You are here


The biggest breakout stars of 2019

Stars who stole the headlines in 2019 all had one thing in common: To break the rules

Movers and shakers include (from left) Billie Eilish; Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Jharrel Jerome.

New York

DARING, defiant and unwilling to be watered down, the stars who closed out the year on top shared a similar mentality: break rules, break through. Here are the top performers from across genres who shook up their scenes.

  • Pop music: Billie Eilish, Lil Nas X, Lizzo, Rosalía. The new pop music superstars of 2019 didn't need to adhere to the industry's long-held (and fast-ageing) trajectory to be anointed as such. They were perfectly motivated to carve out a fresh path, detouring around some of the existing gates and the old one-size-fits-all guard, to head straight for their audiences.

Masters of self-marketing who were relative unknowns before 2019, these four artists - Lizzo, 31; Lil Nas X, 20; Billie Eilish, 18; and Rosalía, 26 - leveraged social media platforms to broadcast their talent and larger-than-life personalities, and somehow managed to come across wholly authentic at the same time. The result: billions of streams, millions of devoted fans, sold-out concerts, Grammy nominations and many records broken.

  • Television: Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the British actress, writer and producer, owned 2019 by not trying to be a hero to anyone. Plot twist: She became a hero to so many, especially women.

"It's just really wonderful to know, and reassuring, that a dirty, pervy, angry, messed up woman can make it to the Emmys," Waller-Bridge, 34, said on stage in September, accepting the first of three Emmys that night for her cutting, filter-free tragicomedy Fleabag, which began in 2013 as a one-woman show. (She was nominated for a fourth Emmy, for outstanding drama series for the spy thriller Killing Eve, which she helped write and create.)

What's next? "I feel like I might scale up a bit," she recently told Vogue. "I feel maybe I want to start thinking more politically, more globally. I don't know, but I can feel something bubbling."

Your feedback is important to us

Tell us what you think. Email us at

  • Film: Taylor Russell. The name Taylor Russell might not be a household one just yet, but after watching her breakthrough performance in Trey Edward Shults' domestic melodrama Waves, you may never forget her.

Midway through Waves, about a black Florida family that endures a cataclysmic tragedy, the film's weight shifts onto the shoulders of Emily, a stoic teenage girl played by Russell, 25. In a review of the movie in The New York Times, Manohla Dargis, the co-chief film critic, called Russell "an open-faced heartbreaker".

Russell connected with Emily as soon as she read a scene from the movie, she told Elle magazine last month. "I know her, I know this girl," she remembered thinking to herself. "What I love about Waves is the message of healing," Russell said, "and that nobody's perfect."

  • Theatre: Jeremy O Harris. In the most daring Broadway debut this year. Jeremy O Harris pushed boundaries with Slave Play, a show about "antebellum sexual performance therapy" that offers sexual content warnings and unflinchingly takes on the traumatising legacy of slavery on black Americans. "It is new territory for everyone," Harris recently told The New York Times. "You have to be ready for the conversation."
  • Art: Heji Shin: "I knew people would hate this exhibition," Heji Shin told Artnet News in January.

Shin, a German-Korean photographer born in 1976, was talking about her massive portraits of Kanye West (if you're drawing parallels between the size of these prints and his much discussed ego, you won't be the first).

When she shot West, she wasn't "particularly interested in his comments on slavery, if he liked Trump, or if he did his incoherent tweets," Shin said. "But it changed quickly when I saw people getting really mad." Two of the Kanye portraits and five pieces from her 2016 "Babies" series were among the most talked-about works in 2019.

"Babies" - striking shots of newborns as they crown from their mothers' vaginas - was also among 25 works of art that defined the contemporary age, according to The New York Times Style Magazine.

"Her photographs do not answer any questions," the article said. "Instead, they ask a lot of their audiences."

  • Television: Jharrel Jerome. At only 22 years old, Jharrel Jerome has awed critics and audiences. In 2016, he starred in the Best Movie Oscar winner, Moonlight. This year, in the Ava DuVernay Netflix miniseries When They See Us, his wrenching, emotionally complex portrayal of a teenage boy wrongly convicted of a brutal attack earned him a Best Actor Emmy and quite likely secured his future in Hollywood.
  • Classical music: Lise Davidsen. Lise Davidsen didn't even see an opera until she was in her 20s. Last month, at 32, she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades - "gaining a reputation as the great Wagnerian promise of her generation", as The Times put it.

"It's a one-in-a-million voice," conductor Antonio Pappano said of Davidsen, a soprano.

The show comes on the heels of her first major-label album and her acclaimed debut at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany over the summer. The Met wasted no time casting her in several shows over the next three seasons.

  • Dance: Ayodele Casel. "I want to create more experiences of joy for myself - it's all that I'm craving right now," tap dancer Ayodele Casel recently told Gia Kourlas, The Times dance critic.

Casel has been in the field for more than 20 years and inspires people to describe her with words such as illuminating, electric, mesmerising - as Aaron Mattocks, director of programming at the Joyce Theater in New York, put it. It was about time that Casel, 44, got her due, Kourlas wrote.

Other artists who garnered rave reviews include stage actress Ali Stroker, Kenyan-born narrative painter Michael Armitage and ballerina Mira Nadon. NYTIMES

BT is now on Telegram!

For daily updates on weekdays and specially selected content for the weekend. Subscribe to