Girl Friday: Danica McKellar
Photography by: Cathryn Farnsworth
The lovely Danica McKellar came to fame through her role as Winnie Cooper on The Wonder Years, but some of our readers may know her first through her successful line of math books written with teenage girls in mind. I absolutely LOVE that Danica has a duel career path, and through our friendship over the years, she has impressed me deeply with her strength, intelligence, and loyalty. She is also an exceptionally devoted mother and the deep bond she shares with her young son Draco shines through in these gorgeous photos by Cathryn Farnsworth. Danica is the epitome of what our Girl Friday means to us at Move LifeStyle. (Plus, she gives some great advice for aspiring actresses!)
How did your passion for math come about and when did you decide to move into sharing that passion to educate and empower young women through your books?
I struggled with math in middle school. In fact, I used to come home and cry because I was afraid of my math homework! Midway through the seventh grade, we got a new teacher, and everything changed. She was fun and friendly, and suddenly the same topics that had baffled and terrified me, were somehow doable. I was floored. It was an important lesson that presentation is key when introducing math concepts – or anything else challenging, probably!
Presentation is key when introducing math concepts – or anything else challenging!
My love of math had finally found fertile ground and developed throughout high school. Then a funny thing happened when I got to college: I assumed I wouldn’t be successful in math class and I avoided the subject. Math had remained a challenge throughout high school for me – albeit a challenge I embraced but a challenge nonetheless – and I remember thinking, “Wow, if high school math was hard, I can’t even imagine how difficult college math must be!” And somehow I didn’t think I’d be able to keep up. In the third trimester of my freshman year, a friend decided to sign up for a calculus class… and I just held my breath and decided to take the plunge, too. To my bewilderment, not only did I do well in the class; I scored the highest on the first midterm – by many points – and stayed at the top of the class throughout the term. Now, to an outside observer, it might have seemed clear that I would do just fine in ‘college math.’ After all, I had scored near the top of my class in high school and had gotten a 5 on the AP Calculus BC exam, the highest score possible. So why did I doubt myself so strongly? If not me, who did I think would do well in college math? If I’m really honest with myself: I didn’t look the part. In my head was an image of who the ‘math people’ were, and they weren’t me. They were guys, especially Asian guys, not Caucasian girls like me. It’s so unbelievable to me that I held such damaging stereotypes in my mind, but it’s true.
So many child stars have a difficult time transitioning to adulthood. What do you think it is about your upbringing and personality that allowed you to find post-teen success and stability?
Once I realized that I did belong in math class, I absolutely fell in love with it.
I felt myself developing a sense of self that had nothing to do with Winnie Cooper.
It was challenging, fun, exciting, and I felt myself developing a sense of self that had nothing to do with my character of Winnie Cooper on The Wonder Years, a role I’m so grateful for, but a role that endangered my sense of self as a teenager. (If I weren’t Winnie Cooper, then what would my value be?) I found that value, that sense of confidence and strength, by tacking the challenging subject of math in college, and succeeding in it. After I graduated with a degree in math, I encountered so many women who expressed shock and admiration for what I’d done, and also expressed their own insecurities in math. Many of them were afraid of math in college and had missed out on their dream careers, (like being a doctor or nurse), because they had avoided math classes at all cost. I knew that I could do something to help, and that I needed to aim my efforts at that age where we all start to weave society’s stereotypes into the fabric of our self-image: middle school. So my first book, “Math Doesn’t Suck,” is aimed at middle school girls, ages 9-12. It teaches the scariest topics at that age (fractions, percents, etc.) and surrounds the lessons with all sorts of self-esteem boosting content. I also include fun elements like personality quizzes and even a math horoscope! My next books follow suit: “Kiss My Math” (ages 11-13), “Hot X: Algebra Exposed” (ages 12-14, or anyone taking algebra), and “Girls Get Curves: Geometry Takes Shape” (ages 14-16). It’s exciting to me that they are beginning to be translated into other languages.
Do you have a favorite quote you live by?
“Life it too important to be taken seriously.” This is a message I needed to hear as a teenager, and it’s continued to help me into adulthood. I expect a lot of myself, and sometimes I get a bit wound up, and I forget to relax and exhale. This quote always helps me remember to enjoy life… while I continue to strive for excellence and productivity, of course. 😉 Nowadays, my son Draco really helps me to enjoy the little things. Being mom is really such a blessing, and I’m so grateful.
How would you describe your style & what role does fashion play in your life?
I have two sides to my personality, for sure – the studious, ‘let’s roll up our sleeves’ side, and the glamour girl side! It’s probably related to the fact that I’ve got two passions I pursue as careers, a math author, and an actress. When I’m at home writing one of my books, it’s sweatpants and a t-shirt, hair up in a ponytail and let’s get to work. When I go out, I love playing with fashion and sparkles definitely play a frequent role. If it’s cold outside, I love wearing all black with a colorful or sparkly scarf. I’ve just gotten into headbands, so I’ve had fun experimenting with those. One of my fashion staples? My silver and gold hoop earrings. My latest hair obsession? My hot rollers. I’ll throw ‘em in my hair even if I don’t have anywhere special to go. I love how my hair feels when it’s bouncy and soft, and if I got to bed with curls, they end loose and sexy in the morning. It’s awesome to wake up and like how I look first thing in the morning, even though it’s just me and my 2-year old. 😉
How do you balance writing your books with caring for your son. How do you think motherhood has changed you?
Motherhood has given me such a new perspective. Plainly put, nothing else matters as much as it used to. Nothing is as urgent or crucial. So long as my little guy is happy and healthy, everything else is just fine. I am taking a bit of a hiatus from being a workaholic, I will say. I worked really hard when Draco was 1 year old, till he was almost 2, writing my fourth math book, “Girls Get Curves: Geometry Takes Shape.” It was just too much time away from him. Now that he’s 2 ½, I’m spending a lot more time going to parks, cooking for him and just hanging out. He’s only this little once, y’know? There will be plenty of time for more books later.
I know you travel often with Draco when you work in film and television. Do you have any essential travel tips?
Bring healthy snacks! Also, I breastfeed him on the takeoff and landing, which totally helps with his ears. Not sure how much longer we’ll be breastfeeding, but it’s a great tool for now!
How did your passion for yoga develop? Do you find that being physical is a good compliment to all the intellectual pursuits in your life?
Absolutely. My mom is a meditation instructor, and she’s the one who first taught me about yoga. I love yoga because it’s an amazing combination of physical exercise and emotional/mental recharging.
For me, doing yoga and meditation is like hitting ‘reset’ on the computer – everything just works better.
An essential part of my life, and in my opinion, in everyone’s life. For me, doing yoga and meditation is like hitting ‘reset’ on the computer – everything just works better. Even if I only have a few minutes, and especially if I’m feeling stressed or tense, I will do a few yoga stretches or close my eyes and repeat my mantra a few times. Amazing what a difference such a small action can make. I am so passionate about yoga that I made a yoga/meditation DVD with my mom called “Daily Dose of Dharma”. Part of the reason I made it is because I wanted a resource for people who might just have 20 minutes and want a great yoga experience at home. The narrator is Christy Marsden, founder of YogaBlend in Burbank, and a close friend. Her voice is so soothing and I always feel transported by it – so I was lucky to have her wonderful voice on the DVD!
What advice do you have for younger women who may be following in your footsteps?
My advice for anyone wanting to pursue acting is this: Develop something else you love, too, something you can have a fair amount of control over. Acting is awesome, but as a career, it’s filled with uncertainty, unfairness, and plenty of rejection. For me, writing math books is essential to my sanity, and helps me to enjoy my acting adventures even more.
Danica also did a wonderful podcast with NPR — click here for a selection of her favorite songs.
Girl Friday is a phrase more common to the 1940s and 50s, defined as “a female employee who has a wide range of duties,” and is most recognizable from the film His Girl Friday. Here at Move LifeStyle, we’re resurrecting its saucy vibe for the title of our last column of the week which profiles inspiring women in the workforce. If you like this series, click here for more Girl Friday Interviews.