Emmys 2013: Kerry Washington, ‘It Girl’

Story highlights

Actress is the first black woman to be nominated in her Emmy category since 1995

Kerry Washington has managed to keep her personal life private

Despite acclaim and recognition, it's all about the work for Washington

CNN  — 

In 1995, Kerry Washington had just launched her career.

The actress, then 18, had one professional credit to her name – a role in an ABC after-school special, according to Internet Movie Database.

Oh what a difference a few years can make.

Now Washington is the star of the hit ABC series “Scandal,” and she’s nominated for outstanding lead actress in a drama at Sunday’s Primetime Emmy Awards. The last time an African-American woman was up for such an honor was when she was starting out. (Cicely Tyson was nominated for her work in “Sweet Justice” in 1995.)

Washington already has made history as the first black actress to lead a network TV drama in almost 40 years. Jada Pinkett Smith was the lead actress of a cable drama, TNT’s “HawthoRNe,” which was canceled in 2011.

Record accomplishments aside, it is undeniable Washington is having a moment. Not only has she seemingly been on the cover of every magazine lately, but the actress also managed to pull off a Hollywood coup by getting married without the world even knowing she was dating.

“I don’t want to sound smug about it … but the point is to do what’s best for me,” Washington recently told Glamour magazine of secretly marrying San Francisco 49ers cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. “I have girlfriends in this business who talk about their personal lives, and it works for them, and I love it. But not for me.”

For most, the first time Washington grabbed attention was as struggling teen mom Chenille Reynolds in the 2001 film “Save the Last Dance.” She followed that with roles in movies both big and small – from “Bad Company” with Chris Rock and Anthony Hopkins to the indie “Night Catches Us.”

Despite positive reviews and glowing praise from her contemporaries, Washington had a career that was slow and steady at best. She finally began to break out when critics hailed her portrayal of Ray Charles’ wife, Della Bea Robinson, opposite Jamie Foxx in the 2004 Oscar-nominated film “Ray.” The pair teamed up again in 2012 for Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.”

But it is her role on the small screen as political power fixer Olivia Pope on “Scandal” that has brought Washington the most recognition – from the Emmy nomination to People Magazine’s best dressed star of 2013. According to “Scandal” creator Shonda Rhimes, all the accolades couldn’t be happening to a more well-deserving actress.

Kerry Washington talks Olivia Pope, slavery and politics

“She knows every single person’s name (on the show),” Rhimes recently told Vanity Fair. “She gave out the prizes in our little weight-loss competition that we had on set. And, more importantly – and this is a thing I am really trying to learn from her – I have never heard Kerry Washington complain. That sounds like a casual thing to toss off, but think about the fact that she works more hours than anybody. I literally never hear her complain. That is a very rare breed of person.”

It is also rare how Washington is able to keep her personal life private while still appearing accessible to fans. “Scandal’s” success – and consequently her own – has partly been attributed to the series’ active social media presence. Cast members live tweet during every episode, and Washington is especially engaged with fans – retweeting them and answering their questions.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, the social media strategy paid off last season in the form of higher ratings and increased buzz. For Washington, it translated into the chance to compete with Claire Danes of “Homeland” and Robin Wright of “House of Cards” for television’s most prestigious honor.

Washington has said she fully embraces the recognition, but for her, it has always been about the craft.

“I don’t approach the work or the life of the work from the perspective of, like, what are voters gonna think,” Washington told Entertainment Weekly after she was nominated. “Or, what are critics gonna think? I just can’t. Once you try to please a specific perspective or audience, it gets in the way of the work. The work is telling the story, and that’s what you have to do: Tell the story in the best way possible to serve the creative vision and to serve the story. You can never control how it’s going to be received.”

Fans are looking forward to see what will happen Sunday, but to them, Washington’s already a winner.