Ashley Eckstein has never felt there was a dream she couldn't achieve. Throughout her 20-year career in Hollywood, she's established herself as an on-camera and voiceover star, founded her own apparel company, written a popular memoir It's Your Universe, and became an anti-bullying advocate for the geek fandom community. Eckstein, 37, credits her boundless optimism and determination to her unique childhood.
"You can definitely say that I grew up Disney," she told us at her Los Angeles office last year.
Growing up in Orlando, Florida with a father whose claims to fame include bringing the turkey legs to Disney World, Eckstein and her parents visited the theme park regularly — a practice her parents used to impart life lessons on their young daughter. Often, the family watched the fireworks at the Magic Kingdom at night, and her mother prompted Eckstein to wish upon a star. Then, on Christmas morning when she was in the third grade, she received a hat emblazoned with the phrase "Don't dream it. Be it."
"And they once again used it as a lesson and said, 'OK, all of those wishes that you have been making upon all those stars? Now you need to be it. You have to do it,'" Eckstein recalled her mother saying. "'These dreams aren't just going to fall on your lap. You have to make them happen yourself.'" And that's what she did.
One of Eckstein's earliest dreams was to get a job at Disney World, and on her 16th birthday, the minimum age to apply, she auditioned and landed a job — though not the one she wanted. While she'd hoped to be a dance member in the Electrical Light Parade, instead she was tasked something much less glamorous: helping crying children who were scared by the more frightening characters. But it was a job at Disney nonetheless. Eckstein didn't quit and eventually worked her way up to being a cheerleader in the Hercules Parade, and she acknowledges the valuable lesson she learned from this and other performance gigs she had (and the ones she lost out on) as a young adult and teen.
"Growing up around Disney and in Orlando definitely prepared me for Hollywood," she said. "I was able to get an agent and audition in Orlando. That's where I really learned rejection. Nothing prepares for the amount of rejection you get when you move to Hollywood. At a young age, I was able to kind of understand how to deal with that. Understand that it's also not personal. Often times it has nothing to do with you. I think that's a bible lesson for any kid, whether they wanna be an actor or not, is dealing with rejection, dealing with failure, and learning from it."
After cutting her teeth in Orlando, Eckstein made the move to Hollywood at 19, where she pursued her dream at the time: "I didn't want to win an Oscar," Eckstein recalled. "I actually just wanted to be on the Disney Channel." She achieved this when she landed the recurring role of mean-girl Muffy on That's So Raven, in which she appeared from 2003 to 2006.
But Eckstein's Disney Channel dream wasn't the only wish she was looking to make come true. Inspired by the Disney princesses she grew up with in the '80s and '90s, Eckstein said she had developed "a fascination with voiceover" and began auditioning for voiceover work shortly after arriving in Los Angeles. After booking a couple of commercials, Eckstein thought this new career path would be easy, but then opportunities stalled. "I auditioned for four solid years, hundreds of auditions, and didn't get anything," she said, noting that the two times she did land a series lead role, she wound up being recast.
It was at this point, in October 2005, that the audition of a lifetime came up for Eckstein: a voiceover role in a new animated Star Wars show. A fan since childhood, Eckstein was shocked by the opportunity, believing that the Star Wars franchise was done after the divisive prequel trilogy. Having been told the audition was for the part of Padme, played by Natalie Portman in the aforementioned prequels, Eckstein wasn't too optimistic about her chances given that her high-pitched, chipper voice doesn't sound much like Portman's. However, her agent convinced her to go to the call anyway. "I'm glad I listened to him," Eckstein said, "because they were also auditioning for this brand new character that nobody knew about called Ahsoka Tano. She was a 14-year-old girl, and they didn't really know what they were looking for. Thankfully, I just happened to be right for the part. After four long years of auditioning, I finally was cast as the voice of an animated character."
Set between the events of Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, Star Wars: The Clone Wars follows the clashes between the Separatists Army and the Grand Army of the Republic, led by Jedi Knights including Obi-Wan Kenobi (James Arnold Taylor), Anakin Skywalker (Matt Lanter), and his young Jedi Padawan Ahsoka Tano (Eckstein). Although the series was critically acclaimed and ran for six seasons, from 2008 to 2014 — with an announced seventh season to air on Disney+ — its leading Padawan wasn't immediately accepted by the Star Wars fandom.
"I definitely had to deal with my fair share of hate and negative comments and definitely cyberbullying when Ahsoka first came out," Eckstein said. "A lot of people did not like Ahsoka. They thought she was snippy, bratty, annoying, and also they just didn't expect Anakin Skywalker's Padawan to be a 14-year-old girl."
"The one thing fans did not know was that she was almost already through [recording] Season 2 [when the character was announced]," Eckstein's husband, baseball player David Eckstein, recalled. "And [knowing] the way [showrunner] Dave Filoni had written the character, the development of where she was going to grow to, I was like please, just give it time."
Having kept the secret for two years that she was not only voicing a character in the Star Wars universe but also its first leading female Jedi, Eckstein admitted she was initially crushed by the negative reception, even throwing herself her "own little pity party" in her hotel the weekend that the movie that kicked off the new series opened. But it didn't take long before the backlash subsided and Ahsoka was embraced by the community — especially its younger, female members who had never seen themselves represented in the universe quite like this before.
Seeing the positive impact Ahsoka was having, Eckstein wanted to make sure she was as much of a force for good in the world as her character. And after going to several conventions and events to represent Star Wars, Eckstein noticed that while female characters were gaining better representation onscreen, the female fans were still being ignored. This sparked the idea to create merchandise specifically geared toward female fans — not just to serve the demand for merch, Eckstein explained, but to help fill "the need for a community."
"Because female fans were being bullied, and they were being bullied terribly for just liking what we do, liking these properties," she said. "Often times, women would pretend to be men on message boards just so that they could have a conversation about Star Wars and be taken seriously. Or little girls were being bullied going to school carrying a Star Wars backpack or a Star Wars water bottle. And I thought, this is no way to live your life. Being a Star Wars fan or being a sci-fi and fantasy fan, it's not a trend. It's literally a part of who you are."
Even Eckstein acknowledged she had been hiding her own fandom for years because, on some level, she felt as though society had deemed there wasn't a place for female fans in the Star Wars community. "I think I just fell into that trap because when you don't see it in stores, when you don't have the option for Star Wars T-shirts or clothes made for you, [you don't feel included]," Eckstein said. But after doing some research into the matter in 2009, Eckstein discovered that 45 percent of Star Wars fans were female, and that 85 percent of consumer purchases were being made by women. "I'm not a mathematician, but these numbers are not adding up," Eckstein remembered thinking.
Being a Star Wars fan or being a sci-fi and fantasy fan, it's not a trend. It's literally a part of who you are.
So the idea to found the clothing company Her Universe began. Knowing she already had connections to Star Wars producer Lucasfilm, Eckstein approached executives and asked if she could help them produce merchandise for female fans. She was swiftly told no (twice) — not because of her idea, but because Lucasfilm only gives out licenses. So Eckstein spent the next nine months developing Her Universe and finding a manufacturing partner before returning to Lucasfilm to ask for a license, which she was finally granted.
Her Universe was officially founded in June 2010, and now, only nine years later, it's a massive fashion company and lifestyle brand, with licenses to some of the hottest fandom properties, including Disney, Marvel, DC, Studio Ghibli, and Star Trek. "I am forever grateful to Lucasfilm because I think had a major studio like Lucasfilm not stood up for their female fans, I don't think as many would have followed suit," Eckstein said. "There's nothing bigger than Star Wars, and when Star Wars stands up and recognizes their female fans, everyone else was like, 'Huh, OK, well maybe we should start paying attention to our female fans too.'"
After it launched, Eckstein worked diligently to make the company a success, using the platform Clone Wars gave her to get the message out about Her Universe, and the response from the community was immediate. When Her Universe first expanded into Disney Parks in June 2011, it sold out within the three days. After debuting at Hot Topic shortly thereafter, the collection sold out online within 24 hours. At the end of 2016, Her Universe officially became a stand-alone subsidiary of Hot Topic, and while the current details of the business' profits are unknown, before the sale it was shared that Her Universe had grown into a multi-million dollar company.
"I don't know what, really, I was expecting," David said, reflecting on Her Universe's launch. "Our first rule was that we could only go to conventions and online. And then at Disney Parks. And then, all of a sudden, you're at Disney Star Wars Weekends, and you see what you do there, you see the response there. Then, all of a sudden, we have the rights now to retail. ... Then you're seeing it on the girls. So it is something that has definitely been a little surprising, in the sense of how well and how it actually took off. But knowing Ashley, if she puts her mind to something, you're never really that surprised to see the success behind it."
And Eckstein hasn't just seen success when it comes to providing much-needed merchandise for female fans; she's watched her true goal for the company — to help female fans feel more comfortable in these communities — succeed as well. "Having merchandise made for women has definitely changed the community," Eckstein said.
"When I started Her Universe, I founded it with the mission to stop the bullying. That was what I saw the real problem was," she explained. "Sometimes when you're wearing a men's T-shirt, it's just not cut for a woman, it's not as flattering, you don't feel like yourself as much. And so the merchandise was really a means to change the community. Because I felt that if female fans felt comfortable wearing sci-fi and fantasy merchandise, then they would feel more comfortable being themselves and stepping into the spotlight."
What surprised Eckstein, though, was not just the response from female fans, but the way male fans stepped up to show their support of what Her Universe stood for as well. And as fans of Her Universe accumulated, so did the requests to expand the company's offerings. "It's sort of funny, because I would say two years into Her Universe, all the guys kept asking, 'What about His Universe?' And I would say, 'Well, look on the rest of the convention floor. The whole floor is His Universe. Like, we have one tiny little booth called Her Universe,'" Eckstein recalled. "I always said, if I could make merchandise for guys that wasn't already being done, then that's when I would make merchandise for guys."
I feel like we're only scratching the surface. This is just the beginning.
That day came in January 2018, when Eckstein launched Our Universe, a men's and unisex line of merchandise. And in November 2018, Eckstein announced another new venture at BlizzCon: the company would be teaming up with Overwatch and World of Warcraft for new clothing collections, marking Her Universe's first foray into gaming. "I feel like we're only scratching the surface," Eckstein said of Her Universe's growing slate after the BlizzCon announcement. "This is just the beginning."
But by far, the biggest way that Eckstein has capitalized off Her Universe's success was the creation of the Her Universe Fashion Show at San Diego Comic-Con. Having attended Comic-Con regularly since she first went for Clone Wars in 2007, Eckstein said she was immediately in awe of the impressive costumes and fashions the female fans would wear on the convention floor. "They were using the hallways as their runway for original fashion, and I was blown away. Blown away by the designs, blown away by the talent, and I knew that I had to give these fans an actual runway to walk on. And I didn't know how I was going to do it," Eckstein said.
She approached Comic-Con International in 2012 with her pitch for a "geek couture fashion show" to celebrate fangirl culture, "and to my surprise, they said yes," she recalled. "And we had a very small team, but a mighty team at Her Universe. And that's what we did."
Although the fashion show was a Her Universe creation, Eckstein wanted to make sure this wasn't just a promotional event for her company; instead, she wanted it to be first and foremost a platform for aspiring designers to get professional experience and also a leg-up in the competitive industry. And so they made the fashion show a competition, where the winners received the opportunity to design a Her Universe collection for Hot Topic, complete with royalties for each piece sold. The event was an immediate hit in its 2014 debut, and it has since become a Comic-Con staple.
"We just celebrated our fifth fashion show," Eckstein said. "So many of the designers have gone on to have professional careers. Some designers when they entered, they were just amateurs, they just did this as a hobby, they now changed careers completely and are now professional fashion designers."
The success of the fashion show has allowed it to expand beyond the halls of San Diego Comic-Con, with Eckstein hosting the Her Universe Fashion Show: Junior Design Camp as part of this year's WonderCon in Anaheim, California. The three-hour event, which will be held Saturday, March 30, will see Eckstein and members of the Her Universe team share with aspiring designers between the ages of 6 and 17 step-by-step lessons on how to design and bring their ideas to life.
It's these smaller, more intimate events that Eckstein looks forward to the most at conventions, even though they may not seem as glamorous as models strutting down a runway or the roaring crowds of Hall H. But for Eckstein, the real benefit of attending these conventions is the opportunity to connect with fans one on one and be immersed in the community she has dedicated her life to making a safe, welcoming space for all.
"I've been going to conventions now with the fans since Clone Wars came out in 2008, so that's 10 years of conventions," Eckstein told us at New York Comic Con in October. "I've met thousands upon thousands of fans, and I think the thing that just means so much to me is that I've had 10 years of following people's lives, because I see a lot of the same fans over and over again. I've seen kids grow up, and I've had the opportunity to follow people on their journey of making their dreams come true, and so many people have.
"I feel so privileged to be a part of their journey, and ... if I could say one thing and give one message to the fans, [it] is that I remember; I think of all of them, I follow them on Instagram, I care, I root for them. And so when they follow up and tell me what's going on, it really makes my day. I genuinely want to see all of the amazing things happening for them. And so I think that's what I'm most grateful for. It's not just one story, it's all of the stories, because all of the fans have made an impact on me."
Additional reporting by Lindsay Macdonald