On the surface, it seems as though celebrities have it all. But a huge number of A-list stars have only managed to find fame after overcoming a dark past filled with addiction, abuse or personal tragedy. In the article below, we take a look at some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry and find out which demons they had to conquer before finding success.
From Madonna to Jim Carrey, we reveal 20 celebrities with dark pasts you didn’t know about. Find out which A-lister’s father was a twice-convicted murderer, plus we take a look at the very troubled past of the most famous talk show host in history.
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20. Charlize Theron
Charlize Theron is one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. The South African has conquered America (and the rest of the world) with notable appearances in films such as Monster, Hancock and Mad Max: Fury Road.
But behind that infamous Hollywood smile, Theron carries a dark past which has haunted her since childhood.
Growing up in the Gauteng Province, young Charlize had to deal with an alcoholic father who regularly threatened her and her mother Gerda with physical abuse. One day things took a violent turn when Charles started physically assaulting his wife. Gerda shot and killed her husband after he began attacking her in a drunken rage.
In the wake of the shock episode, a judge ruled that Gerda was acting in self-defence and Theron’s mother did not have to face any charges.
Since then, the actress has managed to put her troubled childhood behind her and now regularly appears on the red carpet with her mother.
After undergoing therapy as an adult, Theron spoke to Howard Stern about how she and her mum have dealt with the incident: “I think both of us have dealt with that night really well. I think both of us still have to deal with the life that we had — and that’s what people don’t really realize. It’s not just about what happened one night.”
19. Woody Harrelson
Woody Harrelson’s father Charles disappeared from the actor’s life in 1968, when Woody was only seven years old. Why? It turns out that Charles was a member of organised crime and acted as a hitman for high-profile mobsters. Whilst Woody’s mother Diane was left to raise the future actor and his two brothers on her own, Charles Harrelson was engaged in a life of crime.
In fact, Harrelson was regularly paid by the mafia to carry out hits on people that they wanted taken out.
He was convicted of the murder of Sam Degelia, a Texas grain dealer, in 1973 before being released only five years later for good behaviour. However, Charles’ freedom didn’t last long. Only a few months later he was convicted of the murder of a federal judge after a six-hour standoff with police, during which time Charles was high on cocaine and blabbering about shooting John F. Kennedy.
What did poor Woody make of all this? He only heard about his father’s second arrest on the radio but later decided to try and make amends.
The Three Billboards actor admitted that he visited his dad in jail from time to time: “My father is one of the most articulate, well-read, charming people I’ve ever known. Still, I’m just now gauging whether he merits my loyalty or friendship. I look at him as someone who could be a friend more than someone who was a father.”
Charles eventually died of a heart attack in May 2007. He passed away in a maximum security institution after attempting a failed prison break in the early 90s.
18. Teri Hatcher
Teri Hatcher first rose to prominence after playing Lois Lane in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. She then bagged a lead role in the hugely successful comedy-drama Desperate Housewives as Susan Mayer.
However, things haven’t always been so rosy for the actress. Away from the limelight, Hatcher recently revealed that she has been struggling with a dark secret for most of her life.
The actress wrote an open letter to President Trump earlier this year, in which she detailed the sexual abuse she had suffered from the age of five years old.
Hatcher was inspired to write the letter after Trump openly mocked a sexual abuse survivor during the Kavanaugh trial. Hatcher went into explicit details about the sexual abuse she had suffered as a young girl and revealed that she had ‘struggled with demons’ for much of her life.
The perpetrator also abused another girl who later committed suicide. In an even more shocking twist, Hatcher revealed that the man who sexually assaulted her was her own uncle. Hatcher later helped to convict her uncle and got him sent to prison after reading about the other victim’s suicide.
The actress also stated that she kept the abuse a secret from everyone, including her own parents, and last saw her uncle when she was 8 or 9 years old.
17. Ringo Starr
Ringo Starr was the drummer in the most successful pop group of all time – The Beatles. So fans might think that they know everything there is to know about the Scouser. But the drummer has had to struggle for most of his life with the fact that he very nearly died as a young boy.
That’s right – all of his success might have belonged to someone else if Starr hadn’t survived appendicitis by the skin of his teeth at the age of six years old.
Unfortunately, after an operation to remove his appendix, young Ringo contracted peritonitis and fell into a coma for several days. After ten weeks of lying unconscious in a hospital bed, things weren’t looking good for the future Beatles drummer. However, he eventually woke up from his coma and started on the road to recovery.
Sadly his condition meant that he had to stay in the hospital for an entire year before doctors would discharge him.
After that, his over-protective mother Elsie kept him at home and Ringo’s education struggled. Just as he was getting back on track, disaster struck again. Ringo contracted tuberculosis and this time he had to spend two years(!) in a sanatorium. This was where his passion for drums developed, after hospital staff gave him a makeshift mallet to drum against the cabinets in his room. “I was in the hospital band … That’s where I really started playing.”
The Beatles star added: “I never wanted anything else from there on.” Despite all of his health woes, Ringo is now one of the last surviving Beatles.
16. Dee Dee Ramone
Dee Dee Ramone was a member of the world-famous punk band The Ramones. But before joining the band he endured an extremely tough upbringing.
His fractured childhood resulted in a life of heroin addiction and male prostitution…before Dee Dee had even reached the age of 16. The Ramones bassist suffered a troubled childhood thanks to his alcoholic father. Eventually Dee Dee, his mother and sister fled their home to escape his father.
But that wasn’t the end of the Ramones founder’s troubles – he quickly became hooked on heroin as a way to deal with his mental health issues. In fact, it’s widely believed that Dee Dee occasionally worked as a male prostitute or ‘hustler’ in New York’s infamous ‘Loop’ quarter.
The Ramones song ’53rd and 3rd’ is an autobiographical account of Dee Dee’s experiences as a rent boy.
Not only did he work as a hustler, Dee Dee was also a prolific drug user who got himself involved in armed robbery and even drug dealing. Unfortunately the Ramones bassist never managed to kick the habit and he died of a heroin overdose on 5th June, 2002.
A sad end to an incredibly troubled life.
15. Lady Gaga
Lady Gaga is known the world over as an amazing performer on stage and screen. She started off life in the music business but also studied acting and recently starred in the hit musical film A Star Is Born opposite Bradley Cooper.
Gaga always seems to exude an air of confidence in everything she does. But sadly she’s harboured a dark past which the singer has struggled to deal with in the years following the incident.
Basically, Gaga once revealed that she was raped at the age of 19 years old by a man twenty years older than her. This incident left her suffering from PTSD and she had to undergo mental and physical therapy to get over the assault.
The singer was so affected by the incident that she refused to talk to anyone about it for years: “No-one else knew. It was almost like I tried to erase it from my brain. And when it finally came out, it was like a big, ugly monster. And you have to face the monster to heal.”
Gaga later wrote the song ‘Swine’ to deal with the incident. However, the singer has also said that she refuses to be defined by the attack: “I’ll be damned if somebody’s gonna say that every creatively intelligent thing that I ever did is all boiled down to one dickhead who did that to me.”
Good for you Gaga! The singer has since become an outspoken critic of sexual assault and the way in which survivors of sex abuse are treated by society.
14. Keanu Reeves
Keanu Reeves is known for being a bit of an oddity in Hollywood. But it might have something to do with the series of tragedies that lie in his past.
Reeves’ heartbreak began at the tender age of only 3 years old, when his father (who had previously served time in prison for heroin smuggling) abandoned the family home. Later in 1993, Reeves lost his best friend River Phoenix to a drug overdose.
The pair had become firm buddies after meeting on the set of I Love You to Death and the actor was understandably distraught at the loss. But Reeves’ dark past doesn’t end there. In 1999, at the height of Reeves’ success, he and his girlfriend Jennifer Syme lost their daughter in the final stages of pregnancy.
Reeves had to endure the tragedy whilst dealing with the media attention from his role in The Matrix. Sadly Syme also met a tragic end.
Although Reeves and Syme parted ways after struggling to deal with the loss of their baby, Jennifer passed away only 18 months later in a car accident.
Marilyn Manson was implicated in her death when some people claimed that Manson had given Syme drugs at a house party he was hosting before she decided to drive home later in the night. However, he has always denied the claim.
Meanwhile Reeves has always been reluctant to talk about the incident but did once state that he doesn’t think you ever get over loss because at the end of the day “you are still alone”.
13. Chelsea Handler
Chelsea Handler is a famous comedian who loves to make everybody else laugh. But Handler has had to deal with a personal tragedy which she has only recently begun to talk about.
Handler lost her older brother Chet when she was only ten years old. The comedian explained the incident in an interview with Rosie O’Donnell: “He was hiking in the Grand Tetons and he literally fell like 80 feet off a cliff.”
She said she had a difficult time dealing with the shock, telling Rosie: ‘My family wanted to talk to me about it but I was just, like, cut off ‘cause I didn’t want to cry in front of anyone.’”
Handler said that it was harder to deal with the grief because she was the youngest of six children. Her family relied on her for support yet the young Chelsea was trying to get to grips with her own feelings and emotions.
“I was used to walking into a room and having everyone pay attention to me and I couldn’t get any attention. I was in pain too and I felt like no one was tending my pain.” However, Handler said that one positive aspect to come out of the tragedy was the fact that she and her entire family are now extremely close-knit.
“I don’t know that we would have been this close if everything was intact, no, I think you obviously grow together and bond together when you go through something like that, like a tragedy.”
12. Rose McGowan
Rose McGowan has been hitting the headlines for many different reasons in the last few years, especially in relation to the #MeToo movement. But did you know that McGowan grew up in a sex cult in the Italian countryside?
It turns out that McGowan’s parents were members of the infamous Children of God cult, which has previously been investigated by the FBI for incest, kidnapping and sexual abuse. McGowan claimed that she witnessed sexual abuse at a very young age.
“I remember watching how the [cult’s] men were with the women… [The women] were basically there to serve the men sexually — you were allowed to have more than one wife.”
McGowan’s family only left the cult – which was based in Tuscany – when the Children of God decided that it was OK for adults to have sex with children. The actress said that the group’s founder rationalised child abuse by stating that “God made children able to enjoy sex”.
The McGowan family had to flee to the United States because if any other cult members found out that they were planning on leaving, there was a serious possibility that one of the McGowan children would be kidnapped.
Rose has since stated that the experience severely affected her relationship with her parents but admits that she is relieved to have escaped the cult ‘by the skin of her teeth’.
11. Yoko Ono
Yoko Ono wasn’t exactly popular amongst Beatles fans when she and John Lennon first became an item.
Arguably public opinion on the Japanese artist is still extremely divided to this day. But you can’t say that Yoko hasn’t had to deal with a lot in her lifetime. In fact, the widow of John Lennon is a survivor of the fire-bombing of Tokyo during WWII.
Her family were staying in Tokyo at the time and had to hide in an underground bunker during what has come to be known as the Bombing of Tokyo by US forces on the night of March 9th. When the Ono family emerged from the shelter, Tokyo had been thrown into chaos.
Starvation was rampant and her previously wealthy Japanese family were forced to beg for food and money to survive whilst her mother pulled their belongings around in a cart. Meanwhile Ono’s father was sent to a concentration camp.
The artist has reflected on the incident as a period of time in her life which instilled an ‘aggressive’ attitude in her and also helped her to understand the struggle of outsiders in society.
The Ono family eventually resettled in America and moved to affluent Scarsdale, New York. Ono struggled with depression during this time and was briefly admitted to a mental institution before meeting John Lennon.
10. Trevor Noah
Trevor Noah has been fairly open about his own dark past. Noah grew up in South Africa under the Apartheid regime.
But what made things extremely difficult for his upbringing was the fact that his father was white and his mother was black. Interracial marriages were only made legal a year after Noah was born, and they were widely frowned upon in South African society – this meant that Noah’s mother often had to pretend she was his nanny in public, and his father had to walk on the opposite side of the pavement to them. But the trouble didn’t end there…
Noah’s mother married a man named Ngisaveni Abel Shingange in 1992 and they had two sons together.
However, Noah and his mother Patricia were physically abused by Shingange, before he shot Patricia in the leg and back of the head. She miraculously survived the attack after the bullet missed her spinal cord, brain, and all major nerves and blood vessels. Shingange then threatened to kill Noah after the comedian confronted him about the attack, prompting Noah to leave for Los Angeles. Shingange was finally imprisoned in 2011.
Noah hopes that this sentencing will raise awareness of domestic violence in South Africa.
“For years my mother reached out to police for help with domestic abuse, and nothing was ever done. This is the norm in South Africa. Dockets went missing and cases never went to court.”
9. Samuel L. Jackson
Samuel L. Jackson has starred in some of the most popular films in movie history, including Pulp Fiction, Jurassic Park and Django Unchained.
He’s also the number one box office star of all time – altogether his movies have made over $5.15 billion dollars! This is a pretty impressive achievement considering the difficult childhood he endured, including a father that he never knew. Jackson’s father was an alcoholic and the actor only ever met him twice in his entire life.
But that’s not all…Jackson himself also has a little-known conviction for unlawful confinement which stopped him from studying at university in the late 1960s.
In fact, Jackson ended up holding Martin Luther King Jr.’s father hostage on the Morehouse College campus in Atlanta. Fired up by the assassination of MLK Jr, the actor and a group of friends held the college board of trustees (of which MLK Sr was a member) hostage and demanded reform of the school curriculum.
Although the school did eventually change its policy, Jackson was convicted of unlawful confinement, a second-degree felony.
He was suspended for two years before returning to college and earning his Bachelor of Arts in Drama in 1972. Jackson also attended MLK Jr’s funeral in Atlanta and acted as an usher.
8. Robert Downey Jr.
Most people probably know that Robert Downey Jr has had a history of drug addiction. But did you know that his issues started at the age of only 6 years old?
The actor’s father was a filmmaker and drug addict who gave his young son a joint to smoke at the age of 6 (something which Downey Sr later stated that he regrets). Downey claims that he was surrounded by drugs as a youngster and often used drugs as a way to bond with his troubled father.
“When my dad and I would do drugs together, it was like him trying to express his love for me in the only way he knew how.”
Downey estimates that he first became hooked on drugs at the age of 8. He nearly ended his acting career after being arrested several times for possession of cocaine, heroine and marijuana use, before spending a year in prison in 1999 which meant the cancellation of several acting jobs. After more struggles with drug use between 2001 and 2003, Downey finally managed to kick the habit once and for all through a combination of 12 step recovery, meditation, yoga and martial arts training.
He spoke to Vanity Fair about how he managed to get sober and stated: “Job one is get out of that cave.”
“A lot of people do get out but don’t change. So the thing is to get out and recognize the significance of that aggressive denial of your fate, come through the crucible forged into a stronger metal.” Amen!
The Material Girl is the Queen of Pop and one of the best-selling musical artists of all time.
But before she was trailblazing in the 80s and 90s with songs such as Like A Virgin and Holiday, Madonna suffered a traumatic incident whilst trying to make it in New York as an up-and-coming singer. She moved to NYC and said in an open letter for Harpers Bazaar magazine that the city ‘wasn’t everything I thought it would be’.
Madonna was lured into an apartment block after a seemingly nice man said that she could use his telephone to make a call.
She then stated: “I was held up at gunpoint. Raped on the roof of a building I was dragged up to with a knife in my back.” The singer says she didn’t report the crime because in her eyes it was ‘pointless’: “You’ve already been violated. It’s just not worth it. It’s too much humiliation.”
This wasn’t the only ordeal she suffered in NYC either – her apartment was broken into three times. Fortunately Madonna has clearly been able to put the incident behind her and went on to conquer her demons, as well as the music industry.
Lady Gaga – who more often than not is feuding with the pop singer – publicly praised Madonna’s revelation and said that girls everywhere looked to her for a strong role model.
6. Pamela Anderson
Pamela Anderson rose to prominence as one of the stars of Baywatch and a Playboy Playmate model in the early 90s.
She now devotes her time to promoting animal welfare causes and is an outspoken vegan activist. But did you know that the model has endured a hellish past? Anderson recently revealed that she was sexually abused several times as a child. The first time occurred between the ages of 6 and 10 when she was molested by a female babysitter.
Anderson was then raped by a 25 year old man when she was only 12 years old.
However, by far the most shocking incident occurred during her high school years. Anderson has claimed that she was gang raped by her high-school boyfriend and six of his friends when she was 14 years old. Apparently her boyfriend “thought it would be funny” and after the incident Anderson recalled she simply wanted “off this earth”.
However, the model has managed to turn her experience into something positive with the launch of her Pamela Anderson Foundation which is dedicated to human and animal rights.
Anderson says that after the ordeals she suffered, she had a very hard time trusting other humans and instead formed a close bond with animals instead.
5. Oprah Winfrey
Oprah Winfrey has overcome the odds to become the most powerful African-American woman in television.
Winfrey is a talk show host, TV executive and philanthropist who has had to overcome an extremely difficult upbringing. The media mogul has spoken frankly about her past troubles, which involve a childhood mired in physical and sexual abuse from family members, which culminated in a pregnancy at the age of 14.
However, Winfrey’s son died only a few weeks after the birth.
She finally started to break out of the cycle when she was sent to live with the man she calls her father, Vernon. Vernon made Oprah’s education a priority and she excelled in school before starting a career in media. Winfrey was the youngest news anchor and the first black female news anchor at her local station in Nashville and the rest – as they say – is history.
Reflecting on how she has overcome her troubled upbringing, Winfrey stated in an interview with David Letterman: “I really did believe there was a power greater than myself” before adding that she wouldn’t change anything about her life.
“Everybody has a story and your story is as equally as valuable and important as my story.” We salute you Oprah!
4. Jim Carrey
Funnyman Jim Carrey has been making generations laugh for years with his performances in Dumb and Dumber, Ace Ventura and The Mask.
However, he hasn’t always been where he is today, and for a long time as a teenager Carrey had to struggle with a life of abject poverty. Although Carrey’s father Percy had been a successful accountant for many years, Percy lost his job when young Jim was only a child.
Ever since that moment the Carrey family’s lives changed dramatically. The family had no steady income to support themselves and ended up living out of a van. Things got so bad that Carrey dropped out of high school at the age of 15 to work as a janitor and earn some extra money to keep things afloat.
He always wanted to be a comedian but his family struggled to support his dreams. Thankfully, the Carrey family managed to get back on their feet and in 1979 Jim moved to Los Angeles to pursue his comedy and acting career. Of course, the rest is history and Carrey became one of the biggest stars of the 90s and 2000s with his hilarious comic performances.
After several years working the comedy circuit, Carrey broke out in 1994 with roles in Dumb and Dumber, Ace Ventura and The Mask all in the same year.
He has previously stated on the Oprah Winfrey Show that he used the power of visualisation to accurately predict his first $10 million pay check.
3. Drew Barrymore
Drew Barrymore was a child star who made a successful transition into acting full-time. But unfortunately Barrymore’s success came at a cost, especially in her younger years.
Like Robert Downey Jr., Barrymore was introduced to alcohol and drugs at an extremely young age. By the time she was 11 years old, the star was already hooked on alcohol and it would only be a few years later that the E.T. actress became addicted to cocaine.
Barrymore had grown up in an acting family – her godmothers are Sophia Loren and Ann Strasberg, whilst her godfather is none other than Steven Spielberg.
However, she clearly couldn’t cope with the attention after he appearance in E.T. and her drug abuse soon became a favourite topic in the tabloids. At the age of 14 years old, her partying ways finally caught up with her and the actress spent time in a mental institution after a suicide attempt.
Today, Barrymore is a thriving actress who has managed to successfully overcome her demons and ruled the box office in the 90s and early 2000s.
Today she only has positive things to say about her struggle with addiction: “It was an extraordinary experience. I went through it and I learned a lot. In fact, I learned it in front of everyone, which was righteously embarrassing! But you know what? It made me stronger.”
2. Cyndi Lauper
Before Cyndi Lauper hit the big time in the 80s with a string of musical hits, she was forced to work as a stripper to pay for musical equipment.
In the mid 80s Lauper began stripping in a nightclub in Queens, working under the name ‘Carrot’. Apparently her boss wasn’t impressed with her musical career and told Lauper to ‘stick to what she was good at’ and keep dancing.
Sadly that wasn’t the only ordeal Lauper had to go through before finding fame as a singer. She was sexually assaulted by a band member, whose girlfriend held Lauper down during the attack.
However, Lauper got the last laugh when she encountered her attacker working in a dead end job several years later. He was working in a deli and she was already an international superstar.
The singer later commented: “I thought, ‘You know what, pal? As you treat others, at one point in your life, whether it’s now or later, you’re going to get it back.’ Everything in my life has been a lesson like that. Every freakin’ thing.”
We salute you Cyndi! Lauper is another star who has managed to overcome trauma and rise to the top her game.
1. Mackenzie Phillips
Mackenzie Phillips is a singer and actress who is best known for her role in American Graffiti. She is also the daughter of John Phillips, a singer in the popular 60s band The Mamas and the Papas.
Her career struggled for many years due to her problems with drug addiction, but fans soon realised what had caused the difficulties when she made a bombshell announcement on the Oprah Winfrey Show.
At the age of 19, Phillips revealed that she had awoken the night before her first wedding to find herself having sex with an attacker. The man turned out to be none other than her father, John. Phillips confronted her father about the attack months later but he simply replied: “Raped you? Don’t you mean we made love?”
This led to a Stockholm Syndrome-style relationship which lasted for several years.
Fortunately Phillips has been able to put this experience behind her and now lives a clean and sober life with her husband Keith Levenson and her son Shane.
She recently appeared in a recurring role on the hit Netflix series Orange is the New Black.