Stars Who Got Their Big Breaks While Not Trying

By Stacy Jenel Smith

April 11, 2013 7 min read

The TV scene is so crowded with shows about entertainment hopefuls struggling to get attention — standing in "American Idol" and "So You Think You Can Dance" cattle call lines, bravely listening to Howie Mandel critiquing their performances on "America's Got Talent," belting out their high notes in hopes of a judge turning around on "The Voice," attempting to exude super star energy on "X Factor" and more — it starts to feel as if every other person on the planet is trying to make it in show business. In answer to that, there's the great big irony that quite a few show business personalities in the public eye today were "discovered" while not trying at all.

For instance, there's Ashton Kutcher. The "Two and a Half Men" star, who took in about $24 million between May 2011 and May 2012 alone (according to Forbes), was a Biochemical Engineering student at the University of Iowa in the mid-90s. He worked for General Mills sweeping Cheerios' dust from the floor in his hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He went to a restaurant one night and was discovered by a local model/talent scout. She encouraged him to enter a modeling contest in which he won a trip to New York. He was then signed with Next modeling agency and his modeling career went through the roof. He did several commercials, which eventually led him to Los Angeles. He auditioned for a show about cowboy surfers and a show called "Teenage Wasteland" (which was later renamed "That 70's Show"). He obviously chose the latter.

Kate Upton and Pamela Anderson can both credit public exposure of their eye-catching figures that they had nothing to do with for their celebrity. Anderson, you may recall, was discovered while attending a British Columbia Lions football game, where the cameras panned to her and stopped on the Labatt's Beer T-shirt wearing babe. The fans went wild and she was brought down to the 50-yard line and introduced to the appreciative crowd. Soon after, Labatt's hired Anderson to appear in commercials and she became the company's "Blue Zone" girl. The campaign was so popular that other commercials and advertising assignments for Lee followed. She was soon approached to do her first cover for Playboy magazine. It led to a move to Hollywood and a role in "Baywatch," which propelled her to instant stardom.

Upton's modeling career wasn't doing much — until a friend uploaded a video of her that went viral, as in more than nine million views. Sports Illustrated took notice, put her on the cover of their famous swimsuit issue and a star was born.

Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman was just nine years old, enjoying a meal in a Long Island pizzeria, when she was spotted by a Revlon talent scout. Recalling the moment in 1999, she told the AP, "I kept my cool. I told him that I wanted to act."

Nick Jonas was even younger — six, to be exact — when he was heard singing in a barber shop while his mother was getting her hair cut. The stylist knew of a show business manager and referred the multi-talent-in-the-making to him. By eight, Jonas was on Broadway.

Travis Fimmel — Ragnar Lothbrok to fans of the History Channel's "Vikings" hit — was a farm boy-turned-athlete who aspired to play Australian Rules Football when he was spotted working out at the gym in Melbourne by a modeling agent, so the story goes. He subsequently became one of the most successful international male models ever, before shifting gears and training seriously as an actor.

Angie Harmon of "Rizzoli & Isles" can thank divine providence in the form of the right seat on the right flight for her big acting break. She was already a successful model when she just happened to find herself traveling next to David Hasselhoff on an airline flight. He insisted she contact him because he had a perfect part in mind for her and, when she did, he cast her in "Baywatch Nights" as Ryan McBride.

Speaking of flying, Evangeline Lilly was working as flight attendant for Air Canada when she was approached by a Ford Modeling agent - which led to her modeling career and then another kind of plane ride, on "Lost."

And then there's the story of the popular songstress who was discovered while pumping gas — Toni Braxton. She was filling her tank and singing to herself when overheard by songwriter Bill Pettaway. He loved her voice so much that he landed both Braxton and her sisters a record contract with Arista Records. She must have been pumping Super that day!

Charlize Theron's story of discovery proves that, contrary to popular opinion, sometimes a hissy fit is a good idea. At age 18, she had moved to New York to pursue ballet but after a career-ending knee injury left her broke, her mother sent her money for a one-way ticket to Los Angeles to try a career in the movie industry. After two weeks, she found herself at a bank with the final check from her various employments in New York. When the teller refused to cash the check, she threw an impressive tantrum. Coincidentally, talent manager John Crosby was also in the bank that day. On witnessing the scene, he enquired if Charlize was an actress. When she replied that she intended to become one, he offered her his business card. After speaking to friends she discovered that Crosby was entirely reputable, and she agreed to become his client.

The most famous "discovery" story of all, that of then-16-year-old school girl Lana Turner being spotted by director Mervyn LeRoy in Schwab's Drug Store in Hollywood, isn't accurate. As the late Golden Era screen queen herself recalled the story, she was indeed 16, and she was indeed ditching class from Hollywood High School, but she was discovered at Hollywood's Top Hat eatery — not by Le Roy, but by publisher Billy Wilkerson of The Hollywood Reporter.

Either way, ditching class certainly qualifies as not trying.

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