We admire their talents and have watched them grow into stars and starlets, but what we haven’t always seen is their rise to fame and fortune. For this installment, we’re focusing on actors, actresses and singers who are the embodiment of the greatly inspiring “Rag to Riches” story.
Oprah has a legacy of giving out thousands of dollars’ worth of giveaways to her talk show audience, but this is likely something she never would have thought possible growing up in poverty. Before she took the world by storm as an actress, producer, talk show host and philanthropist, Oprah lived a rather damaged life. At 9-years-old, Oprah allegedly suffered 4 years of molestation by family members before running away. Over the next several years, the future host birthed a son premature who died shortly after and began stealing money from her mother to keep up with her school peers. Despite a rough upbringing, Oprah became a world sensation and the “Queen of All Media.”
Growing up, Shania Twain had far from an ideal childhood. In a household that was often scarce with food, her parents earned what they could, though it was often not enough to support the family. As the relationship between her parents started to fizzle and become volatile, Twain suggested that her mother take the family to a homeless shelter, where they remained for just under two years. When they returned home, Twain turned to singing at bars at the age of 8 to assist with paying bills. When she turned 13, Twain experienced her first break when she was invited to perform on the Tommy Hunter Show, though it wasn’t until after graduating from high school that the singer pursued her musical career.
The early life for this former X-Man was no Monster’s Ball, complete with an estranged father known for beating his wife and time spent in a homeless shelter. As a child, Berry found herself the subject of much discrimination, having attended a mostly all-white public school. From cheerleader to honor student to prom queen, the young Berry was ambitious – but where her ambition truly showed was shortly after her move to New York. Before her career blossomed, Berry resorted to sleeping in a homeless shelter to get by. Two years after coming to the Big Apple, Berry landed her first big role in 1991’s Jungle Fever.
Canadian-born funnyman comes across as a man that had the ideal childhood, but that couldn’t be any less the case for Jim Carrey. The comedic actor’s early years were met with many struggles, especially when his father lost his job. To help keep his family from being completely impoverished, a 12-year-old Carrey took an after-school job and worked eight-hours a day after a full day of school. In spite of his efforts, the Carrey household lived out of a van and all worked as security guards and janitors to make ends meet. Before coming into his own as a comedian and actor, Carrey also made a living opening for Buddy Hackett and Rodney Dangerfield.
Born Marshall Bruce Mathers III, Eminem didn’t just fall into his Grammy-winning career. As his music often tells, his early life was plagued with frequent moves and a bulk of time in public housing due to his mother’s inability to hold down a job. According to the rapper, his school years were often spent in two or three different establishments, coupled with his dorky behavior, made it difficult for him to make friends. At the age of 17, Marshall dropped out of 9th grade, eventually launching a life of performing in rap battles while working odd jobs to make ends meet in the Detroit area. Despite a tough upbringing, growing up without a stable home and without a fatherly figure, Eminem’s skills erupted into a massive, successful rap career where most fellow rappers consider him, "The best of all time".
The mind behind the extensive world of Harry Pottery was one in desperation, weighted down during a time of struggle and personal dilemmas. Joanne Rowling, known now to the world as JK Rowling, was recovering from a divorce from journalist Jorge Arantes and had just moved to Edinburgh with her daughter when she was forced to sign up for state aid benefits. Rowling described her situation as “poor as it is possible… without being homeless.” Jobless and clinically depressed, Rowling escaped her difficult world by writing in cafes, eventually completing the first Harry Potter manuscript. Rowling would have her book rejected by twelve big publishing houses, but she never gave up hope. It wasn't until Bloomsbury Publishing found her work and green lit the project, that Rowling would be lifted from her poor lifestyle and into one of the most successful authors of all time.
This Million Dollar Baby may have an Academy Award under her belt and a fairly lengthy successful career, but it wasn’t without struggle. Swank’s early childhood was quite the opposite of the extravagant lifestyle she’s able to live today. At six years old, she lived in a trailer park and was shunned by neighborhood parents, but things were going to get harder. With a school production of The Jungle Book behind her and her parents fresh out of divorce, 15-year-old Swank and her mother moved to Los Angeles so the young actress could pursue her career. Without money to rent a stable place, the two lived out of a car for a period of time, but in the end, it was all worth it.
The pretty boy of Hollywood may be fairly well off today, but an early life of poverty and abuse was a far cry from the lavished lifestyle that Tom Cruise gets to live today. Under the tyranny of an abusive father, Cruise’s family lived in poverty. During sixth grade, Cruise’s mother separated from his father, taking the family to the United States where she was forced to work multiple jobs just to keep the family afloat. Despite several moves, Cruise was able to eventually break into acting in 1981’s Endless Love, beginning an explosive career that completely overshadows his early years in poverty.
Maybe not the world’s favorite celebrity, but there is no denying that Bieber’s upbringing was less than favorable. Raised by his single mother, Bieber lived in low-income housing, essentially growing up in the company of cockroaches and rats, sleeping on a pull-out sofa and, on many days, ending the day hungry. Bieber’s first big break stemmed from YouTube videos his mother would post of him singing R&B covers. Though he still lived a life of poverty and his mother working low-paying jobs just to get by, Bieber-fever was growing online until Scooter Braun, former marketing exec of So So Def Recordings, stumbled upon his videos and launched him into the financial success we see today.
In some ways, the story of Rocky parallels Stallone’s own rise from an essential nobody with a speech impediment to the iconic actor, writer, and director that he is today. After his parents divorced, Stallone was partially raised in foster care before moving in with his mother and stepfather. Emotional and academic struggles led to several school expulsions, leading to graduation from a school of troubled youth. Stallone’s real financial troubles came as he attempted to pursue his acting career, forcing him to take jobs like a movie theater usher, adult film star, and cleaner of a lion cage at the Central Park Zoo. Despite walk-on rolls in two Woody Allen films, Stallone didn’t hit fame until he wrote and starred in the rags-to-riches boxer tale, Rocky.