Once She Was Homeless — Now Hailee Kaleem Wright Is a Broadway Star: 'It's Taken a Lot of Strength'

Hailee Kaleem Wright (Catherine of Aragon, center) with (l-r) Nasia Thomas (Anna of Cleves), Leandra Ellis-Gaston (Anne Boleyn), Bella Coppola (Jane Seymour), Taylor Iman Jones (Catherine Parr), & Zoe Jensen (Katherine Howard); Hailee Kaleem Wright - Photo Credit Denita Turner
Hailee Kaleem Wright (Catherine of Aragon, center) with (l-r) Nasia Thomas (Anna of Cleves), Leandra Ellis-Gaston (Anne Boleyn), Bella Coppola (Jane Seymour), Taylor Iman Jones (Catherine Parr), & Zoe Jensen (Katherine Howard); Hailee Kaleem Wright - Photo Credit Denita Turner

Joan Marcus; Denita Turner

When Hailee Kaleem Wright and her family first moved from Houston to New York City, life in the Big Apple proved to be more difficult than they had anticipated.

Wright, now 29, was a teenager at the time — years before she would make her Broadway debut in Paradise Square and subsequently score a starring role in SIX, an accomplishment she tells PEOPLE has "taken a lot of strength."

"2022 was so many firsts," says Wright. "It was like all of the dreams coming true, especially after such a long time of not working."

Her dream had been years in the making. Wright bit the performer bug after her mother landed a role in a regional production of Hairspray and got Wright hired in the ensemble, understudying multiple roles as a swing. Two months after graduating high school, Wright was rehearsing in New York City.

RELATED: 'Hairspray Live!' Star Maddie Baillio Reveals 150-Lb. Weight Loss: 'I'm in a Healthy Relationship with My Body'

Hailee Kaleem Wright Sequin Wall - Photo Credit Denita Turner
Hailee Kaleem Wright Sequin Wall - Photo Credit Denita Turner

Denita Turner

"I fell in love with theater," she says. "Me and my mom looked at each other, and we were like, 'Let's just pack up our stuff and move to New York. Let's try to do this.' And, uh, it did not work out very well."

Unlike their life in Texas, it took much longer to find an apartment in New York City. Wright, her mother and her younger brother, Joey, had "already committed to coming out," she says, adding that the money "quickly dried up" after living in and out of hotel rooms.

The family found themselves at the Department of Homeless Services program in New York — a moment Wright describes as "one of the most dehumanizing processes that I've ever experienced" — and waited for 16 hours before they could be accommodated.

RELATED: Sidney DuPont, Who Is Deaf in One Ear, Defied the Odds to Lead New Broadway Musical: 'A Miracle'

"The first place we went to was in Southside Jamaica, Queens. We had bedbugs and just awful, awful scenarios," she says.

"That fight was a long time," Wright explains, adding that it was nearly impossible to get above water working minimum-wage retail jobs. However, she was able to secure an agent and eventually was approached by MTV to be filmed for the reality series True Life, documenting her journey as she pounded the pavement to become a professional performer.

"This could be an opportunity to tell my story," Wright thought. "When it aired, we didn't even have cable, so I couldn't watch it. I was looking at the live Twitter feed of people talking about my life."

Still, the family was barely able to make ends meet. "We went back to Houston. We packed it up, and I got a cubicle job. I was working at Xerox," she says.

Little did Wright know, an audition for Universal Studios in Japan that she attended in N.Y.C. nearly five months prior had finally paid off. "It changed everything for me," says Wright, who moved to Japan to do theme park work. "I was 20 years old, and I was making the most money I've ever made. I could not believe that I had auditioned for that at a shelter."

Things were going well for Wright until she returned to Houston. "No one really knows [this]," she says, "but after I came back from Japan, me and my family were homeless again, which was not only devastating; mentally, it was catastrophic."

RELATED: Anthony Rapp Reflects on the 'Life-Changing' Deaths of His Mother and 'Rent' Creator Jonathan Larson

She explains, "Just because you get more money doesn't mean you're gonna know what to do with it. … It's almost like this survivor's guilt. When you make it out of a tough situation, you feel obligated to help others. And I think I overextended in that way."

With only $200 in her savings account, Wright decided to take a chance on herself. She had been practicing methods from The Secret and began to believe in the law of attraction.

"I took that money, and I got a freaking one-way flight to New York. It had maybe been three or four months of living in and out of the car, in and out of hotels, and I was so miserable," she says of her brief time back in Houston. "I bet on myself."

"I got a hostel, and I got a plane ticket," she adds. "I was there for a week. I got three contract offers."

Hailee Kaleem Wright in front of the Paradise Square Marquee
Hailee Kaleem Wright in front of the Paradise Square Marquee

Lisa Hancock

Never miss a story — sign up for PEOPLE's free daily newsletter to stay up-to-date on the best of what PEOPLE has to offer, from juicy celebrity news to compelling human interest stories.

Though Wright prepared for auditions in public bathrooms, applied makeup on the subway and didn't have an address to put on her resume, the credits began to add up. She was eventually cast in the national tour of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical — and asked her mother to return to New York so that she, too, could pursue her dreams of performing.

"I'm a big believer in never freaking giving up," says Wright, who eventually made her Broadway debut last year in the musical Paradise Square. As that show was concluding its run in July, she was auditioning to play one of Henry VIII's wives in the Tony-winning musical SIX.

At her first performance as Catherine of Aragon, "My mom was directly across from me [in the audience], and the minute I came out, I just saw her," she says through tears. "It felt so special and divine, and I just felt so grateful to have really been a co-creator in the life that I wanted."

Hailee Kaleem Wright and mother
Hailee Kaleem Wright and mother

Bruce Glikas/BroadwayWorld.com

RELATED: Watch Young Theatergoers, 6 and 5, Jump for Joy at 'Six' the Musical: 'My Heart Is Sparkling!'

Wright and her family now reside in New York City, and her mother is finding success in commercial work.

"To be a little Black girl from the South who came from really humble beginnings, and to make it to Broadway… It's not lost on me how vast the options were for me to fail, and the fact that I was able to succeed — I look at my life now, and I'm not the same person," Wright says.

"[If] the girl 10 years ago knew I could grow into the woman that I am today, she would be like, 'Wow, she's really cool.' "

Wright currently stars in SIX, now playing at Broadway's Lena Horne Theatre.