Ariel Winter has jokes. It’s a late afternoon in March in New York City, and Winter, 22, dressed in a cream skirt suit by Paule Ka, is posing for her last photoshoot of the day before she heads home to Los Angeles to quarantine for what will turn out to be an indefinite period of time. “How do you feel about wind?” our photographer asks Winter, as she pulls on her mermaid-length strawberry-blonde pigtails and cocks her hips to the side. “Let’s do this. Give me wind or give me death,” she says. “Actually, I shouldn’t say that during these times.”
It should come as no surprise that Winter can make people laugh. For half of her life, she has starred as Alex Dunphy, Phil and Claire Dunphy’s sarcastic, brainy middle child, on ABC’s Emmy-winning sitcom Modern Family. The show, on which Winter was cast when she was 11, will air its series finale on April 8. After that, Winter’s schedule will be clear for the first time in 11 years. What will she do next? Well, she has a game plan, but she isn’t about to give that away just yet. “I’m an actor, guys,” she jokes. “I don’t have many other skills.”
Winter was 4 years old when she booked her first job as a model for a Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen fashion show. “I was fired from it,” she recalls. “I really wanted to be the first girl out, but Mary Kate and Ashley had someone else. So when the show started, I ran out in front of her, and I was kicked out. Definitely don’t have that mentality now.” Winter, whose first commercial was a Cool Whip ad, auditioned for Modern Family when she was 11. “I was the last person to go in at 5:45, and it was raining,” she recalls. “I remember I put on fake glasses for it.”
It took Winter eight auditions over the course of several weeks before she received the call that she had booked the role of Alex Dunphy, the precocious middle child of a helicopter soccer mom and an embarrassing “cool” dad in Los Angeles. While the part would become Winter’s big break, she doesn’t have fond memories of the casting experience. “Studio network testing is rough when you’re a kid because they aim to put you under as much pressure as possible to see if you will break,” she says.
What’s funny is I always wished for boobs. Then I just kept getting boobs until I didn’t want boobs anymore.
Following its premiere in 2009, Modern Family went on to become one of TV’s highest rated sitcoms, pulling in an average of 10 million viewers each week. Overnight, most of the cast became household names: Sofia Vergara, Julie Bowen, Sarah Hyland, Eric Stonestreet, Ty Burrell, Ed O’Neill, Jesse Tyler Ferguson. But it was a slower burn for Winter, who didn’t gain widespread recognition for her role until a couple seasons later. “I didn’t wear glasses and flannels outside of the show, so people didn’t immediately associate me with Alex,” she says.
She remembers a time when she was with the rest of the cast for a press appearance and a fan recognized them and asked if Winter could take the photo. “She literally handed me the phone and was like, ‘Will you please take a picture of me with the cast of Modern Family? It’s so cool that you’re with them,’” she recalls. “And I was like, ‘Yeah. Absolutely.’”
But Winter’s relative anonymity was short-lived. In between Modern Family’s second and third seasons, she went through puberty. When she returned to the show after its hiatus, it was apparent to the crew and viewers that her body looked very different. “When I started the show. I was very small and awkward, which is perfect for Alex,” she says. “What’s funny is I always wished for boobs. Like, I was so flat and skinny. I was 10 and I was like, ‘God, I hope one day I get boobs.’ And then I got boobs a year later—and I just kept getting boobs until I didn’t want boobs anymore.”
The growth spurt became an issue for the show’s creators, who still wanted her character to look very young. “We definitely did many things to try to push them in,” she says. “They were never taped–taped, but it was a lot of like, ‘Maybe she can wear two sports bras.’ It was awkward for me to be sitting there while people were figuring out what to do with my boobs.”
I don’t do things to look a certain way in public. I don’t need people to see me in a specific way. I am who I am.
It was also around this time that Winter went on antidepressants, which led to a 30-pound weight gain and her first experience with body-shaming. “People watching love to have an opinion,” she says. “It’s like, I don’t want to wear a bag on TV. But if I don’t, then the comments are going to flood in like, ‘Oh my, God. What a fat slut. I would never want my daughter looking like that. Why would you put someone so inappropriate on TV?’”
The hate continued for years, as Winter tried everything to appease her critics. “I was like, ‘I have to lose weight. I can’t look like this,’” she recalls. “I have to change my hair. I can’t wear this makeup. That dress was so ugly. I can’t believe I wore that.” It wasn’t until high school when Winter began seeing a therapist twice a week that she began to drown out the negative comments and focus on what made her happy. “Therapy is literally one of my favorite parts of my week,” she says. “I’m a huge therapy advocate.”
But that doesn’t mean that the negative comments stopped. When Winter was 17, she underwent a breast reduction to reduce her chest size from a 32F to a 34D. Many assumed the decision was because of the criticism she received for her breast size, but Winter maintains that the surgery was for herself and herself alone. “It felt so freeing. I felt so happy,” she says. There was no more back pain. I didn’t have indents on my shoulders because of my bra. I could find cute bras.”
When she was around 21, Winter also lost 30 pounds. The weight loss, which was a result of switching to a different antidepressant, led to accusations that Winter specifically sought out a drug to make her slim down. This time, however, Winter was better prepared to deal with the negativity—mainly, by ignoring it altogether. “I don’t do things to look a certain way in public,” she says. “I don’t need people to see me in a specific way. I am that way, and I hope people see me that way, because I am who I am.”
On February 21, 2020, Winter and her costars filmed their last Modern Family episode. Winter, who’s never thought once about quitting the show in its 11 years, confirms that the show’s final scene will include the whole cast. “It was a really beautiful day, but it was also a very emotional day,” she says. “We couldn’t do many takes of a lot of the scenes because we couldn’t keep it together.” While there have been rumors of a Modern Family spinoff, Winter puts them to rest. “The network probably thought about it and everyone thought about who could go first. But you never know if anybody has actually said it or if people are just joking around,” she says.
Back at the photo studio, Winter is posing for her last shots before she changes back into an oversized sweatshirt and leggings and heads to the airport. A lot has changed since she filmed Modern Family’s finale. For starters, she dyed her hair strawberry blonde and doesn’t plan to color it back to Alex’s dark brown ever again. “I said to myself, ‘As soon as the show is over, I’m not going to have dark hair again unless somebody pays me to have dark hair again,’” she says. She also has seven more months free out of the year, which she plans to use to start seriously auditioning again. (So far, she’s already booked a video game, which will use her captured motions for a character.)
Winter was 10 years old when she landed her role on Modern Family. Now, at 22, she’s starting over. She doesn’t know what the future holds, but she’s ready for what’s next. “I’m an adult now and I’m starting again in my career,” she says. “It’s exciting, but it’s also scary. The unknown is scary. It’s like closing a chapter and opening a new one.”
Photographer: George Chinsee. Hair: Joseph Maine. Makeup: Mia Jones. Entertainment Editor: Jason Pham. Graphic Designer: Cierra Miller.