13 Celebs Who Had Really Unexpected Big Breaks

Everyone knows the story of Lupita Nyong'o's meteoric rise to fame after her first major role, shortly after graduating from the Yale School of Drama. Likewise, you probably know that many of your favorite supermodels were scouted on the streets: Kate Moss, famously, at JFK airport, Gisele while eating at a Sao Paolo McDonald's, Christie Brinkley while standing in line at a post office in Paris, Claudia Schiffer at a Dusseldorf nightclub... The list goes on and on.

Of course, no big break actually happens overnight. Any so-called "overnight success" is in fact the result of plenty of behind-the-scenes work. And while it may seem like a single event led to Lupita's Oscar win, in truth, she made it past round after round of auditions, and then spent months preparing for the role that would ultimately win her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Likewise, no supermodel in the history of supermodels became a breakout success after a single photoshoot. Big breaks, in actuality, are a result of repeated successes.

Even when it comes to reality show competitions, which seem like the epitome of overnight success, Rome still wasn't built in a day: Do you know how many times Project Runway's Christian Siriano had to prove himself before he was announced that season's winner? Or how many songs Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood performed live, week after week, under public scrutiny? Or how many Project Runway or American Idol winners went on to find limited success? None of there successes are the result of a one-off event. There's simply no such thing. What does exist, however, is that certain element of chance that gets the ball rolling, so to speak. Here are thirteen examples of how blink-and-you'll-miss-'em chance encounters have indelibly shaped the lives of some of our most treasured stars.

Oprah Winfrey

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Oprah got her first taste of success after being crowned “Miss Fire Prevention” in a regional contest. She was almost immediately hired as a newsreader when she went to collect her prize at a local radio station.

Rosario Dawson

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Rosario Dawson landed her first role in 1995's Kids after being spotted sitting on her East Village stoop in New York City by the film's director and screenwriter, who happened to be scouting locations in the area.

Charlize Theron

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The event that led to the Oscar winner’s big break was actually the result of an argument: Theron, then a struggling actress in Los Angeles, got into a fight with a bank teller who wouldn't cash an out-of-state check from a modeling gig in New York. Her fiery passion caught the attention of a talent agent and the rest, as they say, is history. Or fodder for Oprah .

Ashton Kutcher

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If you caught his memorable acceptance speech at the 2013 Teen Choice Awards, you already know that Ashton credits much of his success to plain ol' hard work. But he did catch a lucky break when he was discovered at a bar in Iowa City.

Pamela Anderson


Playboy's last nude covergirl actually owes much of her early success to a single appearance on a football stadium jumbotron. The exposure led to a modeling contract, which led to an invitation to pose for Playboy, and culminated in television roles as the "Tool Time" girl on Home Improvement and as C.J. Parker on Baywatch.

Johnny Depp

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Everyone's favorite pirate actually landed his first role completely by accident, while accompanying a friend to an audition. But thank goodness he went!

Ellen Pompeo

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Dr. Meredith Grey was bartending in Manhattan when she was tapped for a L’Oreal campaign by a talent scout.

Channing Tatum

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After dropping out of college and moving to Miami, Tatum caught the attention of an agent who booked him on shoots for Abercrombie & Fitch, Pepsi, and Vogue.

Harrison Ford

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The Star Wars star was given his first major role by George Lucas himself after the director hired Ford, then working as a carpenter, to build a set of cabinets.

Jennifer Lawrence

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Though admittedly determined to become an actor from a young age, then 14-year-old J.Law was scouted by a talent agent while on vacation in New York City.

Natalie Portman

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When 11-year-old Natalie Portman was approached by a modeling scout at a Long Island pizza parlor, she declined his business card, but quickly set out to pursue her acting career.

Susan Boyle

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Although the then-48-year-old wasn't an obvious choice for a Britain’s Got Talent standout, Boyle shocked the world with her rendition of “I Dreamed A Dream” from Les Misérables.

Jon Hamm

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After floundering in Hollywood with small parts, often relegated to playing the father of teenagers as a 27-year-old, Hamm earned the role that would make him famous, as Don Draper in Mad Men, at age 36.

Lesson learned: There may be no such thing as an overnight success, but being in the right place at the right time certainly doesn't hurt.

Images: Getty