25 Influential New Yorkers Helping The City Stand Out Above The Rest

Kendyl Kearly, Nikol Slatinska and Phebe Wahl | October 6, 2020 | People Features

This October we honor the local luminaries leading the charge in our community. From arts advocates to political powerhouses finding solutions to current challenges, these formidable forces drive change, pushing Manhattan forward for the greater good.

Lin-Manuel Miranda

Playwright Lin Manuel Miranda imageTrailblazing playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda

”The past isn’t done with us. Ever, ever, ever,” says Lin-Manuel Miranda. As our nation’s beloved, hip-hop historian and most celebrated musical mastermind, Miranda is just one Oscar away from an EGOT—and his prolific pace shows no signs of slowing. Hot on the heels of releasing the film version of the 11 Tony Award-, Grammy- and Pulitzer Prize-winning Hamilton on Disney+, the advocate and philanthropic powerhouse is the first to say his work is not even close to finished. “I never bought into the illusion that the Obamas being in the White House ended racial issues in our country,” Miranda recently told NPR. “Just the same way I used to get the question all the time in that first year of, ‘Now that Hamilton’s here, do you feel like Broadway will be more diverse?’ And I was like, no, because shows take years to develop. And I know what’s in the pipeline, and it’s not [diverse].”

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio CortezCongresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Three years ago, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was tending bar in Union Square, her political papers hidden behind the bar. Now, she is one of the most influential New Yorkers—or people, arguably—in the country. The congresswoman’s hard-working spirit and fights against injustice, wrapped up in a compelling social media presence, make her a truly American figure. This summer, she made waves once again when a colleague called her a derogatory name on the steps of the Capitol. On the House floor, she said, “Having a daughter does not make a man decent. Having a wife does not make a decent man. Treating people with dignity and respect makes a decent man. ... I am someone’s daughter too.” The speech opened up the conversation regarding sexist treatment of female leaders and ushered in a new era of power.

Anderson Cooper

Broadcast journalist Anderson CooperBroadcast journalist Anderson Cooper

One of the most well-known faces in broadcast news and the son of an esteemed New York socialite, Anderson Cooper embodies both the rich history and alluring modernity of this city. The Emmy Award-winning journalist has covered the world’s most hard-hitting stories on his show for nearly 20 years, keeping Americans in the know and helping hold those in power accountable for their actions. Although Cooper dealt with tragedy in the public eye multiple times in his life, he has used it to fuel his hard work and propel his career forward. In 2016, the HBO documentary Nothing Left Unsaid chronicled Cooper’s life and relationship with his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, whom he credits for his drive. A joint memoir, The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son on Life, Love and Loss, was released three years before Vanderbilt’s death. This year, Cooper celebrated the arrival of his son, which he announced during his show.

Marcus SamuelssonRed Rooster Chef Marcus Samuelsson

Red Rooster chef Marcus Samuelsson

You turned your restaurant, Red Rooster, into a community food hub to serve food-insecure people in Harlem. How did this happen? We realized we weren’t safe anymore, and we couldn’t serve as a regular restaurant anymore. And so we said to ourselves, ‘What can we do?’ We started partnering with World Central Kitchen because whether it’s hurricanes or catastrophe situations, they know how to get food to the neediest right away and in the safest way.

How do you think Red Rooster and the restaurant community will come back from this? We have to come back. We love our city, and if the restaurants go, so goes our city. The restaurant is the heart and soul of our city. And it’s also how you very often define a neighborhood, right? Restaurants create not only jobs but also an incredible vibe and diversity in the city. Think about the amount of jobs that the restaurants supply. At Red Rooster, we have around 170 co-workers. But we also have the person who delivers the vegetables and meat supply, the fish vendor, the person who cleans, the night cleaners, the person who cleans the windows, see? We are talking about 300 to 400 people for one restaurant to make it work, and that supply chain is completely interrupted now.

What have you learned from all this? 9/11 taught me a lot. I remember being down there in Tribeca and just volunteering and cooking and working. You’re right there, and you see the smoke. That moment really made me dig deeper and ask more questions about myself, and eventually, I moved to Harlem. I started Red Rooster eight, nine years later. I am in this right now, so it is too early to know what I’ve learned, but I’m working that line every day and talking to the people and seeing the incredible needs, seeing the line to the stores. You just don’t go back the same. This comes once in a lifetime, and it’s a horrible, horrible way to experience it, but a silver lining is that we have to be kinder.

Reshma Saujani

"Women have been socialized to aspire to perfection, and they’re overly cautious. And even when we’re ambitious, even when we’re leaning in, that socialization of perfection has caused us to take less risks in our careers. And so those 600,000 jobs that are open right now in computing and tech, women are being left behind, and it means our economy is being left behind on all the innovation and problems women would solve if they were socialized to be brave instead of socialized to be perfect.” — Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code in her TED Talk

Hasan Minhaj

“Your parents, teachers and counselors are going to tell you that it gets better. And I’m here to tell you, it always doesn’t. It doesn’t. The world does not care about your dreams; they do not care one bit. But I will say this: You’ve got to keep trying. It’s worth it. If you give yourself an opportunity to try and survive failure, you’ll eventually find what you were meant to do.” — Comedia Hasan Minhaj in a 2015 Davis Senior High School commencement speech

Andy Cohen

Talk show host Andy Cohen imageTalk show host Andy Cohen

It’s not a stretch to say that radio and television host Andy Cohen knows how to start a conversation. The Emmy Award-winning producer keeps a consistent line of A-list celebrities on his late-night show Watch What Happens Live With Andy Cohen, which has resulted in plenty of headline-making moments over its 11-year history. Cohen, a major celebrity in his own right, has also dished the entertainment industry’s most intriguing gossip on his radio show and in his bestselling books, keeping audience members coming back when they need a break from life’s harsh realities. Between the Real Housewives franchises, Project Runway and many more, Cohen is responsible for producing some of America’s favorite reality shows and has become the face of the Bravo channel. Despite these ventures, Cohen has also been known to speak out on important issues he cares about. After being diagnosed with COVID-19 in March, he called out homophobic restrictions that make it difficult for gay men to donate blood. No matter what he or his guests are discussing, Cohen’s conversations always manage to captivate the masses.

Kyrie Irving

Perhaps best known for leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to their first NBA championship in 2016, Kyrie Irving has New York basketball fans excited for more historic wins. The Australian native’s superstar status helped him land a four-year deal with the Brooklyn Nets last year, and despite the 2020 NBA season being postponed, Irving has continued to wield his positive influence. In June, he urged other players to boycott the NBA’s restart plan to resume the season and later created a $1.5 million fund to help pay the salaries of WNBA athletes who opted out of playing for the year. In addition to undergoing shoulder surgery in March, Irving’s decision to sit out the season reportedly stemmed out of concern for players’ safety and the desire to avoid detracting public attention away from the Black Lives Matter movement. For Irving, basketball might be his life’s passion, but it should clearly never take away from the bigger issues at hand.

Aerin LauderAerin Lauder founder of AERIN

Aerin Lauder, founder and creative director of AERIN and style and image director of Estée Lauder

The founder and creative director of AERIN and style and image director of Estée Lauder shares some words of wisdom.

My 2020 motto is... a quote that I have found particularly inspiring during this time. It comes from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, ‘When things are at their worst, you will see the very best and worst of people. Sometimes it will break your heart. But you will also be inspired beyond belief by the goodness of others. At the end of the day, goodness wins. Love wins.’

From these challenging times... I hope that the world is able to focus more on the little joys in life. I think that the importance of home, family, health and happiness are truly what matters most. Prior to this, everyone was constantly on the go; people were going out too much, traveling too much, working too much and not giving themselves the time to relax and enjoy.

One of the best pieces of advice... my grandmother Estée ever shared was whatever you do, do it well and with passion. It’s something that I think about and try to live by every day.

Misty Copeland

Premier Ballerina Misty CopelandBarrier-breaking ballerina Misty Copeland

Having started ballet at the late age of 13, Misty Copeland has only continued to defy the odds since then. In 2014, she was the first Black woman to dance the lead role of Odette/Odile in the American Ballet Theatre’s production of Swan Lake. One year later, Copeland also became the theater’s first Black female principal dancer, and her litany of achievements has only grown in the years since. She is the author of Life in Motion, a New York Times bestselling memoir, and holds an honorary doctorate from the University of Hartford for her accomplishments in ballet. Along the way, Copeland has used her platform to advocate for more diversity in her art. “It has been my mission to elevate the conversation about classical ballet and the importance of making the art form accessible to everyone,” Copeland said upon accepting the Atlanta Ballet’s 2019 inaugural Trailblazer Award.

Corey Johnson

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson’s desire to serve the public comes from significant experiences in his own past. The determined advocate had values of civic responsibility and community service instilled by his parents from a young age. In high school, he came out as gay while serving as captain of his basketball team. A move to New York followed, and Johnson began his admirable career advocating for LGBTQ+ causes. In his short time as speaker, Johnson has already led the council in passing strict sexual harassment laws, making the city more affordable for many tenants, increasing services for the homeless and much more. His actions have brought communities together to achieve long-anticipated goals, such as the development of East Chelsea’s new public park. Johnson has been an advocate for the resumption of indoor dining in the city with safety protocols in place, saying it’s important to help restaurant owners who have been hit hard by the pandemic and bolster the city’s tourism industry. Whether he’s thinking about underprivileged groups or New York as a whole, Johnson continues to advocate for what he believes is right.

Sarah Jessica Parker

Actress and businesswoman Sarah Jessica ParkerActress and businesswoman Sarah Jessica Parker

Although she’s perhaps best known for her role as Carrie Bradshaw in the show that inspired hundreds of ambitious young women to move to the city, Sarah Jessica Parker is an inspiration in more ways than one. In addition to her illustrious acting career, the Golden Globe and Emmy Award winner is also a prominent fashion spokesperson and businesswoman. In 2014, she launched her shoe line, SJP Collection. An accessible alternative to her breakout character’s beloved Manolos, the footwear label has resonated with fashionistas everywhere and has since expanded into fragrances, accessories and books. Parker’s production company, Pretty Matches, is also an effort to increase female representation in media and production. More recently, Parker announced a partnership with the American Library Association on Book Club Central, an online platform that provides reading resources for book clubs and readers. Although the women of Sex and the City are mythologized cultural icons, New York is proud to count Parker as a real woman about town.

Sutton Foster

“[The best parts of performing on Broadway are] the thrill of live theater. The relationship you have with your audience every night. The community of people behind the curtain who make the magic happen. The family you build with each show.” — Broadway star Sutton Foster, who willstar in The Music Man in 2021

Jean-Georges Vongerichten

The French chef is the man behind 15 of New York City’s most iconic restaurants, including Jean-Georges, ABC Kitchen, JoJo, The Fulton, The Mark and The Mercer Kitchen. Of course, his empire also extends to Miami, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and beyond, but he cites NYC as having the world’s best food culture. “You can get authentic food from all around the world in this city,” he says. The chef recently released JGV: A Life in 12 Recipes ($27, W.W. Norton & Company) to bring his flair to the home cook’s table. He says of the book, “I hope readers gain an insight into my life and what it took for me to get where I am today.”

Diane von Furstenberg

Although her eponymous label and emblematic wrap dress were enough to cement her spot in fashion history, designer and philanthropist Diane von Furstenberg has continued to make tremendous strides within the industry for the past 50 years. In addition to clothes that appeal to the quintessentially modern American woman, von Furstenberg built an empire from wildly successful perfume and cosmetic lines. The designer was also elected as president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 2006, where she served for 13 years, overseeing the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund and helping create the Design Piracy Prohibition Act. Throughout her tenure, giving back has held a significant spot in her life. In 2010, she established the DVF Awards to honor women who dedicate their lives to supporting other women. She says, “The DVF Awards celebrate women who have shown the courage to fight, the strength to survive and the leadership to inspire.”

Tory Burch

The mere mention of the name “Tory Burch” is enough to conjure ideas of a blissful American ideal: Upper East Side preppy meets the worldly sensibility that comes with years of travel. Burch utilized her fashion advertising background and self-starter attitude to build her business from the ground up. In just 16 years, the Tory Burch label has become a multi-billion-dollar, internationally recognized brand and shows no signs of slowing. The launch of her 2015 sporting apparel line signified her attention to detail when it comes to outfitting women with practicality and style. She says, “I wanted the collection to look and feel like it was made from natural products... but at the same time be superfunctional and symbolize the elegance of sports.” An ardent philanthropist, Burch speaks frequently on the importance of voting, and her eponymous foundation provides women with resources to pursue entrepreneurial ventures.

Michael Bloomberg

Politician Michael Bloomberg imagePolitician and philanthropist Michael Bloomberg

To the nation, Mike Bloomberg can best be summarized as a recent presidential candidate, avid philanthropist and media mogul. To New Yorkers, he’s the lauded public servant responsible for many of the city’s rebuilding efforts following the Sept. 11 attacks. Advocating for solutions to climate change, public health disparities and educational funding, Bloomberg has shown his constituents just how much he cares. Through the years, he has donated billions to Johns Hopkins University and other organizations working for the betterment of society. More recently, he announced a donation of $100 million to four historically Black medical schools in order to ease the financial burden of tuition on roughly 800 students and increase the number of Black doctors in America. For many politicians, such contributions often remain promises; Mike Bloomberg has shown that his is a legacy of action.

Jimmy Fallon

Late night television host Jimmy FallonLate night television host Jimmy Fallon

A late night television fixture, Jimmy Fallon has brought entertainment and laughter to American homes for the last 22 years. The Emmy and Grammy Award-winning comedian and host of The Tonight Show has in many ways redefined his medium’s structure. Through original sketches and, more recently, creative alternatives to the audience format in many of this year’s episodes, Fallon continues to innovate and delight. His at-home editions not only brought a sense of joy during stressful times but also helped spread awareness for safe social interaction and Feeding America, a charity representing more than 200 food banks nationwide. In addition to his on-screen career, Fallon has cultivated an engaging social media presence that appeals to the humor of all generations. He has also authored five children’s books, the latest, 5 More Sleeps ‘til Christmas, published this month.

Janet Mock

Writer and producer Janet Mock imageWriter, producer and transgender rights activist Janet Mock

Multitalented author and director Janet Mock most recently came into the spotlight for her role in the production of hit FX series Pose. She made history as the first transgender woman of color to write, direct and produce a television episode, though her activism for transgender and women’s rights goes back to her own experience with the community. Mock released her first book, Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, in 2014. The memoir became a New York Times bestseller and helped bring light to an underrepresented narrative that is gradually gaining ground thanks to such advocates. Since then, Mock has written a second book and spoken to millions at the 2017 Women’s March on Washington about the need for inclusivity in the feminist movement. She made Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People list in 2018 and holds a number of other similar accolades. Thanks to advocates like Mock, a future of tolerance and inclusivity seems more possible than ever before.

Agnes Gund

Philanthropist and founder, Art for Justice Fund

What’s your mission? My life’s mission is to support artists and greater access to art because it can open minds and inspire justice.

How are you impacting the community? Our country is weathering multiple pandemics of COVID-19, economic recession and racial inequity, and the communities most impacted are telling us exactly what they need. Through the Art for Justice Fund and personally, I’m investing in the artists and activists responding to all of these challenges.

What has been your silver lining? The global demonstrations for racial justice give me hope that we will meet this historic moment with lasting change. As a result of this overdue reckoning, more people understand the urgent need for our country to address systemic racial inequality and their role in the solution.

How can others help? Register to vote, go vote and tell everyone you know to do the same. Our election must be aligned with our efforts to advance racial justice, economic opportunities for all and end mass incarceration.

Darren Walker

“The most important crossings in our lives are not always made of cables and concrete and steel. The bridges in our lives take many forms. On my journey, my mother and my community was a bridge from poverty to possibility. But there were also public policies that reflected the generosity of America, the country we love. Indeed, the only country in the world where my story could even be realized.” — President of The Ford Foundation in his University of Texas at Austin 2015 commencement address

Emma Bengtsson

“I’ve always carried that with me to every workplace I’ve gone to where I don’t step into a kitchen if it makes me feel humiliated or bad. I mean, they’re hard, and it will tear on you, but I never wanted to feel that extra pushdown, so I’ve always looked toward kitchens where I felt that I belonged and where I felt respected. It’s kind of been my path to just steer toward the restaurants where I feel good.” — Emma Bengtsson, Michelin-starred chef of Aquavit, on the Communal Table podcast

Tamron Hall

Broadcast journalist Tamron Hall imageBroadcast journalist and talk show host Tamron Hall

It’s been an exciting couple of years for Tamron Hall. The broadcast journalist debuted her self-titled talk show in 2019, which went on to win an Emmy Award, and welcomed her new son last year. Before these successes, Hall worked diligently in her career to climb the ranks at MSNBC and NBC News. She eventually moved to the Today show and became the first Black woman to co-anchor it. To say that she has broken barriers and long been an inspiration to multiple demographics (women, people of color, aspiring journalists) would be a gross understatement. But she hasn’t just been delivering newsworthy stories; Hall has also delivered serious looks over the years, earning her a reputation as one of the most fashionable reporters around and getting mentioned by some of the top style publications. It’s safe to say Hall does her job well and looks great doing it.

Dapper Dan

In what has come to be a historic twist of fate, Dapper Dan’s knockoff designs of the ’80s and ’90s have had a resounding effect on both mainstream and high fashion. The Harlem couturier is the definition of someone ahead of his time, only appreciated during his prime by the true innovators of the field. As luxury brands assailed him with copyright lawsuits for his screen-printed reworkings of their logos, world-class athletes and hip-hop artists gave the garments, and Dapper Dan himself, their legendary status. Even after the adversity he faced in the industry, Dan has never lost his love for fashion. “I grew up very, very poor,” he says. “Clothes are transformative, and I liked the equalizing effect of fashion.” His artistic devotion helped land a partnership with former adversary Gucci, and he opened his atelier studio in conjunction with the brand in 2018. He has since released a bestselling memoir and continues to inspire budding artists and cultural icons alike.

John DemseyExecutive Group President Estee Lauder Companies

Beauty brand mogul John Demsey

Executive Group President, The Estée Lauder Companies

My mission is... to bring beauty, hope and optimism to people around the world through products and experiences. I will never stop rallying my brand teams to continually inspire our consumers and disrupt beauty norms. Furthermore, I want to use my position to encourage a more inclusive, diverse, accepting and forgiving world. I have a responsibility to leverage my contacts and resources to expand the notion of inclusivity in beauty and make a positive impact in the lives of those who fall beneath the safety net of society.

Now more than ever we need... more new thinking and bold moves. More values rather than things of value.

My 2020 motto is... in the words of my daughter’s TikTok obsession: ‘classy, bougie, ratchet.’ In the words of my ’70s upbringing: ‘I will survive.’

Tags: features

Photography by: Lin-Manuel Miranda by Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez by Celeste Sloman/Redux; Anderson Cooper by Billy Farrell/bfa.com; Andy Cohen by Griffin Lipson/bfa.com; Misty Copeland by Mat Hayward/Getty Images; Sarah Jessica Parker by Daniele Venturelli/Wireimage/Getty Images; Michael Bloomberg by Julio Gamboa/bfa.com; Jimmy Fallon by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images; Janet Mock by Owen Kolasinski/bfa.com; Tamron Hall by Gilbert Carrasquillo/Filmmagic/Getty Images


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