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almost famous

We Said They’d Be Famous: What Actually Happened?

Five years ago, we assembled 27 New Yorkers — actors, musicians, chefs, dancers, and even a surfer — and proclaimed that one of the Reasons to Love New York was that at least one of them would be famous by 2010. We hit the mark and then some, but when we tracked down our up-and-comers, what we found was even more interesting. There are a few boldfaced names like Donald Glover of Community, but ever more people on the list are thriving in relative obscurity at the top of their chosen fields, from science to jewelry design to fashion photography. For most of the people on this list, doing what you love trumps being famous every time.

1. Matthew Yglesias, 29, blogger

Yglesias spent the past few years establishing himself as a prominent blogger, usually but not always aligned with the liberal end of the political spectrum. He went from The American Prospect to The Atlantic and then to the Center for American Progress, where he has an eponymous blog. Fellow blogger Andrew Sullivan bestows a tongue-in-cheek "Yglesias Award" for "writers, politicians, columnists or pundits who actually criticize their own side, make enemies among political allies, and generally risk something for the sake of saying what they believe." And in perhaps the clearest mark of fame for a pundit, he has over 16,000 followers on Twitter.

2. Orion Weiss, 29, pianist

Weiss went and got married to another pianist, Anna Polonsky (if you want a glimpse of their marital dynamic, watch them four-hand a piano here); released a solo album performing Bach, Scriabin, Mozart, and Carter; and was named the Classical Recording Foundation’s Young Artist of the Year in 2010.

3. Ari Graynor, 27, actress

Graynor has been most visible on TV, where she played concerned sister Rachel Dunham on Fringe. She stuck around film, too, appearing in the kind of approachable mainstream indies that you’ve heard of but didn’t get around to seeing — Whip It, Holly Rollers, Youth in Revolt. In the coming year, she’s slated for a host of movie roles with name co-stars — Lucky with Colin Hanks, What’s Your Number with Anna Faris, and The Sitter with Jonah Hill.

4. Ben Stapelman, 24, rock singer

Soon after New York first mentioned him, Stapelman changed his stage name to Ben Rice, and his band, Surefire, signed a deal with Lizard King Records. But in 2007 they got out of it because the label had, according to Stapelman, a “different vision of what they wanted for the band than what the band really was.” But Surefire produced an EP anyway, splitting up in the process, and now Stapelman is in a new band, Blackbells, which released its first album in 2009. In January, Blackbells will open for Marcy’s Playground at Brooklyn’s Union Hall.

5. Abigail Dawn DeVille, 29, artist

DeVille, realizing that in the art world you “can’t get anywhere without an MFA,” checked herself into Yale for a grad program. She’s been doing installations and collage and had a show at Recess in Soho in the fall. After graduation, she’s hoping to find a residency.

6. Nico Muhly, 29, composer

Muhly, a composer who five years ago had already worked with Philip Glass and Björk, wrote the score for 2008’s Best Picture nominee The Reader. There was also a collaboration with Grizzly Bear on their 2009 album Veckatimest, and a few solo albums of his own.

7. Alexander Mitchell, 18, actor turned student

Mitchell, like a normal adolescent, outgrew his childhood hobby. For him, that meant moving beyond acting on Broadway, where he had roles in The Lion King and A Raisin in the Sun, among others. He started focusing on art and music, and is now a freshman at Pratt Institute of Art, focusing on illustration.

8. Kristjan Thorgeirsson, 30, theater director

Outside of an ill-fated effort to start a speakeasy, Thorgeirsson has soldiered on in theater and film direction. He staged The Sexual Neuroses of Our Parents with Meryl Streep’s daughter Grace Gummer in 2008 and most recently mounted a Times-reviewed haunted house, earning the praise, “The way it evokes dread is more psychologically perceptive than most shows on Broadway.” Thorgeirsson says they mounted the haunted house “almost as a joke, and immediately there were people lining around the block.” Next up: trying to find financing for a feature film, Iceland (you can see the spooky trailer here), and a three-week engagement at P.S. 122 performing a three-play set called Theater in the Dark, With Lights.

9. Grace Bonney, 29, design blogger

When New York wrote about Bonney’s shelter blog, Design*Sponge, it had 10,000 visitors a day. Now it has 70,000. It’s now Bonney’s full-time job (she hasn’t freelanced since 2008), and she says, “It feels very much what it used to be like to work at House & Garden.” Bonney and the site have a book, Design*Sponge at Home, coming out next year.

10. Bliss Lau, 29, handbag designer turned jewelry designer

Five years ago, Lau was a handbag designer, but then says she “found my soul in body jewelry.” So now she makes chains that wrap around the body, basically necklaces that have little to do with the neck. They’ve been on MGMT, Beyoncé, Miley Cyrus, Alicia Keys, and Katy Perry, and the Museum of Art and Design asked Lau to create a custom piece. But all things are circular. Lau tells New York that she’s “getting a strong itch to relaunch handbags.”

11. Terrence Fisher, 25, filmmaker turned music producer

Fisher, who made the list in 2005 because of Bullets in the Hood, a documentary he made about gun violence in Bedford-Stuyvesant, has diversified. He recently built a music studio in his home in Bed-Stuy and is trying to get a business, Soundbase Entertainment, off the ground with hip-hop and R&B acts. Meanwhile, he’s finishing up a sequel to Bullets, hoping to shop it around on the film-festival circuit.

12. Karen Gomyo, 28, violinist

Gomyo is still traveling the world on the classical-music circuit. Her list of philharmonics and orchestras has only grown — New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Vancouver, San Francisco, Houston, Montreal, etc. In 2008, she received an unsolicited Avery Fisher Career grant from Lincoln Center.

13. Lisa Salzer, 28, jewelry designer

Salzer most recently collaborated with J.Crew for a holiday jewelry collection featuring her Lulu Frost line. And in spring 2011, her new collection, Modern Pioneer, will debut, featuring American Indian influences. Salzer was inspired during a trip to the Northwest, and the collection features lots of turquoise and porcupine quills.

14. Patrik Rzepski, 28, fashion designer

Rzepski, whose frocks earned him famous clients five years ago, has spent the last year commuting back and forth to Paris to consult for a French fashion house. (He can’t share which one, but promises we’ve heard of it.) His own line has become more streamlined. “We went from doing these huge shows to really pulling back,” he says. Nevertheless, his clothing was recently in Italian Vogue and Dazed and Confused.

15. Ryan Michael Kelly, 28, photographer

Kelly, a fashion photographer, has continued to ply his trade for the past five years. His shots have been in Men’s Vogue, Vogue Nippon, and Grazia. And he’s done ads for Pantene, Bloomingdale's, and Able Jeans.

16. Kaavya Viswanathan, 23, writer

If infamy counts as fame, Viswanathan was one of our better predictions. Little, Brown published her novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life, in 2006, but then recalled all the copies after The Harvard Crimson published serious allegations of plagiarism. Viswanathan said she was innocent and that a photographic memory was to blame. Nevertheless, she finished Harvard (with a senior thesis in creative writing) and went to Georgetown Law. She spent last summer at big-name law firm Sullivan & Cromwell in New York and is on track to graduate Georgetown in the spring.

17. David L.V. Bauer, 23, scientist

Bauer, who was a star lab intern at City College five years ago, stayed at CCNY for his undergrad, maintained a 3.99 GPA, and earned a Rhodes Scholarship in 2009. It’s wisest to let CCNY describe what Bauer researched while he was there: “He conducted organic chemistry research towards the synthesis of aspirin analogues to explore aspirin's anti-cancer properties.”

18. R. Kikuo Johnson, 29, graphic novelist

Johnson, perhaps best known for his 2005 graphic novel Night Fisher, is now a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and a host of other name publications. He’s at work on two books — “I'm not at liberty to discuss the details at this point” — and the first comes out in 2012.

19. Tiler Peck, 21, principal at the New York City Ballet

In 2005, Peck had just joined the New York City Ballet. By October 2009, she had been promoted to a principal, the youngest there. She’s recently been on Dancing With the Stars and helped Darren Aronofsky a bit with Black Swan. (She thought it was true to the “physical struggles endured doing ballet.”) Fun fact: In 2001, Peck was also a principal in Sparkle Motion, the legendary dance troupe from the movie Donnie Darko.

20. David Wiseman, 29, designer/artist

Wiseman custom-built a three-dimensional, blossom-bedecked ceiling whose branches reach down onto the wall for the just-reopened Dior shop in midtown. He’ll soon be creating a site-specific installation for the West Hollywood Library, along with Shepard Fairey and others.

21. Elizabeth Meriwether, 29, playwright/screenwriter

Meriwether’s most recent play, Oliver Parker!, opened this year to not-great reviews. But her future may lie in Hollywood — she wrote the screenplay for No Strings Attached, the new Ashton Kutcher/Natalie Portman let’s-have-sex-like-beautiful-people movie that will be in theaters January 21, 2011.

22. Donald Glover, 27, actor/comedian/rapper

Ask Donald Glover, best known for playing Troy on NBC’s Community, whether he’s famous and you can almost hear him blush. “Um, I think so, somewhat, like, I’m not like, you know, I don’t think I’m like gigantic, um, but I definitely, like, you know, I’m on a show, and I’m about to tour, and I do music, and I’m doing a couple movies.”

About that show: Community has become a critical darling this year as Glover has taken a more central role. About that tour: It’s a traveling music/comedy show (sort of like Conan’s) called I Am Donald, and it’ll go nationwide for a few weeks starting in late April. About that music: Glover released a new single earlier this month under his nom de rap, Childish Gambino. He’ll release an EP for free early next year. And about those movies: Glover didn’t know if he could tell us what he just finished shooting. “I have no problem talking about it. I just need to find out because I don’t want to get in trouble.” Perhaps his rumored role in the new Muppet movie?

Even Glover will agree all of this makes him at least a little bit famous. “It depends. If you go to Comic-Con yes. If you go to a Glee rally, no.”

23. Karen Russell, 29, writer

In creative writing, there are few honors that come with more fame than being named a New Yorker “20 Under 40” writer. (We suppose Oprah’s book club is the other.) Russell, the only one of only two writers on the list under 30, published a book of short stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, in 2006, and her first novel, Swamplandia!, comes out in February 2011. The L.A. Times calls her a “breakneck demon writer.”

24. Adam Plitt, 29, chef

Plitt is where we left him five years ago. But we suppose that’s what happens when you work at Eric Ripert’s Le Bernardin at 24 years old. He has risen through the ranks to become the executive sous-chef of Le Bernardin and Ripert Enterprises.

25. Jennifer Poe, 25, filmmaker turned writer

Poe abandoned her documentary film project — it was going to be about black women in Warhol’s Factory — and turned full-time to writing. The essay compilation We Got Issues included Poe’s writing, and after spending time in Buenos Aires, she wrote a travel guide to the city from her perspective. “I realized why a book about the city from a black woman’s perspective had never been written. Most black women were too afraid to go,” she says. Poe’s in search of an agent and hopes the Buenos Aires guide will be the first in a travel series for women of color.

26. Dolev Azaria, 28, campaign-finance consultant

Azaria is still helping raise money for Anthony Weiner, just like she was five years ago. But now she has a healthy collection of other Democrats in her stable — Sean Maloney, John Sabini, David Yassky, Anthony Weiner, and Mike McMahon. She says she’s angling to get more involved in the nonprofit sector in the near future. “I remain strongly dedicated to supporting people whose ideology I believe in and whose career I want to further, but I also remain committed to giving back to the larger community and to people in need throughout the world.”

27. Colin Francis, 20, surfer

Francis was the only fame designee whom we couldn’t track down. Somehow, he’s a 20-year-old in 2010 without much of a Google trail. We isolated what we think is his Facebook profile — this Colin Francis likes Surf Bar, an ocean-themed bar in Williamsburg, where Francis, a surf phenom, lived five years ago. But despite repeated attempts to contact him through Facebook, Francis did not respond. If it really is him, he’s in a relationship and plays tennis. It’s not fame, certainly. But hopefully it’s happiness. Colin, if you're out there, get in touch!

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Photo: Sasha Eisenman for New York Magazine