Getty Images; Melissa Herwitt/E! Illustration
Ariel Winter doesn’t want to appear ungrateful. She gets how lucky she is to be a working actress, even more so when she considers she scored her breakout role, in a show with as much longevity as Modern Family, at the age of 11.
Which is why she’s so careful to bookend her answer to the inevitable “What was it like growing up on TV?” question with gushing statements about how “super lucky” she is to be on such a hit comedy and work with the best cast and crew in the game. Still, she admitted during a November appearance on Live with Kelly and Ryan, “It’s like a double-edged sword. It’s fun because now, throughout the years I’ll be able to look back at all of my different moments, you know, getting braces, getting braces off, going to prom. So, that’s cool. But it’s also hard when you start something at 11-years-old and everyone gets to see it over the years and so it’s like, I get to see it and be like, ‘Ha!’ And everyone else gets to see it and they’re like, ‘Ha-ha,’ and I’m like, ‘Hmm.'”
You see what she means?
Because what was on display amounted to far more than a slightly imperfect smile and a few breakouts. While her contemporaries’ angst-ridden years were fueled by less-than-interested crushes and an awkward growth spurt, Winter, who made her acting debut as a 5-year-old in a Cool Whip commercial, was dealing with family drama that made her a frequent guest in Los Angeles Superior Court and a changing body she desperately tried to keep covered, lest she have to see another headline about her “crazy cleavage” or read the umpteenth comment from a hater wondering why she was choosing to dress so inappropriately for her age.
It was, to put it mildly, a challenge. “It was really difficult to grow up in the spotlight,” she told E! News, “but to grow up with that in the spotlight was quite possibly the worst thing for someone’s self esteem and confidence.”
But it’s a test she would take on again and again if it landed her in the exact same spot.
Somehow turning just 21 today, having spent nearly half her life under the unrelenting microscope of fame, Winter possesses the sort of confidence most don’t inhabit until their forties when they declare that they finally feel comfortable in their own skin. Of course the Los Angeles native has always been ahead of the curve. Thanks to regular therapy sessions and years of repeating her daily mantra (“I tell myself every day, ‘I look fabulous,'” she shared with Seventeen) she’s firmly at peace with herself.
“It turned out I never would fit that standard, so I kind of gave up on that and started focusing on the relationship I have with myself,” she explained to E! News. “Now, I go to post a photo and I don’t care what people write on my picture…if you don’t like my photo, you can go unfollow me.”
The onslaught of hate started shortly after the young actress parlayed guest roles on Monk, Bones and ER into the role of Alex, Claire and Phil Dunphy’s overachieving middle child, on ABC’s soon-to-be breakout comedy hit. As the show collected viewers and awards, winning the comedy series Emmy for its first five seasons, the preteen amassed negative online comments.
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“I was bullied for being super flat and super skinny when I was 11 years old and then I turned 12 and I suddenly was curvy and had this bigger body that I wasn’t prepared to deal with yet,” she explained to E! News in 2016 while promoting her involvement in Dove’s new self-esteem project, the #SpeakBeautiful Squad, “but I was super excited because when I was younger, I’d always wanted boobs and I wanted a butt.”
She could have done without the negative commentary, though. “Unfortunately, photos came out of me on the Internet after my body had kind of blossomed and people were really hating on me for it,” she recalled. “I got a lot of comments like ‘You’re fat, you’re ugly, you’re a slut…it was a lot coming from people I didn’t know at such a young age.”
Particularly when she was navigating without the sort of built in support system most tweens are able to rely on. In 2012, Winter was placed by the courts in the temporary custody of her sister, Shanelle Gray after alleging her mom Crystal Workman physically and emotionally abused her. (Workman has denied Winter’s allegations, even claiming on a 2013 episode of Dr. Phil that the teenager was being “brainwashed”.)
Peter ‘Hopper’ Stone/ABC Family via Getty Images
Her entire career, Winter has claimed, was born from her mother’s lost dreams, the 4-year-old “kind of pushed into the industry,” as she put it to Good Morning America. “That’s not to say I don’t love it and it’s not my passion now. I do love it. But I definitely think that at 4, nobody knows what they want to do,” she said. “And I don’t know that if I had had my own run to be able to decide what I wanted to do if I would have [chosen acting].”
She certainly wouldn’t have picked the other trappings that came with her declared profession. At 7, she was regularly having her hair dyed after a casting directory declared her too blond and too pretty for a role. Soon, she was being sexualized, she detailed to The Hollywood Reporter in 2017, dressed in “the smallest miniskirts, sailor suits, low-cut things, the shortest dresses you’ve ever seen. People thought I was 24 when I was 12. If there was going to be a nude scene when I was that age, my mother would have a thousand percent said yes.”
Her mom, she claimed, also prevented her from forming friendships with other girls “because females are competition,” and keeping food “very, very restricted.” The results were noted by the teacher she worked with on Modern Family‘s set. “I would order a couple lunches in my name so Ariel could eat one of them,” Sharon Sacks to THR. “I could tell she was hungry. Boiled chicken and cucumbers isn’t going to do it for a growing kid.”
Winter would later sum up the time as “a really rough period, a really bad chapter,” and it culminated in Sacks reporting the conditions to L.A.’s Child Protective Services with the star’s blessing. “She was very scared,” Sacks told THR. “She knew the consequences.”
Namely, that she’d be in for a drawn-out court battle with her own mother, news outlets reporting on every twist and turn. “I had to make the choice,” she explained to Entertainment Weekly. “Do I stay in this situation that’s not good for me, or do I get out and face the consequences?”
Mr Photoman / Splash News
Pushing forward, she was willing to enter foster care when her adult sister, largely a stranger to Winter having left home herself at age 15, agreed to take her in. “I wasn’t going to go to my father or brother because I didn’t have a great relationship with them. So I thought, ‘Well, shot in the dark, let’s try my sister,'” she explained.
Ultimately, she says, it was the right call. Though the case would take years to come to a conclusion, with Gray granted custody in 2014 and Winter’s legal emancipation made official a year later, the changes were transformative. She was able to start seeing a therapist and attend a real high school (L.A.’s private Episcopal Campbell Hall) where she caught up on years of lax education.
As for her sister, even with strict rules and curfews put in place, Winter has nothing but praise. “She’s been the best part of my life,” she shared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. “She really is my best friend. She is the most important thing to me. She’s been there for me through absolutely everything and I just love her so much. I count on her more than anything.”
Moving in with Gray also provided a boon to her self-esteem “because she’s the type of person that is confident in her body,” Winter explained to Self in 2017. “I look up to her so much…I would listen to her talk to me, saying, ‘It doesn’t matter what other people think. You are who you are. It’s not going to change. Love yourself for who you are. People are going to hate regardless of what you do. You could conform to everything they say, and they’re still going to find something to pick. Or you could be yourself and be happy and not listen to what they say.'”
At work, she received a similar message from costar Sofia Vergara, no stranger to dealing with the type of assumptions people make when you’re attractive and don’t bother to camouflage your curves in shapeless schmattas. “I had a great role model in Sofia growing up, with her being a curvy woman that was super proud of who she was and what she looked like,” Winter noted to the mag. “She could see that I was struggling a little bit with how to deal with my body, and was always trying to give me advice, like, ‘Here are some brands that would look good on our body type,’ or ‘Wear whatever you want, and feel good about yourself.'”
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
In an effort to achieve that level of self-acceptance, Winter elected to have breast reduction surgery at the age of 17, her size 32F chest making it nearly impossible to dress her 5-foot-1 frame in a manner that felt both flattering and age-appropriate and causing neck and back problems that left her unable to even stand up straight on set. As she told Glamour, revealing what prompted the 2015 procedure, “It started to hurt so bad that I couldn’t take the pain.”
Following the surgery, she spent a couple of nights in a recovery center, but “I didn’t even really need to. It was that quick and painless. Literally, I sat in the center and I was nervous about it. You know, ‘I want to go this recovery center, because I’m nervous.’ The first night, I could have gone home. I woke up, I felt great. I was sitting there ordering a bunch of new clothes for myself, because I was so excited about it.”
But were she forced to endure weeks of pain, it likely still would have been worth it. “I recommend it for everybody—all women that have thought about it and have suffered from having really large breasts and back problems and just don’t feel right in their own skin.”
Not that feeling comfortable with her new size-D shape ended the continuing stream of haterade. While Winter has grown accustomed to ignoring the trolls who toss out labels such as fat, ugly and slutty, some remarks still leave her shaken, like the time one stranger commented on a photo of Winter and her nieces on a family vacation, suggesting that her decision to wear a bikini meant she was “asking for it.”
The implication was horrifying. “That really disturbed me, and made me incredibly upset,” she said. “It made me super disappointed in our world, and in the internet and the people who are writing things on the internet.” So she responded, sharing a lengthy missive explaining the obvious that, um, no, the length of someone’s hemline doesn’t have any correlation to how she should be treated. “I really had to stand up and make it a point to fight back against people who were not only body shaming, but also slut-shaming…taking aim at people that weren’t doing anything wrong and making comments that were so harmful and distressing for absolutely no purpose.”
Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Vanity Fair
These days, she’ll still fight back against the occasional troll, using the same quick wit one might expect from the likes of Alex Dunphy. Take the user who implied coke and meth were behind her recent weight loss. When one commenter called Winter “very bad” for appearing to (gasp!) imbibe a month before her 21st birthday, the follower responded, “Not half as bad as all the coke/meth she uses. She literally dropped 30 ponds.”
Taking advantage of her critic’s spelling error—a common problem for most people who dole out judgment on the Internet—Winter cracked, “Yup…I dropped 30 bodies of water so fast…And yes!! My psychiatrist switched me from my previous anti depressant that didn’t work and made me gain weight, to coke/meth!! Definitely not a new one that worked and then regulated my metabolism. Coke/meth was a controversial decision but she stands by it.”
But the clapbacks are mainly just for a fun, not because she has some lingering angst to work out.
Because it’s hard to feel too down when everything is going so right. In November, the Campbell Hall grad, who also enjoyed a three-year romance with high school sweetheart Laurent Claude Gaudette, marked her second anniversary with Levi Meaden, the Aftermath actor, 31, she boldly made a move on after a friend introduced them at a 2016 Emmy party.
“I was like, oh my God, I’ve never seen this guy before,” she told The Hollywood Reporter. “I stuck my hand out aggressively and put my number in his phone before the end of the night.”
She didn’t know at the time he’d become the peanut butter to her cheese, the nicknames they’ve immortalized in matching tattoos because, as Meaden puts it, “She says, ‘It’s a messed-up sandwich that works.'” But she was almost certain he’d factor largely into her life. “It was like I met him, and I thought to myself, ‘I don’t know what it is, but there’s something about him that’s so interesting and maybe it will be nothing and maybe it will be something. But there’s something here,'” she shared with ET. “It turns out, it was a big something.”
Together, the duo share a five-bedroom L.A. area home, three dogs (Casper, Chloe and Cash) and a relatively average existence, with Meaden handling the cooking and “all that handy stuff” as she put it during a 2017 appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! while she contributes the occasional pumpkin or apple pie and her unmatched Postmates skills. Pocketing a reported $100,000-plus per episode on Modern Family, she’s expected to re-up for at least one more season and should that come to an end, she’s got some options.
Though she put her studies at UCLA on hold to focus on a still-flourishing acting career, returning to complete a degree in politics or pre-law is part of the longterm plan, as is the eventual creation of a charity that helps abused children and those dealing with mental illnesses.
“The reason I’m going to college is because I do want knowledge in another field,” she told THR. “College isn’t the college experience for me. I’m not going to be in a sorority, I’m not going to network, I’m not even really going to make my lifelong friends. I’ve had the career experience. I’ve had the experience of taking care of myself. I’m going to college because I genuinely want to learn.”
After all, she’s shown she’s pretty good at mastering the lessons of life.