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One song. That's all it took. We'd known Megan simply as the fetching, good-with-kids secretary who started at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce's front desk before advancing to Don Draper's station and then onto his arm after he proposed to her in the season 4 finale of AMC's Mad Men. But then she threw that surprise 40th-birthday bash for Don in season 5's premiere — and in the process, her own coming-out party. She entranced and titillated the on- and offscreen audience by seductively serenading her spouse with the French pop hit ''Zou Bisou Bisou,'' only to follow it up by anger-cleaning their apartment in her bra and underwear, punishing Don, and tempting him to devour her.
''No one is more surprised than I am at the turn that it took,'' says Jessica Paré of her suddenly central role. ''Nobody knew the character in season 4, nobody knew me. The stakes were higher in season 5, so I was definitely more apprehensive going into it. And after the first episode, I felt like I really put myself out there, so I was like, 'Well, might as well throw it all at the wall now.'?''
It stuck. The 32-year-old Canadian actress (Hot Tub Time Machine, Jack & Bobby) infused Megan with passion and compassion, purity and purpose, making her Don's optimistic, fiery, and orange-sherbet-averse foil. Playing the young wife who rejected an advertising career to chase her acting dreams at the risk of alienating Don is proving to be a dream job for Paré. (''That's putting it mildly,'' she says.) And she's even accepting of Mad Men fans who've reacted negatively to Megan. ''Being a person that feels...feelings,'' she quips, ''it would be great if everybody just adored me. But I am also a practical and realistic person, and everybody's entitled to their opinion.'' Pause. ''But how can you hate Megan?'' C'est impossible. —Dan Snierson
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Niall Horan, 19, has a question for his One Direction bandmates. ''Do you remember in 2011 when we said, 'This year has been unbelievable. It'd be amazing if we could get near outdoing it in 2012'?'' The bandmates — Harry Styles, 18; Louis Tomlinson, 20; Zayn Malik, 19; and Liam Payne, 19 — say they do remember. ''Then we came to 2012,'' Horan continues. ''And it's been crazy.''
That's one way to put it. In addition to inspiring mass hysteria among tweens, in March the lads became the first British act to top the Billboard 200 chart with their debut album, Up All Night. Then in November they did it again with their sophomore hit, Take Me Home. They've amassed merchandising deals; they've signed on for a 3-D documentary directed by Morgan Spurlock; they've fed the rumor mill (lately Styles seems to be auditioning to be the next Mr. Taylor Swift); and they've sold out every tour date in 2012 and 2013. Not bad for a bunch of blokes discovered by Simon Cowell on The X Factor in the U.K. two years ago. Looking ahead, the boys are thinking about which artists they would like to collaborate with. So far, the wish list includes Katy Perry and Bruno Mars. Says Horan: ''That would be the ultimate, but it's a far shot away.'' Judging by their astonishing catapult to fame this year, it might be closer than he thinks. —Nuzhat Naoreen
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If you're going to make a name for yourself, you couldn't choose a more elegant one than Quvenzhané Wallis. (Her name is pronounced Kwah-VEN-jeh-nay.) The young star of the indie end-of-the-world fantasy Beasts of the Southern Wild was only 6 when she shot the film, playing a bayou girl named Hushpuppy who faces down the apocalypse. She's now 9, but she would still be the youngest-ever Best Actress contender if she scores an Oscar nomination. And if not, well, she's enjoyed the ride. ''It's been fun because, you know, I get to meet different people and do different things. The Q&A's were fun,'' Wallis says with typical little-kid nonchalance during a recent after-school interview. She'd like to act again but is not in any hurry: ''I don't have anything right now. But yeah, I'll see what I can get.'' Whatever it is, it's bound to be great. —Anthony Breznican
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American fans of the hit Britcom Gavin & Stacey can say ''I told you so!'' But a whole lot of Yanks have the Broadway success of One Man, Two Guvnors to thank for their introduction to the show's wildly funny, Tony award-winning star, James Corden. The 34-year-old British actor, who recently wrapped the drama Can a Song Save Your Life? with Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley, takes nothing for granted, remembering that his agent told him, ''I'll get you $500 more a week for a Tony nomination and another $500 if you win. But we both know that will never happen.'' —Lisa Schwarzbaum
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Carly Rae Jepsen
Every so often, Carly Rae Jepsen tears up a bedsheet, pins it to her wall, and writes her new set of goals on it in marker. ''The main one for me [this time] was to try to break out of Canada, and that happened in a bigger way than I expected.''
That is typical Canadian understatement. Thanks to some enthusiastic tweets from Justin Bieber, a series of YouTube clips (starring everybody from Katy Perry and Cookie Monster to the U.S. Olympic swim team and Colin Powell), and one of the most pleasantly inescapable hooks of the summer, the 27-year-old elevated herself from former Canadian Idol curiosity to genuine pop phenomenon. ''Call Me Maybe,'' with its bubbly backbeat and wall of strings, rocketed up the Billboard Hot 100, eventually settling into the top spot for nine weeks. That was a big-enough score to inspire a major lifestyle change for Jepsen. ''[The sheets] get tossed out as I cross things off, but I kept the one from around the time I was negotiating my deal,'' she admits. ''It's still crumpled in a ball under my bed.''
Jepsen hasn't busted out the linens for 2013 yet, but she's still enjoying her massive newfound cultural cachet: Her gig as Bieber's opening act — orchestrated by Bieber's manager, Scooter Braun, who signed Jepsen to his record label — will keep her on the road well into the new year. ''The fact that [the song] has spread worldwide and keeps being rejuvenated has been such a cool thing for me to witness,'' Jepsen says. ''It really feels like a once-in-a-lifetime experience.'' Well, until she scribbles down her goals for 2013. —Kyle Anderson
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It always takes guts to tell someone you love them. But when Frank Ocean posted an open letter on his blog earlier this year, revealing that his first love was a man, the 25-year-old singer was taking an even bigger gamble, both as a rising star in the world of R&B, which takes pride in its lady-killers, and as a member of Odd Future, a hip-hop group that has used antigay slurs in its songs. And yet the response was overwhelmingly positive. Adele called him ''so so special.'' Beyoncé wrote a poem in his honor. Even Justin Bieber came forward as a ''huge fan.'' ''His songwriting abilities are second to none,'' Bieber gushes, ''completely soul-stirring, mesmerizing, with beautiful storytelling.'' When Ocean's major-label debut, Channel Orange, came out in July, his talent was so undeniable that no one really cared who the ''you'' in his songs was. Later that month Ocean played his ballad ''Bad Religion'' at Terminal 5 in New York, and when he got to the part about pouring his heart out to a Muslim taxi driver, realizing that he'll never be with the man he loves, the whole audience sang along — tough hip-hop guys, preppy girls, a skinny teenager in a gay-pride T-shirt. Afterward, as everyone walked to the subway, the crowd raved about the set list. It's telling that even after Ocean revealed his secret to the world, his fans only wanted to talk about his music. Maybe admitting who you love isn't such a gamble after all. —Melissa Maerz
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He makes the Broadway-to-Hollywood leap look easy. In 2012 the Book of Mormon star played Hannah's gay ex-boyfriend on HBO's Girls (he'll return for season 2) and then found success as half of an expecting gay couple on NBC's The New Normal. His secret? ''You just don't have to try so hard on TV,'' says Rannells, 34. ''You get to relax into it a little bit. Rather than trying to fill a 1,500-seat house, your audience is right next to you.'' Plus, there's a lot more than 1,500 of us watching him now. —Adam Markovitz, with reporting by Tanner Stransky
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All stand-up comic Tig Notaro wanted in 2012 was to pitch a book and work some tour dates, but instead she got hit with a never-ending series of curveballs: pneumonia, the death of her mother, a bad breakup. And then, just when everything seemed to be returning to normal, she was diagnosed with cancer in both breasts. ''I felt like I was in this tunnel that was so dark for so long, and then another tunnel was put on that,'' she says.
But at last, the light: Notaro delivered a hilarious, now-legendary performance in L.A. just one day after her diagnosis. The resulting album, Live, is available on Amazon and iTunes. Today, after a double mastectomy, Notaro, 41, has a clean bill of health and is hoping to turn her experiences into a one-woman show. ''There's still heartache,'' she explains. ''But people seem to be getting something out of my story, which feels great.'' —Kyle Anderson
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Dane DeHaan says that his road to becoming an actor started when he was a tot ''playing dress-up — always as superheroes.'' So it's fitting that he leaped to stardom this year by playing an alienated teen who gets superpowers in Chronicle. And among his many projects for 2013 is the sequel to The Amazing Spider-Man, in which he will appear as Peter Parker's best friend, Harry Osborn. Says DeHaan, 26: ''The fact that everything has come full circle and I get to play superhero dress-up for a living is a dream come true.'' A dream in which, yes, he even gets to fly. —Jeff Jensen
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Anna Camp knows how to shuttle between jobs. In 2008 she filmed her role as a dutiful wife-turned-adulteress on True Blood while starring in the Broadway revival of Equus. But that was a mere warm-up to this year's balancing act. The actress, whose résumé includes stints on Mad Men and The Office, was a veritable workaholic in 2012, with terrific turns on the big and small screens. She had an eight-episode arc on CBS' The Good Wife, where she played an Eve Harrington-ish attorney with a knack for stirring up office politics; a supporting spot as Mindy Kaling's levelheaded best friend on the new Fox comedy The Mindy Project; and a lead role as a snippy college a cappella queen in the box office sleeper Pitch Perfect. Dipping her toes in various projects ''has been such a great thing that I get a little scared about [the possibility of] being a series regular on a show,'' admits Camp, 30, who will next be seen in the 2013 indie dramas Autumn Wanderer and Goodbye to All That. ''I love playing all sorts of different characters at once and going back and forth. I hope I'm not creating character ADD.'' —Nuzhat Naoreen
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Whether you first heard ''Ho Hey'' on the radio, during a Hart of Dixie episode, or in a Bing commercial, it surely wasn't your last run-in with the song. The foot-stomping, hand-clapping hit helped finger-pluck the Lumineers out of obscurity (a.k.a. Denver) and into Top 40 ubiquity. Boosted by that now-platinum single, the Colorado trio — Wesley Schultz, 29, Jeremiah Fraites, 26, and Neyla Pekarek, 26 — have found themselves at the front of the current folk-rock boom, touring in front of sold-out theaters and getting name-dropped on ABC's country drama Nashville. ''Our musician friends back home joke about not being able to get away from us,'' says frontman Schultz. ''Every time they go on YouTube or watch TV, they complain about our song coming on.'' They'd better get used to it: Just this month the Lumineers snagged two Grammy nominations, including one for Best New Artist. Although the band has been at it for seven years now, all these kudos are keeping them busier than ever. ''It's like we've been in a car with all these miles traveled, but we were only moving at 10 miles per hour,'' Schultz says. ''But now the car's going 60.'' —Ray Rahman
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Scotland might not be a hopeless place, yet that's where Rihanna found producer Calvin Harris. And ever since he wrote and produced her 2011 smash ''We Found Love,'' the electro-pop DJ has made a second home for himself on America's Top 40 charts. This year Harris' singles — ''Feel So Close'' and ''Let's Go,'' both from his album 18 Months — have cemented his place as one of EDM's top crossovers. ''I've noticed the shows getting bigger and more people knowing my songs,'' says Harris, 28. ''Midway through my performance at Coachella this year, I look down and see Katy Perry going wild, crowd-surfing. I've never seen so many camera-phone lights in an audience in my life.'' That doesn't sound like a hopeless place either. —Ray Rahman
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Ezra Miller was 14 when he read Stephen Chbosky's 1999 novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Now 20, the actor still recalls his first impression of the book's kind, openly gay teenager Patrick. ''I had this image in my head of this heroic high school kid — the most vivacious and mischievous and proud individual,'' he says. Miller brings all of those qualities to life in the movie — and with a greater emotional depth than the icy psycho teen he played in 2011's We Need to Talk About Kevin. The actor starts shooting Madame Bovary with Mia Wasikowska in 2013. But for now, he's just relishing Perks. ''I think I'm always going to be riding the high of having participated in a movie like this.'' —Sara Vilkomerson
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One year ago, Stephen Amell was striving toward the most ambitious goal he had ever set for himself as an actor. ''I wanted to work 100 days out of 365,'' says the Toronto native, 31. ''That's a pretty high goal when you're an actor in Hollywood without a steady job.'' He's right: Despite appearances on several shows in 2011, including The Vampire Diaries and Hung, Amell failed to meet his objective. And yet the impact he made in 2011 paid off in 2012, with a star-making job that should keep him busy for some time to come.
As the lead on The CW's Arrow — a gritty, modern-day Robin Hood tale with epic scope, based on the DC Comics superhero archer — Amell headlines one of the surprise hits of the 2012-13 TV season. A great deal of the series' popularity is owed to his charisma, intensity, action-hero chops, and, sure, those abs. While it may be unseemly to dote on any thespian's physique, Amell's six-pack does speak volumes about his drive. He says he wasn't ripped before he got the part on Arrow, although he might have been had he landed a job he pursued but failed to get: as the late Andy Whitfield's replacement on the Starz series Spartacus: Blood and Sand. ''One of the reasons why I was disappointed to not get that part was because I knew it provided an opportunity to push myself physically,'' says Amell, who confesses he actually ''hates the gym'' and cites Brad Pitt's transformation for Troy as an inspiration. ''There's only a brief period of time in anyone's life where you can do something like that.'' That said, Amell is grateful for his newfound success (''I wouldn't have been ready for it had it come sooner'') on a show he's fiercely proud of and believes is getting better and better. ''I would have to have a kid to care about something more than I care about Arrow,'' he says. ''If someone messes with it, I'd be like, 'Don't you mess with my son!'?'' With muscles like Amell's, who would dare? —Jeff Jensen
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The foul-mouthed teddy bear from Seth MacFarlane's summer hit wrote EW a letter to celebrate his status as a breakout star. He's an excerpt:
What a year in entertainment! The Avengers broke box office records, Ben Affleck directed and starred in a movie about the only guy in the '70s who washed his hair every day, and no one could understand what Bane was saying. He may have been in the right for all I know. And what a year for me personally! My movie, Ted, made over $500 million worldwide. Of course, I took 12 grand up front because my agent is a garbage-bad agent idiot-man. Now everyone's really excited about making a slightly less satisfying sequel that makes even more money. Like The Hangover Part II. ... As for the future, I hope to work on a project with Marty (Martin Scorsese). I don't know him personally, but we once rode an elevator together, and we're roughly the same height, so I figure that's a good start. That way, I won't have to bend over when he gives me notes like ''Act harder'' or ''Do more acting.'''
For Ted's full letter and more from EW's 2012 Best & Worst picks, pick up the issue on newsstands now or buy it online.
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Breakout Street Urchin: Samantha Barks (pictured), who plays Éponine in Les Misérables
Breakout in a Pageboy Cap: Jeremy Jordan of the hit Broadway musical Newsies
SNL Breakout: Cecily Strong (We'd start a conversation with her at a party anytime!)
Breakout Author Who Has Actually Already Written Three Books: William Landay
Breakout Second Coming of Prince: Miguel's bedroom-R&B opus Kaleidoscope Dream
Breakout 11-Year-Old Who Deserves Her Own Show: Bebe Wood of The New Normal