When Mia Michaels was growing up, she loved to dance more than anything in the world.
One afternoon when she was 15 years old, she was onstage performing in a blue leotard. But because she was overweight, she was literally laughed offstage. She ran to the bathroom, where she hid until her mother could come pick her up. She vowed never to get on stage again.
For 35 years, she kept that promise to herself. Then last month, Mia Michaels returned to a different kind of stage, strutting proudly and confidently down the catwalk showing off her curves during New York Fashion Week as a 52-year-old, plus-sized model. This time, even though she was surrounded by young, waif-like models, she was celebrated rather than mocked. Michaels is now a star, having transformed that terrible childhood incident into an illustrious career behind the scenes, as an Emmy-award-winning choreographer.
Call it the revenge of a unicorn.
Michaels has become an outspoken, inspiring voice for anyone who feels or looks different, penning A Unicorn in a World of Donkeys: A Guide to Life for All the Exceptional, Excellent Misfits Out There, last year. In the book, she uses her own story—her personal struggles to fit into a norm that didn’t come close to fitting—to encourage others to reframe their own unicorn life and to embrace the brilliance within. She calls it part memoir, part workbook, part self-help book, with quizzes, meditations, and juicy personal anecdotes.
Odd and Fearless
“What I always found was I related to the ones who were the misfits—the odd, unique and fearless who stand in their own truth no matter what,” says Michaels, who lives in New York. “Those are the ones that inspired me because that’s who I was growing up. My whole philosophy is about coloring outside the lines, about being authentic.”
I was told I was fat and a rebel. This is me and what I stand for.
The book was a very long time in the making, says Michaels, who has worked with such performers as Prince and Celine Dion. From stage to screen, she has risen to the top of her field, with a bold, never-take-no-for-an-answer attitude.
Michaels has courageously tackled adversity since a young age, finding a way to turn it to her advantage.
“I was told you’re fat and you’re a rebel, and I went on to become one of the most celebrated choreographers in the world,” she says. “This is me and this is what I stand for. Take it or leave it.”
A Dancing Family
Born into a dance family—the daughter of one of the original Marlboro men and a Playboy bunny—she grew up in Coconut Beach, Florida, in a dance studio owned by her parents. She had braces on her legs for the first eight years of her life due to a growth discrepancy. When the braces came off, all she wanted to do was dance. “Dance was everything to me,” she says.
After that ill-fated performance at the age of 15, she decided that she wasn’t done with dance. But instead of performing, she would create dance.
“I knew I had a calling,” says Michaels. “I’m going to speak to the world through dance. I’m going to be a choreographer where nobody has to see me dance. And nobody is going to laugh at me ever again.”
I knew I had a calling, to speak to the world through dance.
After a brief period of rebellion in high school—“I should have been dead or in jail”—she returned to her first love. She became hyper-focused and determined to pursue a career as a choreographer. After training at the Miami Conservatory and the Miami Performing Arts Center, she moved to New York at an early age with no money or job and began teaching at Broadway Dance Center.
The Big Leagues
She found success as a concert choreographer, working with such stars as Madonna, Ricky Martin, and Prince. In 1997, she founded RAW—Reality At Work—a critically acclaimed New York-based dance company.
Over the years, she worked on Cirque du Soleil’s Delirium as well as for the American Music Awards and Celine Dion’s A New Day concert and Taking Chances World Tour. She also has choreographed for such Broadway shows as West Side Story, Hello, Dolly!, and Finding Neverland.
My dances became a living, breathy diary.
While much of her work was behind the scene, many people got to know her during her time as a judge and choreographer on So You Think You Can Dance. She calls her six-year tenure on the show among the most creative time in her career—a “creative vortex” where the choreographers were fueling and pushing each other.
“It was a pivotal time for me as an artist,” says Michaels. “When I started the show, I was a concert choreographer and had an intellectual way of creating. Then, something clicked and I wanted to tell stories and my dances became a living, breathing diary.”
One of those stories was a piece called “Addiction,” danced to Sara Bareilles’s haunting song “Gravity.” The dance told the story of a girl struggling with addiction. The male dancer portrays the power of addiction, pushing and pulling her throughout the dance. The piece won Michaels an Emmy.
She says the idea for the dance came to her while she was walking down Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles. She had just heard that Michael Jackson had passed away, and she saw all of these young kids around her completely drugged out.
It hit a dark chord and totally inspired me.
“It hit a dark chord and totally inspired me,” she says. “Creating it felt like a completely out-of-body experience—like I was being used as a vessel.”
Pushing, Always Pushing
Even with all of her accomplishments, Michaels refuses to rest on her laurels.
“I don’t look at one piece and say ‘Wow, that’s incredible,’” she says. “That’s a blessing and a curse. Always digging and searching for another nugget of inspiration.
Michaels concedes that it isn’t necessarily easy being an older choreographer in a young-person’s business where people value the newest steps and moves. “A lot of dancers gravitate toward trends,” says Michaels. “I’ve never focused on trends. I’ve always focused on being a storyteller.”
We get more beautiful and incredible as we get older.
While she wants to keep a hand in choreography, she says she’s embracing her new role empowering plus-sized women. Michaels hopes she can serve as an inspiration for older and plus-sized women—proving that you don’t have to be under 40 or a size 2 to be beautiful or sexy.
“I’m a big advocate for making women realize we get more extraordinary and beautiful and incredible as we get older,” she says. “I think getting older shifts and shapes us and enhances every part of our lives. We become so much more extraordinary, if we can only see it. Instead of diminishing it, we should get louder and prouder.”