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Fame & Fortune: Actress Meg Tilly
Tragic childhood teaches her: Live within your means

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Bankrate: "Fame" opened a lot of doors for you and helped end the lean years. Were you prepared to handle success?

Tilly: When I danced in "Fame" that was more money than I'd ever seen. It was like, "holy cow!" I saved most of it, but I did splurge a little. If we had a really long day shoot where we were dancing on concrete all day, I would go to a Chinese takeout and get beef with broccoli -- and that would last for several dinners. Otherwise I would get a big chicken and make a big soup out of it and that would last me for a week. That's how I kept my expenses down in New York.

The first big money I got was when I did my first acting film; I was the female lead in "Tex." There, after taxes, I ended up with $17,000, which was amazing. I kept $3,500 for living expenses and gave the rest to my mom to pay off her mortgage. I was 21. Growing up the way I did, I got such a sense of responsibility. I was able to pay the mortgage off, and that was a really good feeling because we'd all been through hard times.

Bankrate: A back injury ended your dance career. Were you relieved to find Hollywood roles waiting?

Tilly: When I was doing "Fame," we couldn't believe that the actors got paid more than the dancers, because the dancers were working so hard and all the actors were doing was opening up their mouth and talking. So when I couldn't be a dancer, at first I was really devastated. That's what my focus had been, and what was going to save me from having the kind of life I did. At first I thought God was telling me I was going to die and that I needed to get everything in order, so I went back home and did physical therapy. But because I had been a dancer, I really didn't have any skills. I couldn't type, I couldn't be a secretary, my math skills weren't good because I didn't go to third and part of fourth grade, so I didn't know my times tables. I would have loved to have a white-picket-fence job but I didn't have the skills, and the only thing I could think of to do was act. Since everybody always said we had the happiest family in the world -- I'd been acting all my life, keeping up the pretense so the social workers wouldn't know. I knew I could act. That was a no-brainer.

Bankrate: But fame came with a downside for you.

Tilly: Yeah, I didn't count on being famous. I had just thought I could get a job here, get a job there, but I hadn't realized what fame was like. That was the hardest part for me.

Bankrate: Why?

Tilly: Having people recognize me, because my safety depended on me being able to disappear as a child. So it went against everything that my body would tell me to do. When people started recognizing me when I would go to the grocery store, it was terrifying. It still gives me a jolt even now.

Next: "... everybody is always pretending they have a happier life. ..."
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