For years, Chrissy Metz toiled away as a junior talent agent to pay the bills. “I loved helping people achieve what I wanted, but it was like watching my boyfriend take another woman out every night,” she tells Closer. The aspiring actress even got down to just 81 cents in her bank account before pursuing — and landing — “my dream role” of the character Kate Pearson on NBC’s smash hit, This Is Us.

“Life’s not always going to be rainbows and unicorns. It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it,” says the 37-year-old Emmy nominee of battling self-doubt, a panic attack and bouts of depression on her way to stardom. Her character’s proving to be just as tenacious, tackling her own demons as she fights for her chance to be a singer. “Kate’s in the process of finding her voice in so many ways,” says Chrissy, who hasn’t ruled out her own foray into the music business. “I’d love to record an album eventually,” she reveals. “I truly am a work in progress.”

For now, though, her day gig is plenty fulfilling. “I get to do what I love and inspire people,” she says, and her on and off-screen journey toward body image acceptance has resonated with fans. “Be confident in being yourself because we’re all perfectly made,” she advises. “When we accept we’re deserving of what we want, the universe will conspire with us.”

She should know. Chrissy, who’s now dating This Is Us cameraman Josh Stancil, recently got some fangirl love from Oprah Winfrey at an event. “I’m learning so much about myself,” Chrissy says of navigating the exciting life changes success has brought her. “Every day is a gift.”