They sold books, movies, albums and TV shows, and sometimes, their own celebrity. They took political stands, fought back against trolls and defied expectations, fighting against injustice and telling their own stories, joyfully and sometimes painfully.
But along the way, they also entertained us with their talent, audacity and charm, singing, acting, writing or performing (in one way or another) into America’s hearts.
USA TODAY picks these 10 stars of their fields as its most powerful entertainers of the year, ranging from bestsellers to up-and-comers, and from the already super famous to others you may not barely heard of.
America clearly still loves Taylor Swift. The 29-year-old pop superstar’s seventh studio album, “Lover,” released in August, was hailed by fans and critics alike, with a string of favorable reviews including USA TODAY‘s, which called it “less focused and more open-hearted” than anything she’s released since “Red.” When the album debuted at No. 1 on Billboard, it was the biggest sales week since her previous album, “Reputation” in 2017. Swift again topped the Forbes highest-paid celebrity list, beating out billionaire Kylie Jenner. The “You Need to Calm Down” singer also took stands in 2019, advocating for the pro-LGBTQ Equality Act and slamming Big Machine’s sale of her previous masters to Scooter Braun, whom Swift accused of “incessant, manipulative bullying.” Swift will receive the artist of the decade award at the American Music Awards on Nov. 24, when she has a chance to break Michael Jackson’s record for most wins.
Meghan, Duchess of Sussex
Duchess Meghan proved she’s far from your average royal in 2019. The former Hollywood actress and wife of Prince Harry welcomed baby Archie in May, and stepped out a few days later, showing a postpartum body that many moms could relate to. In the months that followed, she launched a clothing line in support of unemployed women searching for jobs, guest edited British Vogue and fought back against cruel media speculation. The final months of 2019 saw Meghan, 38, standing up for herself when she and Harry sued UK tabloids following an onslaught of negative headlines. She told her version of the year she had in a recent ITV documentary.
Kim Kardashian, who for years elicited eye rolls as someone who’s famous for being famous, found the secret to using her celebrity to influence public policy. Kardashian, 39, who boasts a staggering 150 million Instagram followers, this year announced she plans to become a lawyer, and expects to take the bar exam in 2022. The move, which seemed shocking to those who haven’t been following her closely, came after Kardashian developed a passion for prison reform that began as she convinced President Trump to commute Alice Marie Johnson’s life sentence for a non-violent offense. Since then, Kardashian has been closely involved in the First Step Act and found time in the middle of her busy year to launch a shapeware line (to some controversy) and welcome a fourth child. Meanwhile, her family’s E! series, “Keeping up with the Kardashians,” is now in its 17th season, and she was named Forbes‘ 26th highest-paid entertainer of 2019, thanks partly to her cosmetics line, KKW Beauty.
Nobody would have blamed Margaret Atwood if she had rested on her laurels and soaked up the adulation. More than 30 years after it was published in 1985, her novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” was enjoying rare renewed success. That’s thanks in part to the success of the Hulu TV series, but also because of the frightening new relevance many saw in the dystopian story, in which the United States has turned into totalitarian Gilead and women have been stripped of their rights. Instead, the grande dame of Canadian literature got writing, and at the age of 79 published her classic’s much longed-for sequel, “The Testaments.” While “Handmaid’s Tale” offered a warning, “The Testaments” offers hope. It’s a stirring call to action that won Atwood this year’s Booker Prize.
Whoa! Keanu Reeves had 2019’s most fun comeback, gifting movie lovers with a summer to remember. Reeves, 55, absolutely killed as the well-dressed assassin of “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum,” thrilled as insecure Canadian action figure Duke Caboom in “Toy Story 4,” and filled hearts by stealing the Netflix romantic comedy “Always Be My Maybe.” Even better, the Internet’s new boyfriend proved to be the sweetest dude offscreen, too. With more “Bill & Ted” and “Matrix” on the way, the Keanuaissance could be around for a while – and we couldn’t be happier.
What a year for Black Widow. After taking center stage in the highest grossing film of all time (“Avengers: Endgame”) Scarlett Johansson, 34, is closing out 2019 with a pair of stellar films that will likely send her to the Oscars: “Jojo Rabbit” and “Marriage Story.” The year wasn’t snafu-free; the actress came under fire for her views on casting, but Johansson explained herself and then went back to work, recently completing principal photography for her long-awaited “Black Widow” standalone film (due May 1), which she’s also producing. Named by Forbes as 2019’s highest paid-actress, she’s also heading down the aisle: In May, ScarJo became engaged to “Saturday Night Live” head writer Colin Jost after two years of dating.
You may never have heard of Phoebe Waller-Bridge, or “Fleabag,” the Amazon comedy she produces, writes and acts in, until the 2019 Emmys. But after she walked out of TV’s biggest night with three major awards (beating juggernaut “Veep”), you won’t forget the infinitely charming star. Waller-Bridge, 34, is this year’s breakout, and not just for the exquisite second season of “Fleabag” or adding the term “Hot Priest” to the zeitgeist. She won another Emmy nomination for BBC America’s “Killing Eve,” which she created; hosted “Saturday Night Live”; and brought the “Fleabag” stage show to Broadway. Waller-Bridge also scored a job writing the new Bond movie, “No Time to Die.” To quote one of her many acceptance speeches, Fleabag (and the rest of us) say thanks for all that, Phoebe.
Kelly Clarkson made a huge splash on the small screen this year, a fitting outcome for a Grammy-winning, platinum-selling singer who became a star on TV’s “American Idol.” Clarkson, 37, launched daytime talk’s No. 4 series (and highest-rated new entry) “The Kelly Clarkson Show” – which she opens with an audience-pleasing musical cover – while keeping her night job as a coach on NBC’s popular singing competition, “The Voice.” She hosted the Billboard Music Awards, too, even though she was suffering from appendicitis. Away from TV, she voiced a character in the film “Ugly Dolls” and recorded an upcoming (and more P.C.) update of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” with John Legend. Her 2020 schedule already is filling up with a 16-show Las Vegas residency that starts in April.
Lil Nas X
Lil Nas X took “Old Town Road” on a record-breaking run this year, challenging music industry’s expectations and cultural stereotypes. The singer’s “Old Town Road” climbed Billboard’s Country music charts, only to be disqualified for “not embracing enough elements of today’s country music.” Rallying, Lil Nas X brought on Billy Ray Cyrus, and the country-rap song soared to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart, where it reigned for a record-breaking 19 weeks to become the longest-running No. 1 hit in history. His success bolstered black Western culture, with African American cowboys and cowgirls cheering him along. At the end of Pride Month in June, the 20-year-old from Atlanta announced to his 1.4 million Twitter followers he is gay, garnering support from friends like Miley Cyrus and personally facing down homophobic comments online.
When America is at its best, it makes possible the success of a talent as singular as Vuong’s. The celebrated poet and MacArthur Fellow, who’s 31, this year published his first novel, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” a stunning autobiographical account of a queer Vietnamese immigrant coming of age and into his sexuality, dogged by familial trauma from the Vietnam War and the specter of the looming opioid crisis. It’s a riot of feeling and sensation spanning decades in the form of a letter to his illiterate mother, pushing literary boundaries and reshaping the definition of the novel to fit the contours of his poetic exploration. No one’s written more luminous, heart-stopping prose this year.
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