The road to fame doesn’t always mean lavish cribs and flashy lifestyles. Many of America’s most beloved celebrities were born into poverty and had to face such hardships as homelessness, abusive parents, and wondering when they would eat their next meal.
Despite these struggles, these celebrities persevered and grew to become some of our favorite actors, singers, entrepreneurs, inventors, writers and athletes. Read on to find out how they overcame these life obstacles and found success in today’s world.
In this article
1. Shania Twain
This country super star grew up singing the blues. Shania Twain was raised in a severely poverty stricken home in Ontario, Canada, and was born Eilleen Regina Edwards. Her parents divorced at the age of two and her mother moved her and her sisters to a new town. There, Shania’s mother met and married a new man who eventually legally adopted Shania and her siblings.
But the love didn’t last long. There were often violent fights between the parents until finally the mother drove her kids to a homeless shelter 420 miles away to escape her abuser. From that point on it was nothing but a struggle to survive, and there were many nights that went by without any food to eat. Twain started singing in bars at the age of 8 to help raise a little extra money to support her mother and siblings. Still, they ended up returning to the abusive father just two years later.
Twain continued through her younger years hiding from her teachers and schoolmates the fact that her family didn’t have enough money for food or heat. She wrote her first song at the age of 10 and was invited to perform on a CBS television show when she was 13 years old. When she graduated high school in 1983, she went to work for her father’s reforestation business, working hard every day for very little pay, walking miles in the woods carrying heavy loads of trees. It was here in the forest that Twain says she was able to be the most creative, finding time to sit with her guitar and write songs during breaks.
In 1987, her parents were killed in a car crash, so Twain moved her younger siblings out to where she was living so she could support them. The years passed by, and she was finally discovered and hit the country music scene big time.
Shania Twain went on to become one of country music’s top selling artists of all time, and is now worth approximately $350 million dollars. She also currently works as an advocate for children who are suffering just like she did, ensuring no child has to go to school hungry or to bed without a meal.
2. Roman Abramovich
One of the wealthiest men in the world, Roman Abramovich has found huge success in Russia as a businessman and politician, but actually had quite a different life when he was growing up.
Born in Lithuania and orphaned at the age of four when his parents died, Abramovich was raised by his uncle and grandmother. Abramovich dropped out of college to pursue his dreams of owning a business, but started out selling rubber ducks out of a small apartment in Moscow. He got his first big break in the form of an expensive wedding gift from his in-laws.He then set up a company with his new wife making dolls, which in a few years time expanded to owning several businesses including a pig farm and his first beginnings in the oil industry.
In 1995, he managed to purchase oil giant Sibneft at a bargain price, and continued to transform his small investments into enormous profit. He’s now one of the richest men on earth, with a current net worth of approximately $14.2 billion, including owning the third largest yacht in the world today.
3. Thomas Edison
Even the man who gave us light as we know it today didn’t come from wealth and luxury. Thomas Edison was born in Ohio in the mid 1800’s, to a family that was very poor and struggled to keep everyone fed. The youngest of seven children (only 4 of which survived into adulthood), Edison’s father tried investing in many opportunities to provide for his large family, but unfortunately, most of them failed.
Edison faced many health challenges and was described as a sickly child. In addition to his illness, he was hearing impaired as well as being a restless and curious child. Because of the fact that the family moved around quite a bit, Edison did not start school until he was 8 years old. The classroom life was short-lived, only lasting three short months before his teacher declared him “too stupid to learn anything.”
His mother decided to home-school him from that point on. Edison grew up to become a prolific inventor, with over 1000 patents to his name at the time of his death in 1931. These ideas and new innovations did not come easy though. He struggled with many of his greatest ideas for years, failing in every attempt to make it work before finally finding success.
The light bulb, for example, was one of his greatest inventions, but one that failed about thousands of times before finally working on that final try. When people would ask him how he managed to keep moving forward despite the repeated failures, he replied, “I have not failed. I have simply found 10,000 other ways that do not work.”
4. Oprah Winfrey
Perhaps one of the saddest stories yet, Oprah Winfrey struggled through more troubles as a young child than most people have to endure in a lifetime. Oprah spent the first six years of her life being raised by her grandmother in a Mississippi home that was so poor that she wore clothes made from potato sacks. She was abused by members of her own family and bounced around from home to home.
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Winfrey was molested by a family friend and two members of her own family, before running away from home at the age of 13. At the age of 14, she gave birth to a son who died shortly after birth. She went back to live with her mother, but once again was sent away to live with her father.
It was at this time that she was finally able to turn her life around, studying hard and earning a full college scholarship.She entered the Miss Black Tennessee beauty pageant and ended up winning, which prompted her to be discovered by a radio station that decided to give her a job.
This launched her career in journalism which would eventually grow to a multi-billion dollar network empire. Today Oprah is reportedly worth $2.9 billion and spends much of her time giving back to young girls around the world through her many charitable organizations.
5. Jay Z
Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter got his start as a drug dealer in one of New York’s worst neighborhoods. Raised by his mother, he grew up in such poverty that he recalls rarely even having the luxury of bread to eat. The violence that he encountered every day in Brooklyn’s Marcy Housing Projects became the norm, and his life was filled with crime and sadness.
The violence escalated to the point that he shot his own brother in the arm at the age of 12, because his brother had taken some of his jewelry. Tired of living a life filled with violence and never having any money for food, he worked hard and was finally able to move out of the hood.
He started out as a rapper, telling the stories of what it was like to grow up in a world that he knew all to well. This career took off and began to grow into what would become a business empire including clothing lines, nightclubs, and even the New Jersey Nets professional NBA basketball team. His current net worth is estimated to be around $520 million and is known as the “best rapper alive.”
6. Jim Carrey
One of the most famous comedians of our time, Jim Carrey actually grew up in a dark shadow of a childhood. Born and raised in Canada, his family struggled to put food on the table.
At the young age of 12, Carrey was forced to take an eight hour per day factory job that he would work once school let out each day to help support his family after his father lost his job. The family lost just about everything and was forced to live in a camper van by a river.
The full time work on top of his schooling proved to be too much for Carrey, and he dropped out of school at 16 and ran off to Los Angeles to make it big.
Luck was finally on his side when he made it to Hollywood and captured the heart of comedic legend Rodney Dangerfield, who helped launch Carrey’s career into the future. Jim Carrey is now one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood with a current net worth estimated to be over $150 million.
7. Leonardo DiCaprio
Although Leonardo DiCaprio was raised in the bright lights of Hollywood, life wasn’t all glitz and glamor for him as a child. DiCaprio experienced a far more common side to Hollywood than many people realize – the dark side filled with drugs, prostitution, and crime. Apart from that, DiCaprio was constantly in debt and struggling to make it through.
Tired of not being able to even find a steady well-paying job, DiCaprio decided to set his sights on a future much brighter than the life he had known so far. Through his sheer grit and determination, DiCaprio was able to make it out of these conditions when he landed his first big acting break on Growing Pains. This quickly got him discovered and soon set him on the path that would lead to him being one of the most well-known actors in show business.
His current net worth is estimated somewhere around $220 million, a far cry from homelessness. Perhaps DiCaprio’s firsthand knowledge of what it means to truly be “down and out” are why he is also one of the most well-known humanitarians today.
8. Hank Aaron
Hank Aaron lived the truly poverty stricken life growing up as a child. His father worked the fields as a cotton picker, and the family had no money for luxuries like baseball equipment. Sparked by a love of the game and a passion to play it, Aaron found his own materials to make a baseball glove.
With that creation completed, he had the chance to play that game he loved so much. But the 1950’s were times of great racial divide in the United States, and there had never been any black professional baseball players before. That didn’t stop “Hammerin’ Hank,” who started his career in the Negro Leagues, but was soon picked up by the pros.
In 1952, Hank Aaron signed a major league deal with the Milwaukee Braves, and when he made his major league debut a short time later, he was amongst the first black players in baseball history to play professionally.
Hank Aaron went on to set baseball records and finished his career with three gold gloves, two batting titles, 25 appearances as an All-Star, and a career total of 755 home runs. He’s arguably one of the greatest baseball players to ever play the game.
9. J.K. Rowling
Author of what’s possibly the most successful series of stories ever published, J.K. Rowling did not have such an easy life before achieving this fame. This recently divorced, single mother struggled through years of poverty before hitting the big time.
Rowling grew up in England and shared her home with her mother, father and a younger sister. Growing up, Rowling recalls her teenage years as quite unhappy, due to serious tensions within her home. Her mother was very ill with multiple sclerosis and her relationship with her father was so strained that she has yet to make attempts to repair it today.
Rowling’s dreams of attending Oxford University were dashed when the school did not accept her, but she pursued her degree in literature at another university instead, graduating in 1986.
As a young child, she would often write fairy tales and short stories to keep herself amused. This passion never died out, and as a young adult she went out to pursue this dream of writing. Instead she found a husband in October of 1992, and the two had a daughter in July of the following year. Within just four short months of their daughter being born and only 13 months after their “I Do’s” the marriage ended due to domestic abuse.
Now a single mother, she was forced to go on welfare and while nearly homeless, faced a severe bout of clinical depression with contemplations of suicide. She would walk her young daughter around the neighborhood trying to calm her down for sleep, and take rests in café’s and delis. During those breaks she began to write what would end up being the first in a series of highly successful stories about a young boy named Harry Potter.
The manuscript was initially rejected by more than a dozen publishers, but finally picked up and soon became one of the best-selling series in history. JK Rowling’s franchise has become world renowned and has taken her from the streets of despair to an estimated worth of over $1 billion, making her the best-selling living author in Britain.
10. Harold Simmons
Harold Simmons was born in 1931 in the tiny and rural town of Golden, Texas. He grew up there living in a small shack with his parents who were both school teachers. Their home was so small that it did not even have plumbing or electricity.
Despite this very humble beginning, Simmons managed to get accepted to the University of Texas where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a B.A. and Master’s degree in Economics. In 1960, he began to build his empire from $5,000 in savings and a $95,000 loan. He used the money to buy a pharmacy, the first of many, and by the year 1973 had built up a chain of over 100 stores. He sold this chain for more than $50 million.
This was the first of many corporate buyouts that would follow, giving Simmons the title of “Master of Corporate Acquisition”.His economic degree and banking background helped him further his career in which he is credited as developing the business concept known as a leveraged buyout (LBO).
At the time of Simmons death in December of 2013, he still maintained control of three publicly traded organizations including Valhi, Kronos Worldwide, and NL Industries. His net worth at the time of his death was estimated to be over $10 billion. Quite a change from his humble beginnings.
Inspired to create your own rags to riches myth? Read this article on 10 habits of the ultra-wealthy that made them rich.
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