Rags-to-riches stories inspire hope and remind even the most down-and-out dreamers that hard work, positivity and perseverance sometimes do pay off no matter how hard the road might seem. In America’s celebrity culture, there is no shortage of superstars with rags-to-riches backgrounds and stories of poverty, trauma and hardship that had to be overcome. Take a look at celebrities who started off on the wrong foot and still made it big.
No celebrity from any genre earned more in 2017 than the $130 million raked in by hip-hop, fashion and media mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs, according to Forbes. With a net worth of $820 million, he is closing in on the $1 billion club. But it wasn’t always that way. Combs got a paper route as a boy to earn money in his gritty Harlem neighborhood when his mother couldn’t afford to buy him sneakers, according to CNN.
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Comedian-turned-actor Jim Carrey boasts a net worth of $150 million and a resume of movies that have grossed nearly $4.9 billion worldwide. But before a role on “In Living Color” launched the Canadian comic’s career in 1990, things weren’t so smooth. At 12 years old, the actor was homeless and living in a van after his father lost his job, Time reported.
Things are going well for model, mother, entrepreneur and Matthew McConaughey’s wife Camila Alves, who has a net worth of $5 million. That reality, however, was far from real when the Brazilian immigrant was 15 years old. As a new arrival in a strange country, Alves stated in a 2015 interview that she worked in restaurants and cleaned houses to help her low-income family get by and save for her dream of pursuing a career in New York.
One of the richest action stars of all time, Arnold Schwarzenegger is a seven-time Mr. Olympia with a net worth of $400 million and a resume of movies that earned $4.73 billion at the worldwide box office. He also boasts the title of the 38th governor of California. When he was born in 1947, however, his homeland of Austria was devastated by World War II, and the future “Governator” lived in a home with no plumbing and no phone. Hunger-based riots plagued the streets outside his door.
Oscar-winning actress Halle Berry has enjoyed an extraordinary career in show business that includes roles in classics like “Jungle Fever” and “X-Men.” Although she now has a net worth of $80 million, she grew up poor, raised by a single mother in Cleveland and once lived in a New York City homeless shelter before she made it big in Hollywood.
Demi Moore’s father left before she was born, and the man who became her stepfather was frequently out of work, forcing the family to move frequently, according to Hello! Magazine. The high school dropout went on to blossom into a two-time Golden Globe nominee with a net worth of $150 million. With 60 acting credits in the industry, Moore’s career has spanned more than 35 years.
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Sylvester Stallone was born in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen, where his mother was a hairdresser. Dead broke and expecting a child, he took bit parts in B-movies. At one point, he even sold his dog for cash. Today, he’s one of the most lucrative action stars in Hollywood history, with a net worth of $400 million and a portfolio of films that earned more than $4.4 billion worldwide.
In 2014, Joaquin Phoenix revealed to Playboy that his childhood involved a Spartan existence with his family, who trekked through South America as part of a religious cult called Children of God. Today, his fortunes have changed dramatically. He has more than 50 credits for movies like “Gladiator” and “Walk the Line,” three Oscar nominations and a net worth of $30 million
Billy Bob Thornton
In 2016, Billy Bob Thornton told ABC about growing up poor in rural Arkansas. About his childhood, Thorton said all year he looked forward to getting a stick and a rock in his stocking for Christmas. Today, however, the Oscar-winning writer and star of “Sling Blade” enjoys big- and small-screen success that has earned him a net worth of $35 million.
Today, Selena Gomez is a music and movie superstar with 80 film and television credits — as well as a net worth of $60 million. But when she was an 18-year-old Disney star in 2011, she revealed to Hollywood Life that her mother gave birth to the future superstar when she was just 16 years old and worked several jobs just to put food — often dollar store spaghetti — on the table.
Country-pop superstar Shania Twain kept her past and private life to herself — until a 2011 “Nightline” interview where she revealed that she grew up desperately poor in an abusive household in rural Canada. In 1987, her parents were killed in a car accident, which left her responsible for raising her younger siblings. She went on to a groundbreaking career that culminated in five Grammy awards and 18 nominations — as well as a net worth of $370 million.
In 2016, Kelly Clarkson left the audience — and herself — in tears when she performed a rendition of her song “Piece by Piece” on “American Idol.” The reason for all the emotion? The song was about her troubled childhood, which was punctuated by her father leaving and her siblings being split up and scattered among family members. She never quit, however, and went on to parlay her difficult circumstances into a career that earned her three Grammy wins, 14 nominations and a net worth of $28 million.
It’s no secret that Snoop Dogg’s childhood involved poverty, violence and run-ins with the law on the streets of Long Beach, Calif. As the human embodiment of early ’90s West Coast gangsta rap culture, his exploits have been well documented in his lyrics. His music and persona have transformed him into an instantly recognizable — and highly marketable — icon. Thanks to his career and some smart investments on the side, he has a net worth of $135 million.
In 2015, the Chicago Tribune reported that hip-hop superstar Nicki Minaj was shifting gears to produce a comedy based on her less-than-funny childhood. The 10-time Grammy nominee immigrated from Trinidad to Queens, N.Y., where she suffered through her drug-addicted father’s many violent outbursts. She now has a more-than-comfortable life backed up by her $75 million net worth.
The $68 million Mark Wahlberg earned in 2017 made him last year’s highest-paid actor.
An Oscar-nominated leading man who has earned continued success as a producer and actor on both television and in the movies, the Boston native has a net worth of $255 million. As a child, however, he was one of nine siblings in a broken home. He both used and sold drugs as a child. He was also the aggressor in a series of violent, racially motivated assaults. The most serious charges resulted in his imprisonment after being tried as an adult for attempted murder.
Mila Kunis has publicly vowed she and her husband, fellow actor and A-lister Ashton Kutcher, will not raise entitled children. That’s because she grew up poor.
An immigrant born in Ukraine, Kunis’ family fled to America as the Soviet Union collapsed. In a 2016 interview with the Daily Mail, Kunis recalled eating “ketchup soup” as a kid when food was scarce.
And in a 2012 interview with Metro UK, Kunis insisted she “acted her way out of poverty,” starting with a starring role on “That ’70s Show” — alongside Kutcher — when she was just 14 years old. She now has a net worth of $55 million, making her one of the wealthiest celebrity immigrants.
Arguably one of the biggest and richest names in country music, Dolly Parton has a net worth of $500 million — but it wasn’t always that way. Parton grew up in poverty. In fact, one of her best-known songs is “Coat of Many Colors,” which chronicles her early life as one of 12 siblings in the rural mountains of Eastern Tennessee. Appalachian poverty forced Parton to grow up in a house without running water, gas or electricity. She and her siblings slept on beds made of straw.
But by age 12, Parton appeared on local television, and the rest is history. Parton’s achievements include eight Grammy awards, including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, a Country Music Association Lifetime Achievement Award and more.
Born in Gloucestershire, England, J.K. Rowling was raising a daughter with the help of public assistance when she wrote “Harry Potter” in 1994. Reflecting on life before literary super-stardom, Rowling said in a 2013 interview with Daily Mail that she was “as poor as it’s possible to be.”
In 2017, Rowling earned about $95 million, which gave her the title of world’s highest-paid author and third highest-paid celebrity across all categories in the world, according to Forbes. That’s a step down from 2008 when she shocked the world by pulling in $300 million in one year. Today, she has a net worth of $1 billion thanks to the $25 billion “Harry Potter” franchise.
Fashion icon Ralph Lauren has a net worth of $5.5 billion (according to Forbes) and retains control over the Ralph Lauren brand, worth $8.2 billion. And, his car collection is believed to be the most expensive in the world.
Lauren was born Ralph Lipschitz, the Bronx-born son of Russian Jewish immigrants. He changed his name because of the relentless bullying he believed the name attracted. He traces his creativity to his early fascination with movies, which served as the only escape from his family’s poverty.
Eminem’s nearly 20-year career has stoked controversy, endeared legions of fans, outraged an equal number of critics, bridged racial divides and earned the rapper a net worth of $190 million. With more than 14.43 million units sold, The Marshall Mathers LP 1 & 2 is history’s best-selling rap album collection, with the first album alone selling more units than the next nine best-selling collections.
Eminem is a self-made man. Born Marshall Bruce Mathers III, he was raised in the poor and racially charged area along 8 Mile Road, Detroit’s symbolic poverty dividing line.
“I would change schools two, three times a year,” the rapper told Anderson Cooper in a 2011 interview while reflecting on how his unstable home life affected his education. “I got beat up in the bathroom, beat up in the hallways, shoved into lockers; for the most part, just for being the new kid.” Eminem dropped out of school in the ninth grade.
Leonardo DiCaprio portrayed a poor vagabond in “Titanic” and a master of the financial universe in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” In real life, he’s lived both sides of the coin. The highest-paid male Oscar nominee in 2016, DiCaprio has a net worth of $245 million.
In 2014, DiCaprio reminisced to the Los Angeles Times about growing up in a seedy L.A. neighborhood that was home to open-air drug and prostitution markets. He traces his love of acting to surviving a beating on his first day of public school after winning a scholarship to a private elementary school.
Of his success, he told the Times, “It goes back to that neighborhood. It came from the fact that I grew up very poor, and I got to see the other side of the spectrum.”
On the list of top-earning hip-hop stars in 2017, Jay-Z came in second behind Diddy. With a net worth of $900 million, Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter is creeping toward a spot in the billionaire’s club. His empire includes not just music, but also clothing, sports gear, spirits and several startups. His startup portfolio includes a music platform recently valued at ten times what he paid for it just two years prior. That financial success pushed Jay-Z past Dr. Dre in the world of rap’s wealthiest players.
Jay-Z’s rhymes, which often depict life on the mean streets of the inner city, are frequently autobiographical. Raised in a Brooklyn public housing project, Jay-Z admitted in a 2013 Vanity Fair interview he sold crack to escape the trap of poverty. He admitted to feeling guilty later. However, at the time, he was just trying to survive.
“I was thinking about surviving,” he said. “I was thinking about improving my situation. I was thinking about buying clothes.”
Sarah Jessica Parker
Sarah Jessica Parker once described her childhood as Dickensian. She recalled in a 2000 interview with the New York Times what life was like growing up on welfare and suffering the daily humiliation and stigma associated with receiving free lunch at school and basic utilities being turned off in her family’s home.
“I remember being poor,” Parker told the Times. “There was no great way to hide it. We didn’t have electricity sometimes. We didn’t have Christmases sometimes, or we didn’t have birthdays sometimes, or the bill collectors came, or the phone company would call and said, ‘We’re shutting your phones off.'”
A star of both the big and small screens, the “Sex and the City” celebrity managed to escape her past. Parker now has a net worth of $100 million.
In 1986, boxing history was made and a legend was born when the man who would go on to become the world’s most feared fighter was crowned the youngest heavyweight champion in sports history. Although Mike Tyson’s life unraveled after losing the belt four years later, he rebounded and is now worth $3 million.
Tyson not only fought his way to super-stardom, but also his way out of crushing poverty. Like so many poor kids before him, Tyson turned to boxing as an escape from the crime, violence and dysfunction that surrounded his life in Brownsville, Brooklyn, until he was discovered and adopted by legendary trainer Cus D’Amato.
In a 2015 interview with the Hudson Union Society, Tyson reflected on the realities of his poverty-stricken neighborhood. “Nobody was above killing anyone there,” he said in the interview. “It was poverty-stricken, drug-infested, gang-infested … I got involved with the negative entities there … I’d been arrested almost 40 times by the time I was 12 years old.”
Canadian singer Celine Dion remains relevant, with a career that has lasted decades. She earned $42 million in 2017, mostly from a Las Vegas artist residency that has netted her $350 million since it debuted in 2003. The global superstar’s net worth is estimated at $800 million.
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One of 14 children in a poor Quebec family, Dion started out singing in her parents’ bar. While still a minor, she was discovered by a famed French-speaking singer.
In a 2009 interview with Parade, Shia LaBeouf openly discussed growing up with his “starving artist” parents who were too poor to pull the family out of poverty. LaBeouf sought escape and money by starting a stand-up comedy career at ten years old, which put him on the path to stardom.
“My dad and my mom were both artists who never found an audience for their artwork,” he said in the interview. “And so I lived in poverty. Now that I’m not poor, I know that is what it was. As Hemingway said, you can’t write anything if you’ve never been shot at or been gored by a bull, you know? So I look back at that stuff, and I’m grateful. It’s like scars. You become proud of them.”
To date, LaBeouf’s movies have earned more than $5.02 billion worldwide, garnering him a net worth of $25 million.
Two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank has won Academy Awards for her roles in “Million Dollar Baby” and “Boys Don’t Cry.” Her career, which dates back to television appearances in the early 1990s, has earned her a net worth of $40 million.
Swank grew up, however, in a trailer park in Washington state, where her family suffered from poverty and financial insecurity. Her experiences have shaped her career, which has included portrayals of women struggling with poverty and stigmatization.
In a 2011 interview with Daily Mail, Swank explained that poverty could breed resourcefulness. “Growing up in a lower-income family, you don’t have the resources to make ends meet, and you have to find creative ways to get by,” she said. “That infuses your character with a lot of drive and determination.”
“I used to have a little, now I have a lot” is one of Jennifer Lopez’s most famous lyrics, and the line from “Jenny From the Block” encapsulates J.Lo’s life. A dancer, pop star, actress and model, Lopez was born to struggling Puerto Rican parents in the tough Castle Hill section of the Bronx. According to a 2013 interview with Daily Mail, watching her parents struggle instilled in Lopez the value of hard work.
“I watched my parents,” she said. “My dad worked nights, and I was aware of how much he was doing for us. My mom was a Tupperware lady and also worked at the school. I always felt that I couldn’t let them down. And I had a natural discipline from early on. I was always training for something.”
After studying dance at an early age, she got her big break as a Fly Girl dancer on the Fox hit “In Living Color.” Her net worth currently stands at $380 million.
One of the richest women in country music, Miranda Lambert earned $18 million in 2016 alone, which is $10 million less than she earned the year before. Lambert’s notoriously frenzied touring schedule has earned her a net worth of $45 million.
Lambert, however, comes from humble roots. Her parents’ business was a casualty of the 1980s Texas oil bust, and Lambert was briefly homeless during her childhood until she moved in with her uncle. Nonetheless, the experience taught Lambert self-reliance.
“I learned how to do chores because you have to carry your weight,” Lambert told Country Fancast.
Few actors have ascended higher on Hollywood’s A-list than Tom Cruise, whose movies have earned nearly $9.2 billion worldwide. From “Rain Man” and “Top Gun” to “Risky Business” and the “Mission: Impossible” franchise, Cruise’s blockbuster career has earned him a net worth of $570 million.
Although Cruise enjoyed financial success in his adult years, he grew up in a poor, dysfunctional household where he has described being tormented by a violent, abusive father. His mother left with nothing to get away from his father when Cruise was only 12 years old.
It’s impossible to discuss rags-to-riches stories without mentioning Oprah Winfrey.
Arguably the most recognizable woman in the world, Oprah boasts a net worth of $3.2 billion and the status of an entrepreneur who changed daytime television forever. She has launched countless careers and endeared herself to millions of adoring fans.
Despite such achievement, Oprah grew up in severe poverty in rural Mississippi. Raised without indoor plumbing, she suffered physical and sexual violence until she began working for a local radio station after high school, a job that launched her passion for media.
Click through to read about the slippery slope that led these celebrities from riches to rags.
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Net worth figures are according to CelebrityNetWorth.com unless otherwise noted.
About the Author
Andrew Lisa has been writing professionally since 2001. An award-winning writer, Andrew was formerly one of the youngest nationally distributed columnists for the largest newspaper syndicate in the country, the Gannett News Service. He worked as the business section editor for amNewYork, the most widely distributed newspaper in Manhattan, and worked as a copy editor for TheStreet.com, a financial publication in the heart of Wall Street’s investment community in New York City.