So You Think You Can Dance choreographer Mia Michaels discusses her debut book, A Unicorn in a World of Donkeys: A Guide to Life for All the Exceptional, Excellent Misfits Out There, growing up on a houseboat in Florida with a Playboy Bunny and the Marlboro Man (yes, the actual model from the cigarette ad campaign) as parents, and embracing every aspect of your uniqueness—even the parts you hate.
By Sara-Kate Astrove
Mia Michaels is a triple threat and then some. Best known as a mentor and choreographer on So You Think You Can Dance, which enters its 15th season this summer, Michaels adds “writer” to her resume with her dazzling debut memoir, A Unicorn in a World of Donkeys: A Guide to Life for All the Exceptional, Excellent Misfits Out There (Seal Press). The book is a quirky, entertaining manifesto for creatives on embracing individuality, breaking rules, and achieving success on your own terms. Filled with quizzes, meditations, and juicy personal stories, Michaels offers insight from her life and the lives of icons she’s worked with—including Prince, David Bowie, Meryl Streep, and Tom Cruise. Finally, in middle age, she is learning to love her body, and anyone who reads this book will walk away with a similar feeling of self-love.
Over email, Michaels shared her wisdom on body image, spirituality, finding inspiration, overcoming obstacles while pursuing your dreams, and most of all, becoming a Unicorn.
HONEYSUCKLE: What qualities make you a Unicorn?
MIA MICHAELS: Unicorns are colorful, unique, fearless, unapologetic. Someone that celebrates themselves and their life at all stages.
When did you become one?
I think I was always a Unicorn. I was born into this world already very unique and different—my parents were a Playboy Bunny and the Marlboro Man. But I didn’t realize it until way later, probably until I was in my early 30s. That’s when I accepted it. I always thought I was different and felt misunderstood and excluded from the norm, but when I acknowledged that I was different and that my differences were great and were making a difference in the world, I really dug into them deeper and realized it was all a gift.
In your book you write about “the gift of failure.” What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from failure?
I think failure is an important thing in life. When you fail, you learn so much about what not to do, and what to do—it’s like a guide or compass. It helps push you into the direction you need to go. I’ve had a lot of failure in life and I think I’m most grateful for that, for the lessons I needed to learn about my own self, and to be better.
Can you give an example?
For me it’s been through my process as an artist. I’ve always been very proud of the products I create as an artist but what I’ve learned is that the product isn’t everything. When you work with people, the process has to be equally rewarding. Learning about working with others has been a big, continuous lesson in my life—being a cheerleader to everyone as well as getting the work done.
Would you say that failure would be a relationship with a colleague or another artist that didn’t turn out the way you wanted?
Yes, exactly, because I was focused so much on the end product. When you walk away from a process you should leave great work, but you should also leave great relationships and memories. I don’t think I’ve ever failed as an artist, because I dig in, but it was more about the process and the relationships.
Can you talk about the challenges you faced growing up, such as body-related insecurities, especially in the world of dance?
I was always a big girl, so in the dance world back then, I was always kind of shunned. And I was a good dancer but I wasn’t celebrated because of my body. In the dance world, you’re bred looking in the mirror and saying “You’re not enough.” Your leg isn’t high enough, or you’re not jumping high enough. Then on top of that, I was thicker than everyone else. So I had to fight against a lot, but I did. I knew I had a calling in the dance world. So I realized that maybe my calling wasn’t to be a dancer but to create dance. After so many rejections because of my body, I thought “Maybe I need to go create my own world of dance,” and that’s what I did. I think that being rejected as a dancer pushed me to create my own dance, and that has worked out well for me.
What is your advice for women struggling with body image?
It’s a good question. I struggled with it pretty much my whole life. I’ve just now come to a place in my early 50s where I finally find myself beautiful. I had this thought my whole life, “OK, when I lose those 30 or 40 pounds or whatever, then I’m going to be beautiful.” I realized that I had lost almost 50 years thinking this way. That was such a huge waste of time. It’s just a shift in your brain, and realizing: Everyone is different and they should be different. We shouldn’t all look the same. As long as you feel healthy, you should be able to love yourself. I exercise every day but not to change my body, to build my muscles. I finally came to a place of realizing that being a bigger, curvy woman IS beautiful. I hate that society has made us feel that we’re not beautiful. I think it’s about reprogramming ourselves and realizing that that was just negative programming from society. We’re constantly changing and evolving as women and as humans, so it’s about accepting that and loving every step of it and realizing that every step is beautiful, and to celebrate that. For me, that was a long one to learn. It just hit me really hard a couple of years ago. But once I found that beauty inside myself, all of these other doors opened up in terms of plus-size modeling, becoming the face of brands, and body positivity.
Was there a turning point or event that brought on this revelation?
Michaels: Not really, I think it was more of an evolution. It had been building over time. But I came to this place where I was working out every day and I had lost maybe 15 pounds—I really didn’t look smaller but I felt gorgeous and amazing and suddenly I was like, “Wow, I don’t have to be a size 6 or 8 to look beautiful. It’s really about being in my own skin.” Then in December I was asked to walk in NY Fashion Week for Chromat. It was so empowering because as I took the runway with all of these supermodels and other plus-size models—it was a very diverse show—it was an amazing moment. Here I am, an older woman and plus size, just taking the catwalk and owning it. I hope I can inspire women, especially those over 40, to realize that just because we’re mothers or grandmothers or in menopause or whatever doesn’t mean we aren’t beautiful and sexy—we are, as women, and we should stand in that our entire lives.
You write about the challenges inherent in collaboration. Can you talk about a successful collaboration and how you found balance between expressing your individuality and working harmoniously with others?
I just finished a tribute for Dick Van Dyke and Lin-Manuel Miranda at the Geffen theatre. It felt like we all had the same vision, spirit and energy. When that happens, it’s magic. So that was a really successful collaboration.
What about one where it isn’t magic, and everyone’s not aligned? How do you work with others without compromising your personal style?
Michaels: Sometimes you do have to compromise. Collaborating on Broadway on big-money projects like Finding Neverland is like that—there are a lot of voices and a lot of hands in; it’s not just your vision—it has to be about the producers, directors, and the people who wrote the score, and that’s a beautiful thing. The art of collaboration is very important. You have to be open to others’ ideas. Your work does change in that case, but that can be beautiful.
You have a few excellent strategies for that in your book. Can you talk more about your suggestion of “giving options”?
Yes. When someone doesn’t like one of my ideas, I try to present two or three other options. That way I know that the solution will still be something I like. I do think that sometimes working in a very narrow space created by others’ wants and needs can force you to be more creative than you would be if you could do whatever you wanted.
You’ve worked with so many icons and celebrities. Is there one that sticks out in particular as a mentor or inspiration to you and your work?
Yes, Prince was a big one because he really showed me what it was to be a vessel and to get out of your own way and allow your creativity to come through—to let your creativity be bigger than you. When I was working with Prince on a project at the Neverland Ranch, I got up in the middle of the night to get a drink of water, and I heard a noise. I followed it and I confess, I hid behind a wall and watched as Prince put on this virtuoso solo performance, only for himself. It was literally the middle of the night and his eyes were closed the entire time. But he was running from one instrument to another—the piano, the drums, the guitar, and just wailing on each. It was just sheer artistic energy being unleashed.
Wow, what a story!
It was a huge shape-shifting moment for me as an artist.
How was working with Tom Cruise?
I’m inspired by his work ethic—how he approaches his work and his craft so relentlessly. It’s so detailed and so intense. I loved that, and it showed me that I wasn’t crazy in the way I worked. I’m like that, and I found my match—he’s even more that way than I am. But if you’re going to do something, do it well.
I agree! Growing up, before you started working with celebrities, whose work did you admire?
You write about the various ways you find inspiration, including dreams. Can you talk about a dream you remember that enlightened you or brought new ideas into consciousness?
Sometimes when I dream I see movement, and I always have something by my bed so I can record the content of my dreams. I would get more inspiration in a dream state when I was a younger choreographer.
I loved the meditation exercises you include throughout the book. How did you start meditating and what is the role meditation plays in your creative life?
Meditating has changed my life in very subtle ways. It’s not only the discipline of it, but it’s a thing that really centers and grounds you. It helps you navigate through things that come at you during the day or through your life, as opposed to acting emotionally. And it helps to really anchor you so you can see things clearly. I also find that when I’m meditating I get way more creative thoughts throughout the day than I would if I hadn’t meditated because then my brain would be buzzing with all of the stresses of the day. When you make time for meditations, it makes space for creative energy to come through.
What is the role of spirituality in your life?
It’s a constant search and a constant evolution. I try to make room for it every day, even through my meditation. I know that there’s a higher power. I believe in God. I always feel that there’s a bigger spiritual energy that I have surrounding me; we all do. Being brought up Christian, it’s a foundation that I have always had, so it’s something that I can lean on when needed. But as I’ve matured I also realized that organized religion wasn’t for me. It was more about the search for spirituality. And the search continues.
What is a major risk you took that benefited you?
I came to NYC at a very early age with no money and no job and eventually that turned out well—I started teaching at Broadway Dance Center. Later, while I was living in LA, I knew that I missed NY. Then I got Finding Neverland. Broadway is a back end business and you don’t make money until the show makes money. So I sold my house in LA and moved to NY and lived off the money I made from selling my house. It was a huge risk, and I’m happy that it brought me back to NYC.
How do you cope with rejection?
If I get rejected I just trust that there’s something better for me. I believe everything happens the way it’s supposed to and if I don’t get something, it means something better is around the corner, and I hang on to that.
Was there a time you felt pressured to conform but maintained your inner weirdo/Unicorn?
Any job I’ve ever done! The safe ones always want you to tame it down a little bit. But I don’t and then the other people involved just have to get on board. The majority of the time they are happy that I pushed them to open their eyes to something greater. I get a lot of “Thank you so much for showing me how great this could be.”
Michaels: If you don’t fit in or belong, it means you’re not supposed to be there. If I’m in an uncomfortable situation, I get out of it. I also am good company to myself; I enjoy reading, and journaling, and being with my dog. So I stay where it feels good.
What about people reading this who might want to express their inner Unicorn, but are afraid of being shunned by the people around them?
Michaels: It’s about trusting your instincts and what makes you feel happy. It’s your journey and your life. If you can learn to really listen to your instincts and your gut, it will lead you, and you’ll know. It’s about having that really strong relationship with yourself so that you can listen to the navigating system in your gut, so that you live the life you want to live.
Sara-Kate Astrove’s writing has been published in Marie Claire, Los Angeles Review of Books, She Knows, Lillith, and Ravishly among others. To learn more, visit sara-kate.com.