Last year Gabby Sidibe was a full-time psychology student and part-time customer service representative. This year she’s likely to be an Academy Award nominee. Her breakout role in Precious has made her the very definition of an overnight star. “I’m just a girl from Harlem who ended up in the right place at the right time,” she says.
Director Lee Daniels saw 400 other girls for role of the illiterate teen, but despite Sidibe’s “absolute belief that I wasn’t going to get it” she became the latest in a string of unknowns to make the leap from obscurity to the pages of Entertainment Weekly.
Sidibe is enjoying the ride, making the rounds of talk shows and walking red carpets, but not every new star adjusts to fame as easily.
Jean Seberg is best remembered for the tabloid aspects of her life—the FBI investigation into her Black Panthers connection and multiple suicide attempts—but she was a great actress whose legacy includes Jean-Luc Godard’s classic Breathless.
Like Sidibe, Seberg was catapulted to stardom by beating out 18,000 other hopefuls to win the lead in a film, but unlike the Precious star Seberg had a rocky ride. During the filming of 1957’s Saint Joan she was literally lit on fire during one scene and later, when the film flopped, took the brunt of the blame. Seberg killed herself in 1979.
Australian model George Lazenby surprised everyone when he replaced Sean Connery in the Bond series, starring in 1968’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. “When I became famous I didn’t know how to handle it,” he said, “so it almost drove me crazy.” He quit (or was fired, depending on who you ask) after just one turn as Bond, a move he’s regretted ever since. “Without any doubt I should have gone back to do at least one more.”
Lazenby has become a benchmark on how not to manage a career, but even George seems successful compared to the stars of Zabriskie Point, a 1970 film that turned unknowns Daria Halprin and Mark Frechette into knowns—for a short time anyway. Halprin only made one more film and Frechette died five years later in prison.
If these cautionary tales of sudden fame weigh on Gabby’s mind, she’s not letting on. “I just want to do things that make me happy,” she says. “I just want to go as far as I can.”