Photo by Peter Hurley
13 Min ReadCareer 10 July 2020
For twelve years, Evy Poumpouras put her life on the line almost every single day. But she never let fear run the show. As a Special Agent for the United States Secret Service and a part of the Presidential Protective Division for President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, Poumpouras had plenty to be scared of, but when she talks about her experience, one thing is clear: she is always in control, even in her confidence that you can't plan for everything.
When asked how she began to think about entering the national security field, Poumpouras responded, "I make sure not to create rigid goals for myself as they limit me from seeing and exploring other opportunities... I will, however, put an intention out there and work my ass off to make it happen." Poumpouras mentions "mental and physical resilience" as the two key components of a budding success in a national security field, as well as any other special skills, such as Poumpouras' own ability to speak five languages. She makes it clear that the Secret Service isn't just looking for bulky men to wear dark sunglasses 24/7; it's more about what you can bring to the table to meet their needs and demonstrating that you're willing to truly put in the work.
I wanted to serve something greater than myself. I also wanted to live without fear and do everything and anything I was told I should or could not do. — Evy Poumpouras
In terms of how she actually decided on the agency, the answer is that she really didn't. "At its core, I knew I wanted to help people in a meaningful way," says Poumpouras, "I wanted to serve something greater than myself. I also wanted to live without fear and do everything and anything I was told I should or could not do. So in some genius way, my life choices eventually brought me to a career within the United States Secret Service." In my mind and I'm sure many others', the Secret Service or any high-level job in national security is an end goal, something that you believe you are born to do and spend every waking minute working towards. To hear Poumpouras outline a less-than-direct path had an inspiring and a somewhat calming effect; we really can't know what's next, and so it's enough to just keep doing our best and showing the world what we're capable of.
It wasn't just entering a field shrouded in secrecy and the inherent requirement of a life of duty that makes this particular path a challenging career choice; national security is a field traditionally dominated by men and suffused with a masculine ethos in almost every way. I would initially assume that to even think about pursuing this position, you would have to at least be willing to mask every part of you that defines you as a woman — as an "other" in this arena. However, Poumpouras decided to let her excellence speak for itself: "I chose to let my will and passion define me, not my gender... Besides, your performance is what people eventually see. and when you perform people tend to shut up." And perform she did. There didn't need to be a gendered qualifier on any of her accomplishments on the job to categorize them or make them seem any more impressive. Poumpouras was and is simply being a bad-ass, the fact that is a bad-ass woman seems almost beside that point.
The first no should never, ever, ever come from you. And when you do hear no – remember it's temporary. No is not permanent. In fact, the next time you hear no, train yourself to hear "not yet." — Evy Poumpouras
For her immense efforts after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Poumpouras was awarded the U.S. Secret Service Valor Award. However, when asked about this immense honor, Poumpouras responded that while she very much appreciated the acknowledgement, it was not the proudest moment of her career: "I have many proud moments. I was proud when I was accepted into the Secret Service. I was proud when I passed all the academies and training. I was proud when I was able to get justice for victims. I was proud when I stood next to the President of the United States or walked the halls of the White House. And I was proud when I chose to leave it behind and transition into a whole new career in media and journalism." Yet again, Poumpouras was seeking validation from within herself rather than waiting for society or the outside world to dictate her next move. She didn't set out to break down barriers or have her name go down in history books; she set a goal, she worked for it, and she was proud of herself along the way.
In her new book, Becoming Bulletproof, Poumpouras seeks to teach everyone how to live fearlessly and lean into their own confidence, grit, and strength. While her own experiences can only be described as uniquely extraordinary, Poumpouras truly wants this book to be for everyone: "We all want to be the strongest versions of ourselves. To stand tall when there is chaos around us. To face our failures and not let them crush us. To see ourselves as our own hero rather than searching for it elsewhere and in others. That is why I wrote Becoming Bulletproof." Living fearlessly doesn't mean ignoring fear; it's about building a healthy relationship with it, learning from fear rather than running from it. "I don't mind fear. In fact, I embrace it. But I don't let fear run the show," asserts Poumpouras, "Fear can sit in the passenger seat beside me, but I'm always in the driver's seat." The journey to this skillset happened through the building of healthy habits and incremental changes over time. While the rest of us will probably never have to work undercover or interrogate a suspect, we all can find new ways to conquer our own fears and lead ourselves more confidently into an unknown future.
Poumpouras was and is simply being a bad-ass, the fact that is a bad-ass woman seems almost beside that point.
Taking your life in a new direction can be unsettling, especially when you hear someone say "no." Poumpouras' advice? Make sure you get out of your own way: "The first no should never, ever, ever come from you. And when you do hear no – remember it's temporary. No is not permanent. In fact, the next time you hear no, train yourself to hear 'not yet.'" If there is one enormous takeaway from hearing Poumpouras' story, it is that any change truly starts with you and only you. It's a dedication to yourself rather than just the goal at hand that truly brings out success. For Poumpouras, it's all about viewing yourself as limitless and not thinking about how factors such as gender or background may affect the way people see you: "In the end, I was and am proud to be a woman. I never saw my gender in a negative light. I think that is what matters most. How you see yourself."
When asked what piece of advice she would give girls and women who might be hesitant to enter a certain career field or pursue a specific goal due to their gender, the sentiment was largely the same. "You go about your life and into the world as if there are no limitations," Poumpouras says, "Others may try to limit you, but never limit yourself." Poumpouras has left the Secret Service behind, but she carries the values and the strengths that she built in her time as an agent with her, and now she focuses on the good before her, whatever that looks like: "Because we can plan all we want, but life throws us curveballs, it presents us with twists and turns, and I've never known it to turn out exactly as I have ever planned. In fact, it often turns out better."
To read the full interview content, continue reading below.
First, could you tell me how you got your start in national security? When did you realize that this was something you wanted to pursue?
I did not have a clear vision of how my life or career would turn out. I was never that person who knew what she wanted to do from childhood. Even today when I'm asked what my one year or five year plan is, I chuckle inside. Because we can plan all we want, but life throws us curve balls, it presents us with twists and turns, and I've never known it to turn out exactly as I have ever planned. In fact, it often turns out better.
I will, however, put an intention out there and work my ass off to make it happen. But I make sure not to create rigid goals for myself as they limit me from seeing and exploring other opportunities. Even worse, when things don't go as we would like them our rigid goals can be more detrimental than anything. At its core, I knew I wanted to help people in a meaningful way. I wanted to serve something greater than myself. I also wanted to live without fear and do everything and anything I was told I should or could not do. So in some genius way my life choices eventually brought me to a career within the United States Secret Service.
How does one even begin to seek out a career in national security? What are some of the obstacles to getting involved with services that are designed to protect our nation and its leaders?
First, work, work, and more work. After that, there are two essential elements to being successful in this career path. Your mental and physical resilience. With regard to mental, the agency looks at an applicant with the mindset of how will this person add value to the organization. What skills do they possess such as a background in computer science or cyber security? Do they have any enhanced degrees or licenses such as being a lawyer or accountant? For me, it was languages, I spoke five – and that was of great value. With regard to the physical element, you must be able to physically perform. And it's not solely about muscle. It's about speed, endurance, power. And that comes in all shapes and sizes, so long as you are willing to put in the work.
The secret service, and security in general, tends to be dominated by men. When you were getting started, how did you keep yourself from getting discouraged and continue to set goals for yourself? Was it apparent that your gender may be affecting perceptions of your work?
I honestly, did not care about it at the time. I felt I was more than capable which is why I applied. If I was insecure or second-guessed myself then I would not have even bothered to try. There is a level of criteria that I had to meet and pass. And I made sure to meet those standards and even excel at them. I chose to let my will and passion define me, not my gender. If it was an issue for others, and I knew there was no issue with my performance then I understood the problem was with the other person not myself. When you care so much about what other people think, you lose. Besides, your performance is what people eventually see – and when you perform – people tend to shut up. In the end, I was and am proud to be a woman. I never saw my gender in a negative light. I think that is what matters most. How you see yourself.
Along with that, do you have any role models that you feel were especially important in shaping your journey through the secret service? They can be professional or personal.
No. I don't. I did not know anyone in the agency or anyone in that line of work. I knew nothing about that world. I simply allowed life to guide me into unchartered territory. I've always been like that. I pursue things that interest me. That I marvel at. Things that others might hesitate to do. Even when I left the Service after 13 years to go into working in television, I didn't have any role models. I made a decision and went for it. I am an explorer and adventurer of life. We get one and I intend to pack it in with as many journeys as possible.
In your new book, Becoming Bulletproof, you use your experiences as a Secret Service agent to talk about how to become a better, stronger, and wiser version of yourself in everyday life. What inspired you to think about translating your experiences, which I can only describe as extraordinary, to become applicable to any ordinary person?
My background and skillset over the years helped me evolve into a strong person. It happened incrementally. Slowly. But bit by bit. Habit by changing habit. And that evolution came from my ability to take what I learned as an agent and implement it into my own life. And if I could do that then anyone with the same determination could so as well. We all want to be the strongest versions of ourselves. To stand tall when there is chaos around us. To face our failures and not let them crush us. To see ourselves as our own hero rather than searching for it elsewhere and in others. That is why I wrote Becoming Bulletproof.
What does "living fearlessly" mean to you? How do you break down creating a healthy relationship with fear — one where you recognize it and learn from it rather than run from it?
It means not letting fear run the show. Fear is important. It keeps us cautious. It keeps us safe. It keeps us from making dumb decisions. I don't mind fear. In fact, I embrace it. BUT I don't let fear run the show. Fear can sit in the passenger seat beside me, but I'm always in the driver's seat. The moment I let fear sit behind the wheel, I have a problem. Now I've lost control.
You've obviously been recognized for your enormous contribution to this country by being awarded the U.S. Secret Service Valor Award, but what do you feel was the proudest moment of your career? Why that moment in particular?
Receiving the Valor Award was not the proudest moment for me. I appreciated the acknowledgement, but that's about it. But I have many proud moments. I was proud when I was accepted into the Secret Service. I was proud when I passed all the academies and training. I was proud when I was able to get justice for victims. I was proud when I stood next to the President of the United States or walked the halls of the White House. And I was proud when I chose to leave it behind and transition into a whole new career in media and journalism.
To the girls and women out there who may be hesitant to enter a particular career or pursue a certain goal because of the barrier of gender, what would you say to them? In other words, if you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?
Stop labeling yourself. Just because others do, it does not mean you should. This labeling ourselves has a negative impact on our psyche. Don't think about your gender, your race, your ethnicity, or whatever it is you are concerned about as a negative. You go about your life and into the world as if there are no limitations. Others may try to limit you, but never limit yourself. Don't allow that noise to enter your consciousness or spirit. Build your mental armor so other people's perceptions of you cannot penetrate you. Go for it. What ever it is go for it. The first no should never, ever, ever come from you. And when you do hear no – remember it's temporary. No is not permanent. In fact the next time you hear no, train yourself to hear "no[t] yet".
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5 min read
Except for 16, I have celebrated all of my milestone birthdays in New York City.
I turned 16 in Arnold, Missouri. Arnold is a small town (though not small anymore) 20 miles south of St. Louis. St. Louis is known for the Gateway Arch, a beautiful arch of shiny stainless steel, built by the National Parks Service in 1935 to commemorate Thomas Jefferson's vision of a transcontinental U.S. St. Louis is also known for its custard, a frozen dessert that is so thick, they hand it to you upside down with a spoon inside. Something else about St. Louis you should know is that there is a courthouse just steps from the base of the Gateway Arch where one of the most important cases in history was tried: Dred Scott v. Sanford.
I'm turning 50 during what I define as a miraculous time to be alive.
Mr. Scott was born into enslavement around 1799 and, in 1830, was sold to a military surgeon who traveled back and forth between his military posts in Illinois and Wisconsin, where slavery was prohibited under the Missouri Compromise of 1820. In 1842 the doctor and Mr. Scott both married, and they, all four, returned to St. Louis. Still enslaved, Dred Scott filed a lawsuit against the doctor's wife for his and his wife Harriet's freedom. We don't know exactly why he chose this moment in time to file a lawsuit, however, he did. At the time of filing his, now, famous lawsuit, he was 50 years old. Ultimately, The Scott family did not gain their freedom, but their profound courage in filling this case helped ignite the Civil War and what we would come to know (or think we know) as freedom from enslavement for all human beings. Powerful then and even more powerful now.
My next milestone was turning 21, and I did it in the Big Apple. Having only moved to "the city that never sleeps" a few months prior, I knew nobody except my new friends, the bus-boys from the restaurant I was working at, Patzo's on the Upper West Side. And, yes, pazzo is actually the correct spelling of the Italian word, which translates to "crazy." Trust me we all had several laughs about the misspelling and the definition going hand in hand. I worked a full shift, closing out at around 11 PM, when, my kitchen team came out from the line with a cake singing, "Cumpleaños Feliz." It was fantastic. And the kindness of these almost-strangers was a powerful reminder of connection then as it still is today almost 29 years later.
I design the life I desire and the Universe creates it for me every day. I show up, keep the story moving, and work hard because I am relentlessly devoted to making the world a better place and this is how I choose to leave my legacy.
When I turned 30, I had just finished a European tour with Lucinda Childs dance company. The company had been on tour for months together and were inseparable. We traveled through Paris, Vienna, Lisbon, and Rome. We ate together, we rode on a bus together, we had drinks after shows together, and we even took turns giving company class to get warmed up before a show. It was deeply meaningful and dreamy. We ended the tour back in New York City at BAM, The Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was an incredible way to end the tour, by being on our home court, not to mention I was having an important birthday at the culmination of this already incredible experience.
So, when I invited everyone to join me at Chelsea Pier's Sky Rink to ice skate in late August, I was schooled really quickly that "tour" does not mean you are friends in real life, it means you are tour friends. When the tour ends, so does the relationship. I skated a few laps and then went home. This was a beautiful lesson learned about who your real friends are; it was powerful then as it is today.
Turning 40 was a completely different experience. I was in a serious relationship with my now-husband, Joe. I had just come off of a successful one-woman dance show that I produced, choreographed, and danced in, I had just choreographed a feature film, John Turturro's Romance and Cigarettes, with A-list actors, including Kate Winslet and James Gandolfini, who became a dear friend and had even been on the red carpet with Susan Sarandon at the Venice Film Festival for the movie a year earlier.
And I encourage all women to identify their power and choose to be fully in your power at any age.
This was a very special birthday, and I had, in those 10 years between 30 and 40, come to cultivate very real friendships with some wonderful colleagues. We all celebrated at a local Italian restaurant, Etcetera Etcetera (who is delivering for those of you in NYC — we order weekly to support them during COVID), a staple in the theater district. Joe and I were (and are) regulars and, of course, wanted to celebrate my 40th with our restaurant family and friends. We were upstairs in the private room, and it was really lovely. Many of those in attendance are no longer with us, including Joe's Dad, Bob Ricci, and my dear friend Jim Gandolfini having transitioned to the other side. Currently, that restaurant is holding on by a thread of loving neighbors and regulars like us. Life is precious. Powerful then and today even more so.
I write this article because I'm turning 50, still in New York City. However, I'm turning 50 during what I define as a miraculous time to be alive. And I could not be more filled with hope, love, possibility, and power. This year has included an impeachment hearing, a global pandemic, and global protests that are finally giving a larger platform to the Black Lives Matter movement. Being able to fully embody who I am as a woman, a 50-year-old woman who is living fully in purpose, takes the cake, the rink, and the party.
I'm making movies about conversations around race. I've been happily married for 11 years to the love of my life, Joe Ricci. I'm amplifying and elevating the voices of those who have not previously had a platform for speaking out. I choose who to spend time with and how long! I design the life I desire and the Universe creates it for me every day. I show up, keep the story moving, and work hard because I am relentlessly devoted to making the world a better place and this is how I choose to leave my legacy. Being 50 is one of the most amazing things I ever thought I could experience. And I encourage all women to identify their power and choose to be fully in your power at any age. I'm 50 and powerful. Dred Scott was 50 and powerful. This powerful lesson is for today and tomorrow. We have the power. No matter what age you are, I invite you to use your powerful voice to join me in making the world a better place.