Puzzles, Verzuz and a Provocateur Named Ziwe: 36 Breakout Stars of 2020

10:45 AM 12/17/2020

by Chris Gardner

A look back at pop culture's boldest breakthroughs of the past 12 months.

Breakout Stars of the Year 2020
Getty Images (9); Nathan Congleton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

Doomscrolling? Not here. By this point in December, after the long and especially tortuous roller coaster that was 2020, there’s no need to recap any of the terrible, no good, very bad headlines of the past 12 months. Instead, why not focus on the people, pairs and phenoms that emerged to delight, soothe and sometimes challenge audiences across the entertainment landscape? Sounds like a much better time, so buckle up for pop culture's boldest breakouts, in no particular order (sharing 31 spots with 36 in total) …

  1. 1

    Ziwe Fumudoh

    Hollywood is full of mononymous entertainers. Oprah, Cher, Madonna, Adele, Bono, Britney, Pink, Prince, Rihanna, and Zendaya, just to name a few. The year that was introduced one more: Ziwe. The Brooklyn-based comedian, who has written for Desus & Mero and Our Cartoon President, captured a piece of the pandemic zeitgeist by adapting her YouTube show Baited to Instagram Live. Hilariously cringe-worthy chats ensued with the likes of Caroline Calloway, Alison Roman, Alyssa Milano and Rose McGowan. It was enough to catch the attention of Time editors who dubbed her the “pandemic’s most provocative comedy star," as well as Showtime and A24. The cable network offered her a straight-to-series order for an as-yet-untitled variety series that could be called what Fumudoh’s parents already gave her. (Hint: Starts with Z.)

  2. 2

    Nicole Kidman’s Coats in ‘The Undoing’

    Post-finale reviews may have been mixed for HBO’s prestige-style whodunnit starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant, but there was little dissent regarding Grace Fraser’s full-length outerwear. The overwhelmingly positive consensus was that the show was the perfect showcase for costume designer Signe Sejilund and her *Aretha Franklin voice* “great coats, beautiful coats.”

  3. 3

    Mullets: Tiger King, Miley Cyrus, Troye Sivan and Rihanna

    Let’s be honest: Mullets have never really gone away away. But, as they say, it only takes three to make a trend and that’s what 2020 delivered — plus one, for good measure. Joseph Allen Maldonado-Passage aka Joe Exotic aka Tiger King, the star of Netflix’s pandemic superhit, rocked a bleach blonde mullet with blunt bangs that was seen by 64 million people in the first month after its debut. While that surely led to a few if not many mullets across the globe — especially with a rise in home haircuts — we know of at least three other high-profile examples: Miley Cyrus (basically all year), Troye Sivan (in the Easy music video with Kacey Musgraves) and forever trendsetting Rihanna (in a Fenty show and at dinner at fave Westside hotspot Giorgio Baldi). 

  4. 4

    Anya Taylor-Joy

    The 24-year-old has been on a steady and impressive climb thanks to breakout turns in such films as The Witch, Thoroughbreds and Emma. But toplining Netflix’s megahit The Queen’s Gambit as a pill-popping, chess-playing orphan sent Taylor-Joy into a new stratosphere as it recently set a record as the most-watched scripted limited series ever with 62 million households tuning in during the first 28 days of release. Up next: the ingenue teams with Robert Eggers, Alexander Skarsgård and Nicole Kidman on The Northman; Kristin Scott Thomas on her film The Sea Change; and George Miller on his Mad Max prequel playing Furiosa. Check. Mate. 

  5. 5

    Jurnee Smollett and Jonathan Majors

    It almost doesn’t seem quite right to put the Lovecraft Country pair on a list of breakout stars as they separately and respectively have delivered impactful performances in a range of projects for a minute. (Even longer for former child star Smollett whose first job dates back to a diaper campaign she did at 10 months old.) But HBO’s Lovecraft Country offered something new for the 31-year-old Majors and the 34-year-old Smollett as the roles required a bit of everything — from the shock of horror and the physicality of adventure to the gravitas of drama and the ooh-la-la of nearly nude sex scenes. He’ll segue to playing a villain Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantomania while Smollett (who also turned heads in the Harley Quinn pic Birds of Prey) is already at work opposite Chris Hemsworth and Miles Teller in Joseph Kosinski’s Spiderhead.

  6. 6

    Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones

    There was nothing routine about the debut of Hulu’s Normal People, a 12-episode series based on the best-selling book by Sally Rooney, about a pair of Irish teens, Marianne and Connell, who fall in and out of love over many years. It became an instant phenomenon that ultimately led to four Emmy nominations (including one for lead actor 24-year-old Mescal) and global name recognition for the two rising stars. Up next: He stars in a pair of feature directorial debuts (one for Benjamin Millepied on Carmen; other for Maggie Gyllenhaal on The Lost Daughter); while Edgar-Jones, 22, snagged a sought after lead role toplining the adaptation of the acclaimed best-seller Where the Crawdads Sing.

  7. 7

    DeuxMoi: IG's Anonymous Gossip Star

    As the story goes, an anonymous woman received a work-from-home order from her employer. While sequestered, she made a play to expand a pop culture Instagram account by asking followers to send in random celebrity encounters. The DMs started flying and when she posted screengrabs of the intel — everything from sexual exploits and sandwich orders to tour riders and paparazzi-style images — engagement went off the charts thanks, in part, to the account's unique vocabulary: Anon please! HPDB! Chris Noth trigger warner! Much of the content boils down to the simplest of human interactions — who is nice and who is not — but as the follower count has ballooned (it’s currently north of 512,000), some posts have become can’t-miss dishy content. “Statements made on this account have not been independently confirmed,” reads the disclaimer on the IG bio. Real or not, Hollywood is on alert. A recent exchange featured anonymous studio executives arguing back and forth over hot-or-not not lists of actors-for-hire. Separately, a publicist recently confirmed to THR that many in her field are monitoring the posts in case they need to counter negative comments about clients. That's when you know you've made it. 

  8. 8

    Michaela Coel

    Her second effort as creator-star, HBO’s I May Destroy You, debuted in June and became a critical darling, backed by compliments for how Coel managed to translate the traumatic experiences of her own sexual assault and its aftermath into a buzzworthy limited series. Or, “an ambitious showcase for what makes Michaela Coel such a vital emerging voice,” wrote THR’s Dan Fienberg. Colleague Inkoo Kang added, “Coel set out to tell a kind of rape narrative that had been seldom told before, one whose freshness is as striking as the show's Black British hipster milieu, its children-of-African-immigrants characters and its timely tale of a pop feminist writer who's woefully naive about male manipulation.” Coel, who wrote all 12 episodes and co-directed nine, also proved her business savvy by detailing to Vulture that she turned down a $1 million offer from Netflix because they wouldn’t allow her to retain any percentage of the copyright.

  9. 9

    DJ D-Nice and DJ Cassidy

    In March, as strict safer-at-home orders spread across the United States, DJ D-Nice hatched a plan to spread good vibes and good beats to anyone in need of a dance break. He hopped on Instagram Live and did a series of marathon sessions that instantly caught fire and the eyeballs of such luminaries as Rihanna, Oprah, Michelle Obama, Janet Jackson and John Legend, and thousands more. “From my kitchen, I’m able to send positive vibrations to each of you,” he posted at the launch of what turned out to be a quarantine hit. “Thank you for rocking with me.” Speaking of rocking, DJ Cassidy also found a way to entertain the masses at home by drafting music icons for a webcast series titled Pass the Mic. It has, thus far, featured LL Cool J, Salt-N-Pepa, Run DMC, New Edition, Boyz II Men, Teddy Riley and dozens of others. He parlayed the success into an after-party special Pass the Mic: BET Soul Train Edition that aired in November. "I am forever grateful to my musical heroes for their decades of hope, inspiration, and soul, and with them, I celebrate all the heroes around the world," he said this summer in reference to what inspired him to pass the mic in the first place. 

  10. 10

    Virtual Cast Reunions

    Audiences have long been in love with seeing their favorite casts reunite, and 2020's predominantly virtual reality made it possible for the gangs to get back together from every corner of the globe. And the nostalgia train never stopped. There's too many to list here but some (many for Democratic fundraisers during the campaign cycle) have included Veep, Goonies, The Princess Bride, Elf, Seinfeld, Parks and Recreation, Star Trek, Spinal Tap, The Avengers, Superbad, Dazed and Confused, Private Practice and Happy Days, Hocus Pocus and Rocky Horror Picture Show and others.

  11. 11

    Richard and Demi Weitz

    In March, as safer at home directives set in due to the COVID-19 pandemic, WME partner Richard Weitz scrambled to find a way to celebrate daughter Demi’s 17th birthday. With limited options, he turned to Zoom and opened up his Rolodex by inviting friends (including some world-famous musicians) to join in the virtual party in what eventually morphed into a private charity concert series called RW Quarantunes. Over 10 months, Richard and Demi have hosted north of 35 virtual events that have featured hundreds of musicians while becoming one of Hollywood’s buzziest invites and most powerful philanthropic initiatives. To date, they've raised $15 million for causes ranging from COVID-19 relief to social justice. The father and daughter duo have also become media darlings with coverage in dozens of publications and on TV — not to mention a few awards here and there — though they’ll be the first to say it’s always been about giving back: “Brick by brick and dollar by dollar, that’s what is most important,” Richard tells THR. “And we’re not done yet.”

  12. 12

    Kendrick Sampson

    Actor and activist Kendrick Sampson founded the BLD PWR initiative in 2019 "as a call to action and invitation to others to join him in taking a stand for social justice," per his bio on the org's website. When the calls for social justice spread far and wide across the globe this summer in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, Sampson was there with that invitation. He mobilized marches across Los Angeles, and he stayed in the streets to protest despite the threats and rubber bullets he endured from police. He later used his platform by teaming with Tessa Thompson, Black Lives Matter co-founders Patrisse Cullors and Melina Abdullah to pen an open letter to Hollywood that was signed by hundreds of creatives and executives as a way to demand change, both in terms of storytelling and access. “Because Hollywood has been a huge part of the problem, we demand it be a part of the solution. We, as Black people, bring immense, immeasurable cultural and economic value to the industry. We are also suffering from the oppression perpetuated by this industry. We have every right to demand this change."

  13. 13


    No matter how you cut it, not a lot of pieces are required to tell this story in full: Puzzles and a pandemic proved to be a perfect fit. 

  14. 14

    Steve Kornacki

    The NBC national political correspondent became known by a new name in the wake of his election cycle performance: "Chartthrob." There was such a swell of love for the 41-year-old journalist — and his well-worn khakis — that People editors included him in the Sexiest Man Alive issue and celebrity admirers like Billy Eichner, Leslie Jones and Chrissy Teigen all came out as fans. His popularity even led to a new gig: Kornacki recently appeared on Football Night in America using his charts expertise to make predictions for the NFL playoffs. 

  15. 15

    Maria Bakalova

    Sacha Baron Cohen interviewed upwards of 500 actresses before discovering Bulgaria-born Bakalova to play Tutar Sagdiyev, the 15-year-old daughter of his character in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. During an appearance on Stephen Colbert's Late Show, the Borat mastermind explained why the search was so crucial. "It's a tough order," he said. "You have to be an incredible improviser. You have to be able to stay in character for many, many hours. You have to be able to play the emotions in the reality of the scenes, and you have to be hilarious." That is a tough order, but he found his match in Bakalova, who has received rave reviews for the performance. And Cohen thinks it's one of the best of the year: "If she doesn't win an Oscar, I don't know what the Academy is for."

  16. 16

    Jordan Firstman

    “Closeted gay filmmaker, actor, writer for thousands of TV shows such as Search Party, The Other Two, Big Mouth and no others,” reads the bio on his Instagram account, which is obviously amusing but doesn’t capture what makes him one of the year’s boldest breakouts. This does: Firstman leaned on his comedic skills to act out a series of “impressions” clips during the pandemic — notable entries include imagining what a publicist might say if their client was banana bread or the fly that landed on Mike Pence’s head — with many of the posts going viral and attracting the attention of Jennifer Aniston, Chrissy Teigen and Versace, which partnered with him recently. His IG follower count jumped to 841,000 and positive press has praised him as “the face of lockdown laughter” to “funniest man on the Internet.” 

  17. 17

    Chloe Fineman

    Speaking of pandemic Instagram stars, the Saturday Night Live regular kept the content flowing for her 426,000 followers. And what a stream it's been. There were spoofs of Architectural Digest home tours, a did-they-or-didn't they live-streamed wedding with Casey Thomas Brown, and impressions of everyone from Nicole Kidman to Carole Baskin. The 32-year-old recently kept Jimmy Fallon laughing IRL on The Tonight Show by reciting a version of Twas the Night Before Christmas as such celebrities as Reese Witherspoon, Drew Barrymore, Margaret Thatcher, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Timothee Chalamet and Meryl Streep. 

  18. 18

    Dick Johnson

    In Netflix's Dick Johnson is Dead, auteur Kirsten Johnson gave her father the documentary treatment in the most experimental way by asking him to act out his death in a variety of scenes. Some accidental and some hilarious, but the overall exercise had a serious reason behind it: to allow them to spend time together as his memory faded due to dementia. There's no dimming Dick's shine, though. The 88-year-old emerges as a lovable hero who is so easy to root for even as air conditioners fall repeatedly on his head. Also, try not to cry when he's waiting on his chocolate cake.

  19. 19

    Sarah Cooper

    On April 23, 2020, Sarah Cooper posted “How to medical” on Twitter, a 49-second clip during which she lip-syncs a series of bizarre statements made by President Donald Trump about proposed COVID-19 cures of UV light and disinfectant. It went viral and has since been viewed more than 24.1 million times on Twitter alone (she also posts to TikTok and YouTube). More than clicks, it pushed Cooper’s brand of Trump comedy into the spotlight and made her one of the summer’s breakout stars thanks to a blitz of impeccably timed skits. Cooper signed with WME and subsequently landed a Netflix comedy special, Everything’s Fine, that got a major boost from creative partners Natasha Lyonne and Maya Rudolph. With Trump on his way out of office, Cooper is intent on proving that 2020 was no fluke: She partnered with Cindy Chupack, Nina Tassler, Denise Di Novi and Joan Boorstein for an adaptation of her book How to Be Successful Without Hurting Men’s Feelings for CBS. “The special made me realize how much I love writing and that there's a lot of things that are really important to me that I want to do," she told THR. "It’s just made me really excited for the future."

  20. 20


    “It’s official. We are doing this for the culture. Me and Swizzy gonna go at it.” So said a post from super-producer Timbaland announcing that he and Swizz Beatz were going to go head-to-head by putting their hits up against one another, round by round. The experiment, broadcast on IG Live in March, was so wildly successful, the two created Verzuz Battle, a pandemic phenomenon and must-watch broadcast that has since paired artists like Teddy Riley vs. Babyface, Erykah Badu vs. Jill Scott, Brandy vs. Monica, Ludacris vs. Nelly, Lil Jon vs. T-Pain, Gladys Knigth vs. Patti LaBelle, Young Jeezy vs. Gucci Mane, among others. "We found a way to still keep it competitive, classy, educational and where you're celebrating at the same time," Swizz has said. "We just like it that way better." So do the fans.

  21. 21

    Kiera Allen

    Talk about a debut. The actress’s first feature film, Run, cast her opposite none other Sarah Paulson in a twisted two-hander. Paulson plays an overprotective mother, Allen the doted on yet suspicious daughter who, after being raised in isolation, begins to uncover some unsettling secrets that set off a chain of life-or-death events. Allen, 22, has received raves for the performance, which is also notable in that it is one of the rare instances when Hollywood has cast a true disabled person to play a wheelchair-bound character. In a recent interview with The New York Times, Allen said she’s hoping the film breaks barriers and boosts representation. “This film is unusual in the way it portrays disability, not only in the authenticity of casting, but in the story: This is not a girl who’s made to be a victim or who’s only there to inform another character’s journey,” she said.” She defines her own journey. Her disability is a part of that, but it doesn’t define who she is. It’s similar to the way I view myself.”

  22. 22

    Charles Yu

    In a few short years, Yu built a diverse Hollywood resume as a writer on such projects as Westworld, Here and Now, Legion and Sorry for Your Loss. He even snagged a couple of WGA nominations for his small-screen efforts but this fall he won a major prize far from the bright lights of Tinseltown when his novel Interior Chinatown was named National Book Award winner for fiction. The prestigious award went to Yu's fourth book which tells the story of Willis Wu, a background player in a procedural cop show titled Black and White that shoots in Golden Palace restaurant. While he dreams of getting promoted to Kung Fu Guy, a lofty role for someone like him, his mother says to him "Be more." More happens as the story unfolds in a way that examines Hollywood tropes and racist stereotypes. "Interior Chinatown represents yet another stellar destination in the journey of a sui generis author of seemingly limitless skill and ambition," said the New York Times, while Hulu called it a TV show with Yu on board to adapt. 

  23. 23

    Room Rater

    When the pandemic forced work from home situations, it opened a virtual world that revealed the backdrops and decor of, well, just about everyone. Enter: Room Rater. Created as a Twitter account (@RateMySkypeRoom) by Vancouver-based Claude Taylor and girlfriend Jessie Bahrey, the duo offer ratings of what they see on a scale of 1-10. A perfect 10/10 has become a most coveted accessory. See below.


  24. 24

    'The Social Dilemma' Star Tristan Harris

    Jeff Orlowski's documentary, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, explores "the dangerous human impact of social networking, with tech experts sounding the alarm on their own creations," per the official Netflix tagline. No expert figured more prominently in the 1-hour, 34-minute social media shock fest than Tristan Harris. The former Google Design ethicist (and childhood magician) made a media splash before (he even once briefed government leaders on the dangers of the attention economy), but his appearance in Social Dilemma brought renewed attention to the dangers of online behaviors at a time when everyone was at home, on phones and computers, all the time. Harris now serves as co-founder and president of the Center for Humane Technology and co-host of the Center for Humane Technology's Your Undivided Attention podcast with Aza Raskin.

  25. 25

    Radha Blank

    The native New Yorker kicked off the year by making a splash at the Sundance Film Festival with The Forty-Year-Old Version, a black-and-white film that she wrote, directed and stars in as a character patterned after herself. It follows a Black female playwright struggling to get her big break in the industry with a milestone birthday looming. About that Sundance splash: Blank won a best director prize during the festival, delivering the most special of homecomings as she had developed the project with support from the Sundance Institute. Netflix also came on board and released the film Oct. 9, positioning it up for awards and critical attention that is sure to come. THR critic Beandrea July wrote, “I can’t wait to see what she does next.”

  26. 26

    Elliot Page

    The Oscar-nominated star of Juno, Inception and The Umbrella Academy, announced Dec. 1 that he is transgender. "I feel lucky to be writing this. To be here. To have arrived at this place in my life. I feel overwhelming gratitude for the incredible people who have supported me along this journey. I can’t begin to express how remarkable it feels to finally love who I am enough to pursue my authentic self." Page's social media posts were flooded with love from friends, peers and Hollywood admirers including Julianne Moore, Natasha Lyonne, Miley Cyrus, Ruby Rose, Anna Paquin, James Gunn, Lena Dunham, Laura Linney, Indya Moore and countless others. To sum up the sentiments, most went a little something like Mark Ruffalo: "You have made this world a more tolerant and loving place with your commitment, courage, and vulnerability. We are lucky to have public figures like you."

  27. 27

    Addison Rae

    How can someone with 71.5 million followers on Tik Tok, 32.6 million on Instagram, 4.4 million on Twitter, and 4.52 on YouTube be categorized as a "breakout star"? Well, the 20-year-old Louisiana native did something this year that probably every creator on Tik Tok would love to do — she got cast in a lead role in a studio feature film. Rae is teaming with Tanner Buchanan for He's All That, a remake of the 1999 teen romantic comedy She's All That for Miramax and director Mark Waters. Original star Rachael Leigh Cook is on board to play Rae's mom and even Rae's real-life BFF Kourtney Kardashian will make a cameo. 

  28. 28

    Harry Styles

    OK, again, maybe not quite fair to slot Styles, a world-famous pop star, in as one of the year's most notable breakout performers. But check this out: In a year that marked the release of his second solo studio album, Fine Line, the 26-year-old snagged his first Grammy nominations (three!) for the effort. He went on to make history as the only man to appear alone on the cover of Vogue, and did so in a jacket and dress by Gucci, also another breakout-worthy move. On the Hollywood tip, Styles jumped in to replace Shia LaBeouf in Olivia Wilde's Don't Worry Darling, and sources tell THR that there are more film projects to come. Watch this space! 

  29. 29

    Los Angeles Dodgers and Lakers

    The City of Angels embraced back-to-back championships from its Los Angeles Lakers (over the Miami Heat) and Los Angeles Dodgers (over the Tampa Bay Rays) in 2020. The only downside? It happened during a global pandemic meaning the fans could not be in the stands when it happened. Still, both trophies will surely give Angelenos bragging rights well into next year. 

  30. 30

    John Wilson

    The man who gives his name to How To With John Wilson doesn't actually appear on screen all that much but that's him walking, talking, directing and observing New York City at its best, worst and most scaffolded. Each of the six episodes center on a tutorial of sorts — "How to Make Small Talk," "How to Improve Your Memory," "How to Split the Check" and "How to Cook the Perfect Risotto" – but by the end, while you may have learned a thing or two, you're bound to be doubled over laughing at the absurdity of what Wilson has captured. Or something else. "Wilson's empathy for the simultaneous beauty and ugliness of the city is evident in every frame. In a constant state of montage, How To has the ability to make you snort with laughter, pause in contemplation and even swoon at the poetry of urban space," writes THR critic Daniel Fienberg. Or you can take Kumail Nanjiani's words for it.

  31. 31

    COVID-19 Vaccine

    Better late than never and here to save lives, this late arrival is the real key to a happy new year. Cheers to 2021!