Prima ballerina Misty Copeland's rise to iconic status was never a given. She grew up poor in Los Angeles as one of six siblings. At what she calls her lowest point, the family lived in a single motel room. Dance became a respite from a difficult childhood.
"I have to pinch myself all the time with every opportunity I have that I'm living this dream," said Copeland, who in 2015 became the first African-American female principal dancer with the prestigious American Ballet Theater.
Reaching the pinnacle of success as a dancer was only the beginning. Copeland's achievements go well beyond the world of ballet to include best-selling books, endorsements and even a dancewear line.
So, what keeps her on her toes? "Hard work keeps me grounded," she said.
Copeland is one of the few dancers who is business savvy enough to have become a brand of her own.
She has performed on Broadway, appeared as a judge on "So You Think You Can Dance" and written a best-selling memoir. She's picked up endorsement deals with T-Mobile, Seiko, Under Armour, Coach and others — honors usually reserved for high-profile sports figures. In May, she signed on with Dannon to promote its Oikos Greek yogurt.
That the world is finally recognizing the physicality and grit that comes along with her profession is something she finds gratifying.
"Dancers are athletes, and it's even harder because we have to add an artistic level and make it look effortless," she said. But she added, "We're not seen in the same light as athletes or celebrated in that way. "
She says Under Armour's support was the first big step in getting ballet the exposure it deserves: "Putting me up there next to Cam Newton and Stephen Curry was a beautiful thing, showing a woman could be seen equally as strong and powerful as a guy."
She's hoping that her success will create "a new structure for how dancers are treated."
A Barbie Doll, created in her image and released in May, shows just how far she's come. But taking her status as a role model seriously, she's made sure that this Barbie lives up to her ideals.
"I immediately thought: OK, we have to get this right. We have to really show people what a brown Barbie looks like — what a ballerina Barbie looks like. That she has muscles and is true to who I am," she said. "Especially in the African-American community, it's important for girls to see a positive image of a black woman. I'm proud to represent that."
Her next act is a dancewear line "for all shapes and sizes" debuting in August. The inspiration for the line, Egal, stems from her own struggle to find supportive leotards when she was an awkward teen.
For Copeland, hard work, discipline and sacrifice — the tools she learned as a dancer — are the pillars of her career success.
"Celebrities today make all this money and have all this time to travel and play, go to clubs and get in trouble. But there's never a moment that a dancer can take off and just be like, woo hoo, I'm enjoying all of the applause that I got in my last show!" she quipped. "The work never ends until you retire, and I think that having that structure in place as a classical dancer has really benefited me as a businesswoman."
Her advice to anyone hoping to succeed in life or work is simply to be who you are and trust your gut: "You can't make a wrong decision. Every obstacle and every hardship and every injury has made me into the dancer and the artist that I am today."