went in headfirst with the enthusiasm of having a new trick that I wanted to see if I could master.
“Every other girl in the waiting room was dressed totally differently than I was. They were all wearing business suits, but I wore skinny jeans and a long baggy shirt. They also were pre-crying because the scene was supposed to start with Charlie storming out and Marnie being, like, ‘I think we should break up,’ or whatever. But my choice had been Marnie wouldn’t be upset about that because she knew Charlie would come back. So I was not pre-crying, but it’s very intimidating to feel that you’re preparing for the wrong test. I walked into the room, and — I didn’t know how rare it was then, but I know now — the room had four or five women in it. We did the audition, and Lena and I did a bunch of improv, which was, again, very unusual [in the industry]. After I left I called my parents and was like, ‘That was really fun and I think it went well!’” What’s the first word that comes to mind when you think of the first sex scene that you had to film on Girls? “Vulnerable. It’s one thing to know [Chris Abbott] a little and it’s another thing to get on all fours in front of that person. Thank god, though — Marnie kind of hated sex, especially with him, and was uncomfortable with the intimacy of it. So any discomfort that I was naturally feeling was totally allowed and worked in the moment.” What do you consider to be your first big success? “The Mad Men video was the vehicle of my getting asked to audition for Girls. That was something I was really proud of because it was very in line with my thinking and approach to the world, which was that people don’t hand you things. I know people love to think that nepotism is the root of all the good that happens to those of us who have parents in various positions of power, but contrary to what they might think, people don’t just say, like, ‘Oh, you’re related to a news person? Here’s a leading role in a HBO series.’ So the fact that the only reason Judd [Apatow] knew I was an adult graduate from college, available to act, was because of this Mad Men video that I made…I was very, very proud of that.” What's the importance of being a part of this girl-power campaign and spreading the message of "Ladies First"? “I love the idea that Keds existed first and foremost to literally support women. Now of course the brand encompasses so much more than just shoes. It has to do more with empowering young girls to become individual, express themselves, and they don't have to break the bank in the process of finding a unique identity for themselves.”
How you know her: YouTube sensation (and cover girl), belter extraordinaire, and 2016 Grammy nom. This past year was all about firsts for you. First album, Unbreakable Smile. First VMA performance. First Grammy nomination. What’s been the most significant? “The thing that will be at the top for me from 2015 is simply just putting out my first album. I think of me as a little girl, and I didn’t really comprehend what a Grammy was or what those award shows were, but I've known since I was five years old that all I wanted to do was put out an album. That was the biggest dream come true because not everyone gets to do it.” What’s your very first memory of music? “There’s one specific time I remember being in the car blasting music, and there was this one note that I couldn’t hit, so I was really frustrated. I think I was definitely three or four years old. My dad was a singer, as well, and he just turned the music down, was really patient, and taught me how to use my diaphragm. I just remember being in my car seat and being so excited when I finally hit it.”
What do you consider to be your first big failure in your career? “I first got signed when I was 12, and I went through being in different studios, recording every type of song, being thrown into it. When it didn’t work out, I ended up leaving the label and that was a bummer. But the even bigger letdown was when I tried to go back into the label scene and was auditioning over and over again. I think I was 14 at the time; not really writing music yet. It just wasn’t my time. Looking back now, that’s the best thing that could’ve happened because I turned to songwriting and was able to build my own career. It’s definitely a blessing in disguise, but at the time, I was super, super bummed about it.”
What’s the first word that comes to mind when you think of the first song you ever wrote? “Is Garage Band one word? Because that’s how I wrote. All of my first songs were written on Garage Band, like, the worst quality ever. Just singing right into the computer.”
How you know her: Creator of chart-topping hits that have influenced dance music for years (“Goodies,” “1, 2 Step,” and “Ride”), recipient of countless music honors, and Fashion Week (and Instagram) It Girl.
You started your music career when you were a teenager. But what was the very first job you had? “At an early age, I did girls’ hair in my neighborhood. That was my hustle. I was able to make anywhere between $5 and $45 per girl.”
What’s your first-ever memory of being exposed to music? “Around the age of four is when I first understood how music was able to make me feel. It really made me want to dance and want to sing. Instead of love at first sight, it was love at first listen. I connected right away.”
What do you consider to be your first significant career success? “Winning a Grammy award. After winning, you feel validated that your dreams and goals are coming true and being reached. And from that point on, you are forever referred to and introduced as ‘Grammy award-winning singer and songwriter.’ That is pretty significant.”
On the flip side, what was your first big failure? “The first time I experienced something not going so smoothly was the first time a song didn’t perform at the high level that my previous songs had. It was a song that I didn’t want to release, which made it frustrating. The label and I had different visions. They really pushed for it because they felt it would work; I agreed in an effort to be open-minded, but deep inside I felt it was the wrong decision. I didn’t let the situation stop me, though. I kept working and pushing harder.” Looking back, which song off your very first album is still the most special to you? “The song ‘Goodies.’ I really believed that it was the song to introduce myself to the world. It was No. 1 on the Billboard Airplay chart for eight weeks in a row.” What’s the story behind the first song you created for your most recent album, Jackie? “‘Dance Like We’re Making Love’ was the first song recorded, shortly before delivering my son. That marked the most special time in my life: becoming a mom.” You’ve become a certifiable staple at Fashion Week — both in New York and abroad. Tell us about the first Fashion Week show you ever attended. “It was Versace in Milan. Everything was incredible and so much to take in at the time. The production. The music. The lights. I also remember having dinner afterwards with Donatella Versace, Missy Elliott, and Elton John. Very cool and special.”
How you know her: Aussie-born entrepreneur; tech savant; designer of duds that give directions (Navigate), pleasure your partner (Fundawear), and adjust your downward dog (Nadi).
What was your very first job, ever? “I was paid to coach a field-hockey team in high school.”
What’s the first piece of wearable tech you ever wore? “Anya Hindmarch designed this bag that had flashing LEDs. It looked like a purple Barbie box — I just fell in love with it. That was in 2012, and that was the moment everything changed for me. I opened it up and was like, This is kind of a battery. This is easy. I can do this.”
What do you consider to be your first big success? “There was a wonderful article that compared us to Elon Musk. And that was my moment where I was like, This doesn’t feel real. Even now. It was a huge flattery. In terms of building something: presenting a finished product where the hardware worked and the apparel was beautiful — and all done by us. To have it be everything we wanted, that was really rewarding. That felt amazing.”
On the flip side, what was your first big failure? “When you come to a place like New York, you have all these expectations of what it’ll be like. And I think I expected that fashion and technology would be more synonymous [here] — working together instead of separate. That really surprised me. At first I was let down, but actually now I just see that as an opening. Now I can make the most of it.”
What’s the first word that comes to mind when you think of wearable technology? And what about the first piece of wearable tech you created? “Wearable technology is a terrible name. I would just call it ready-to-wear tech. That’s my phrase.
“[And] softness. I think that’s what we’re all aiming for. It’s not 100% there yet, but softness is really what we want for all of this stuff, rather than it feeling hard.”
What do you want to be the first to do? “I want to be the first person to make wearable technology mainstream. And then I want to be the first person to sell these products with the magic they deserve. So, not put them in a traditional retailer, but actually give them the enchantment they really should have. Both offline and online.”
What’s the first question people ask when you tell them about Fundawear? “‘Are you wearing it?’ Everyone always asks that immediately.”
How you know her: Model on the rise (and popular on the 'gram), aspiring songbird, and Bieber’s costar (twice!).
What was your very first job ever? “I would volunteer at a pet store all the time, but it wasn’t really a job. My first job was modeling.”
What were you first in your family to do? “I was first in my family to travel so far at such a young age. I went to Japan when I was 18; I was in a Osaka for two months [for work].”
What do you consider to be your first real moment of success? “The [Justin Bieber] music videos. It was just a lot of publicity — my name was on the map more. But it depends how you define success.”
What about your first big failure or major career let down? “I’m a pretty positive person, so I think my first big failure was kind of like, Okay, let’s move up from here. When I get disappointed, I just focus on what I'll do next.”
Who was the very first model you looked up to? “The first person that comes to mind is Abbey Lee Kershaw. I was never really into the modeling world — I was into music. But then I started a blog on Tumblr and I would just see photos of her and be like, Oh my God, she’s so cool.”
What’s the first thing you prioritize when it comes to personal and professional goals? “Making music. Making a sound that fits me and also will translate well to others. My boyfriend, Mike Percy, who’s an amazing producer, and I are working at a home studio we just built. I’m building a team right now.”
What do you want to be the first to do? “I wouldn’t necessarily be the first, but in this generation, there’s a gap for female artists that are just being real and not trying to put up a personality. Kind of like — and by no comparison — Erykah Badu, and how she is a real artist who speaks about real things. I want to fill that gap as well as be a young role model. Not like a Girl Scout type of role model but a real person whom parents will accept.”
What were you first in your family to do? “I was the first to be vegetarian. Also, I started working the youngest, as an actress at 16. Oh, and I was the first to stop school at 16.”
What do you consider to be your first big success? “The first time I went to Cannes with a film called In The Beginning, that definitely felt like I had done something cool. And then making my first album, that felt like a huge weight off my shoulders. All my thoughts and emotions all condensed into one thing. Like, the pure extract of my soul into an album.”
What do you consider to be your first big failure? “I feel like I’ve had so many, but I’m a really ambitious and optimistic person. As soon as something 'bad' happens, I’m always on to the next thing and moving forward — bettering myself and taking it as an opportunity to find new, more artistic, more interesting things to do. But, you know, I’m acting on top of doing music, and there are a few movies that I wish I did, but it’s fine because then I get to do music and it's awesome.” What’s the first word that comes to mind when you think of the first song you ever wrote? “Embarrassing.” You’ve worked really hard — physically, specifically — to prepare for your role as the famed modern dancer and vanguard of stage lighting,Loïe Fuller, in The Dancer (an upcoming film costarring Lily-Rose Depp). When was the first time you felt fully prepared to take on this role given that you had no prior dance training? “My first week of actual dance training, I was like, Oh my god. I suck so hard. I would call the director [Stéphanie Di Giusto] crying and she'd laugh at me, like, ‘Are you crazy? That’s it! You’re playing a girl that has absolutely no self-confidence! You’re right in it!’ I’ve never been that tired in my life, and I had such sore muscles. I could not bend over to get into my underwear or put on socks or tie my shoes, so my girlfriend had to dress me.
“I remember the first time my choreographer filmed me dancing and I watched it, I cried. Because I’m in my costume and dancing on a two-meter-high pedestal, and there's no mirror, so I had no idea what it looked like. I watched the video and was like, ‘Is that me?’ I could not believe that I was actually getting at the level of my teacher.” What's the importance of being a part of this girl-power campaign and spreading the message of "Ladies First"? “I’m a very non-competitive person, and I feel like there are a lot of people not really being mindful of each other. Especially in this sort of industry. To me, women sticking together and getting each other’s backs is so important. And it’s amazing for me right now to be doing a movie that is about this lady 100 years ago, who invented a dance that is so revolutionary. She has so many obstacles and so many men telling her she can’t do this or that, and she pushes through. Everything she invented 100 years ago is still relevant and beautiful and magical today. And I think it makes me even more of a feminist to play such an amazing badass character.”