“All I’ve ever wanted,” says Ariel Winter, “is to be normal.” It’s a simple wish, to be sure, but for the actress, who plays Alex, the middle child of the lovable Dunphy clan on Modern Family, a normal life may seem a little less within reach. Especially on a crazy Tuesday afternoon, when everything—just everything—seems to be coming to a head: “My birthday party is Saturday, I start school—I’ve been homeschooled since the second grade—next Wednesday, and I’m about to release my first-ever solo cover on YouTube,” says the fifteen-year-old, pausing for breath. “And the SAG Awards are this weekend. I seriously have no idea what I’m going to wear!”
Despite the confluence of major events, Ariel is as poised and sweet as can be. The Los Angeles native, who always knew she wanted to be a performer (she’s been acting since the age of four), appeared in shows from ER to Bones before landing her breakout role on Modern Family. The character was an instant natural fit. “Alex and I definitely have similar traits—she’s not the girl who’s superobsessed with her looks or going out with boys. We’re both snarky, and we both value education. She makes it OK for girls to want to be smart,” she says. Ariel does take pains to point out one major difference: their fashion sense. “Alex dresses like a tomboy. I’d describe my look as girly-edgy. I like black nail polish and eyeliner, but I’ll wear them with pink shoes,” says Ariel (who, true to the description, is wearing a black oversize sweater—with a fuzzy white mohair heart on it).
In addition to obvious perks like fame, acclaim (Modern Family has won more than eighteen awards to date), and glamour (Valentino asked to dress her for the Golden Globes), the show has also provided her with a support system during a trying real-life family situation that put the actress under the microscope in recent months. Last year, Ariel’s older sister was appointed her guardian amid allegations against their mother of physical and emotional abuse. (Their mother has a denied all claims of abuse.) Since then, Ariel has moved in with her sister and brother-in-law, and she’s been making up for lost time. ” I didn’t know my sister much growing up, and I wasn’t really allowed to see her. I know now that my sister is the type of person I’d aspire to grow up to be like. It’s really interesting how close you can get with somebody in such a short period.”
Her new living situation has also brought happiness in other areas of her life. “I had body insecurities when I was younger. I still do. Every girl has insecurities—mine were heightened at the time because my mother wasn’t supportive,” she notes. (Court documents filed by her sister included allegations that their mother insulted Ariel’s weight and deprived her of food.) “Now, my sister is always making sure to tell me that I look beautiful.” These days, self-acceptance is a message she tries to pay forward to friends and fans alike: “They’ll say, ‘This person’s prettier,’ and I’ll respond, ‘You are amazing, incredible, and perfect the way you are.’ It’s about learning to love yourself.”
For the first time, Ariel is contending with house rules like babysitting and curfews—not that she’s complaining. “I’ve never had a curfew before. My life is definitely more normal—and that’ll help me grow up like I’m supposed to. Like, I always wanted to be a dancer, and now I’m taking dance classes,” she says. “And I didn’t have many friends. It was all about work. Nowadays, my sister’s like, ‘You’re supposed to have friends. You’re supposed to go out on Friday and Saturday nights.'” Where does Ariel go on her day off? “I love going to Disneyland and Six Flags,” she says. “I recently went to Six Flags with a few of my friends and my sister and brotherin- law. I could go on every roller coaster 30 times and be so happy. Sunday we have family dinner. It’s just a different experience for me because I have more of a family life. I’m really happy.” The only downside to the situation, she says, has been the inevitable media brouhaha that accompanies being young, enormously successful, and in the public eye. “Dealing with paparazzi has been hard,” she admits. “Just yesterday, I was with my friends, trying to go to American Apparel, and they popped out of nowhere.” And while some starlets might court tabloid attention, Ariel is decidedly against it. “I want to be the kind of actress where, if I’m in the press, I’m in for the right reasons—for my work. To be in the press about family drama is kind of embarrassing.”
Luckily, Ariel has a lot to keep her distracted. She’s experiencing one of the hallmarks of “normal” teen life—learning to drive—and, of course, starting at her new school. “When people ask me where I go to school, I’ll finally actually have a school to say, not ‘Oh, the online school,’ ” she says with a laugh. And while her workweek isn’t exactly lax (Modern Family’s producers are adapting their filming schedule to accommodate her school schedule), she’s already planning her extracurricular activities (“I’m auditioning for the cheerleading team. I dance and do gymnastics, so I hope that helps”) and going to prom. “I’ve always wanted to go to a school dance,” she says. “I hope I get asked.” And, finally, there is the not-so-small matter of dipping her toes in another industry: music. “I’m trying to get the word out there that I sing. I was writing some of my own songs, and one day I said, ‘I really want to do this,’ ” says Ariel, who signed with music managers, recorded a cover (a take on Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble”), and posted it to her YouTube channel. “Hopefully I’ll be recording an album one day.”
Another perk of Modern Family being nominated at nearly every award show is the people she meets. “I saw 50 Cent at the Golden Globes, and I almost died. I am obsessed with rap music,” she says. “I took a picture with him. I was like, ‘I kind of love you.’ And he was like, ‘I love you,’ ” she sighs. A normal occurrence for Ariel? “My sister and I are in the car together, and we’re blasting 50 Cent like these little nerds.”
Between acting, singing, starting high school, and the dust settling on her family issues, Ariel is the first person to admit she has a lot going on, and she’s going nowhere but up. “I’m adjusting to life and adjusting to new situations. Everyone’s like, ‘What do you want to be?’ And I reply, ‘Well, do you want the short answer or the not-so-short answer?’ ” she jokes. “I have all these crazy ideas of what I want to be—I would be an FBI agent or a forensic scientist if I weren’t an actor or singer. Or I’ll just go to film school and I’ll be a director and a writer. I guess I’m a bit of a dreamer.”