In the pilot episode of "Glee," Lea Michele's character Rachel Berry takes a second before delivering a powerful performance of "On My Own" from "Les Miserables" to introduce herself -- and explain why she spells her name with a gold star tacked onto the end.
Video: Highlights from the Dec. 2, 2010 Women In Music event.
"Nowadays, being anonymous is worse than being poor," she says. "Fame is the most important thing in our culture now, and if there's one thing I've learned, it's that no one's going to just hand it to you."
The 24-year-old has heeded her character's words and worked to become a household name. Although "Glee" demands a rigorous schedule of acting, singing and dancing, Michele's talent and dedication have helped the show earn nearly 20 million viewers, sell more than 3 million copies of its nine soundtracks, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and turn a small summer tour into a huge success.
"Glee" thrives because of its ensemble, but with consistently show-stopping performances and upcoming projects outside the fictional McKinley High, Michele has become a standout in the group effort. Her unmatched success as a singer, dancer and actress during the past year has earned her recognition as Billboard's Triple Threat Star, awarded to her during yesterday's (Dec. 2) Women in Music Event in NYC.
"We work so hard over here at 'Glee,' " Michele says. "When we're not filming, we're in the recording studio or the dance studio. It takes a lot to put together this show each week, so to get this specific award that honors all of those things is amazing."
Michele never imagined becoming a TV star when she began performing on Broadway at the age of 8. Roles in "Ragtime" and "Fiddler on the Roof" helped Michele hone her singing skills, while a starring role in the original cast of musical "Spring Awakening" earned her a Drama Desk Award nomination in 2007.
After moving to Los Angeles in 2008, Michele performed in "Les Miserables" at the Hollywood Bowl until stumbling upon a tryout for "Glee" and nailing the audition. "It was one of the best scripts that I'd ever read," Michele recalls. "I thought there was a good possibility of it doing well, but at the same time, there are plenty of good things that don't last on television. I wasn't reading the script thinking, 'Oh, yeah, and then we're going to meet [President] Obama and be on 'Oprah.' "
Since the May 2009 premiere, "Glee" has turned into a zeitgeist-capturing weekly hour, with a ratings peak of nearly 20 million viewers, episode-long tributes to Lady Gaga and "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" and a guest appearance by Britney Spears in September. Most impressively, the show's creators have used soundtrack releases on Columbia Records, a fashion line and last summer's 13-date Glee Live! In Concert! tour to turn the TV hit into a multiplatform giant.
Of course, maintaining the show's cultural dominance requires a hectic routine for its cast members, but Michele is used to handling the pressure. "Not only did theater strengthen me as an actor, but the schedule for performing on Broadway is absolutely insane," she says. "It's eight shows a week, and you have to have a lot of energy. My theater background has really helped me deal with the long hours of filming."
Michele this year received both Golden Globe and Emmy Award nominations for her performances on "Glee."
As much as she's grown as an actress, Michele has also had to master a wide array of musical styles on "Glee." The ensemble's reworking of hits by Madonna, Queen and Jay-Z has let Michele display her range while exploring wildly different genres.
"[Journey's "Don't Stop Believin' "] was the big song in the pilot, and then in the second episode we did 'Take a Bow' by Rihanna," Michele says. "I was so nervous. I'm not Rihanna, and I'm not an R&B singer. But I just realized that it's not about making it like the original. We definitely want to honor the original songs, but we have to make them our own."
Since breaking out on "Glee," Michele has used her newfound fame as a platform to support other interests. While she has appeared in TV spots for Dove, Michele has also filmed anti-fur public service announcements for PETA and has actively advocated for gay rights.
Although Michele describes herself as a singer first, she hopes to balance music with a film career, much like her idol, Barbra Streisand. She recently began lending her voice to "Dorothy of Oz," an animated reimagining of "The Wizard of Oz" set for a 2012 release. Michele says that voicing the main character of "Oz" has been a blast, partially because she gets "to come into work in my pajamas... and not have to sit through hair and makeup."
In addition to seeking out other film projects, Michele says she would "absolutely love" to record a solo album, although her commitment to the music of "Glee" takes priority over the desire to ink a label deal and hit the studio on her own. The show's most recent soundtrack, "Glee: The Music, Volume 4," arrived Nov. 26, while the Nov. 9 release of "Glee: The Music, The Christmas Album" precedes the airing of the show's holiday-themed episode on Dec. 7.
"I'm so happy doing this show and playing Rachel Berry that I really don't feel like rushing and fitting in an album would be the right move," she says. When the time eventually arrives, Michele sees herself creating "huge female pop-rock power ballads," in the vein of Kelly Clarkson, for her solo material. "I'm not sure when that time will be," she says, "but I look forward to it."
In the meantime, Michele will continue gaining exposure as the second season of "Glee," which premiered Sept. 21, rolls on. More soundtracks are in the works, and a more substantial sequel to the Glee Live! In Concert! tour is being planned for next year, giving Michele another opportunity to showcase her dancing skills.
The show has also landed the coveted post-Super Bowl time slot on Fox on Feb. 6, 2011, and it will air a "great, big, jam-packed episode," according to Michele. The singer won't let any "Glee" secrets slip, although she confirms that Filipino singer Charice will reprise her role as exchange student Sunshine Corazon later this season. The character and Berry began as rivals on the show, but Michele "hopes that [the show's creators] make us best friends."
Michele says that many of her career decisions have been inspired by other multitalented female performers like Streisand, Beyoncé and P!nk. She plans on exploring a wide variety of music, film and dance opportunities in the future, but is perfectly content showcasing all three of those skills in her current gig.
"I don't know where 'Glee' will go in the future, but my cast mates are my best friends and I don't see the show ending for a while," Michele says. "It's truly a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing, and I couldn't be more grateful."