Misty Copeland on why representation in ads is just as important as in the arts
Misty Copeland is best known as a principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre—the first African-American woman to hold that position in the company’s history. But she has also appeared in global ad campaigns for brands including Under Armour and Estée Lauder—spaces that have traditionally featured famous faces from the worlds of sports or fashion, not dance.
Over the years, Copeland has also worked with T-Mobile, Dr Pepper, Seiko and Dannon’s Oikos. In 2016, Mattel released a Barbie doll based on her role in the ballet “The Firebird,” complete with red bodysuit and tulle. Copeland also has an ongoing sponsorship deal with Under Armour; despite this, in 2017 she publicly disagreed with the company’s CEO after he praised President Trump’s business acumen.
Last month, LG SIGNATURE named Copeland a brand ambassador. The production company she founded, Life in Motion Productions, is producing its first movie this year, a silent film about the homelessness crisis in California, where she and her husband both grew up. And Google just revealed that over the last 15 years, she was the most-searched ballerina in the world.
Copeland spoke with Ad Age about diverse representation in advertising, her creative process during shoots and the differences between performing onstage and in commercials. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
Much has been said about how groundbreaking your ballet career has been. But how important do you think representation is in ads? Your campaigns have been viewed by more people than could possibly see you live onstage.
It's equally important. I think that’s what diversity is—seeing representation in spaces where you don't often see people who look like you, who are whatever that space is lacking. It's really impactful for young people to see themselves represented everywhere.
What’s been powerful to me is when I’ve partnered with beauty brands. I think that’s a huge, huge step, because it's not often been a space that black women have been allowed to be a part of, to be seen or shown or told that they were beautiful and seen as feminine or soft.
And as a dancer, we are not often given the opportunity to have campaigns and endorsement deals, and I’m hoping that it's changing those opportunities for dancers in the future. I don't want it just to be me and for it to go away when I’m too old to do this. The Under Armour campaign showed the athleticism behind the scenes, and I think it’s opening the doors and opening people's eyes and showing that we are athletes—we do deserve the same opportunities, the same pay, the same visibility.
You’ve been appearing in ads for a decade. How do you choose what brands you partner with?
Clearly, a brand has to align with my messaging—me as a ballerina, as a black woman, as a role model, as a mentor. So I would never do something that would take away my integrity in any way just to be seen or to get a paycheck. I'm so fortunate that I can do these things just so that I can bring more eyes to ballet and to discuss the lack of diversity, and all of these brands have these platforms so I can meet a broader audience and have a more powerful voice that's being heard.
Have you seen any progress in the diversity of crews or directors behind the camera over the years?
I can't say that I have. We can always use more diversity behind the scenes, whether that’s in classical dance and in theaters and the artistic staff and education departments. But I definitely don't think I see enough women or people of color on sets when I’m doing these commercial shoots.
When you’re dancing onstage, you’re creating an experience for a live audience. How does that compare to performing in an ad?
It's so different. When I'm doing classical ballet, it's choreography that already has so much history, and there are so many ballerinas related to it. For me, it's about keeping that same integrity in terms of the story and the style while making it my own.
But on the set, I'll usually just kind of improvise. I don't ever work with a choreographer or anything like that. I'll get a storyboard or even just imagery that they've been inspired by, just to give me a sense of the direction they're going in. I really like to be free to just be able to bring that same type of emotion or spark that I would get when I'm in front of a live audience onstage.
It's harder when you're working with a brand for the first time, because you're feeling each other out. When people don't know me, they think, “Oh I’m going to have classical music playing for her when she gets here.” And I'm like, “No, turn it off! Put on some hip-hop or something!”
How much input do you have in how you're portrayed in ads? Have you ever had to push back against something that didn’t sound authentic?
Oh yeah, absolutely! My team and I, we all go through those things, and if something doesn't feel right or organic, then we will make changes. And everyone that I've worked with has been very understanding. I’m fortunate that people know who I am and my voice, and that's definitely an integral part of why they want to work with me in the first place. So I don't think anyone would ever want to put words in my mouth and put me in a position that wasn't truly representing who I am.
You spoke out when you disagreed with the CEO of Under Armour, a company that was sponsoring you. How did you make that decision?
I definitely think there's a time and place to speak up, and I think there's a way to go about it. It's not about demonizing someone or putting them down. It's just about opening up the conversation and having integrity. These brands represent us—as athletes, as actors or whoever—and so I think it’s just as important that we have mutual values. Of course we’re not going to agree on everything, but I would never want to send the wrong message as a black woman. If I don’t say anything, people assume that means I feel the same way. So if it's truly affecting me and my values, then I think it's important to stand up for yourself.
Does the platform that you have feel like a responsibility? Or maybe a burden?
You know, I don't think that every black person who’s in the limelight or who has a platform has a responsibility to represent their race. I don't think that everyone is built for it, and I think it should be up to them. I mean, clearly, even without making the choice, we are representative in some way.
But I made a choice to use my voice to attempt to make even the smallest bit of change, whatever I could do. It's never, ever felt like a burden to me. I don't think that I would have lasted this long and been seen as authentic if it was a burden.
I think being alone, being the only black woman at American Ballet Theatre for the first decade of my career, I was kind of like—you know what? I don't know if this is going to ever happen again in my lifetime. I really need to take advantage of being “the only” and doing everything I can to bring attention to this issue and to allow people to come see me, because they need to see themselves in these spaces.