Ariel Winter stepped on her first set — a commercial for Cool Whip — when she was just 4 years old. The Modern Family star, now 22, has lived her entire life inside Hollywood’s fishbowl, where social media trolls press their faces up against the glass and toss their unsolicited opinions into the water like bait. “They’re so detailed,” she says. “Somebody could comment a whole paragraph about one of my teeth all the way in the back, like, ‘Her canine is… too long and pointy!’ I wasn't even smiling in any photo. How did you see that?” It’s no wonder that as Modern Family wraps its 11-season run, Winter finds herself craving mundanity. "A normal life is so precious,” Winter tells Elite Daily. “People inside Hollywood don't realize that.”
Winter was homeschooled as a child, so the sets of the shows she guest-starred on functioned as her schoolyard. When she was 11, she didn’t crush on an awkward classmate, but on David Lyons, her uber-hot, much older, Australian co-star on ER. “It was never going to happen, obviously. But, in my heart, I was like, ‘Maybe.’” Lyons played a doctor who couldn't save Winter’s character’s mom after a car accident, and the script called for her to aggressively fight him. "I don't know what washed over me," she says. "Instead of me trying to fight him off and run away, I just ran and jumped in his arms. It was like slow-mo. They cut and everyone was crying laughing. He was, and I was, mortified."
Though Winter would have preferred not to make an absolute fool of herself in front of a film crew, going after her first crush, albeit unsuccessfully, was a rite of passage. She’s now on the cusp of another milestone: On April 8, Modern Family will air its series finale on ABC. Winter spent half her life playing Alex Dunphy, the highly intelligent middle child whose overachiever personality makes it hard to keep friends. In many respects, Winter is completely different from Alex — “[I] hated the clothes I had to wear” — but she still respects the hell out of the character. “What I’ve always liked about Alex is she always knew exactly what she wanted for her professional life,” she says.
Winter may not identify with Alex’s academic genius, but she can relate to feeling disconnected from her peers. “Homeschool is very isolating. I don’t really recommend it for people,” she says. “Having that life experience [is really important] — even though it will probably suck, because it sucks for everyone.” Winter moved in with her sister, Shanelle Gray, at 14 after being removed from her mother's custody, and later emancipated, at which point she enrolled in “real” high school. “I was not good at it,” she says. “I didn't really know how social interactions worked. I spent the majority of my life around adults, even as a kid. The majority of my friends were 20 years older than me. So I just wasn't well-versed in talking to people my age.”
At the same time Winter was adjusting to being around other teens, she says she went from “really scrawny and awkward” to “developed everywhere” overnight — and people took notice on social media. “Anything you wear, everyone's like, ‘Oh my god. A fat slut,’” she explains. “It sucked, and I had a lot of trouble with it through high school, and hated myself quite a bit. Even when you get to a point where everyone's like, ‘You look so great,’ still, inside, you're like, ‘Well, I f*cking hate it. Everything here is horrible.’” Recently, Winter purged her Instagram of everything posted before 2018. “It was a clean slate sort of situation,” she says. “When I was posting more and more, it gave people more insight into every part of my life and [brought] more comments into my life. And that kind of spirals you down.”
The post-Modern Family chapter of Winter’s life is also a clean slate, where she can finally focus on what makes her happy — even if it’s not what fans are expecting from her. Despite revealing a beautiful singing voice in early movie roles and in various YouTube covers, a music career isn’t in the cards. “I know what I’m good at, and I know what I'm not great at,” she says. “I will sing to something… if I'm, like, drunk at karaoke. You can hear my *ss on the mic doing everything for sure. But, on its own? [I wouldn’t] unless it was attached to a project.”
And while Winter loves acting now, it wasn’t the job she would have chosen for herself, had she ever been given the choice. “I thought for a very long time, even when I was on [Modern Family], that I was going to go to law school. When I was a kid I wanted to be a doctor, then I got older… and I was like, ‘You know what? No, I want to be a lawyer.’ I’m good at arguing. I like doing it,” she laughs. Winter does find acting to be a great means to an end, though: “This is gonna sound weird, [but] I can make money faster for my goal. [And] what my goal is, is to open a rescue shelter for dogs.”
“I don't want to make just a regular shelter. We have those,” she continues. “I work with a lot of rescue groups and their posts will pop up and it's like, ‘This dog has been in the shelter for 765 days.’ And you're like, ‘How does that happen?’ … I want to make a really nice center for these dogs because a lot of senior dogs die in the shelter. That breaks my heart. I would like for a senior dog to live out the rest of its days happy.”
When she’s not fleshing out plans for a rescue shelter, Winter would like to take more psychology classes online, which she really enjoyed studying at UCLA for a year. She’ll also star in a hush-hush new project she describes as “not like a typical movie/TV role,” and may do some more voice acting. “I feel comfortable there,” she says. “It’s a shorter amount of time and I could go looking like a trash bag and... nobody cares.”
As eager as Winter is to start a new chapter in her life and “find things that I love to do that have nothing to do with the industry,” she feels a bit of discomfort leaving Modern Family behind. “I hate the unknown and I hate not having control of things… I think, especially being an actor, it s difficult. When you don t have a steady job, you re always sitting there, and you're like, ‘OK, am I going to get another steady job? Am I going to work? Am I doing good on this audition? What do these people want?’” But after half a lifetime working on the same set, she’s leaning into that uncertainty. “It’s a blank slate, and I like that.”
Photographer: Tory Rust
Hair: Joseph Maine
Makeup: Mia Jones