What would you do with fame, if you had it? Would you simply enjoy all the perks and pay that come with it, or would you use it as a launching pad for your creative passions?
As part of Adweek's annual Creative 100, a list of the 100 most creative professionals in America, we honor 20 celebrities and influential figures who've consistently challenged themselves, their industries and their audiences.
Here is our list of 2016's multi-talented creative stars who just keep surprising fans and stepping up their game:
• Milana Vayntrub
Actor / Director / Activist
Best known as the unassuming and quick-witted AT&T spokeswoman Lily Adams, Vayntrub was intended to appear in only one ad for the brand. But thanks to her effortless charm, and her improv chops, she's now been in more than three dozen spots.
The 29-year-old was able to transform the initially small part into a defining role that's helped her pursue many creative passions, which include acting, directing and activism.
"Milana's Lily resonates with audiences because she's a multi-dimensional character in a way that's rare for commercials," says director Hank Perlman, who was behind the camera for most of Vayntrub's AT&T ads. "We try as hard as we can to not only make her funny, but to make her as strong, smart and human as possible."
In January, Vayntrub helped to bring attention to the Syrian refugee crisis, creating a short documentary of her experiences volunteering in Greece and revealing her own history as a Soviet-era refugee from Uzbekistan. She also started a nonprofit, Can't Do Nothing, where people can donate to help refugees. Earlier this month, she went to Jordan to visit refugee camps, and she will be releasing a follow-up documentary later this summer.
This month, she appears in Paul Feig's Ghostbusters reboot while continuing to advocate for refugees. She sat down with Adweek to talk about her creative process, activism, privilege, feminism and what she's doing next. Check out our full interview with her here.
• Jesse Williams
Actor / Racial Equality Activist
In his seven seasons as Dr. Jackson Avery on ABC's Grey's Anatomy, Williams has smartly used his Shonda Rhimes spotlight to create projects that push for social justice. He executive produced art project Question Bridge: Black Males and documentary Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement. He and his wife, Aryn Drake-Lee, also created a keyboard app, Ebroji, featuring GIFs and images for people of all races and genders (including transgender). Last month, he cemented his status as one of the Black Lives Matters movement's most influential voices by accepting BET's Humanitarian Award with a passionate speech about race and police brutality. "There has been no war that we have not fought and died on the front lines of," he said. "There has been no job we haven't done, there's been no tax they haven't levied against us, and we've paid all of them. But freedom is somehow always conditional here."
• Ashley Graham
Model / Body Image Activist
New York City
Already a rising star in the modeling world, Ashley Graham became a global celebrity when she was featured on a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit cover this year. She also starred in the body positive Lane Bryant "I'm No Angel" campaign, along with ads for Revlon and Swimsuits for All. She even appeared alongside Joe Jonas in his band DNCE's "Toothbrush" music video. Graham has used her newfound celebrity status to do more than score high-profile gigs. Becoming one of today's top body positivity activists, the model has delivered a TEDx talk (with nearly 1 million views) celebrating her curves and challenging the industry's perception of plus-size models. "We need to work together to redefine the global image of beauty," she says in the talk, "and it starts by becoming your own role model."
• Lin-Manuel Miranda
Actor / Writer / Composer, Hamilton
New York City
Few musicals have seen the level of success and explosive pop-culture impact as Hamilton, winner of 11 Tony Awards this year, including Best Musical. The face, heart and soul of the production is Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the music and played the lead role of founding father Alexander Hamilton from its 2015 Broadway debut until his last show earlier this month. Beyond his Pulitzer Prize-winning work on Hamilton, Miranda also wrote the new cantina song for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, is working on music for Disney's upcoming Moana and recently teamed up with Jennifer Lopez on the song "Love Make the World Go Round," a tribute to those affected by the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando,
Musician / World Dominator
Beyoncé clearly came to slay this year. In February, she dropped the killer track "Formation," paired with a powerful music video addressing police brutality and racism in America. The next day, she grabbed the world's attention by performing the song with an army of dancers clad in Blank Panther-inspired outfits during the Super Bowl 50 halftime show. Then came Queen Bey's second visual album, Lemonade—a collective middle finger to cheaters everywhere. Outside of her musical and visual domination, Beyoncé demonstrated her marketing chops in 2016, launching a line of athletic apparel in partnership with retailer Top Shop called Ivy Park, which nearly sold out online just after launch. It would be almost impossible to name a more powerful creative force in the world today.
• Mike Judge
Director / Producer / Writer
Austin and Los Angeles
Who would have thought the man responsible for the phrase "I am Cornholio" would end up predicting the intellectual decay of U.S. politics (with 2006's Idiocracy) and even educating America on the infuriating intricacies of launching a tech startup (with HBO's current hit comedy Silicon Valley)? From his earliest days creating MTV's counterculture icons Beavis & Butt-head in the 1990s, Judge has balanced relevance and biting commentary with joyous stupidity. His creations, from propane salesman Hank Hill to the entirety of 1999's Office Space, remain enduring pop culture reference points. And with Silicon Valley—for which he's even tapped former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo as a consultant—Judge continues to create programs that feel less like farce and more like documentaries with each passing day.
• Lupita Nyong'o
New York City
Having stunned the world with her Oscar-winning performance in 12 Years a Slave, Lupita Nyong'o took a short break from Hollywood to dazzle critics and showgoers alike in the Broadway show Eclipsed, which tells the powerful story of five women all suffering as a result of the Liberian civil war. The actress, born in Mexico and raised in Kenya, has also made time for some big-budget films, including 2016's live-action remake of The Jungle Book (as the wolf Raksha) and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, where she finally wiped away the cinematic stain of Jar Jar Binks by creating a CGI character (Maz Kanata) who felt as real as the actors staring into her alien eyes. She will also star in the upcoming Disney film Queen of Katwe, about a young girl from Uganda who wants to become a chess champion.
• Samantha Bee
TV Host, Full Frontal With Samantha Bee
New York City
Before her brilliant TBS late-night show, Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, debuted in February, the comedian worried that it might fall flat with audiences. "It's stressful on a very primal level when you're creating something that you really like," she told Adweek at the time. "Presenting it to the world and hoping they like it too is really terrifying." She had nothing to fear. While all eyes were on the debuts of fellow late-night hosts Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah, Bee was the one who became an indispensable presence, turning this year's political chaos into comic gold. She could have leveraged her inside track at The Daily Show to take over as host after Jon Stewart, but instead took a leap of faith by creating her TBS show, helping the revamped net sharpen its new, edgy tone. "It's fun to build something out of nowhere," Bee says. And now, she has constructed some of the most enviable real estate in late night.
• Chance the Rapper
An avowed Michael Jackson fanatic, this 23-year-old hip-hop artist (born Chancelor Bennett) aims high with his art, striving to lift up as many listeners as possible with his deft wordplay and infectious grooves. "Depending on the story you're telling, you can be relatable to everybody or nobody," he told Spin in 2013. "I try to tell everybody's story." His third album, Coloring Book, was a hit with critics and fans, who applauded the mature harmonics and assured musicality. Some liken the tracks to gospel compositions, with their fusion of joyful spirituality and headbopping beats, creating a singular pulpit from which to preach. Two weeks ago, he brought the congregation to its feet at the ESPY Awards with a tribute to Muhammad Ali, his heartfelt lyrics punctuated by samples from interviews of The Greatest. "There are so many questions that I'm trying to ask," he told Dazed & Confused magazine, "and I'm still so far from being done saying what I gotta say."
• Carrie Brownstein
Writer / Musician / Actor / Director
"I wanted to be someone who had that power to drift in and out of people's imaginations, who could be bigger than mere human form, a surface upon which others could project their longings." Brownstein, best known for co-creating and starring in sketch-comedy show Portlandia, wrote those lines in her recent memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, and few would argue she's accomplished her mission in style. That's true whether she's deftly skewering/celebrating the Pacific Northwest ethos, bemoaning her banishment to the "kids' table" in droll holiday ads for Old Navy, or rocking out with her reunited riot-grrrl band, Sleater-Kinney. As a performer, she seems to embody our longings for love, affirmation, acceptance and fame, while at the same time spoofing these desires, playing up the absurdity of the human condition to let us know things will probably turn out OK in the end.
• Alexandra Wolf
New York City
Keeping an eye on trends to predict which products, technologies and services will pop in the marketplace is this avowed futurist's stock in trade. Wolf, a 24-year-old entrepreneur, dropped out of Berkeley five years ago, then quickly forged a national reputation for her insights on business, economics and social media. "My goal is to create thought-provoking and experimental content that challenges the ordinary person to invite and gather new ideas," Wolf says. She launched Bossbabe, a subscription-based online community, sharing her knowledge with millennial women looking for guidance, contacts and motivation. "I want my work to inspire people to think for themselves," she says. "I believe that when we value the power of the mind, we can build the most fantastic life available." Naturally, corporations value her take on the 18-34 demo, and she has recently focused on helping brands update their images for the ever-changing digital age.
• Aziz Ansari
Comedian / Actor / Writer, Master of None
Best known for his scene-stealing turn as self-important Tom Haverford on Parks and Recreation, jack-of-all-trades Ansari launched a series of his own last year, Master of None, playing a commercial actor fumbling his way through life. The Netflix show won a Peabody Award and got praise for its timely take on romance, relationships and the quest for fulfillment and success. Ansari has also scored in films like I Love You, Man and Judd Apatow's Funny People, stand-up comedy (touring extensively and headlining several specials) and with his first book, Modern Romance: An Investigation, published last year to positive reviews. The son of Muslim immigrants, he penned a poignant New York Times op-ed last month, taking Donald Trump to task for his hardline views and lamenting that, for many Americans who share the Islamic faith, "there is a strange feeling that you must almost prove yourself worthy of feeling sad and scared like everyone else."
• Sarah Chang
New York City
In the rarefied realm of classical music, Sarah Chang is a bona-fide rock star. A child prodigy of startling renown, she was accepted into the Juilliard School of Music at age 5 and released her first album six years later. Unlike some exceptional young talents who crash and burn, Chang fulfilled her promise in fiery fashion, honing her fierce interpretations of works by the great masters. An intense performer, she weds virtuosity with reckless abandon, creating an incendiary style that's all her own. "Allowing myself to be open and vulnerable onstage for every performance, and sharing a part of my heart every night with the audience is the ultimate exhilarating and humbling experience," she tells Adweek. Chang's frenetic technique—attacking the strings with a lead-guitarist's zeal—continues to win over millions of fans and make Brahms, Paganini and Strauss sound as fresh and vital to millennial ears as the hits of Pharrell and Adele.
• Louis C.K.
Comedian / Actor / Writer
In a world that so often seems to be spiraling out of control, it's comforting to know Louis C.K. is there, in all his balding, shaggy splendor, ranting on stage, in scripted shows and films, or on comedy albums, pouring out angst (and sweat) by the bucket as he puts our collective travails in hilarious perspective. A Peabody, Emmy and Grammy winner, he's the latest in a line of generation-defining stand-ups—the rightful heir to Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and Chris Rock—who, by virtue of their raw talent, fearless observations and willingness to find humor in the darkest corners of human experience, reinvent the comedy scene and raise the bar for every performer. The first truly omnimedia comedian—he mastered Twitter only to abandon it, concluding "it is everybody's worst side"—he continues to show a willingness to take risks, like his self-financed web series Horace & Pete, while also appearing in unexpectedly mainstream venues, like appearing in the new animated film The Secret Life of Pets.
• Noah Hawley
Producer / Writer, Fargo and Legion
Hawley effectively remade the television anthology format as showrunner on the FX crime series Fargo, crafting complex story and character arcs that play out across different eras each season. This results in a rich tapestry spanning time and geography, giving the tales epic scope and power. "I believe if you tell people a story that entertains them, they give you permission to do more—explore characters and themes, play with structure," he says. "The second year of Fargo revolved around the question, does knowing we're going to die make life absurd? In other words, why do we try so hard if there's no escape? The trick was to build a crime story around it, hide the question within the characters." Hawley has also penned several novels, including Before the Fall, a recent New York Times best-seller.
• Constance Wu
Actor, Fresh Off the Boat
Wu won kudos for her portrayal of Jessica Huang, the pragmatic, pugnacious matriarch of ABC's hit sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, in which she struggles to keep the family grounded in their Taiwanese heritage as they navigate the waters of contemporary American life. The series is a rarity for network TV, focusing on the Asian-American experience with humor and heart. "The more you know about somebody's back story, the deeper you can delve into that well, and the more your comedic choices resonate full-body instead of just being quick, quippy oneliners that are just like a bunch of people trying to be clever," Wu tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Because after a while, cleverness is just really obnoxious." Perhaps most important, she has used the show's success as a launching point for blunt conversations about how few roles Asian Americans and other minorities enjoy in Hollywood.
• John Cena
Actor / Wrestler, WWE
The Rock may have shown how to achieve global fame by growing beyond professional wrestling, but Cena is proving another path— growing within it. An icon of the WWE since joining its roster in the early 2000s, Cena has remained a wrestling fixture while also expanding his personal brand through memorable ads, movie cameos and charity efforts. A prime example is his recent turn in a stirring Ad Council PSA, in which he says true patriotism is about "love beyond age, disability, sexuality, race, religion and any other labels." The spot channels his outsized good-guy persona, an image he comes by honestly— holding the record for granting the most wishes for the Make a Wish Foundation. In addition to roles in films like The Marine and Trainwreck, he hosted the Fox reality show American Grit and continues to star in clever ads for everything from Cricket Wireless to Hefty trash bags. —D.G.
• Rachel Bloom
Writer / Performer, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Last fall, Bloom's innovative series, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, debuted on the CW, and she's reigned as America's favorite maladjusted, lovelorn, singing and dancing corporate attorney ever since. "It allows me to do everything I've ever wanted to do with storytelling and musical comedy," she tells Adweek. "Every day I get to work, I am still flabbergasted that someone is letting us do a dark musical comedy about a person who's had a mental breakdown." Honored with a Golden Globe and Critics' Choice Award for her angst-ridden portrayal of a woman teetering on the emotional edge, Bloom has also released an album of songs from the show. She launched her career six years ago with the viral smash "Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury," a smutty, tongue-in-cheek, power-pop tribute to the legendary science-fiction author. It established Bloom as an edgy new talent willing to take risks and succeed on her own quirky terms.
• James Corden
TV Host, The Late Late Show With James Corden
A British stage and screen performer who initially made his mark on the U.K. sitcom Gavin & Stacey, Corden took the wheel of CBS' The Late Late Show in March 2015, and he's quickly climbed out of obscurity here in the U.S. thanks to his penchant for viral content. Most famous are his "Carpool Karaoke" sketches, in which he chauffeurs music stars like Adele, Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez around Los Angeles, joining them in a few verses of their hits and riffing on whatever comes to mind. Last month, to promote the telecast of the Tony Awards, which he hosted, Corden carpooled with some of Broadway's biggest names—and he won a Tony himself in 2012, as best actor in a play, for One Man, Two Guvnors. The carpool videos (which recently included a mega-viral appearance by Michelle Obama, which you can see below) embody Corden's approach to comedy: relaxed, collaborative and accessible, with the guests and audience always in on the joke. "It's joyful," he recently told NPR, "and that's what people want."
• Ryan Coogler
Director, Creed and Black Panther
With only two features under his belt, Coogler has already established himself as a filmmaker of immense flair. Like Melvin Van Peebles and Spike Lee before him, Coogler deftly employs the prism of black experience to examine human truths that cut across racial lines. Coogler excels at capturing vital, evocative details that add depth to his characters and enhance their stories. This is just as true of boxing hopeful Adonis Creed and ex-champ Rocky Balboa in last year's Creed as it is for doomed Oscar Grant III before he gets shot by cops on a subway platform in Coogler's Sundance Grand Jury Prizewinning debut, Fruitvale Station. Author Ta-Nehisi Coates offers high praise: "On the big screen, he confers humanity and beauty on people told they are innately without it." Coogler's next project, Marvel's Black Panther, should allow the 30-year-old to stretch even more creatively.
Check out the rest of Adweek's Creative 100 honorees for 2016:
Also, see the full list of honorees in alphabetical order here.
This story first appeared in the July 25, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.