Misty Copeland photoshoot ()Misty Copeland photoshoot () © Copyright

Misty's en pointe

Having a large chest and a muscular frame are not good ingredients if you’re trying to make it as a ballet dancer. Now throw in a 20-a-day Krispy Kreme addiction, depression and a broken back.

Then imagine being raised under a cloud of poverty and broken marriages, along with five siblings in a seedy motel. Now imagine taking your first ballet lesson aged 13 (most girls start at five), and that your fledgling career becomes the source of a bitter public custody battle. Your chances do not look good.

Misty Copeland overcame every one of these obstacles, and much more besides, to reach the pinnacle of her profession. She is the first African American to be a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre. She is a symbol of hope in a fractured society, a role model for a new generation of kids facing extraordinary pressure to look and act a certain way.

It’s 2016 and America is burning: Ferguson, Orlando, The Wall. This great nation doesn’t need another reality TV star, it needs people like Misty Copeland. She represents the very best of fame and success in modern life: an inspiring blueprint for a disenfranchised generation to follow.

“None of this is a fairy tale,” Copeland’s colleague Craig Salstein explained to the New Yorker. And it’s hard to disagree: at times, it feels more like a nightmare. It is the way she coped with the struggle that makes her journey so special.

Misty Copeland photoshoot ()


Stuck in the sunset

There were five in the bed and the little one was Misty.

The Sunset Inn, Gardena, California. It seems like an OK place to stay if you’re on a budget and unconcerned by dirty linen. But it’s not great if you’re trying to raise a family.

After the disintegration of marriage number four, Sylvia DeLaCerna moved into the Sunset Inn, sharing one room with four of her children. She worked long hours to stay afloat.

Misty was the youngest of four children from her mother’s second marriage. “I was very shy, and definitely the one who blended in with the background,” Copeland recalls. Aged 7 she saw a TV film about gymnast Nadia Comaneci, the star of the 1976 Olympics, and created flamboyant dances to perform alongside her favourite Mariah Carey songs.

Behind her doe eyes, Copeland was hiding the kind of graft that she’d need if she stood any chance of escaping the motel. By sixth grade, she was captaining the school dance squad and acting as class treasurer.

Aged 13, Copeland would spend the time in between school ending and DeLaCerna finishing work hanging around a kids club she liked in San Pedro.

A ballet instructor named Cynthia Bradley noticed the shy kid with willowy limbs watching from the rafters, and invited her down to the barre. Within three months, she was en pointe (that ridiculous ability to maintain balance on your tiptoes), something which usually takes years of training.

This should be the part of the story where Copeland’s natural talent ensures a smooth journey to the top. If only.  

Misty Copeland photoshoot ()


The battle of the ballet shoes

Cynthia Bradley was so impressed with Copeland’s talent that she offered her free tuition. More than that, she offered a home. DeLaCerna resisted at first before eventually relenting. Bradley’s condo near the coast was much closer to school and to the dance club – and miles away from the Sunset Inn.

Copeland became part of the Bradley family. She appeared in family portraits with Cynthia’s husband Patrick and their two-year-old son, Wolf. They lit Hannukah candles and went to the synagogue. Copeland was the centre of attention, and she ate fancy food for the first time.

By the time she was 15, the Bradleys had taken Copeland out of school and hired a tutor so she could spend more time dancing. She’d wear out a pair of $45 shoes every week. Copeland won first place at the LA Music Center Spotlight Awards, and with it a scholarship to the San Francisco ballet school.

The Bradleys also signed a contract with Copeland and DeLaCerna in relation to the protégé’s future. In 1998, they told reporters that the agreement gave them exclusive rights to manage Copeland’s career, as well as a 20% cut of her earnings, less expenses, until she was 18.

DeLaCerna’s hard work was paying off too. She could afford a car, and insisted it was time her daughter moved back to the motel as distance was no longer an issue. This is when things turned nasty.

For a little while, Copeland lived back at the motel but was still being taught by the Bradleys. As their relationship with DeLaCerna deteriorated, she was stuck in the middle. At one point, she mentioned that she hadn’t eaten vegetables for a week at the motel.

Misty Copeland photoshoot ()


The Bradleys met with a lawyer to discuss whether Copeland could file for emancipation, which would allow her to be free to choose where she lived. Copeland agreed to start the process.

Upset and confused, Copeland rang home from a friend’s house to tell her mother that she wouldn’t be home that night. DeLaCerna called the cops, who contacted the Bradleys. Copeland was made to attend the police station to confirm that she hadn’t been kidnapped and was filing for emancipation.

At this point, DeLaCerna applied for a restraining order against the Bradleys, and hired top attorney Gloria Allred to fight the emancipation. The messy battle for Copeland’s custody was described by the LA Times in 1998 as “a nasty squabble over who is best suited to develop her prodigious ballet skills”.

In court, DeLaCerna accused the Bradleys of brainwashing Copeland with their financial self-interest at heart. The judge rejected DeLaCerna’s restraining orders, and Copeland dropped the emancipation proceedings, telling reporters “I always wanted everyone to get along.” She was still only 15.

Although Copeland’s preference was to continue training with the Bradleys, DeLaCerna forbade her from seeing them, as well as friends she’d made at the studio.

DeLaCerna now earned enough to move her family out of the motel and into an apartment. The only visible reference to the previous three years was a framed photograph of Copeland outside the court, her hand being held aloft by the celebrity attorney Gloria Allred. 

Copeland hid relics of her former life in her wardrobe: pictures from a vacation to San Diego with the Bradleys and a Nutcracker doll Patrick made for her. She would have to forget about them, though, and focus on her career. 

Misty Copeland photoshoot ()


Concrete jungle

Misty Copeland’s career would have taken a different path had she stayed with the Bradleys. Under DeLaCerna’s sole guardianship, she enrolled back into high school. Though she practised less, she was encouraged to perform more for money. DeLaCerna chose a family friend to act as manager, and also enlisted an entertainment attorney in a bid to sell rights to a movie of her daughter’s life. Still only a kid, Misty was not so keen.

Gradually, the direction of Copeland’s life was pulled back in the direction of ballet. The following summer, she auditioned for the intensive summer programme of the American Ballet Theatre (ABT), the best dance company in the country. She lived with nuns in New York, and impressed the ABT so much over successive years that in 2000 she was invited to join the ABT’s Studio Company (a reserve squad).

She was 19, but 5ft 2in Copeland was still under eight stone. She had not hit puberty yet (a common trait among ballerinas), and eight months in, broke her back. She spent 23 hours a day in a brace, and couldn’t dance for a year.

Copeland was advised to take the pill in order to bring on menstruation, which would in turn strengthen her bones. Over the course of just a month, she put on nearly a stone and her breasts grew to a double-D cup size.

For anyone who has spent six years learning total control of their body, this kind of transformation would be tough. For Copeland – now not only the sole black woman at the ABT, but the only one with boobs – it was a disaster. Copeland no longer possessed the tiny body deemed a prerequisite for the best dancers, and ABT management told her so.

“Leotards had to be altered for me to cover my cleavage,” she recalls. “I hated this sign that I was different from the others. I became so self-conscious that, for the first time in my life, I couldn’t dance strong. I was too busy trying to hide my breasts.”

Unable to produce the goods on the stage, Copeland went into a downward spiral. She called up Krispy Kreme to have two dozen doughnuts delivered to her apartment. She’d demolish the whole box in a cycle of depression. Things looked as miserable now as they had been before she discovered ballet, when she lived at a motel unsure of where her next meal was coming from.

Copeland showed an extraordinary strength of character and maturity to overcome those issues with her body over the following year. “My curves became an integral part of who I am as a dancer, not something I needed to lose to become one,” she reasoned. Yet this would require her to be so good that she could change the way people think about ballet. 

Misty Copeland photoshoot ()


Black women don't look right in tutus

Remarkably, by 2007, her career had again tilted back towards an upward trajectory. She was described as having incredible radiance, and by the age of 25, was chosen to be one of ABT’s youngest soloists. Soloists are in the second tier of the elite ballet game: they play solo and minor roles in ballet. Think ‘best supporting actress’ at the Oscars, junior only to the leading actors and actresses (the principal dancers in this case).

As she was maturing, Copeland’s body also changed. As Rivka Galchen noted in The New Yorker, “She now has a more elongated – more classical – physique, and no longer has a double-D chest. She remains more buxom than most.”

Despite her undoubted skill, there are certain prejudices in ballet that stymied her progress. Due to her different shape, it took more than ten years after puberty until she was offered the role of Clara in the Nutcracker again. Copeland also feels that the colour of her skin held her back.

“There were many people who seemed not to want to see black ballerinas,” she wrote in her memoir, “who thought that our very presence made ballet less authentic, less romantic, less true. The bitter truth is I felt that I wasn’t being fully accepted because I was black, that leaders of the company just didn’t see me starring in more classical roles, despite my elegant line and flow.”

More bluntly, she heard comments that “black women don’t look right in tutus”.

And then Prince called.

It was 2009, and the music superstar wanted Copeland to star in a video for his new track. Soon after, Prince lobbied PBS to get her as a guest on one of their shows.

“Little did we know she would become such a superstar,” PBS executive Neal Kendall recalled.“It was not about Prince, it was about how he could help someone he felt was worthy to gain attention.”

In the years that followed the call from Prince, Copeland guest-starred on TV shows, appeared as a judge on talent shows and fronted ad campaigns for Blackberry, T-Mobile and Dr Pepper. Corporate America was realising her appeal, even if ballet wasn’t.

By the time Under Armour signed her up in 2014, the endorsements paid more than ballet did. UA got bang for its buck too, when her breathtaking ad went viral.

Normal ballerinas do not get 10 million hits on YouTube. 

Misty Copeland photoshoot ()


Seal of approval

By 2015 Copeland was receiving rave reviews for her ballet. Previously unthinkable opportunities opened up, such as Swan Lake and Romeo & Juliet. She graced the cover of TIME magazine and became too good, too famous to ignore. Last June, aged 32, Copeland became the first black woman to be promoted to principal ballerina in the 75-year history of the American Ballet Theatre.

Finally, 16 years after her first visit to train at the country’s most prestigious dance company, she had the professional recognition to match her talent.

Copeland has emphatically redefined the terms of what is possible for those that follow. Her legacy is recognised all over the world, no more so than in the White House. When President Obama sits around the dinner table with his wife Michelle and teenage daughters Sasha and Malia, Copeland serves as a role model.

As Obama told TIME, “When you’re a dad of two daughters, you notice more the enormous pressure that young women are placed under in terms of looking a certain way. And being cute in a certain way. And are you wearing the right clothes? And is your hair done the right way… And that’s why somebody like Misty ends up being so important. A lot of it is the power of that image, even if they [Sasha and Malia] are not dancers, even if they’re not interested in pursuing a career in entertainment or the arts. For them to know that that’s valued, it ends up making a big difference.”


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