Don’t underestimate Michael Michele. The actress, designer, philanthropist, and single mother is more than your average Hollywood beauty.
Michael Michele has been playing strong, capable women on television and film since the early 1990s. You’ve probably seen her on “ER” as the skillfully trained Dr. Cleo Finch with a scalpel in one hand and the perfect shade of red lipstick in the other. Or, maybe you’ve watched her on “Homicide: Life on the Street” as the hard-hitting Detective Rene Sheppard who solved murders without the help of her macho male coworkers. You most likely saw her shining on the silver screen in “How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days,” giving Matthew McConaughey a run for his money as advertising exec Judy Spears. And, we all watched her enter the drama-filled, rumor-ridden world of “Gossip Girl” as Serena’s no-nonsense boss, Jane.
Saving lives, catching criminals, and running companies is all in a day’s work for Michael Michele. It’s a wonder she somehow found the time to speak with Dress for Success about following her dreams and how sticking to her values is what truly led her to success, but we’re so happy she did and we hope that you can find something in her story to apply to yours!
For Michael, upholding her values as an actress meant breathing new life into characters she could admire and respect. From the get-go, Michael was on a mission to portray women as intelligent, talented and ambitious individuals. “It’s always been extraordinarily important to me that I represent women well. I can’t say that enough. Representing women well, especially women of color, is to represent the best that we can be.”
Hollywood wasn’t exactly on the same page. As a stunning young woman, casting directors expected Michael to play the birdbrained bimbo who liked to schmooze, booze, and cruise by in life on the arm of a well-to-do man. What other kind of role could a biracial woman possibly play? Michael had bigger plans. She set out to prove that she could be more than an alluring accessory to her male costars.
“It was a really turning point in my career when my representative said to me, ‘you will never play cops, docs, or lawyers. Get it out of your head, put on your heels, be sexy, be beautiful, and sell that. You’ll make money and have a great career.’ I thought, ‘since you told me no cops, docs, or lawyers, now I am going to pursue cops, docs, or lawyers.’”
But, not everyone was ready for a trailblazing woman like Michael Michele. “People did not want to hire me to play cops, docs, or lawyers. When I started in the early 90’s, it just wasn’t as common for a casting person to want me to play those types of roles.” Then again, Michael was never really too concerned with what other people thought, as long as she was sticking to what she knew was right.
When one door slammed in her face, Michael broke down another. Bent on playing women in powerful positions, Michael was gearing up to shatter the glass ceiling for women of color on television and film. “I had overtaken my obstacle and really pursued my dream, which was to do the very thing I was told I could never do.”
When Michael joined the hit show “Homicide: Life on the Street,” she stood by her commitment to playing women with nerve, and wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty to do it. Michael was Detective Rene Sheppard, a tough cop with an intense story line. When Sheppard was facing a serious on-camera beat down, the show’s producer let Michael turn her pretty face black and blue because she wanted to accurately represent the unfortunate reality of the many women who become victims of violence throughout their lives.
“Normally, they would want to protect your face even though you’ve been beaten, but he said, ‘we are going to beat you down badly, allow the damage to remain for weeks on television, and heal for as long as it would normally take to heal.’”
Off screen, Michael strived to stay true to herself as much a she stayed true to her characters. So when she teamed up with Harvard University to promote mentoring in America, Michael decided to do things her way. Jumping at the chance to make a difference in her community, Michael asked Harvard to help her create a mentoring program of her own. She called it The Roundtable ChitChat, hoping to help the girls of New York City’s Washington Irving High School find their own set of core values to live by.
“I started working with my girls when they were 15. Our first mentoring session, they all sat around the table, looked at me, and said nothing. I moved the tables around in a circle so that we were all facing each other, and I said, ‘okay, we are going to chit chat.’
Living up to your values also means dressing the part. Fifteen years later, Michael is kicking things up a notch with M. Michele Designs, a clothing line that allows every woman to create a sophisticated style on the outside that expresses the success-bound superstar she is on the inside. Michael knows style is more than just the latest fashion fad. “It has less to do with who’s stylish, what’s on trend, who’s wearing what, and how much it costs. It’s really about what reflection comes back to you when you see yourself.”
Today, more than ever, Michael wants to help other women who are reaching for the stars while staying down-to-earth. “I know that the journey that I have been on professionally, and the navigation of my life and my son’s life, is meant to share at some point.”
Like the women of Dress for Success, Michael’s journey began as a quest for economic independence, but she soon learned that the greatest freedom comes from being true to yourself. Now, she’s at the top of her game and she wants every woman to know that they, too, can find success in their career– and life– by standing up for what they believe.
Success starts with a plan! Here are Michael’s three tips to keep you Going Places. Going Strong.
1. Have faith in yourself. There will be times, especially if you’re looking for employment, when you only have yourself.
2. Be prepared. If you want something, you have to give one hundred percent.
3. Find a way to relieve stress. Working, providing, and pursuing our dreams can become very stressful.