In the small hours before the light comes up in Los Angeles, Kristen Michel wakes to spend a few quiet moments with her husband before sending him off to his job importing and distributing seafood. Soon her three young children will be up, and then it’s onto packing lunches, dressing, feeding, and getting everyone off to school before eight-thirty when the rest of her day begins. Such mornings, however familiar or seemingly unremarkable, are something of a miracle for Michel. This wasn’t the life designed for her. It certainly wasn’t the life she was born into.
The native Angeleno grew up far from her biological father (who was overseas playing basketball) in the valley with her step father and her mother, who suffered from mental health issues that materialized as verbal abuse toward Michel and physical abuse toward her siblings. “That was pretty much all of high school with my mom. Telling me I would never amount to anything. I would never graduate. I’d be pregnant at 18,” Michel remembers with the tonal equivalent of a head shake. The disbelief perhaps stronger now that she has gained a mother’s perspective. “I didn’t know what I’d get when I came home,” she says. And so she did her best to avoid it, keeping her head down by studying, throwing herself into the yearbook, staying late to watch her boyfriend’s basketball practice. “Anything to avoid going home.”
The better she performed in school, the worse things were with her mother: each personal triumph met with a pointed betrayal. Doing well on a test could inspire her mother to place a phone call to the principal saying Michel must be sleeping with the teacher to get good grades. A meandering walk home might find her kicked out of the house, only to be picked up hours later by the police who had been informed by her mother that she was a wayward runaway. “When I was younger I thought maybe something was wrong with me,” Michel says of trying to understand the tumult. Now, with enough distance to absolve herself from fault, she’s able to reason, “She was sick.” When her high school counselor, one of the few people Michel let in on the situation, invited her to move into her home, “that’s when I knew I wasn’t making it up in my head. People could see what was going on.” Even her step father moved out of the house. Instead of taking her counselor up on the offer, Michel zeroed in on her impending 18th birthday, when she could legally leave home, and plotted for college—the quickest, failsafe route to freedom.
As planned, a week after she turned 18, when Michel’s mom went to the grocery store, she called her boyfriend. “We have 45 minutes,” she remembers saying. They packed everything they could and Michel swiftly moved into her step father’s new house, taking shelter for less than a year before relocating to Cal State Fullerton for the college education she had been repeatedly told she’d never receive. “Everything my mom told me, I did the opposite,” she says of her resilient will to defy expectations.
At university, without financial support, Michel put herself through classes and kept a roof over her head by working over forty hours a week at a nearby retail job meanwhile taking the maximum number of classes she was allowed during the school year and over holiday breaks. “That was just my motivation: I can do anything anyone else can do.” She graduated in four years, inviting her mom to the ceremony only to watch her walk out of the audience before Michel’s name was called to collect her diploma. In her mother’s absence, the crowd was filled with extended family and friends. “I had so many people there to cheer me on, because they all knew what my life was like.” From there, Michel continued to check off her list of goals. She married her high school sweetheart, rose the ranks at the Walt Disney Company, and resumed her child acting career by earning roles in major motion pictures like The Human Stain and a starring role helming her own television series, Under One Roof.
Michele’s acting career was full steam ahead when her show was abruptly cancelled. Rather than shaken, she saw the unexpected pause as an opportunity to fulfill her biggest dream: to become the kind of mother she had always wanted. She gave birth to her daughter six years ago, her son four years ago, then, by way of a friend took in a third child whose own mother’s job was too peripatetic to have a child in tow. “Everyone needs help. It takes a village,” Michel says all too knowingly, as if mentally calling forth the community of friends and family who filled in where her own parental supports left off. “Making my own show—I would think I’d be most proud of that accomplishment. But having them,” she trails off emphasizing the ineffable gratitude she has for the ability to give her family stability and love.
Now, with all of her children in school, Michele is ready to return to acting, with an eye on independent film. She’s asked her agent for two months to prepare. So after dropping her kids off in the morning, between the runs to Costco, Target, the grocery store, parent teacher conferences and before practicing scenes and picking everyone up at 2:30 to start the evening routine of homework, dinner, baths, and story time, she fits in two hours at the gym. “Monday through Friday. I have to get fit and toned.”
That she needs a wardrobe to support her to-the-minute schedule goes without saying. “As a mom it needs to be quick and effortless,” she says of the timelessness she looks for in a wardrobe. “Things that transition from season to season, year to year,” and that can get her from the school run to workouts, auditions, and pickups, simultaneously highlighting her body while providing the comfort of clothing she can unwind in with a much deserved glass of wine after the kids go to sleep. In a word: “versatile.”
Whatever obstacle comes next, says Michel, “It sounds cliché, but [what I’ve learned] is that I can do anything I put my mind to. No matter where you are it’s possible to live the life you want to be living.” How does she know she found hers? “Out of the blue my kids will run up and say, ‘I love you, Mommy.’ And run away. That’s by far the best. Those are the moments when I think, Oh, this is what I went through all of those things in the past for.”