What does it take to get to the top -- without losing your center? Our “Making It Work” series profiles successful, dynamic women who are standouts in their fields, peeling back the "hows" of their work and their life, taking away lessons we can all apply to our own.
At 29, Molly McAleer, co-founder of the website HelloGiggles and executive story editor on the CBS sitcom "2 Broke Girls," has paid more than a few dues in the entertainment industry. Born in Lexington, Mass., McAleer moved to Los Angeles in 2006 fresh out of Boston College. She went through "the Gawker machine," as she put it, blogging in 2007 and 2008 at Defamer, Gawker Media's celebrity gossip site. For nine months, she literally moonlighted as an assistant night editor at the Style Network. ("My hours were 4pm to 7am. When you go to sleep when the birds are chirping, that really f**ks with your mind.") She signed a contract with MTV to star in her own variety show to be called "The Molls Half Hour Party Hour"... only to see the project fall through.
Then her luck began to change. Her friend, producer Sophia Rossi, had the idea of starting a website "like 'Funny or Die' for women." Soon after, Zooey Deschanel joined the project. Realizing they didn't actually have the staff or resources to create a video site, they focused on writing instead. It was while she was building HelloGiggles that McAleer began writing the TV pilot sample that landed her a gig on "2 Broke Girls," which begins its third season this fall.
Now that she can reliably pay her rent, McAleer, who lives in West Hollywood with her 6-year-old chihuahua, Wagandstuff, and describes herself as "deeply single," is figuring out exactly what success means, professionally and personally.
Did you become a writer by accident or design?
Writing online was completely an accident. My grandfather [John McAleer] was a quote unquote famous writer, so I was around writing my whole life. It was revered in my family, probably to the point that I felt like I couldn't do it. I didn't even realize that that was my passion for a long time. I'd been setting up little blogs on Angelfire and Homestead since I was 11 -- [but] that was always just my thing that I did. I have a crazy interest in the Internet, but more than that I have a crazy interest in making people aware of all of my thoughts.
I was told when I started at Defamer that I needed to have a blogging presence individually, so I started keeping a personal blog. When it was linked under my name on the masthead, one of my bosses approached me and was like, "Are you sure this is the blog that you want people to see? You're writing about your ex-boyfriends. Are you sure you want to be this personal?" And I looked at him and said, "What else am I supposed to write about?"
The TV job was [by] design. I just wasn't making enough money. I was 27, and there was never going to be a freelance blogging gig that was going to make it happen for me.
How does one go about scoring a job on a highly rated sitcom?
A big part of my life [in my mid-20s] was socializing, making sure that I knew who people were and people knew who I was. I got that sample into the hands of Whitney Cummings [one of the show's executive producers] because I knew her socially through a bunch of different people, [and] she had done my podcast.
Whitney knew exactly how broke I was. I was moving at one point and selling my desk. Whitney came and bought it for like $200 and saw the bachelor apartment [where] I was living in Koreatown. I didn't have a bed because I had just had bed bugs. So she knew firsthand. I think that really kind of got me the interview.
Then I was able to go and meet with [executive producer] Michael [Patrick King] and Whitney and explain that I was starting my own business [HelloGiggles] with these business partners and that I had been writing for all these years, sacrificing a lot of things with the hope that it would all work out someday. I think that Michael was drawn to that. That's kind of how everything happened.
What would you do if you weren't doing this?
I've always been fascinated by radio and wanted to own my own radio network, like Sirius or something. I would love to be able to program an entire radio network. I've also just really wanted to have my voice on the air.
Who is your role model?
For me it's always a toss-up between David Sedaris and Dolly Parton. That's always been the cross-section of human that I'm interested in. I really like voices that are true to themselves. For different reasons, those people represent that to me.
Do you have a mentor?
I've had a lot of people who were very kind to me, but no one's ever taught me how to do anything. I had to figure all that stuff out on my own. I always find that shocking when someone young comes to me and asks me to help because I don't think there's anything that can be helped. You just have to work it out.
What's the biggest lesson you've learned from your 20s?
Now that I look back on it, everything happened exactly the way it was supposed to. Around [age 25] I was offered a variety show on MTV. I thought that I had finally figured it out, that everything was clicking. I was being acknowledged the way I was supposed to be acknowledged. Then it completely fell apart. At the time I thought, "That really sucks. I don't get to perform. I don't get to be the star of my own television show." Thank god that didn't happen! I am so thankful that I had to stick around and pay some more dues for a couple of years before something really big worked out for me.
I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be right now. It all happened. I'm just so grateful for the job at "2 Broke Girls," every single day. If it had come any earlier, I don't know if I would have known to be so grateful for it. If it had come any later, I don't know if I would have been in L.A. anymore.
How do you define success?
I know that for a lot of people the answer would be "having my name in a certain publication" or "having my book be a New York Times bestseller." My idea of success is that I can pay my rent and take care of my health. That means a lot to me.
What advice would you give your 25-year-old self?
Stay home and read more, and you should work on breathing. I didn't breathe really at all until I was like 27 -- just enough to stay alive. I was in a constant frenzy. It makes sense that I was panicked -- I was in Los Angeles alone building something, [and] I didn't know what, and I didn't know where it would go. But I think I also caused myself a lot of unnecessary pain just because I wasn't really being very conscious or aware of anything.
What's your stress level now?
Pretty high, probably like an 8? Most of it's self-inflicted.
I see an acupuncturist, a therapist and an energy healer every week. I work very hard at dealing with it because I don't find anxiety to be this attractive quality it's made out to be all the time by my peers. I feel like I'm always hearing people talk about how anxious they are -- I think a lot of people equate [it] with adulthood or busyness or success. It's a gigantic waste of time, it shaves years off your life, and it conditions you to value all of the wrong things.
How do you recharge?
I go through long creative periods where I kind of lose myself and I need to check back in, [so then I have] a hibernation period. I just sit inside and I watch Lifetime movies and read and listen to public radio and get back to the things that make me feel human.
I try to consciously take these rebuilding periods so that I don't completely lose myself in the process of trying to make my dreams come true.
Do you keep your phone next to your bed?
I have a disgusting relationship with my phone. I don't keep it next to my bed, I keep it next to my face, [and] I don't just sleep with a cell phone, I sleep with two laptops and an ipad. So basically there's no room for a man in my life because my bed is full of electronics. It's not healthy. I don't recommend it. Michael Jackson's mom went to someplace in Arizona where they took her cell phone [away], and I've thought about doing that.
Do you get enough sleep?
Yeah, actually. I bank sleep. That is my thing. I can do 10 to 11 hours a night, easy.
What about exercise?
Oh my god. Well, here's the thing. I'm an indoor kid by nature. I'm terrified of the idea of anyone seeing me physically sweat, and I also am very competitive, so when I go to yoga, I always wind up like pulling out my back or something because I need to be the valedictorian of the yoga class every time. I can't just move at my own pace.
I think all the time, "Molly, you should go get a membership at Equinox. It's right down the street. You'll go after work." But everyone knows -- my dog knows, my friends know -- once my car is pulled into that spot at the end of the day, I'm not leaving. I roller skate around my apartment and I dance a lot, but I don't work out.
Where do you do your best work?
My best work is done in this hole-in-the-wall cafe in Hollywood that I've been coming to for three or four years. I won't tell you the name because it's already overrun with wannabes, including myself, [but] my ex-boyfriend introduced it to me. He's a writer, too, although I'm much more successful. I won this coffee shop in our last breakup -- I heard he's working out of the east side now, which made me very, very happy.
What does your mother think of the way you work?
My mom is definitely very proud of me, [but] I think [she] would have been happy if I had just wound up working in marketing at some firm in Boston.
She was recently out here, and she seemed concerned because I was frantic every moment of the day. The show was starting back up, I was in the middle of a lot of HelloGiggles stuff, and I just had a lot going on. But she also knows that A) I'm going to do whatever I want, and B) it's kind of worked out for me.
Some of my family wants to know why I'm not married, but I don't really have an answer for them. They're nice about it, they're lovely, I just don't think they really know what goes on out here.
What's your work uniform?
I've always had very expensive and weird taste, even when I didn't have the money to pull it off. On an average day I wear something like leggings [and] a beachy shirt -- almost like dressy pajamas -- but over that I usually wear a fur coat or leather. Then I'll go ahead and put on red lipstick and gigantic sunglasses.
I'm always in black ballet flats. I don't really understand high heel culture at all. I'm 5'8", and I have always slumped to match the height of my peers, so high heels have always been a mystery to me.
If I'm made fun of for two things at work, besides the overall way that I talk, it's [for] my fur coats and my sunglasses. Everyone's dressed normal, and I'm dressed like f**king Elton John.
What would you title your autobiography?
I probably shouldn't tell you that.
Where do you want to be in five years?
I will be happy to have a couple more things that I'm proud of behind me creatively. It would be great if I met a great guy, but I don't know if that's a goal. I also would like to be able to have another dog, [and] I would like to continue to provide myself with the kind of lifestyle that I'm comfortable with, a semi-nice one.
It's not that I don't have expectations or dreams, it's just ... if I won an Emmy or something, it would be great, but I don't know if that would make me happier or more successful. Really all I can hope for is to have a little more continual comfort in knowing that I'm doing everything I can.
Is there a glass ceiling? Have you hit it?
I don't think about life like that. I definitely haven't hit it. I'm an executive story editor on "2 Broke Girls."
My experience has not been made tougher by the fact that I'm a woman -- in fact I think that there's something fortunate about [it], especially at this time. The year that I got my job on the show, there were three shows with the world "girl" in the title that were picked up. As much as we see examples of people hating women or not thinking of women as their equals, I think my life has been very charmed by the fact that I get to wear dresses and I get to be the girl. I'm so happy I'm a woman. I really am.
Is there a woman you know of who is Making It Work? We’d love to include her in our series. Send your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This interview has been edited and condensed.