When Misty Copeland first joined the American Ballet Theater, one of the most prestigious dance companies in the world, at age 17, she couldn’t help but feel like an outsider. “We don’t know in history that black women, from the beginning of time in ballet, have been told to lighten their skin, and to shade their nose in a certain way to look white,” Copeland told an audience at WeWork 500 7th Avenue in New York City on Sept. 17. “A big part of my youth at American Ballet Theater was hearing those words.”
Copeland, however, more than proved that she belonged. In 2015, she became the first African-American woman to be named principal dancer at the American Ballet Theater. That same year, she was named to the TIME 100, TIME’s annual list of the world’s most influential people. Since then, Copeland has inked endorsement deals with Under Armour, Estee Lauder, Dannon and other companies.
Her road to the top of ballet was an unusual one. “I had a very chaotic upbringing,” she said. One of six children raised by a single mother, Copeland says she was living in a motel when she took her first ballet lesson, at 13, at a Boys & Girls Club in San Pedro, Calif.
Many ballerinas begin training soon after they start walking. But a late start didn’t stop Copeland. By the time she joined the American Ballet Theater, Copeland stood out both because of her graceful performances, and inescapably, her race. “My first three of four years in the company, it was the first time it hit me that I was alone,” Copeland said. “That I’m the only black woman. It was the first time race was brought to my attention. It was shocking.” For example, Copeland says at one point she was told she couldn’t perform in the second act of Swan Lake, the popular ballet first performed in late 19th-century Russia, because of her skin color. Some people were whispering that she shouldn’t be in Swan Lake at all, Copeland says.
As principal dancer, Copeland has taken a special interest in mentoring dancers of color and diversifying ballet. She has responded to letters from aspiring dancers and remained connected to the Boys & Girls Club. In 2016, Mattel released a Barbie doll in Copeland’s likeness. Copeland made sure no skin tone was lightened. No one shaded her nose. “That was extremely important to me,” she said. “It’s so empowering for young girls to grow up with a brown Barbie that’s a ballerina.”
Copeland’s talk, which was moderated by TIME correspondent Haley Sweetland Edwards, was the third event in the TIME 100 x WeWork Speaker Series.