With talent and luck, almost anyone can be famous. But it’s harder to be influential – to spark a trend, to shake up an industry, to inspire others to follow your example.
That’s why the 10 entertainers on this list are much more than pretty faces or dynamic performers.
From Laverne Cox’s gender-bending turn on “Orange is the New Black” to John Oliver’s hilarious weekly take on fake news to Taylor Swift’s bold stance against streaming-music services, these artists enjoyed breakout years while bucking the system.
Then there’s actress Jennifer Lawrence – chosen for this list by CNN’s fans on Facebook – who has set a new benchmark for celeb authenticity with her earthiness and candor.
Yes, all 10 of these pop-culture figures achieved new critical and commercial success in 2014. But they did it in fresh ways and on their own terms. We can’t wait to see what they’ll do next.
May we present the CNN 10: The Influentials.
In December 2013, Beyonce unleashed a surprise self-titled album that no one saw coming, and the world hasn’t been the same since.
In an era where nothing stays secret for long, Beyonce somehow managed to record 14 tracks and film 17 music videos without a single item leaking. And it’s not like she did it all on her own -- the superstar recruited some very famous collaborators, and yet no one beyond her circle seemingly had an inkling about “Beyonce’s” arrival.
And that’s where Bey really turned the industry’s head: After working on her record in secret and not doing an ounce of promotion, she still watched “Beyonce” skyrocket to No. 1 and go on to sell more than 2 million copies in the U.S. alone.
On top of that, the music soon permeated every aspect of pop culture, forever changing our relationships with the words “surfboard” and “flawless,” and reshaping the name “Monica Lewinsky” into a verb.
With the release of her self-titled work, Beyonce not only delivered an album that showed her artistic development. She proved just how powerful she has become -- while again topping Forbes' rankings of the top-earning women in music.
While other singers make music that fits them squarely within a particular category – ingenue, wild child or the like – Beyonce is powerful enough to step outside of those rigid definitions and create her own.
Throughout her new videos and during the many performances she conducted during her two major tours this year, she’s been a mother, a raunchy lover, a feminist and a girl just looking for a good time.
She showed that same level of control and self-possession after the now-legendary Elevator Incident from May, when cameras caught her sister, Solange, in an altercation with Bey’s husband, Jay Z. For any other celebrity, such an intimate clip would’ve unraveled the curtain that conceals how stardom’s really made.
But not Beyonce. Instead of allowing the episode to hang a shadow over her public image, she turned it into a punchline of one of her songs – a remix of "Flawless" crafted under a cloak of privacy and quietly released online without a moment’s notice.
That didn’t stop the press from jumping on rumors of trouble between the singer and her famous spouse, or the rampant gossip about just who Beyonce is behind closed doors. But have you noticed how quickly all of that chatter dissipated? It has yet to eclipse the kind of fandom that can bring the Internet to a halt over a single video release.
If anyone’s defining Beyonce, it’s going to be the artist herself.
A few years ago, Laverne Cox was best known as a reality TV contestant. Now she's a pioneer, a role model and an emerging star.
After getting her start on VH1 reality shows like “I Want to Work for Diddy,” Cox is one of the breakout stars of Netflix’s hit “Orange Is the New Black” – and she’s busting barriers along the way.
On “Orange,” Cox plays Sophia Burset, a transgender inmate who committed credit card fraud to finance her operation and hormone therapy. Cox brings an affecting humanity to her portrayal, and for many “Orange” viewers, the character may be their first exposure to a transgender person.
In July, Cox became the first openly transgender person to be nominated for an acting Emmy, just a month after she became the first openly transgender person to appear on the cover of Time magazine.
“It was a … cultural flashpoint,” Ted Sarandos, chief content officer for Netflix, told CNN after the Time cover. “In a show that is filled with characters and talent of all different shapes and colors and sizes and sexual orientations, Laverne Cox stands out as someone you don’t typically see on television.”
Knowing this, the Mississippi-born actress has used her newfound fame to raise awareness about transgender issues. She has campaigned in favor of a new California law that ensures transgender youth can participate in school activities that match their gender identity, and she produced “The T Word,” a recent MTV special that profiles seven transgender kids.
Now, Cox is throwing her influence behind “Free CeCe,” a documentary about a transgender African-American woman who served time in a men’s prison.
All this has made Cox a hero and champion to people across the country. At a recent appearance in San Francisco, she was greeted by a 6-year-old who spoke of being bullied at school.
“You’re perfect just the way you are,” Cox told the young student. “I was bullied too … and called all kinds of names. And now I’m a big TV star.”
Jimmy Fallon is all grown up.
The 40-year-old former “Saturday Night Live” cast member and “Late Night” host took over NBC’s prime real estate, the “Tonight Show,” in the beginning of 2014 with nary a glitch. What’s been revealed since is that the former “SNL” goofball – remember him as one of the Boston Teens? – knows how to expertly calibrate his act and make comedy for the masses.
Sure, he’s kept some of the impish touches he developed on “Late Night.” The Roots are still his backup band and partners in crime. He still impersonates the occasional musician. He still indulges in the viral comedy bits that helped nab him the job in the first place -- videos that routinely bring in 9 million, 11 million or even 18 million views.
But in 2014, Fallon became the undisputed man on top – and an industry unto himself.
Fallon’s “Tonight Show” remains No. 1 in late night and has even improved on Jay Leno’s numbers from last year. Moreover, Fallon has brought more young viewers into the mix, so his competition – especially ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel – hasn’t suffered as much as observers believed. His popular Lip Sync Battle has even inspired its own spinoff for Spike TV.
His impact, however, goes beyond ratings. Fallon’s ascension, thanks to the departure of longtime “Tonight” host Leno, seemed to knock over the established late-night lineup like dominoes.
David Letterman is leaving. So is Craig Ferguson. And over on cable, Chelsea Handler’s decided to sign off.
If the late-night changes caught people off guard, Fallon’s success hasn’t.
“He's the closest to (Johnny) Carson that I've seen of this generation,” “SNL” (and Fallon) producer Lorne Michaels told GQ.
And Fallon himself? He hasn’t been intimidated at all. He knows what he wants to do, and he knows who he is. He even got Barbra Streisand to sing on his show -- her first appearance on late-night TV in 51 years.
“What I do is more a variety show,” he told the New York Times. “It’s always been older in style.”
Fallon’s “Tonight” is a “new take” with an “old soul.”
Where others might hedge their bets, comedian Chelsea Handler goes all in -- with zero filter.
With her popular E! talk show “Chelsea Lately,” Handler has found success in the boys’ club of late-night talk shows. She has penned four books that made the New York Times Bestseller List -- with three landing at No. 1 -- and still does standup in her spare time.
But Handler isn’t one to settle. She blazed new trails in 2014 -- not just in entertainment but in gender politics, too.
Just when it seemed like she could own E! if she really wanted to, Handler decided to leave the network for the bolder waters of streaming content.
In June, she signed a major deal with Netflix that will allow the service to launch its first talk show in 2016, as well as a series of specials starring the comedian.
"If I was going to continue working in this industry,” Handler said in a statement, “I knew I had to do something outside the box to keep myself interested.”
In February, when The New York Times relegated her to a parenthetical aside in a story about Jimmy Fallon taking over “The Tonight Show,” Handler wrote an op-ed asking “from a purely statistical standpoint how … (I) could only be mentioned as an aside? Was it because I'm a woman?”
She asked that same question of Instagram in the fall, when she posted a photo of herself riding a horse topless, as Russian President Vladimir Putin has done. Handler captioned the image: "Anything a man can do, a woman has the right to do better.”
After Instagram took the photo down for not complying with its stance on nudity, Handler pointedly asked, "If a man posts a photo of his nipples, it's ok, but not a woman? Are we in 1825?"
On social media or elsewhere, Handler is never afraid to push for equal treatment.
“Just as I don't want to be inconsequential in any late-night discourse, I also don't want to be singled out and lauded merely because I am successful ‘for a woman,’ ” Handler wrote in her op-ed this year.
“I only want to be acknowledged for having worked hard to build an equally significant audience and fan base to those of my peers. I believe the success of any woman should never be qualified by her gender.”
Four years after her breakout role in “Winter’s Bone,” Jennifer Lawrence’s star is hotter than ever.
It’s not just because of her talent, although she has plenty. She’s been nominated for an Oscar three times in the past four years, winning for 2012’s “Silver Linings Playbook.”
And it’s not just because she’s become a force at the box office with a string of hit movies, most notably her iconic role as Katniss Everdeen in the “Hunger Games” franchise. A song she sings on the new film's soundtrack is even a hit.
The real reason why Lawrence’s reign as Hollywood’s “girl on fire” is secure is because she couldn’t care less about any of it.
The earthy, genuine Lawrence -- voted onto this list by CNN fans on Facebook -- has proved that time and time again by openly talking about bodily functions and cheerfully making fun of herself. At times she truly seemed to forget that she’s an internationally famous woman, as when she placed an order for fries on the red carpet or had an emotional breakdown over “Homeland” spoilers -- while being interviewed at the SAGs.
Through it all, Lawrence still sees herself as a girl from Louisville, Kentucky, one who was brought up to be honest and “personable and (to) make eye contact and smile at people” and to not accept that her choice of career should change any of that.
At no point this year was that more evident than when nude photos of the 24-year-old were leaked as part of a massive hack that victimized several actresses. While other famous names gave pat responses or denied the images altogether, Lawrence didn’t shy away from the controversy and offered no apologies.
“Just because I’m a public figure, just because I’m an actress, does not mean that I asked for this,” Lawrence told Vanity Fair. “It does not mean that it comes with the territory. It’s my body, and it should be my choice, and the fact that it is not my choice is absolutely disgusting. … I was in a loving, healthy, great relationship for four years. It was long distance, and either your boyfriend is going to look at porn or he’s going to look at you.”
It’s those moments of honesty that keep Lawrence relevant as well as popular. She’s on all the major lists, from “Most Beautiful” to “Sexiest,” but she’s never afraid to remind fans that she’s not just a pretty face. She’s human.
Comedians know: Timing is everything.
For John Oliver, the host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” his timing couldn’t be better.
Two years ago, Oliver was a slightly exasperated reporter on “The Daily Show,” the one who posed in front of international backdrops as the show’s Senior British Correspondent and, in Jon Stewart’s words. “whose accent falsely makes you believe you can trust him."
Then Stewart went off to make the movie “Rosewater,” and Oliver took over “The Daily Show” in his absence. He did so well that HBO came calling, and Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” debuted in April. (HBO is a division of Time Warner, as is CNN.)
On the surface, “Last Week Tonight” looked like a step backward. A weekly news comedy show? In the light-speed Internet age?
But it turns out there’s a hunger for the long, thoughtful -- and, yes, funny -- segments that Oliver has made his bread and butter (or should that be his bangers and mash?).
Not only is the show doing well in the ratings but its segments have been consistent viral hits, particularly the in-depth looks at net neutrality, drone strikes and the Miss America pageant’s scholarship program.
Critics have been rapturous, sometimes at the expense of his old boss.
“I haven't watched an entire episode of ‘The Daily Show’ or ‘The Colbert Report’ in months,” wrote New York magazine’s Matt Zoller Seitz, praising “Last Week Tonight’s” depth and ambition.
Oliver, a former standup comedian who spent six years on “The Daily Show,” modestly demurs in the English fashion. Stewart will always be the model, he’s said.
And, like Stewart, Oliver puts comedy first. He doesn’t want to be the Most Trusted Man in America.
"It's way too much responsibility, and I have no interest in accepting that,” he said. “Yeah, you have to look elsewhere. You just have to!"
Sorry, John. It’s your time.
If you buy into Hollywood’s stereotype, guys like Chris Pratt aren’t supposed to be leading men.
With his goofball charm and humble, small-town demeanor, Pratt’s the kind of actor who’s always made a perfect sidekick.
But this year, Pratt proved everyone wrong. As he transformed from a loveable schlub on “Parks and Recreation” to a ripped hero in “Guardians of the Galaxy,” Pratt did something even bigger: He’s shown the world that nice guys can win.
The actor held up not one but two blockbusters in 2014, voicing the lead character in “The Lego Movie” and leading the show in August’s “Guardians,” the top-grossing movie of 2014.
And when he’s not setting hearts aflutter by French-braiding an intern’s hair or participating in dance-offs on the set, he’s spending time with his family: his wife, actress Anna Faris, and their toddler son, Jack.
Pratt is quick to talk about his love for them both, telling GQ magazine how he vowed to make Faris his wife after her first marriage ended. As he’s put it, they’re “twin souls.”
In a way, Pratt is a throwback to the old matinee idol who seemed to live the perfect life both on and off the screen. But in his case, it doesn’t seem to be a PR-generated fabrication.
When he posted that photo of his taut “Guardians” abs on Instagram last year, he was the first person to admit the move was “kinda douchey.” Every other actor would’ve simply shared the photo and then basked in the adoring comments.
With that kind of grounded attitude, Pratt has made us believe again that hard work and being a good guy can take you far.
"I do believe in destiny. I'm lucky,” he told GQ. “But I didn't walk into 7-Eleven, buy a scratch ticket, scratch it off and star in ‘Guardians of the Galaxy.’ ”
Other showrunners make TV shows. Shonda Rhimes makes events.
With their plot twists, memorable monologues and steamy scenes, the dramas Rhimes produces – “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal” and 2014’s new “How To Get Away With Murder” -- can make for a better viewing party than a heavyweight boxing match.
Not to mention that, with her casts as diverse as they are neurotic, Rhimes is literally changing the face of network television.
This fall, ABC shrewdly handed over its entire Thursday primetime block to the prolific creator, allowing her to set up a ShondaLand playground from 8 p.m. until the 11 o’clock news. When the midseason finales for “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal” and “Murder” aired in November, the record ratings proved that if you build a Shonda shrine, the viewers will come.
The reason is simple: In a landscape where network creators are more eager to fashion a spinoff of their spinoff, Rhimes is a showrunner who embraces risk. Those chances don’t always pay off, but at least she’s willing to try. When it comes to telling a good story, Rhimes goes boldly, and we’re better off for it.
If she were afraid of following her storytelling instinct, we may still be waiting on a network TV drama that would dare to cast a black woman as its lead – something that, before “Scandal,” had not happened since 1974.
And if she was too nervous about how her stories would be received, we may still be wondering when network TV would finally show same-sex relationships with the same heat with which they depict heterosexual ones.
As Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson points out about “How To Get Away With Murder,” which was created by “Grey’s” writer Peter Nowalk under the ShondaLand banner, seeing a gay character actually “kiss and get laid and just be gay on TV” is a reminder of how rare that it is.
“I can tell you from first-hand experience that gay kids seek this stuff out desperately, while their straight peers have it in abundance,” Lawson writes. The show, he says, "hints at what the most mainstream of television could look like in just a few years -- open, inclusive, diverse in an easy, natural way.”
As long as we have Shonda Rhimes, that day isn’t far away.
Who knew that there was so much steel beneath Taylor Swift’s girly-girl exterior?
Up until 2014, Swift was better known for loving up on her fans and exacting lyrical revenge on her exes. But with the arrival of her October release, “1989,” Swift proved she’s not just a pop star. She’s also a shrewd and powerful businesswoman.
It's the savvy next step in the evolution of a singer who launched her career in country music at the age of 16 and has weathered critics who have griped her relationships were mostly fodder for publicity -- and song material.
In the wake of the megasuccess of “1989,” her first true pop album and the only one this year to sell a million copies its first week, Swift made what appeared to be a shocking and expensive play: She yanked her entire catalog from music-streaming service Spotify.
According to the head of Spotify, Swift’s decision cost her $6 million. It was a choice the singer seemed to hint at in a 2014 essay for the Wall Street Journal.
“Music is art, and art is important and rare,” she wrote. “Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. It's my opinion that music should not be free, and my prediction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album's price point is. I hope they don't underestimate themselves or undervalue their art.”
Swift showed the world that not only does she understand her own value as an entertainer, she’s willing to go against the tide to make sure others do, too.
With seven shiny Grammy Awards on his mantel and the title of Billboard’s Producer of the Decade, Pharrell Williams is no new kid on the block.
He’s written and produced music for some of the biggest names in the industry. From Britney Spears’ “I’m A Slave 4 U” to Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” from hip-hop to pop to several genres in between, Williams has for years been the industry’s chief supplier of chart-topping hits.
But just when you think he might have reached his peak, he makes you think again. People can’t get enough of Williams’ sonic and sartorial creativity, and what he does sticks.
That’s in no small part because he knows how to make people smile.
This year, Pharrell made the world groove with his unforgettably upbeat ode to joy, “Happy.” The single came from the “Despicable Me 2” soundtrack, of all places, and it earned an Oscar nod in the best original song category. In February, Billboard announced that “Happy” had become the highest-charting Oscar-nominated song in more than a decade.
The sunny tune inspired a movement of "Happy"-themed videos from around the world, from Dakar to Detroit. So many people were inspired to capture their moments of bliss while dancing to the song that Williams was moved to tears.
"It's overwhelming because ... I love what I do," he told Oprah Winfrey in April. "I just appreciate the fact that people have believed in me for so long, that I could make it to this point to feel that."
While he was making the awards-show rounds this year, Williams again did it his own way. While everyone else strode the red carpet in their best sequins, he wore a track jacket and a gigantic Vivienne Westwood hat.
The headgear was so outlandish that it quickly took on a life, and several Internet memes, of its own. Williams laughed along with the rest of us and then, just like with his song, used his influence for good. He auctioned off the now-famous hat on eBay to benefit his charity for at-risk children, From One Hand to AnOther.
The lucky winner? Arby’s. And the restaurant chain was happy to have “their” hat back.