A Unicorn in a World of Donkeys

A Guide to Life for All the Exceptional, Excellent Misfits Out There


By Mia Michaels

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An empowerment manifesto for creatives, misfits, innovators, and disruptors from the star of So You Think You Can Dance and creator of Broadway’s Finding Neverland

A Unicorn in a World of Donkeys offers a playbook for living a creative and authentic life. Using her own story as a launching spot, and creative quizzes, charts, and lists to engage the reader in an interactive journey, Mia Michaels explores the experience of the unicorn in a world of donkeys, a world where fitting in, pleasing others, following rules, and maintaining norms-no matter how messed up those norms are-is the only acceptable path. She acknowledges the struggles of the unicorn life-loneliness, ridicule, being misunderstood and undervalued-and goes on encourage readers to reframe the unicorn life the way she has, as essential to a life of brilliance.





Unicorns are the originals of the universe.

I am one of them.

Nothing about my life has been “normal.” It’s certainly not “normal” to have had model parents—and, by model, I definitely don’t mean “perfect.” My parents were actual models, beautiful hippies from the 1960s. My father, Joe Michaels, was the original square-jawed, flinty-eyed Marlboro Man with a mustache, a cowboy hat, a horse, and, of course, the cigarette. My mom, Ruth Johnson, was one of the Bunnies at the original Playboy Club in Miami Beach. She had sexy Swedish curves and platinum blonde hair that fell all the way down to her cottontail. The Marlboro Man and the Playboy Bunny met at a nightclub in Manhattan one random night, and didn’t leave each other’s side for the next fifty years, which isn’t so normal either these days.

After fleeing the predatory world of modeling in New York, my parents left the city behind and followed the sun all the way down to Coconut Grove, Florida, to find whatever work they could, which, ironically, turned out to be more modeling. My sister, Dana, was born first, followed by me three and a half years later. At the time, my parents lived on a houseboat called The Meatball (they had meatballs in common, culturally: Dad’s family was Italian and Mom’s was Swedish). My nickname from infancy was Bam Bam, like the Flintstones character, because of my supernatural strength. Mom told stories about seeing the furniture suddenly start moving, and then finding me in diapers behind it, pushing my little heart out with one hand while sucking my thumb with the other.

The Meatball wasn’t much more than a floating shack, and even my antiestablishment parents didn’t think it was a safe place to raise a young family after I threw myself in the bay from my high chair. Soon enough we moved to dry land, to a house that was, we would soon learn, haunted with ghosts and spirits. Most of the mysterious noises and moving or disappearing objects were in the living room. At night, you could hear the sound of glasses tinkling and people laughing, as if there was a perpetual, spectral cocktail party in there. Totally true story: when we moved out several years later, the new owner called my dad and said he’d been doing some renovations. Then he asked, “Did you know a steel pentagram was built into the roof?” Uh, no. Mom did a little research and we found out the house had been originally designed and constructed by a medical doctor who was known to be a practicing warlock. He regularly held parties and séances for his coven in the living room where we heard all those ghostly party noises. In this haunted house, I spent the formative years of my life.

So not normal.

In my very early years, I wore metal braces on my legs and special shoes on my feet—aka, the Forrest Gump kiss of death. I had an uncommon (but not unheard of) childhood limb growth discrepancy. My hip, leg, and feet bones weren’t developing at the same rate, making one foot bigger, and my hips turned inward. Walking was difficult, and my movements were jerky and spastic. To go anywhere, just walking across the room or down the hallway at school, I had to fight for every inch of progress. Remember, this was in Florida, where wearing long, heavy pants to hide the braces wasn’t a practical option.

My looks were always considered bizarre. I was taller and thicker than anyone in my class, including the boys. The other kids looked at me like I was an alien with my odd physical strength. I once picked a girl up and threw her into a wall for stealing my teddy bear. (She never touched my teddy bear again!) So, when the other kids called me a “retard” and “fatso” they did it from a safe distance.

Needless to say, I didn’t have a lot of friends. I learned very early on that the strangest, most misunderstood, least apologetic person in the room is usually her own best company.


When my parents gave up modeling for good and supported their family by getting real jobs, they didn’t get “normal” ones, like teacher or lawyer. Dad, who’d never danced professionally, decided to open a dance studio in our new house, and Mom sat at the front desk and managed the place. He’d always been a dance lover, taking Dana and me to New York City every year for a week of Broadway shows, dance performances, and ballets. I was rapturously entranced by the ballerinas and fantasized about becoming one, despite my physical problems and my unusual size. I developed excellent technique from growing up in a dance studio my whole childhood. When I turned twelve, my well-meaning teachers at the after-school arts program thought I was too fat and rebellious to be a ballerina. They advised me of the only realistic options: (1) starve myself, or (2) quit ballet. I could have food or my dream, but not both.

At this point, the “normal” thing to do for a big-boned girl like me would have been to quit ballet in frustration and resentment, hate myself, and go crawl under a rock (a large one). I was a great dancer, I just didn’t look like one. I couldn’t let my dream die without a fight, though, so I tried starvation on and off for a solid week. Needless to say, severe calorie restriction didn’t last. I love food way too much. In a fit of frustration with not losing weight and my disgust with required thinness, I stopped dieting and dancing in one fell swoop.

To fill the vacuum that quitting created, I hung out with the wrong crowd and did drugs. My wasted teenage years stand as the most self-destructive and confused time of my life. I lost my center, a sense of who I was, and spun wildly out of control, even dropping out of high school just a few weeks before graduation. My parents kept telling me that my life didn’t make sense without dance because I had a calling, and they were right. With my options limited, I grudgingly put my leotards back on and started teaching classes at Dad’s studio. Rediscovering my first love felt like a homecoming. I got myself back together, I went back to school and earned my GED and threw myself into a renewed life, with dance and creativity at its core.

The warrior was born. I realized I’d been fighting the same fight—to be 100 percent myself and focused on realizing my dreams—the whole time. Dana went to college and later medical school. That was right for her. For me, college would have been like pushing the PAUSE button on my life, while every impulse in my body and mind told me to punch PLAY. I didn’t care what people were supposed to do, or what was typical, expected, or normal. I had a dream, and no one—including my darker self—was going to tell me to give up on it.

I’ve had plenty of ups and downs as I’ve galloped my way on what I call “the Rainbow Path” of creativity and outside-the-mainstream living and dreaming. Every time I was knocked down, I got back up and found that my Unicorn horn—the mark of being different, magical, unmatched—got a little longer and thicker. I don’t feel like I’ve reached the stratosphere of creativity I’m aiming for—yet. I’ve been applauded by some for being “bold and innovative” and criticized in equal measure by others for being “difficult and too risky.” Many times in the last thirty years of my professional life, I’ve wondered, “What the hell have I gotten myself into?” But in my heart, I always knew that the unconventional life was my only option, however terrifying it can be.

How could I be anything but strange? I was the weirdest kid in the room at five, and I’m still the oddest person to walk into the room at fifty. Most of my adult experiences, good and bad, relate back to my peculiar childhood and have contributed to making me an extraordinary human being. It took many years on a forever-steep learning curve to figure out how to be me unapologetically and to accept every bizarre part of my past. When I stopped worrying about having friends, or being fat, or following a predictable path, or trying to be a commercially sellable artist, I began to come into my own. By standing strong in my uniqueness and walking with faith in a universal, positive energy and in myself, I found my power and glory. When I was a young girl, I felt I had to push and fight for every inch. Later on, my movements as a choreographer came from a place of exploding out of confinement into freedom. What once held me back eventually propelled me forward. It took a while, but I clued in to the power of transformative magic and created a unique vocabulary to communicate it to others. Audiences understood and felt the proud, humble, unapologetic glory of my message. As I created more and took even greater risks, I came into my full power as an artist and a woman. Mia Michaels, Queen Unicorn, was unleashed.

My struggle became my friend. The abnormality turned into creativity. Creativity turned into connection. Connection gave me the life, success, and career I have now.

I didn’t know it would play out this way while I was suffering through childhood, of course. Hindsight has its advantages. If I’d known at five and six that I’d learn to translate pain into power and beauty, the daily teasing and exclusion might have been easier to take. For that matter, if I’d known that career setbacks would eventually turn into cannons that propelled me forward, I wouldn’t have stressed out as much between jobs. From where I sit now, I have the perspective that my uniqueness is my everything. It’s where I want to live every day of my life. It’s given me the friends, inspiration to make art, and the confidence to walk the streets of New York like an elegant badass banshee woman. In my profession, I defied the odds by being odd. I’m a heavyset middle-aged single straight woman at the pinnacle of success in a field that worships skinny young gay men. How did that happen? It’s because I’m a loud, proud Unicorn and I wear my horn like a crown.

By accepting your oddness as your greatest gift:

You can take the shortcut to glory.

You can feel comfortable in your skin.

You can turn negatives into positives.

A common theme I’ve heard from artists and makers across every creative field—from chefs to stand-up comics, writers, and innovators—is that when you stop trying to be like someone else and doing what others expect of you, when you let go of ego and insecurity, magic finally happens.

Your life can be a magic carpet ride—you just have to make the conscious decision to live it that way. Magic is all around us if you choose to see it. Choose to be a Unicorn. Access your uniqueness and let it shine.

My father, Joe, was born a Unicorn, and he remained one until his last breath.

Like most Marlboro Men, he was struck with lung cancer and battled the disease for the better part of a year before he succumbed to it. At seventy-five, with his family around him, he spoke his final words, “Wasn’t that fun? Wasn’t life just so much fun? That was a great ride.” I was leaning down over him when he said it, and I literally inhaled his last breath. I was in awe of the love and gratitude he expressed about his journey here and how he used his ultimate seconds on Earth to reaffirm his choice to live for fun and laughter and to the fullest in every moment. He really wrung life out to its core. It was one of the most inspiring, indelible moments of my life to date. I was crying with love and bursting with gratitude. Those three words “that was fun” were the biggest gift he gave me, other than life itself.

My mom Ruth’s passing was the opposite experience for me.

After my dad died, except for going to church, she gradually isolated herself from the world. My sister and I both encouraged her to travel, to have an adventure or two. She was free to do anything or go anywhere. “It’s time to live, Mom. Don’t hold back in your Golden Years,” I said. Instead, she stayed home alone and sank into bitterness, fear, and loneliness. She never got what she thought she deserved in her marriage, her life, and her relationships, she told us. Negativity seemed to accumulate inside her, and she wasn’t able or willing to lift herself out of it. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a few years after Dad died.

In her final days, she was miserably unhappy, and it seemed to me she was angry with God for not healing her, despite dedicating her later life to her faith as a minister. At the end, she didn’t feel gratitude or joy. It was painful to witness. Mom was born a Unicorn, with her exceptional energy and outlook. She didn’t get what she thought she deserved, and, I believe, negativity, fear, and unforgiveness snuffed out her spark.

From watching my parents’ final moments, I saw life’s choices split down the middle, between acceptance and joy or bitterness and resentment.

Obviously, we all want to choose acceptance and joy. But when life is hard, when you don’t fit in and find yourself grasping to hang your pain on someone else’s shoulders, bitterness and resentment look pretty tempting.

Resist, Unicorns.

When you give in to the pressure to act normal, bitterness can show up. You can fight the pressure by choosing to be as authentically weird as you are, letting your horn iridescently glow. I’m not saying it’s easy to stand tall in your uniqueness when your peers, teachers, and even your family tell you to suppress your true nature. They all agree! Are they all wrong?

Were all of my dance teachers wrong to tell me to be skinny?

You bet my big ass they were!

If doubt and insecurity dominate your thoughts, your horn could dry up and fall off. Push back against the tyranny of basic. Love that you have a huge, magical glowing horn sticking out of your forehead. Wear it proudly! Shine it up.

I’m grateful for every time I’ve been humiliated, shunned, stoned, insulted, misunderstood, and underestimated. Having survived hardships—the ones I’ve already told you about, and many more you’ll read in upcoming chapters—is my superpower. They made my Unicorn hide bulletproof. They’ve reinforced

my faith in myself. I’ve made a name for myself and love my extraordinary life. I still don’t fit in, but I’m celebrated as a unique being.

All Unicorns can find happiness and success if they recognize that their differences are what make them strong and beautiful, that their uniqueness, once it is polished and defined, will attract and amaze others. Unicorns have the power to shift the universe with their passion and perspective, but only if they, like my father, choose joy over bitterness.

As you read this book, you’ll explore Unicorn problems and challenges and how you can jump over each and every one of them to be the ultimate expression of yourself. My personal stories will serve as examples of what you should and shouldn’t do to reach your full God-given potential in your life, loves, and passions. I’ll introduce you to dozens of other Unicorns, famous and not-so-famous, who have wisdom to share about pushing yourself to new heights and consoling yourself at low points. By reading this book, your heart and mind will open up to the wonders around you and the magic and strength inside.

The truth is, none of us is “normal.” We’re all unique because we were made that way. “Normal” is just an illusion that Donkeys—the mainstream, the trend followers and rule enforcers—perpetuate so that they feel less afraid. Denying your individuality because you’re scared, insecure, or frustrated has consequences. Fighting or hiding your true nature to fit into a standard is a recipe for depression, boredom, addiction, self-harm, and a life of extreme blandness. I’ve seen it happen too many times among my students. When I think of the wasted joy and creativity, because of fear, I just want to cry.

The stakes are high for Unicorns to live an authentic life. If they can do it, they have so much to offer the whole world. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for people who use their gifts. With guidance and encouragement, young and young-at-heart artists can break new pavement and reimagine what’s possible. Leaders can overcome social pressure to conform, turn hate into love and fear into hope. We need more Unicorns to stand up and show themselves, and we need these shining stars to take our beautiful planet into the future.

But how? How to go from Donkeyish fear and ego to the confidence and courage of a pure Unicorn?

As a teacher and choreographer, I practice tough love that yields incredible results. I can be hard on my students, but they call me Mama Mia because they know I care and that it comes from love. I want nothing but the world for them. My goal is to help them tap into their greatest potential and find their best selves. They wouldn’t flock to me if I weren’t validating, nurturing, and drawing out the power they already have existing inside of them.

In other words, “The Unicorn in you has got to come forward.”

The first lesson I teach? On the opening day of a workshop, the students are always sizing one another up. I can see the insecurity on their faces as they compare and despair. Do they have the right clothes? The right attitude? The right look? I shut that shit down ASAP by saying, “The world worships the original. Don’t look to the left or the right. Don’t do what everyone else does or what you think I want to see.”

When they stop comparing and are just themselves, I see a real change. It’s not an easy task to guide them through it, but it’s gratifying and miraculous to watch their discovery of self every time, as if a real Unicorn has just trotted into the room.

I hope to replicate the freedom and wonder of that transformation for you as you read this book and to guide you through it.

Make no mistake: a little help is required as you begin the process of upping your essential Unicornness. Unless you’ve been through it already, you will have questions, such as:

What can I expect if I really go for it and just be myself?

What are the roadblocks on the Rainbow Path?

How do I mix the magical world inside my head and the nonmagical one outside it?

What if being myself makes me feel even more alone?

How do I use my uniqueness to create a joyful, unconventional life?

On these pages, I’ll air out your private terrors and dreams. I know what they are, having had them myself. Often, students look at me with stunned recognition, like someone is speaking their language for the first time. It’s a glorious moment of truth for them and for me, but the real magic begins when I lay out the secrets of the Rainbow Path they’re going to walk as they push their Unicorn quotient as far as it can go.

The heart of this book is the process, the journey of getting from confusion to confidence, from Donkey disguises to Unicorn pride. You have to find out and discover what your truth is. Your vision and instincts are what make you… you.

Along the path, you have a lot to learn and develop. I’ve organized the journey of empowerment into twelve steps. Each one contains all the necessary methods and strategies to make you even more undeniably singular and extraordinary.

Step One: Respect. You were born a Unicorn. You might not know it now, but the horn is your jackpot. Treasure and value it.

Step Two: Authenticity. To be “real,” you have to stop being fake. Easier said than done in a culture that prizes #blessed and #humblebrag over genuine gratitude and humility. To polish your pure Unicorn heart, you have to banish ego and entitlement.

Step Three: Courage. Some corners of the magical forest are dark. Unicorns are often targets of bullying and they carry their hurts and scars through life. Every bad thing you face turns you into a more fascinating, evolved Unicorn if you transform negatives into positives and learn from them.

Step Four: Toughness. You will face a lot of criticism and rejection along the way, as does everyone. It’s not a question of “if,” but “when?” and “how bad?” You have to grow a thick hide so that insults and rejections bounce off.

Step Five: Connection. Every human being has social and emotional needs, and they can best be fulfilled by spending time with people who reinforce your best self. It’s my observation that Donkeys tend to be extroverted and Unicorns are more introverted, but there are no absolutes. Even solitary Unicorns need genuine, deep, trusted friendships as well as a strong connection to the true self within.

Step Six: Fear. Use fear to your advantage. Whenever you feel your heart speed up and your palms sweat, take it as a sign you’re on the right track.

Step Seven: Faith. If you don’t believe, you can’t jump feet first into the unknown, which is what all Unicorns must do. With faith in yourself (and God, Universal Energy, or whatever your faith is) you can make that leap. By believing in and trusting the magical/spiritual world, you can be part of it.

Step Eight: Inspiration. Unicorns are naturally curious creatures and have a bottomless thirst to listen, see, read, and travel. Learning has to be a lifelong pursuit. Seek and find inspiration to add rings to your horn every day of your life.

Step Nine: Motivation. It’s not enough to appreciate art and life. Unicorns are compelled to create. Ideas come fast and furious for Unicorns, but it takes motivation to bring those ideas to life.

Step Ten: Restoration. Don’t forget to stop and smell the wildflowers every once in a while. Take an occasional mental and physical break to restore and recover, and you’ll be rewarded for the rest with even more brilliant ideas.

Step Eleven: Cooperation. Although Unicorns are magical, they still have to live in the real world and deal with people. It helps to know some tricks about collaborating with Donkeys, other Unicorns, and hybrids and how to bounce back if things go to shit.

Step Twelve: Evolution. Unicorns never stop seeking, growing, and evolving, which is why your greatest years and work always lie ahead.

Unicorns, I’ll teach you every single step, forward and backward, inside and out, starting with the first and most important step of all: learning to respect the gift of your uniqueness!


UNICORN: An exceptional person who revels in his or her peculiarity, despite the tremendous pressure—from parents, teachers, friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, society in general—to be just like everyone else. Unicorns shine brightest when they don’t hide their inner weirdo. They don’t try to look like anyone else. They don’t compare themselves to other people. Their lives often start out rough. They don’t fit in and that might make them ashamed at first, but they learn that being different—like, say, having a big horn sticking out of your forehead—is their greatest gift. Underneath their glitter layer is a gritty one; they are made of one part pixie dust, one part cement. No one knows what to expect from them, and that unpredictability might make people a bit nervous. Unicorns are, in fact, constantly surprising themselves and others with strange, brilliant, and risky ideas and revelations, as if they see things from a fifth dimension or through a magical lens. Their finest creative work sometimes comes from a dark place, but they trip the light fantastic in everyday existence, deriving immense joy from small things. Unicorns can’t help but stand out in their originality. Unicorns can shift the planet on its axis, like Prince, Bowie, and Gaga. Being a Unicorn isn’t about talent, per se. It’s about having a unique, offbeat quality that they are brave enough to share with the world.

DONKEY: One who blends, a member of the crowd. Someone who goes along to get along and who feels uncomfortable veering too far from the mainstream. Donkeys believe conformity is a good thing, and they set the goal of being universally accepted and loved. Because standing out makes them jittery, Donkeys constantly judge their fashion choices, weight, and social status by comparing themselves to others. A sense of belonging is vital to their happiness, and when life circumstances drive them close to the fringe, they fight hard to get back to their safe place in the middle. They try to look like a Kardashian or a Chris (Pine, Evans, Pratt, or Hemsworth). They follow trends instead of setting them. It’s not that they aspire to basicness but that the choices they make lead them to live a predictable, conventional, safe life. However, nearly all Donkeys do have a golden, magical nugget of Unicorn inside them, but it might be buried so deep in their psyche that they don’t know it’s there, which is a shame. If they have the bravery to fan that spark of uniqueness into a raging fire, they can overcome insecurity, fear, and ego and reach their true and highest potential.




  • "One word describes Mia Michaels . . . FEARLESS! Everything she touches goes beyond expectations. Which says a lot because the expectations on her are always high. Working with her was such a highlight of my career because I've always been such a fan. That fearlessness is perfectly translated into this book. C'mon, it's Mia, you already know that this book is going to be incredible before you even open the cover!"
    --Matthew Morrison, TV star of Glee, actor, dancer, and singer-songwriter
  • "Mia embodies magic in her dance. It's no wonder she now runs with unicorns. Young artists, buy this book!"
    --Kristin Chenoweth, Tony-winning actress and singer
  • "Mia is a force of nature! She has an infectious energy that inspires you to want to create with her."
    --Heidi Klum, model, TV host, producer, fashion designer
  • "Mia Michaels's unique style, storytelling ability, and demand of excellence from her dancers makes her a standout in the field of choreography. She is a true, magical unicorn in a world of donkeys."
    --Nigel Lythgoe, producer of American Idol and creator, executive producer, and judge on So You Think You Can Dance

  • "Entertaining and spirited, this no-nonsense guide will speak to those seeking to discover their true capabilities."—Publishers Weekly
  • "Mamma Mia! We've missed having Mia's choreography on the 'SYT' stage every week. But this lovely opening routine was worth the wait. . . . Mia, you're a legend."

    --Dance Spirit magazine

On Sale
May 1, 2018
Page Count
224 pages
Seal Press

Mia Michaels

About the Author

Mia Michaels was an Emmy Award-winning judge and choreographer for the hit TV show So You Think You Can Dance. She is the creator of Broadway’s hit musical Finding Neverland, and she recently reinvented a New York institution, the Rockettes of Radio City Music Hall. Mia has choreographed national performances for Celine Dion, Ricky Martin, Gloria Estefan, Prince, and more.

Learn more about this author