In 1994, when Sofia Vergara was 22, she landed a major hosting gig with Univision. The show catapulted her to prominence in Miami, but she couldn’t find an agent.
“I was very young when I signed my first contract, and I did it myself,” Vergara says. “I needed a manager, and that didn’t exist for a Latina personality. It existed for Latina musicians, but not on TV.”
Clearly things have changed. Riding the wave of her success with “Modern Family,” where she played the affable Gloria Pritchett from 2009 to 2020, Vergara has topped the Forbes list for seven consecutive years as the highest-paid female actor in the world, raking in $43 million last year. In addition to being a judge on “America’s Got Talent,” she has a multifaceted empire that includes furniture collections, fragrances and apparel. While the public acknowledgment of her wealth makes her a little uncomfortable, Vergara is more than comfortable speaking about her hard-won — and growing — business ventures.
“I am super proud,” she says of her Forbes ranking. Laughing, she continues: “I feel like it’s a bit of an exaggeration though — don’t forget that I have to pay horrific taxes too. When everyone is like, ‘Oh, my God, you have so much money,’ I always say, ‘No, I don’t have as much as you think I have. I have to fucking pay Uncle Sam! And managers! And lawyers! And agents!’”
While Vergara is best known for “Modern Family,” on which she reportedly earned $500,000 per episode in later seasons, the bulk of her earnings comes from her businesses and brand deals. “I’ve made a lot with endorsements and being a spokesperson,” she says. “That has given me a lot of money – and I’ve done a lot of them.”
Vergara has used her platform on broadcast television to engage with fans, who are loyal consumers of her products, including her latest venture, a size-inclusive denim collection at Walmart. That follows a four-year Kmart deal that she ended in 2015.
Vergara’s pride in her stature as a global entrepreneur is refreshing at a time when the fight for equality persists in Hollywood, especially for women of color, who are statistically the most underpaid group in the workforce.
“I do feel sometimes that women have that thing that they’re scared to negotiate. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want and what you deserve,” Vergara says, “Because somebody is going to make that money, and somebody is going to take that money, and it needs to be you. That has worked for me, always.”
Vergara — who left dental school in her native Colombia for an acting and modeling career — didn’t aspire to become an international superstar. As a young, single mother, her perseverance came from wanting to support her son and helping her large family.
“I needed independence,” she says. “I don’t believe that money is 100% what is going to give you happiness, but I think it takes away a lot of the pressure and stress where you can focus on other things. When you’re worried about how you’re going to pay the rent, I don’t think that you can be worry-free, and I always wanted that for myself.”
While the entertainment industry continues to grapple with Latino representation, Vergara recognized decades ago what many Hollywood executives have failed to comprehend: The Spanish-speaking market is incredibly lucrative.
And so, the same year she couldn’t land a manager as a Univision host, she and her business partner, Luis Balaguer, launched Latin World Entertainment, where she remains a client 25 years later. Today, the agency is the premier Hispanic talent management and marketing firm in the U.S.
During the pandemic, Vergara has stayed busy, shooting “America’s Got Talent,” under COVID-19 protocols. The NBC competition show was one of the first shows to safely resume production and bring jobs back for crew members, as the entertainment biz suffered industry-wide layoffs and furloughs.
But with so many small businesses collapsing during the coronavirus crisis, Vergara knew she had to do something for those who had lost their livelihood. And so, she teamed up with the micro-lending platform, Kiva. With an initial goal of raising $50 million in loans, Vergara’s partnership helped the company raise more than $150 million, to date.
“Women, they don’t spend on alcohol or gambling,” she says. “Women spend on their families and in their communities, so when you help a woman with microfinance, the money goes a long way.”
When it comes to advocating on her own behalf, Vergara has never put herself in a box.
“It’s important to never alienate yourself, like, ‘Oh, I am a woman. Oh, I am Latina.’ Playing all those cards, I never allowed that to cross my mind. I present myself as an equal, so no one would ever have the chance to see me different,” she says.
When she first moved to L.A., Vergara knows she was lucky. She was cast in a few different pilots, consistently working. And within five years of coming to the West Coast, she landed the role of a lifetime in “Modern Family.”
Vergara knows the creators of “Modern Family,” Steve Levitan and Chris Lloyd, took a chance casting her when no one else sounded like her on broadcast television. However, she admits that in her early days, it was actually rare that she was criticized for her accent on auditions — but perhaps because she was strategic to set herself up for success with parts she felt were the most realistic.
“Eh no,” she says of being judged for her thick accent. “Mostly because I knew my limitations and I wouldn’t go to a casting for a NASA scientist, for example,” she says, laughing. “I was not trying to get cast for ‘Schindler’s List.’ I knew what I was going for — where they needed someone like me.”
While she acknowledges the lack of complex roles for Latina women back in the ’90s, Vergara says in her early auditions, she rarely felt as if she were reading for stereotypical roles.
“I cannot complain about that,” she says when asked if she was only offered clichéd characters. “There were some, but it wasn’t all the time. Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek were already opening doors and then I arrived, so it was not that bad.”
Early into her fan-favorite run as Gloria Pritchett on “Modern Family,” her character garnered some negative backlash for perpetuating stereotypical qualities of a Latina woman.
“I always laughed about it because if Gloria was stereotypical, then that’s just what I am,” Vergara says. “I created Gloria as a mixture of my mom and my aunt and the women that I grew up with in Colombia — they were loud, they were super intense, they were super colorful, super crazy, minding everybody’s business, super passionate and loving.”
She continues, “If Gloria was a stereotypical woman, then what a magnificent stereotype. What was wrong with being Gloria? She was fantastic. She cared about everyone, she loved everyone, even the kids that were not hers, she was always trying to help everyone.”
“What I kind of got a little bit upset for,” Vergara continues, “was even Latin people saying that. It’s like, please! You have to be super happy that they gave a Latin woman that sounds like me a major freaking role, and that she’s been getting nominated and the show is winning everything! Why are you coming to criticize?” With a laugh, Vergara adds, “It’s not like I was playing a maid or a hooker in East L.A. I was playing the wife of a wealthy American in Beverly Hills.”
In the 13 years since “Modern Family” began, Vergara has seen more opportunities open up for Latina performers.
“Of course, you can never compare to how a normal-speaking or white girl would get, but that is how it is,” Vergara says. “We should not sit here and complain, but try to break those walls, so they don’t try to put us in a different category. No, I can compete with all of them.”
Vergara suggests the industry give more opportunity to authentic voices behind the scenes who can appropriately write for — and hire — Latinx artists.
“It’s complicated. I don’t feel that it’s just about white people not hiring Latina people,” Vergara says. “What we need is people that know about Latinos, like writers and creators. Those are the ones that can give us jobs. Usually, a showrunner or a writer will write about what they know, and some of them maybe have never even had a Latina girlfriend or they’ve never even had friends that are Latin, so when they sit down to create and write, it just doesn’t even occur to them. I feel that what we need are more writers and creators who are creating content for us. That is the only way that it’s going to happen.”
While Hollywood has embraced more diverse voices, highlighted by this year’s Academy Awards, which boasted the most nominated actors of color in history after the embarrassing years of #OscarsSoWhite. But for the Latinx community, Vergara says there is much more work to be done.
”Little by little,” Vergara says. “It’s not great, it’s not perfect. Even with the movement that has happened now, I hope that at some point, there will be a wave where more jobs can also be for Latin people.”