Girl, Uncorrupted |


Girl, Uncorrupted

''Modern Family'''s Ariel Winter could have easily become a child-star train wreck: she's been working since the age of 5, and she made headlines last year by reluctantly taking her private battle with her mother public; now the 15-year-old has a new home, a new school, new friends — and a dream job on TV

Ariel Winter had her first makeover at the age of 7. A casting director said she was too blond and pretty for a small role on a TV show, so her mom figured out a way to make her little ingenue look a bit more mousy. “We dyed my hair black,” remembers Winter, now 15. “I ended up getting the part. We kept dyeing it dark, so that was my hair from then on…. It was never my decision. It seems very weird to go to a hairstylist at 7 and have foils in your hair.”

The life of a child star can be bizarre, but Winter, who plays the bookish Alex Dunphy on ABC’s Emmy-winning Modern Family, is handling it with remarkable maturity and grace — even as her home life has attracted media attention. Just last year, Winter left the custody of her mother after alleging physical and emotional abuse — a decision that spawned a tabloid frenzy and a fusillade of paparazzi. But what the cameras can’t capture is how grounded Winter has become as a result of the upheaval: The diminutive girl who was previously homeschooled is now reconnecting with a sister she barely knew, hanging with kids her own age, and attending high school — a place that once terrified her. “The only model I had to base it on was the high school in Mean Girls,” says the sophomore, who entered a Los Angeles private school in the middle of her freshman year. “I thought girls walked around in cliques with the short skirts, the blond hair, and I was going to be cast out and never talked to. I was like, ‘Do we have a school talent show where we dress up as, like, little Santas? Does that happen?’”

Luckily, no. Her worries about alienation were short-lived, too, as she quickly cultivated a pair of besties named Jessie and Bailey, who sleep over at her house and offer a constant show of support (which includes Jessie tagging along to the coffee shop while Winter sits down with EW). “We’re a trio at school,” says Winter. “Trusting people for me is very hard when you’ve had a lot of lack of trust in your past.” Adds Shanelle Gray, Winter’s 35-year-old sister, who currently has custody of her sibling, “When I see her with her girlfriends out here at my pool, Ariel is 15 and having the time of her life.”

Growing up with her divorced mom, Chrisoula Workman, in Los Angeles, Winter thought she was going to do “something educational, like cure cancer or something.” Instead her mother started taking her to modeling jobs and auditions, as she had with her older children, Jimmy Workman (who played Pugsley in the Addams Family movies) and Gray, who began acting when she was 13. “My first job was a Cool Whip commercial when I was 5,” Winter recalls. “I had to put Cool Whip on a piece of pie, and there was some Easter-egg-hunt thing. I just remember I liked Easter eggs and, oh my God, pie.” Appearances in movies like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and TV shows like ER followed, but as her career took off — she began voicing characters on Disney’s hit Phineas and Ferb at the age of 9 and landed the role of Modern Family’s Alex at 11 — at home her relationship with her mom was crumbling. Winter prefers not to go into details about life with her mother, but the situation got bad enough that she sought out Gray — whom she rarely saw growing up — and asked for help. “I didn’t know where I was going to go,” says Winter. “I wasn’t going to go to my father or brother because I didn’t have a great relationship with them. So I thought, ‘Well, shot in the dark, let’s try my sister.’”

Finally, last October, Winter was granted a temporary restraining order against her mother, citing physical and emotional abuse. The actress knew going to court would mean her private problems would become all too public, but Winter says that was a reality she had to accept. “I had to make the choice,” she explains. “Do I stay in this situation that’s not good for me, or do I get out and face the consequences?” (Chrisoula has repeatedly denied the allegations of abuse, most recently in the Sept. 20 episode of Dr. Phil, where she claimed Winter was being “brainwashed.”) A judge awarded temporary custody to Gray, a married mom of two girls. “I didn’t spend a ton of time with Ariel and my mother and father for many different reasons,” explains Gray, who reportedly left home at the age of 15 citing similar issues. “She’s really just an amazingly smart kid — a really good multitasker and really hard worker.” As Winter’s guardian, Gray makes sure her sister has plenty of opportunities to exercise her strong work ethic: The teen’s home life now includes a curfew, rules about dressing age-appropriately, and a mandate to reserve weekends for family and friends. “She definitely has a different kind of life here,” says Gray. “She has to clean up after herself, she can’t leave her clothes on the floor, she has to be careful about what she says around people — not just for her career but for herself, so she can be a respectful woman.”