One thing we love to talk about here at Girlboss is how success looks different for everyone. And, of course, that idea of success can shift (drastically) over time.
In honor of Pride, we tapped four inspiring LGBTIQ icons—including actress Angelica Ross, food critic Soleil Ho, clothing brand founder Fran Dunaway, and comedian Cameron Esposito—to ask them about challenges they’ve overcome and their singular definitions of success. These driven individuals also open up about how being queer has impacted their work lives, battling covert homophobia, and why Pride goes beyond a rainbow branding.
Ahead, get inspired by their paths to success—and examine what it means to control your own narrative.
Angelica started acting in first grade, performing in a local production of “Snow White.” Growing up in Racine, Wisconsin, she continued to pursue community theater withRacine Kid Players(later, Racine Theatre Guild), using acting to explore her identity in a safe space. An unsuccessful suicide attempt followed her coming out as trans in her late teens, but surviving that trauma fueled her even further, as she worked as a server, model and trans advocate before finding success in acting, with the Emmy-nominated web showRacine Kid Players(later, Racine Theatre Guild), using acting to explore her identity in a safe space. An unsuccessful suicide attempt followed her coming out as trans in her late teens, but surviving that trauma fueled her even further, as she worked as a server, model and trans advocate before finding success in acting, with the Emmy-nominated web show(later, Racine Theatre Guild), using acting to explore her identity in a safe space. An unsuccessful suicide attempt followed her coming out as trans in her late teens, but surviving that trauma fueled her even further, as she worked as a server, model and trans advocate before finding success in acting, with the Emmy-nominated web showHERstory, and now FX’s POSE.
“I realized that the industry wasn’t ever going to be ‘ready’ for trans and queer and black storytelling, but working on that show made me feel ready to kick down doors and gave me the drive to succeed as the talented black trans actor that I am. Our awards and nominations were confirmation that I could make it. I define success as self-empowerment, and by using your achievements, no matter the size, to open doors for others. I first felt success while working at Apple. Having a career in tech seemed off-limits to people like me, so getting my foot in the door with such a major tech corporation felt like I succeeded in providing another option for myself that wasn’t in the fickle fields of entertainment and hair and makeup, where income isn’t always regular. Having gainful employment in the tech industry as a queer black person and being able to learn and grow in the IT field without a traditional degree in IT was empowering. I was training people in-store on how to use software that I’d taught myself to use. It showed me that when I put my mind to something, I could achieve anything I went after.
“There are many challenges to being an out LGBTQ+ person in entertainment. One specific challenge comes with discussing trans rights and authentic storytelling There are people who believe that I’m just here because there is a moment happening, not because I’m truly talented. They don’t see or don’t want to acknowledge my extensive experience in acting, film, production, and activism. Another challenge is getting the entire entertainment industry to take notice, and to take us seriously as actors that can play both trans and cis roles, instead of typecasting us, or propping us up as tokens. It is a constant labor of love to get my LGBTQ+ community to see that I am more than an actor. I am committed to doing the work as long as it needs doing. I’m here because it is in my DNA and part of my spiritual practice to create peace for myself and for others. I will always use my platform to help anyone I can. Sometimes, all people outside of our community see is the in-fighting, meanwhile they co-opt our language and culture. What they don’t see is that we, as a community, are working to support everyone under the umbrella. I am always learning from people and trying to amplify the message of those who may not have a voice.
“One of the most challenging things about being an out celeb is that everyone wants to control the narrative. So, it is imperative that Icontrol my own narrative, and live as authentically as possible. While many journalists get the stories right, many others fill in their own blanks. It’s a continuous fight to speak my truth to the masses while working as both an actor–loving my craft and using this space to change the world–and an activist, on and off the clock.
“I’m not just here for the fame and the fortune–those are signs that my cup is overflowing, but they are not what fulfills me. It’s hard to live in this capitalistic society, seeing corporations use your face to sell expensive products to marginalized people who can barely afford daily necessities. Pride goes beyond a month, or a rainbow logo, and I want people to know that you don’t have to participate in capitalism to make a difference. I challenge everyone to collectively ask brands how they will go beyond Pride month to leverage their corporate support to reach the most marginalized people in our community.”
In college, Soleil started a food blog, posting recipes and writing with a casual, irreverent tone. She initially thought of her “bomb-ass recipes,” like a tater tot hotdish and never-fail flour tortillas, as a vanity project. But when she graduated from college, she took her impulse for food writing further, interning at a startup food magazine in Minneapolis. Eventually, she worked her way up from managing the online calendar to writing, simultaneously working as a line cook and dumpster diving for her actual meals. In 2016, she launched her acclaimed podcast “Racist Sandwich” and in 2018 was named the food critic for the San Francisco Chronicle.
“Throughout the bulk of my career, I was balancing writing with cooking, and later I added podcasting to that mix. In a way, that enabled me to only pursue stories that I really cared about, since I didn’t rely on writing to make a living. To be honest, I didn’t trust that I could or that I would be good enough: The odds of making it as a creative are so low, and I don’t gamble. But I finally realized that I could plunge into working as a writer when all of the demands of that work—conferences, interview requests, commissions—began to pile up and conflict with my ability to be present in a kitchen. It was at that point where I accepted that I could focus on that particular career path.
“As a Millennial, especially one that graduated from college in 2009, I don’t know if I’ll ever feel successful in the traditional way. So many of the trappings of success—home ownership, retirement, savings, a comfortable family life—will elude people whose careers had the timing that mine did. I still live paycheck to paycheck. For me, I find calm and fulfillment by defining success as impact: How many people have I impacted through my work? What has my writing been able to change for the better?
“I am so lucky to live in a time and place where I can publicly say that I am a queer person without that having any negative repercussions on me as a human being. In truth, being out has expanded my life in so many ways, surfacing allies and friends and collaborators who all want to work to make the world easier for everyone to live authentically and freely.”
Six years ago, neither Fran or her partner Naomi knew a knit from a woven, a PNL from a balance sheet. Frustrated with the lack of shirting options available, specifically, men’s style button-ups that fit women, Fran was pining for something more. Naomi, ostensibly tired of hearing her wife complain about the lack of clothing in this category, looked up how hard it is to start a clothing company. Challenging, it turns out, but hugely rewarding. TomboyX started out as a shirt company, and as customers requested the first boxer briefs made for women, pivoting the company into an underwear brand.
“From early on, we knew we had a real opportunity to build a brand. We had picked a name and felt like we had a responsibility to give something back to our community. I’ve been an activist my whole adult life. We wanted to build a brand that was celebrating people for who they are, rather than the typical way of telling people how to be cool and making them want to be part of your brand. We like to reflect back to people who they are.
“Raising money was a challenge I think because we’re queer, because we’re a couple, because we didn’t have any experience, because we’re over 40… There were a lot of reasons that made it hard to raise money. People making investments in companies, would look at us and didn’t understand what’s wrong with the other underwear companies we all know. We just persisted and didn’t give up. We got more strategic about who we were meeting with and making sure that we were a good fit for their portfolio and their interest in our sector.
“We figured out pretty early on it was going to be tougher than what we thought. I think that the most important thing to gender equality is wealth. Wealth is power. If we can get more women into economic wellness and into ways that they can then get back to the community and invest in people who reflect themselves, then we’ll see some big shifts in the way that the world works.
When we started on this journey, we realized and that statistically, less than 2% of women-owned businesses hit the million dollar mark, and less than 2% get venture capital or institutional funding. Now that we’ve checked those boxes, we just want to build a really solid line, a digitally native company that’s sustainable and giving back to the world in a very positive way.”
Cameron started doing comedy professionally the day after she graduated from Boston College. But she still had a day job and planned to pursue a career in education. A semester of social work school at the University of Chicago ended in laughs, technically, as Cameron eventually found more success performing as a comic and lost a need for a day job five years into her comedy career.
“I just realized that there was a path to go further with comedy. I moved to LA at age 30, and I was on TV for the first time doing standup a year to the day that I moved out there. And I think that really changed things in my mind. Even doing standup, being on TV always felt so far away. Like, those people on the TVliveinside the TV. [A career in comedy] is so gradual. I moved to LA, started my standup show, and got agents and management because people came to the show and wanted to represent me, and eventually a booker decided they liked my tape.
“When I started doing stand up in Chicago, there was one other queer person getting paid to do standup regularly, one other woman who was my generation. This was 2006, not a thousand years ago… I started in improv, which is about the group as a team, you are a character, so at first this was less obvious to me. When you’re representing an entire demographic, it’s very difficult for your jokes to be taken seriously as jokes, as opposed to the thoughts of an entire species.
“There have been times that I was literally called a dyke while being onstage, which is overt homophobia. But more so, being out of step of with what most people are experiencing can be a challenge. Encouragement from people who told me I was funny helped me through the challenges. Back then, my girlfriend was an artist too, and just being appreciated by somebody helps. Value the positive feedback, even if it’s small.
“I have had huge, big moments and backslides and moments that felt stalled out and tiny steps along the way. I think what all of that has taught me is to save your energy for the long haul. You can’t become too invested in highs and lows. Sorry, that’s like a poster. It’s the journey, not the destination, you’re a TV show, not a movie. I used to think that there would be a thing that changes everything, one big moment, and I don’t think that’s true anymore. My success is about cobbling together a living, focusing on the next thing, and really creating a life.”
Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.