Rachel Maddow grilled Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during MSNBC's Democratic debate Thursday night, but when Maddow was a young activist in California, she says she could not imagine being a fixture in mainstream media. Maddow opened up about her career journey from activist to anchor in an interview with Grace Dunham in Lena Dunham's Lenny Letter Friday. 

"I never cared that much about candidates," as a teenager, said Maddow. "My idea of what was going on in politics was driven by activism. I came out when I was 17, and right away I started working in the AIDS activist movement. For me, politics was about getting drugs approved and getting prisoners access to the same kind of drugs that you could get on the outside. It was about getting needle exchanges approved. That was politics. These were policy problems that were killing people, and we were trying to get them changed."

Now Maddow is a bona fide force in American politics. She hosts "The Rachel Maddow" show on MSNBC on weeknights, for which she has won an Emmy, and is a successful author and speaker. She says growing up as a gay teenager, she could not have predicted how her career would develop. 

"I think part of it is that I realized I was gay when I was a teenager and I couldn't imagine what it meant to be a gay adult. I just did the next thing that seemed right, and that led me from activism to media to the kind of media I’m in now," she said.

As far as ratings are concerned, Maddow has never been better. The anchor just had her best month in over two years in January, averaging over one million viewers a night, as MSNBC posted bigger ratings growth than rivals Fox News and CNN.

Maddow has also been able to incorporate her enthusiasm for social justice into her show. Since news of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan broke in January, Maddow has been steadily covering the situation and putting immense pressure on government officials to take action. 

Maddow is now receiving widespread praise from the media for, along with co-host Chuck Todd, allowing Democratic candidates Sanders and Clinton to challenge each other more directly in Thursday's lively presidential debate.

It has been a long journey for Maddow from passionate activist to media darling. The next stop on the road — New Hampshire, where the next Presidential primary will be held on Feb. 9.