On the surface, it seems as though celebrities have it all. A huge number of A-list stars, however, have only managed to find fame after overcoming a dark past filled with addiction, abuse or personal tragedy.
Join us now as 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.
20. Charlize Theron
Before finding fame as an actress, Charlize Theron suffered a traumatic childhood. Her father was a violent alcoholic who regularly threatened her and her mother Gerda with physical abuse. After enduring this for some time, Gerda finally shot and killed her husband when he attacked her in a drunken rage.
The court ruled that Gerda was acting in self-defence, therefore Theron’s mother didn’t face any charges. Since then, Charlize has managed to put her troubled childhood behind her with the help of therapy, and now she regularly appears on the red carpet with her mother.
19. Woody Harrelson
Woody Harrelson has murdered people in movies (most famously in Natural Born Killers), but his father did it for real. Charles Harrelson was a hitman who worked for high-level mobsters, and he was in and out of jail throughout Woody’s childhood before being locked away for good in 1979 after murdering a judge.
Woody visited his dad in jail from time to time, and called him “one of the most articulate, well-read, charming people I’ve ever known.” Charles was eventually sent to a maximum-security prison after a failed escape attempt in the early 90s, and he died behind bars in 2007 from a heart attack.
18. Teri Hatcher
In 2018, 25 years after Teri Hatcher rose to fame with TV’s Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, the actress made the shocking revelation that she had been sexually abused by an uncle when she was a child. Worse yet, the same man went on to abuse another girl who would later commit suicide.
Hatcher went public with her harrowing story in an open letter to Donald Trump, after the then-President openly mocked a sexual abuse survivor during the Kavanaugh trial. The actress went into explicit detail about her ordeal and revealed that she had ‘struggled with demons’ for much of her life.
17. Ringo Starr
As the drummer in The Beatles, Ringo Starr was one-quarter of the best-loved rock band in history. Things could have been very different, however, as the future musical legend nearly died as a young boy. Struck down by appendicitis, the six-year-old Richard Starkey then contracted peritonitis and fell into a coma.
Starkey eventually woke up from his coma, but his condition meant that he had to stay in the hospital for a year before doctors would discharge him. Tragically, he contracted tuberculosis and spent a further two years in hospital. Every cloud has a silver lining, however, as it was in this hospital that the future Ringo Starr first got to use a drum kit.
16. Dee Dee Ramone
Dee Dee Ramone was the bassist and main songwriter of legendary punk band The Ramones. Sadly, in his younger days as Douglas Colvin, he endured some extremely tough times, growing up in a violent household with alcoholic parents. To escape, Dee Dee started using hard drugs when he was only 12 years old.
Dee Dee wound up being a drug addict his entire life, and by his teens he prostituted himself and committed armed robbery to fund his habit. Despite the huge success enjoyed by The Ramones, Dee Dee never managed to get clean or overcome his personal demons. He died of a heroin overdose on 5 June, 2002.
15. Lady Gaga
As one of the biggest musical icons of the 21st century, Stefani Germanotta aka Lady Gaga always seems to exude an air of confidence in everything she does. However, she has overcome a horrific ordeal: she was raped at 19, leaving her suffering PTSD for which she underwent years of therapy.
The singer, songwriter and actress 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.”
14. Keanu Reeves
‘Sad Keanu’ has been a meme for so long, you might not have realised just how much tragedy is in the John Wick actor’s past. First, Reeves was abandoned by his heroin-smuggling father. Later, in 1993, he lost his best friend River Phoenix to a drug overdose.
Then in 1999, at the height of Reeves’ success, he and girlfriend Jennifer Syme lost their daughter in the final stages of pregnancy; 18 months later, Syme died in a car accident. Reeves has always been reluctant to talk about these tragedies, but has long been praised for his acts of kindness and the positivity he encourages in others.
13. Chelsea Handler
Comedian, actress and talk show host Chelsea 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.”
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. 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.
12. Rose McGowan
Years before her success as a film and TV actress, Rose McGowan was raised in an infamous religious cult, the Children of God. The FBI later investigated this organisation for charges of incest, kidnapping and sexual abuse. McGowan claimed that she witnessed sexual abuse at a very young age.
McGowan’s family only left the Italy-based cult when the founder announced that it was OK for adults to have sex with children. The family then fled to the US, where Rose eventually forged a successful career – but, as she revealed during the Me Too movement, she would endure further sexual abuse later in life.
11. Yoko Ono
Japanese artist Yoko Ono has always polarised opinion, thanks to her relationship with John Lennon and allegations she prompted the break-up of The Beatles. However, even before Lennon’s murder left Ono a widow, she had endured a lot of real horror.
Ono and her family were living in Tokyo during World War II when the city was bombed by US forces. She subsequently grew up in extreme hardship, and this took its toll on her emotionally: Ono had to spend time in a mental institute before rising to fame as an artist and ultimately meeting John Lennon.
10. Trevor Noah
Stand-up comic and Daily Show host Trevor Noah grew up in South Africa under the Apartheid regime. Making things even more difficult was the fact that his father was white and his mother was black, so heavily frowned upon in the country at that time that Noah’s mother Patricia often pretended to be his nanny in public.
Later, Noah’s mother remarried, but her new husband Ngisaveni Abel Shingange was abusive to both Noah and Patricia. Shingange eventually shot Patricia in the leg and back of the head; miraculously she survived, but Shingange then threatened to kill Noah after he confronted his stepfather. Shingange was finally imprisoned in 2011.
9. Samuel L Jackson
Thanks to his roles in several of the biggest film franchises ever, Samuel L Jackson is one of the most successful movie stars of all time. This is quite the contrast from Jackson’s early years, when he ran afoul of the law for participating in radical activity whilst studying at Morehouse College in Atlanta.
Outraged by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, Jackson was one among a number of like-minded student activists who held the trustees of Morehouse College hostage (among them Martin Luther King Sr), demanding school reform. Jackson was subsequently convicted of unlawful confinement, and expelled from the college.
8. Robert Downey Jr
Most people probably know that Robert Downey Jr has had a history of drug addiction, but you might not have known these issues began when he was just six years old. That’s how old the future Iron Man was when he was introduced to marijuana by his filmmaker father, Robert Downey, Sr.
Downey soon progressed to harder drugs, and was an addict by age eight. The problem followed him into adulthood, and nearly ended his acting career following a series of arrests. Happily, he finally managed to kick the habit once and for all in the early 2000s, which he credits to a twelve-step recovery program, plus meditation, yoga and martial arts training.
Before she became one of the highest-selling recording artists ever, Madonna had a horrific experience shortly after moving to New York to launch her career. The singer has revealed that a seemingly nice man lured her into an apartment block saying she could use his telephone, when he raped her.
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.” Nor was this the only ordeal Madonna suffered in her early days in NYC: her apartment was also broken into three times.
6. Pamela Anderson
Pamela Anderson may have been one of the most celebrated sex symbols of the 1990s, but she suffered multiple instances of sexual abuse during childhood. Firstly, Anderson was molested by a female babysitter when she was aged between six and ten; later she was raped by a 25-year-old man when she was only 12. However, by far the most shocking incident occurred during her high school years. When she was 14, Anderson was gang-raped by her high school boyfriend and six of his friends. Apparently her boyfriend “thought it would be funny” and after the incident Anderson recalled she simply wanted “off this earth”.
5. Oprah Winfrey
As a talk show host, TV executive, businesswoman and philanthropist, Oprah Winfrey has had to overcome an extremely difficult upbringing. The media mogul has spoken frankly about her past, which involved a childhood mired in physical and sexual abuse from family members, culminating in pregnancy when Winfrey was just 14.
The teenage Winfrey gave birth to a son, but he was premature and died only a few weeks later. Winfrey finally started to break out of the cycle when she was sent to live with the man she calls her father, Vernon Winfrey, who gave her the care she needed and encouraged her to pursue her interests in media and communications.
4. Jim Carrey
Funnyman Jim Carrey is one of the most successful comedy actors of all time, but he hasn’t always been where he is today. For much of his youth, Carrey struggled with a life of abject poverty. After his father wound up unemployed, the family had no steady income to support themselves and ended up living out of a van.
Things got so bad that Jim dropped out of high school at the age of 15 to work as a janitor and earn some extra money to keep things afloat. 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.
3. Drew Barrymore
Like Robert Downey Jr, Drew Barrymore is another Hollywood survivor who was introduced to alcohol and drugs at an extremely young age. By the time she was 11 years old, the star was already an alcoholic and it would only be a few years later that the E.T. actress became addicted to cocaine.
Aged just 14, Barrymore’s hard partying (facilitated by an irresponsible mother) finally caught up with her, and the actress spent time in a mental institution after a suicide attempt. Happily, the years that followed saw Barrymore build herself back up personally and professionally, leading to huge success as an actress, producer, entrepreneur and talk show host.
2. Cyndi Lauper
Before Cyndi Lauper hit the big time in the 80s with a string of musical hits, she worked 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. Lauper has said that years later she encountered her attacker working in a deli, by which time she was already a superstar.
1. Mackenzie Phillips
Actress and singer Mackenzie Phillips is best known for her early role in American Graffiti, and more recently Orange is the New Black. Her career struggled for many years due to her problems with drug addiction, but there was a horrible secret behind it all: at 19, the night before her first wedding, she was raped by her own father, musician John Phillips of the Mamas & the Papas.
This led to a Stockholm Syndrome-style relationship which lasted for a decade, with John controlling Mackenzie by plying her with hard drugs. Mackenzie did not go public with this horrifying story until an Oprah Winfrey interview in 2009, eight years after her father had died.