When Growing Up Fast Is Good For You

Krysten Ritter on how her teen modeling career taught her how to take charge of her life.

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I was fifteen and at the mall with my mother when I was discovered by a scout from Elite Model Management. It was just like a fairy tale, except in my case the princess looked more like Edward Scissorhands than Cinderella. I liked to wear all black with boys' jeans, and my skin was as pale as a ghost's. No one had ever told me I was pretty. But somehow, a scout had found me in rural Pennsylvania, probably in front of Hot Topic, and liked my look. Soon, I was on my way to New York for my first photo shoots: a small half-page in Mademoiselle magazine and two test shoots set up for me by my management.

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At my first shoot, the photographer sprayed me with Pam cooking oil and had me sit on a toilet. For my second, the photographer put me in a sheer top with no makeup on and had me sit under a table in the fetal position. It was bizarre. He barely spoke English, and the environment intimidated me, so I didn't ask any questions. I was new, I was an outsider, and I was no one, so I kept my mouth shut.

At sixteen, the summer after I was scouted, I went to Japan alone for a two-month modeling contract. It was my first time on an airplane. I bought a few language books and casual-conversation books and was ready, with open arms, for whatever was going to come to me. After living so much of my life in my small town, it felt amazing to be exposed to so many new opportunities that I'd never even imagined. I was in Tokyo experiencing a new culture and food, a big city, different kinds of people. It was a lot to take in. I got to experiment and experience life completely on my own in a foreign land.

I lived in an apartment with one other girl, a good egg who is still my friend. (She even stands in for me sometimes on The Defenders and Jessica Jones.) We were responsible for everything: getting by on our own, getting groceries, getting to work on time. There was no parental or authority figure guiding me, no one to tell me no. I was responsible for my own decisions and any consequences that would come, so I had to make sure my head was on straight. On the streets in Tokyo, there were vending machines selling cans of beer the size of your head. One night I got wasted and stayed out way too late, and then, of course, I regretted it the next day. I wouldn't make that mistake again. I was in Japan with a hard-copy map in my hands. I took the subway, and I tried to soak up the culture and sights around me like a sponge.

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When my two-month stint was over, I went back home to the farm in Pennsylvania. But after being exposed to the world, life at home no longer fit me. I bumped heads with my parents. I think they were overwhelmed by my opportunities and my travels. They wanted me to have a curfew, but I was used to living life on my own terms. I knew I would never be the same. I had it figured out, after all. Well, not totally figured out. But I knew that what I was chasing wasn't at home anymore.

I somehow survived the next two years living at home, and when I turned eighteen, I left as soon as I could, with two small rolling suitcases and a whole lot of fearlessness. I headed to New York, to live in an apartment provided by the modeling agency, with anywhere from six to twelve girls in bunk beds at a time, to see if I could make it.

It wasn't all fun and games and glamour. Harsh realities hit very early: Girls were sent home regularly if they didn't book jobs. It was a reality check. It wasn't personal; it was business. I was lucky enough to book a lot of work. I didn't want to be a turnover. So I worked hard, I showed up early to my appointments, and I took modeling seriously. It fueled my work ethic and helped me build a system for myself. That doesn't mean there wasn't pressure to look a certain way. I was being sat down and spoken to about my arm hair, how it was too dark and too much of it showed in pictures, and my thighs — they said that I was so lucky to be naturally thin but that I should still walk instead of taking the subway to my go-sees. My thighs, I was told, could be thinned down.

I started getting jobs because I was different, because I was funny, entertaining, and smart. Being myself paid off.

But no one ever told me not to eat. I never experienced the stereotypical trappings of modeling that you read about or see on TV. There were no drugs, and no eating disorders that I was personally aware of or faced with. When I was told that I needed to address some parts of my physical appearance, I wasn't hurt, and I wasn't upset. I knew I could keep doing my own thing, as I always had, and that gave me hope that I would find my own path. I was able to see the macro of the situation, to recognize that while I didn't have the skinniest thighs, and I stood at only five-nine, it wasn't about me at all. And I decided to just keep being me: goofy, and always with a guitar on my back, a cool book in my bag, and a funny joke on my lips.

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As adept as I was at staying true to myself on the job, I still had a lot to learn. The agency paid for the apartment, but it was just an advance, so when you booked jobs, all of that had to be paid back. No one explained to me that I would be paid through the agency as an independent contractor, so after all agency expenses were paid, I would be left with very little, and the agency hadn't deducted taxes. Budgeting was the first lesson of my time in New York, but my second came soon after. I was audited by the IRS. At age eighteen. I would have to learn how to deal with money, when I grew up with none … and learn it FAST.

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After leaving home, I always knew that if I ran out of money, I would be on the side of the road with no one to help me, no one to call. No backup plan. There was no one I could rely on to pay my way if I needed it. So I hunkered down. I learned how to handle my finances and taxes on my own. I taught myself everything I needed to know. While navigating a whole new world of 1099s and taxes was foreign and scary, I was determined to keep my business going, no matter what. I quickly reached out to professionals to help me get on track. I needed to learn and understand that I was a business.

At eighteen, my booker at the modeling agency sent me on a casting for a commercial, which became a big turning point. It was no longer strictly about how I looked, or about my thighs, my height, or the pictures in my portfolio. It was about my life stories, my personality, and my wit. I thought, I have control here. I can always work harder, show up earlier, tell funnier stories. I could make myself valuable in this crazy business. I started getting jobs because I was different, because I was funny, entertaining, and smart. Being myself paid off. I focused not on what people perceived as wrong with me but what was right with me. And I ran with it.

I remember when I was ready to move into new areas of this exciting world. I wanted to do it all, to take advantage of every opportunity and possibility. I told a friend that I wanted to be an actress and a writer and a musician and a producer.

He said, "Those are the hardest jobs to have success at."

I said, "So?"

I will never forget that. He was right, of course. But that wasn't going to stop me from trying — in fact, it ignited something inside of me.

Soon I was studying in acting classes, preparing for every audition, reading all of the books, learning everything that I could. My acting teacher, Marjorie, who was recommended to me by an actress I met at an audition, whipped me into shape and challenged me. She told me to remember the word endurance and to write it over my bed: it's a marathon, not a sprint. At one point I got really low on money and had to move in with her for a time. I would complain that I wasn't booking roles right away, and she would hear me upstairs in my room crying and then running my lines. I was so determined.

With time and a whole lot of "no's," I finally started getting work as an actress. It was small roles at first, but like blocks, they built more and more. It had been about seven years of going back and forth between New York and Los Angeles when I got cast as Jane on Breaking Bad. I didn't know it at the time, but the role would be incredibly important for my career. By then, I had been reading a lot of scripts, and I had started writing my own. When I started making a name for myself, I began producing and developing my own content, and then I started my own company, Silent Machine. When I had an idea for a TV show that my agents didn't think would sell, I wrote it as a book. I took the lessons I learned from modeling — that I had to work hard and be resilient — to achieve my goals.

I've been with the same manager, Kyle Luker, from the beginning. He took a chance on me when I was in my early 20s and still encourages me when I have new ideas for my career. If I call him up with an idea that may seem insane or even borderline impossible, he says, "Sure, why not? If anyone can do it, it's you!" To this day, that's my system: have an idea, go after it, work as hard as I possibly can, and cherish those around me who support me.

If I had a chance to talk to the sixteen-year-old me, I would give her an earful. I would tell her to work hard and trust that anything and everything is possible. I would tell her that great things are coming, to trust her instincts and her own voice. I would also tell her that you don't have to be just one thing; you can be anything and everything.

Most important, and I would sing it like gospel: Remember, different is good. Different is great! You have to buckle down, do the work, and be vigilant, unwavering, and patient! Now that I'm thinking about it, I realize that is good advice for the current version of me as well.

Krysten Ritter is an actress, a producer, and the author of the acclaimed psychological suspense novel Bonfire.

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