Celebrities Who Were Dirt Poor Before Clawing Their Way to Fame and Fortune
Many celebrities were born into well-to-do families who provided excellent schooling and connections with all the right people. But other celebrities clawed their way to fame and fortune from some truly destitute — and sometimes monstrously abusive — childhoods.
If you’ve been struggling with work or life (or both) and need some inspiration to keep on keeping on, look to these 21 celebrities. They have endured some painful and tragic years, but through hard work and resilience, they found their way to the top of their field.
If they can succeed, what’s stopping you?
Jim Carrey started developing impressions as a child and used his comedic routine to entertain his family. Which was something his parents needed. Carrey was born in the suburbs of Toronto, Canada. His father ditched his dreams of being a musician and became an accountant when Jim and his siblings came along — something that Carrey said made his father disenchanted.
“To first of all give up a dream, to settle for something safe, and then have that not pan out is a real double whammy,” Carrey told Rolling Stone, noting that his parents both succumbed to bouts of depression.
Things got tough when Carrey was 12, when his father lost his job. The family spent eight months living in a tent until the father found work at a tire rim factory in Scarborough. As a bonus, the owners allowed the Carreys to live in a house across the street in exchange for janitorial and security detail. After school, Carrey and his brother had to pull eight-hour shifts, according to The Hollywood Reporter’s interview with the comedic actor.
Carrey’s mother was addicted to painkillers. “[S]he was always there for me, she was always there in the house,” Carrey told The Hollywood Reporter. “But if you're high on painkillers, that's abandonment. I guess we're all abandoned to a certain extent, all of us in some way or another by something or someone, and that forms in us our belief about ourselves.”
Carrey hated school and dropped out of school as soon as he turned 16. The family quit the factory gig sometime after, abandoned their job-provided home, jumped in a VW camper van and “lived like Gypsies,” he said. Eventually, Carrey got his big break when he opened for Rodney Dangerfield at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. He then toured with Dangerfield for a couple of years, honing his act.
Long before Demi Moore became Hollywood’s highest-paid actress in 1995, with a then-record-setting $12.5 million for “Striptease,” Moore had a peripatetic childhood, moving from New Mexico to Pennsylvania, Ohio, Washington and California. Her mother was a suicidal alcoholic, and her stepfather needed her help to keep her mother from killing herself.
Moore’s mother dragged her to bars when she was a teenager, and at the age of 15, she was sexually assaulted by a man who claimed her mother had “whored” her out for $500. When her acting career took off — she entered the business young, after dropping out of school at 16 — Moore abused alcohol, cocaine and developed an eating disorder. The actress lays bare the struggles and success of her career in her book, “Inside Out: A Memoir.”
Dolly Parton was the fourth of 12 children and grew up in a log cabin near the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. There was no electricity or indoor plumbing, and the doctor who delivered Dolly was rewarded not with cash, but with a sack of cornmeal. Her father was a sharecropper and he fed their children with whatever the forests and mountains could feed them.
“There were twelve of us kids. We never ate possum — I remember Daddy saying, ‘That’s like a damn rat.’ But we ate everything — turtle, frogs. I just remember the big old groundhogs — whistle pigs, they called them — and you’d cook ’em with sweet potatoes, and you’d have different ways of making some of that gamey taste go away,” Parton told Rolling Stone.
Her dresses were made from sacks as a child, but she turned those into something more scandalous when she became successful.
“The way I look was really a country girl’s idea of what glamour was. I patterned my look after the town tramp. I thought she was the prettiest thing in the world, with all that bleached hair and bright-red lipstick. People would say, ‘Oh, she’s just trash,’ and I’d think, ‘That’s what I want to be when I grow up,’” she told Rolling Stone.
Oprah Winfrey was born in a small southern town in Mississippi to young, poor and unmarried parents who placed Oprah in her grandmother’s care until she was six. As a child, she wore overalls made from potato sacks, prompting catcalls of “sack girl” from her peers. She endured sexual and physical abuse within her family, including molestation from a cousin, an uncle and a family friend. Her grandmother whipped her for playing in a well, leaving her riddled with welts.
At 14, she became pregnant, but the child was born premature and died. Eventually, she moved away to Nashville for high school, became a beauty queen, graduated with honors and secured a job as the first female (and first African American) anchor at Nashville’s WLAC-TY when she was 22.
Surviving Tom Cruise’s childhood must have felt an impossible mission. According to an interview he gave with Parade in 2006 (and not long after he freaked out on Oprah), Cruise grew up in near poverty with an abusive father, an electrical engineer who constantly moved the family around because he was continually fired.
“He was the kind of person where, if something goes wrong, they kick you. It was a great lesson in my life — how he’d lull you in, make you feel safe and then, bang! For me, it was like, ‘There’s something wrong with this guy. Don’t trust him. Be careful around him,’” Cruise said.
At the age of seven, he was diagnosed with dyslexia. His parents split when he was 11, and by age 12, he had attended 15 different schools — and was bullied at each of them. His mother worked three jobs to keep the family afloat (he has three sisters) and eventually settled in Cincinnati. There, Cruise first wanted to become a Catholic priest (ironic, given that he is now the poster boy for Scientology) but decided it wasn’t for him. He skipped his high school graduation and went to Manhattan to find success.
Samuel L. Jackson
Samuel L. Jackson was born in Washington, D.C., but he grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with his grandparents and aunt. He only ever saw his father twice in his lifetime, and his mother moved back to Washington after he was born, although he saw her regularly. His house had no running water, so they only took baths when it rained.
Talking to the New York Times, Jackson said that “everyone had shoes and food” in the neighborhood, but also that three houses sold moonshine and two were brothels. He went to segregated schools and segregated venues, and in college, went through a “‘kill whitey’ period” after falling in with a group of returning Vietnam War vets.
The F.B.I. was keeping track of them. One day, an agent showed up at his mother’s door and told her that Jackson would be dead within a year if he kept up with the radicals. She moved him to Los Angeles, where he worked as a social worker and attained an arts drama degree in 1972.
Shania Twain has had a tragic life. Growing up, her family had hardly any money. She went to school with mustard sandwiches, which she didn’t eat because she was so embarrassed. Her stepfather, Jerry, who raised her, would become physically violent to his mother and in one incident, rendered her mother unconscious. Later he would become physically and sexually abusive to Shania, she revealed in 2017.
When she was 21, her mother and stepfather were killed in a car crash, leaving Shania to raise her three younger siblings.
Johnny Cash spent almost the entirety of his childhood and teenage years in a five-room clapboard farmhouse in Dyess, Arkansas, which was then a resettlement colony borne from the New Deal for impoverished farmers who needed a fresh start. At eight years old he was dragging cotton sacks to and fro on the fields. “It exhausted you, it hurt your back a lot, and it cut your hands. That’s what I hated the most ...Practically every girl I knew in Dyess had those pockmarked fingers,” he wrote in “Cash: The Autobiography.”
His brother, Jack, was mortally cut from a table saw accident and died within 24 hours. The day after the funeral on Sunday, “the whole family — everybody, including the mother who had just buried her son — was back in the fields chopping cotton, working their ten-hour day.”
Loretta Lynn was born in 1932 in the coal mining and moonshining community of Butcher Hollow, Kentucky. As Lynn tells it in her autobiography “Still Woman Enough: A Memoir,” Butcher Hollow had no paved roads (“Most folks traveled on a horse, a mule, or in a homemade sled pulled by a mule.”) and its residents would yell, “Stranger coming up the holler!” if a visitor came to town.
Each year, Lynn and her family each received a pair of brogan shoes “and each pair was two sizes too large so we could grow into them before we got another pair the following year,” she writes in her memoir. Her mother cooked possum until the greasy meat went dry, then baked it in a wood stove oven with sweet potatoes and sage.
When she was 18, her husband bought her a $17 Gibson guitar, on which she practiced and wrote music for six years before her first stage appearance in 1960. By the mid- and late-1960s, she was well on her road to fame and, in 1969, she released “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”
Morgan Freeman was the son of a barber and a teacher, and grew up in a town in northeastern Mississippi during the late 1930s. Comparing it to a ghetto in the South Side of Chicago, where he lived for a while before moving back to the Magnolia State, he told the Guardian: “But if you had no money, the south was a much better place to be, and I was very poor growing up, really poor.”
In school, Freeman was on the debate team, in the glee club, played in the school’s band and won his first acting prize at the age of 12 for a one-act play. But instead of taking a college scholarship for acting, he joined the recently desegregated U.S. Air Force in 1954. He stayed enlisted for five years before heading out to work in dance and theater groups throughout the country. His big break came in the late 1980s with “Street Smart” and “Driving Miss Daisy.” He was 50.
“I put it [the dream of becoming an actor] before anything, everything,” he told the Telegraph.
Michael Caine might appear to be the epitome of English posh now, but when he was growing up in the 1930s and 1940s London, that wasn’t the case. Caine and his family lived “in a cramped two-room flat in a converted Victorian house in Camberwell, one of the poorest sections of London. If you had a weak bladder, you had strong legs. We lived three flights up from the street and five flights up from the one toilet in the garden,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal. His first acting role, he says, was telling the debt collector that his mother wasn’t home.
Caine’s father sold fish, and his mother was a charwoman; the family weathered the London Blitz while his father fought in World War II (he survived). Caine went on to fight in the Korean War for two years before being discharged at 20, and then worked at a butter factory before trying his hand at acting.
Leonardo DiCaprio grew up near the intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Western Avenue in Los Angeles. It sounds posh, but in the 1970s, DiCaprio related it to the grungy, crime-infested streets from “Taxi Driver.”
Speaking to the Los Angeles Times in defense of “The Wolf of Wall Street”’s glorification of excess and depravity (according to some critics), DiCaprio said this: “Who am I to talk about this? It came from the fact that I grew up very poor and I got to see the other side of the spectrum.” He also said he was “beat up” in public school and wanted to drop out to pursue acting, which he did during his junior year.
Hilary Swank spent her early years living in a trailer park in the corner of Washington state, near the Canadian border. Her father was a traveling salesman and her mother a secretary. By the time she was 15, Hillary’s mother had lost her job, and Swank was ready to pursue acting. Her mother believed in her daughter, so the two set out from their double-wide trailer with a Mobil card, a borrowed car and $75. They slept out of that car for two weeks and at a friend’s house that was up for sale, leaving whenever prospective buyers came knocking. It was “the greatest adventure of my life. There is not one part of it that is down or upsetting,” she told the Telegraph.
Swank dropped out of school at 17, the same year she received her first minor break — a small role in the early 1990s sitcom “Evening Shade” with Burt Reynolds. Reynolds liked her so much that he invited her back on for additional roles.
The Daily Beast said it best: “Wahlberg grew up the youngest of nine children in a broken home in the rough Dorchester section of Boston. He dealt drugs, was addicted to cocaine by the time he was 13, and found himself constantly in trouble with the law.”
Those troubles with the law were some serious, violent offenses. In 1986, when Wahlberg was 14, he and several other of his friends chased down three black children screaming racial epithets and throwing rocks at them. He did the same the next day, this time hitting another, different black girl.
A couple of years later, in 1988, Wahlberg randomly approached a Vietnamese man and knocked him out with a five-foot-long stick. Then he punched a bystander, another Vietnamese man, in the eye and blinded him. Many racial epithets were exchanged when police finally caught him. Smoking Gun has the original rap sheets for Marky Mark’s disturbing past.
Jewel Kilcher grew up on a homestead in Homer, Alaska, in a log cabin with no indoor plumbing and an outhouse. She was raised by a family of hippie musicians who picked up gigs at hotels and bars, with Jewel as part of the act by the age of five. Her parents divorced when she was eight, and she stayed with her father; the two picked up gigs as a duet. But he was abusive and a drunk, so she moved in with her mother at the age of 15.
By 18, she headed down to San Diego to find success in music. She had a job in a computer warehouse but was fired and then had to live out of her van, stealing food and clothes to survive while struggling with chronic kidney infections, according to the Washington Post. A year later, Atlantic Records offered her a record deal.
“Gossip Girl” star Leighton Meester was born in a Texas prison. Her parents and her sister were involved in a drug smuggling ring that smuggled 1,200 pounds of marijuana into the U.S. from Jamaica, and her mother, Connie, had just started the beginning of a 10-year-sentence and was moved to a halfway house so she could give birth to Leighton.
Meester went to live with her grandmother, but she wouldn’t be abandoned — Connie only served 16 months in jail. Connie’s sister, Judy, broke out of prison and was the first woman in the U.S. to get on the U.S. Marshals 15 Most Wanted List, according to New York Magazine. Her father served less than 10 years as well (it’s unclear how long he was incarcerated for; Meester mostly talks about her mother) but the parents divorced when Meester was six.
Afterward, Meester spend time living with both her mom and her dad, moving from apartment to apartment in New York City while Meester picked up small acting gigs where she could. Her mother waitressed and tried her hand at writing screenplays on the side before moving “the slums” in Los Angeles, she told Rolling Stone.
Sarah Jessica Parker
Sarah Jessica Parker grew up with a large family of eight brothers and sisters in Cincinnati, Ohio. The family was on welfare and sometimes they couldn’t pay the electric or phone bills. The family sometimes had to skip Christmas and birthdays, and sometimes the electricity and telephone would be shut off. It was an upbringing that shaped her view of money and how she would spend it in the future, even after she became a star of “Sex and The City.”
In 2006 interview with Good Housekeeping she said, “I rarely splurge. But last year, around Christmastime, I went shopping for myself. I can't remember the last time I did that. When I was doing Sex and the City, I just lived off the leftovers. But now I find myself actually needing clothes. So I went shopping, and it was fantastic!”
She noted that she used to get stomach aches and intense feelings of guilt after going shopping and often returned the items the next day.
Jada Pinkett Smith
Jada Pinkett Smith was raised by her mother and stepfather, both of whom were drug addicts. They lived in a bad neighborhood in Baltimore, and became involved in dealing drugs and using them as a way to escape depression. “In my depression, using ecstasy, drinking a whole lot, you know, and smoking a bunch of weed and [I was] trying to just find some peace in my mind,” she said during an episode of “Red Table Talk,” a Facebook show produced by the Smiths.
Celine Dion was the youngest of 14 children. She grew up in Charlemagne, a town in Quebec, Canada; her father was a butcher who made $165 a week, and her mother was a homemaker. There was little money to spare. “It was very cold in the house,” Dion reminisced in 2013. The children had to walk 25 minutes to get to school during the cold Canadian winters.
Before this, her mother would “put a chair in front of the stove and put my little stockings [on it] to warm.” According to a CNN story in 2002, the Dions slept five to a bed, all had to share one bathroom, had no washing machine and flipped their used dinner plates over for dessert.
Perhaps one of the most famous rags-to-riches stories is that of J.K. Rowling, the penniless single mother who turned into a billionaire after creating the “Harry Potter” series. She grew up in Gloucestershire, England, with her parents and one sister, although she had a difficult relationship with her father, who was an engineer at a Rolls-Royce aircraft engine plant. In her early years, Rowling was solidly middle class. But during her 20s, things fell apart. Her mother, who had been battling multiple sclerosis, died in 1990. Rowling married in 1992 but was divorced by 1993. By the mid-’90s, she was a single parent on welfare struggling to write a novel.
Although reports of her poverty may have been exaggerated. As The New Yorker points out, “She was a middle-class graduate, poised to start a teaching career, who claimed modest state benefits while she finished a novel, which she partly wrote in an upscale café owned by her sister’s husband. (Such state benefits — for housing and living costs — were then more easily accessible to young British graduates at the start of a professional career than they have ever been in the United States.)”
At the same time, she has said that she was “literally choosing between food and a typewriter ribbon” and suffering in “abject poverty.”
Shawn Corey Carter was born in the Marcy projects of Brooklyn, New York. When he was nine, his uncle was murdered, causing his father to become depressed and a drug addict. He abandoned the family when Carter was 11. By the age of 13, Carter was dealing crack. He shot his brother, also a drug addict, in the shoulder for stealing from him.
“I remember a Sunday, 12 o'clock in the afternoon, these guys came through shooting Uzis, chasing after this other guy. And that was a normal thing,” Carter told GQ in 2005. “It [crack] destroyed plenty of lives. But I saw my brother the other day and we were able to get past it. He was able to get past his addiction and I was able to get past my stupidity. Now we're a family.”