And then a hero comes along. Misty Copeland has made history as the first-ever Black principal dancer for the American Ballet Theater, and one of the most well-known prima ballerinas of all time, whose presence has permeated the culture at large. (See: her powerful, super-viral Under Armour ad, her upcoming role alongside Keira Knightley and other A-list movie stars in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, and much more.)
But before a young Copeland had taken her first ballet class at a Boys & Girls’ Club – before an astute teacher recognised her raw, once-in-a-generation talent – she endured a chaotic, nomadic childhood that included living in a motel and on food stamps. One of her few respites? “I was the one kid in my family that wasn’t really attached to anything . . . no sports. The only thing that I was obsessed with was Mariah Carey,” Copeland tells Refinery29’s global editor-in-chief and co-founder Christene Barberich in this week’s UnStyled. “I’m MC, and she’s MC. She was a huge influence in my life.”
Copeland tells Barberich about the effects of her “crazy upbringing” alongside many siblings, a struggling mom, and shifting father figures. “Picking up and moving and always having to change schools, all of these things created this anxiety. That made me extremely introverted. And then, the traumas of witnessing all these different environments – there was a lot of emotional and physical abuse as well. So I became this shell of a person.”
When Copeland was 7, she and her family had moved to yet another home, and Mariah Carey’s debut album dropped. “I think my oldest brother Doug was the one that told us about her:, ‘There’s this biracial woman...I think she’s 19, and her voice is unbelievable.’”
“[My baby brother Cameron] would cry whenever we'd get into the car, and my mom would put Mariah Carey's tape in and he would just stop crying,” Copeland says. “[Mariah] became ours, and she looked similar to my mother. Not until I was an adult and living on my own and dancing professionally did I realise like why she impacted me so much,” she says. “I think it was just being able to see myself in someone else.”
She continues: “Being a biracial girl, and my family being every ethnicity, and seeing someone succeeding that looking like me — I don’t think I realised like the power of representation at that point.”
Now that Copeland has become a bonafide icon in her own right, she knows she wields the same kind of symbolic power as well. “It’s how I relate to the youth now. Being a Black woman, on the stage at the Metropolitan Opera House, simply by seeing that, a young brown kid can envision that that could be their future without even really consciously knowing it.”
Copeland and Carey have yet to meet in person – but the dancer was emboldened recently to finally DM the “Vision of Love” singer via Instagram. Find out what happened, and much more about Copeland’s extraordinary journey and hardships overcome, by clicking here and subscribing to UnStyled via Apple Podcasts today.