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Top 10 Celebrities With Tragic Pasts

by Simon Griffin
fact checked by Jamie Frater

It’s easy to look at the life of a celebrity and assume that everything is great. With all that fame and money, it should be easy to make your problems go away. But the reality is that celebrities are real people, and no amount of money can enable them to change what’s in their past. They may be on top of the world now, but for the following ten celebrities, things didn’t always look so rosy.

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10 Charlize Theron

Charlize Theron is widely regarded as one of the most talented people in Hollywood. Renowned for her ability to transform herself, Theron’s performance as Aileen Wournos earned her both an Oscar and a well-deserved place in cinematic history. But if her past had been slightly different, we may never have heard of the feisty South African we have all come to know and love.

Theron grew up on a farm with her parents, who were locked in a loveless marriage. Her father was a drunk, and although Theron says he never physically abused her, he did abuse her mother. One night, an aunt called her to warn that her father was coming home in a particularly bad mood. He soon showed up with his brother threatening to shoot Charlize and her mother. There was a lot of arguing and commotion, until he began shooting through her door into her bedroom, at which point her mother killed him with a handgun and shot his brother. Fortunately, prosecutors ruled that the mother had acted in self-defense, and Theron has gone on to achieve great things in life.[1]

9 Pierce Brosnan

Pierce Brosnan’s hardships pretty much started at the very beginning. Born into a poor family in rural Ireland, he was swiftly abandoned by his father, who he would only go on to meet once. His mother was forced to send him to live with his grandparents while she worked as a nurse in England, then his aunt and uncle, and then onto a boarding house. His mother visited twice a year until he could move to England at age 11, at which point he became the focus of school bullies.

In 1980, Brosnan married Cassandra Harris and adopted the 3 children of her late-husband, adding one more to the mix for good measure. But in 1991, Cassandra died in his arms after a 4 year battle with ovarian cancer, which would later go on to take the life of their 41 year old daughter Charlotte in 2013. By then, he had become estranged from his son Chris, who had a major drug problem resulting in fights, thefts, and 2 drunk-driving crashes in 2 years. The crashes may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, as Brosnan had already narrowly avoided losing his son Sean at 13, after Sean’s cousin drunkenly drove off a 200 foot cliff.

Despite all this, Brosnan doesn’t expect any sympathy, saying that while his childhood may have been “unconventional”, it was his normal.[2]

8 Kelsey Grammer

Kelsey Grammer’s troubles started early in life, with his parents splitting up when he was just two years old. His mother’s parents took them in, and helped raise Kelsey until he was 12, when his grandfather died of cancer. The following year, his father was murdered by a home intruder who had started a fire, all in front of his new family.

Then in 1975, Grammer’s 18 year old sister Karen was abducted, raped, and murdered by four men who left her for dead. Sadly, Karen had enough strength to make it to a nearby house, where bloody handprints revealed she was attempting to ring the door. The house was empty. Kelsey identified his sister’s body one week later. 2 years later, both of his half-brothers died in a scuba diving accident.

Shockingly, Grammer has appeared at the parole hearings of the last remaining member of the gang who killed his sister. In 2014, he spoke directly to the killer at the hearing, stating “You could not have come to a better person in the world than me to advocate for someone who has made some bad choices. I accept your apology. I forgive you. However, I cannot give your release my endorsement. To give that a blessing would be a betrayal of my sister’s life.”[3]

7 Nicki Minaj

Love her or loathe her, there’s no denying that Niki Minaj has built a pretty successful career for herself. With triple platinum, number one albums, a litany of awards, and a net worth of over $100 million, things could certainly be worse. But according to Minaj, it’s the fact that things were worse than inspired her to work so hard.

Throughout her childhood, Minaj had to contend with her abusive, drug-addicted father, who would regularly beat her mother, punch holes in the walls, get arrested, and sell their possessions for drug money. At one point, he attempted to kill her mother by lighting the house on fire. Despite all this, the pair are still together, and dad apparently isn’t too happy when she tells that story. To this, she says “It’s the price you pay when you abuse drugs and alcohol. Maybe one day your daughter will be famous and talk to every magazine about it, so think about that, dads out there who want to be crazy.”[4]

6 Kevin Spacey

Nothing in your past can give you licence to abuse a child, not even a history of being abused as a child. So while most of us may struggle to find any sympathy for alleged-pedophile Kevin Spacey, it is worth noting that he was apparently a victim of such abuse himself. That doesn’t excuse or justify his behavior, but it could help explain it.

According to his estranged brother Randy Fowler, Spacey’s father physically and sexually abused the boys throughout their childhood. To make matters worse, their mother apparently knew, but turned a blind eye to the whole situation. She later wrote a letter claiming that both she and the father had also been abused as children, again offering a potential psychological explanation.

But on top of the physical and sexual abuse, Spacey’s father was a white supremacist Nazi who went so far as to maintain a Hitler mustache. Interestingly, even after he himself was accused of assault, Spacey denied his brothers claims were true. Randy, meanwhile, has opted not to have children for fear of passing on the “predator gene”, a decision that is probably for the best.[5]

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5 Jack Nicholson

Jack Nicholson was born in Neptune City, New Jersey, in 1937. His mother was 17 when she gave birth to him, and had been working as a showgirl when she got pregnant. Although she was married, she soon found out that her husband was already married, and was left alone with her child. There were also some doubts as to whether the real father was the married man, her stage manager, or another unknown man.

Apart from that, Nicholson had a pretty normal upbringing, one that could hardly be described as “tragic” by any stretch of the imagination. But in 1974, Nicholson’s childhood was retroactively changed forever when it was revealed that his late-sister was in fact his mother. The people who had raised him as their own were in fact his grandparents, and his other sister was his aunt. By then, his birth mother and adoptive mother had both passed.

Nicholson’s story is far from the only one of its kind, with plenty of families pulling the same trick for young, unmarried mothers. And it seems he harbors no ill-will towards those involved in the lie, stating “I’d say it was a pretty dramatic event, but it wasn’t what I’d call traumatizing… After all, by the time I found out who my mother was, I was pretty well psychologically formed. As a matter of fact, it made quite a few things clearer to me. If anything, I felt grateful.”[6]

4 Terrence Howard

As we have seen from the other examples, the simple fact of being related to somebody makes us much more likely to let them get away with doing some pretty terrible things. Most people like to believe that there is good in those around us, even if they are flawed human beings. So when someone definitively decides to cut ties with their own flesh and blood, they usually have good reasons.

Terrence Howard suffered physical abuse not only at the hands of his father, but his mother as well. When he was two, he witnessed his father stab a man to death, for which he was convicted of manslaughter. His mother raised him until his father was released, at which point they divorced, and he was sent to live with his grandparents. At age 16, Howard had himself legally emancipated, moved to New York, and lived off welfare while he tried to make it as an actor. While that was undoubtedly one of the hardest decisions he will ever make, it seems it was the right one.[7]

3 Jim Carrey

Carrey’s life started out pretty normal, with his accountant father providing the family with a decent middle-class life. Unfortunately, Carrey’s father lost his job, forcing the comedian to drop out of school and start working as a janitor to help support the family. Things were quite bad, with the entire family forced to live in a van at one point. Carrey even got this ridiculous notion that he could supplement his janitor’s wage by performing stand-up comedy on the side.

Obviously, things worked out for Carrey, and his comedy career took off quite quickly. But he would encounter trouble again years later, when he broke up with his girlfriend Cathriona White, who took her life just days later. A note on her iPad accused Carrey of ruining her life by introducing her to drugs, abusing her, and giving her a number of STDs.

It was soon discovered that White had married another man while dating Carrey, apparently for a green card. The husband and White’s mother then launched a wrongful death lawsuit, accusing the actor of driving White to suicide. It was later revealed that White had faked STD tests to make it look like she was clean before she met Carrey, and infected afterwards. After years of legal battles, Carrey was cleared of all charges.[8]

2 Oprah

Oprah is probably the most famous example of a celebrity overcoming their past and achieving success. Worth anywhere between two and four billion dollars, she is one of the most recognisable and influential people in the world. This alone would be impressive enough, but the fact that she built her success on a foundation of severe abuse is what makes her such an inspiration to so many people.

For years, young Oprah was sent back and forth between her parents’ homes, moving to one of the most impoverished and dangerous Milwaukee ghettos at age 6. Her mother worked various jobs to make ends meet, and was rarely able to take care of Oprah. By age 9, a number of trusted family-friends took advantage of her mother’s absenteeism and began an extensive period of sexual abuse.

At 12, she was able to spend a few happy years living with her father, but was eventually sent back to her mother, where the abuse resumed. She also suffered a lot of physical abuse from various family members, and was once whipped by her grandmother for getting blood on her dress, which was a result of being whipped for playing with water. Eventually, she went to live with her father for good, and credits him with helping her become the woman she is today.[9]

1 Britney Spears

Everybody knows that Britney Spears has been through some very rough times. We came perilously close to losing a generational icon, but Britney has shown there is no brink you can’t be brought back from. She got the help she needed, and has now resumed her rightful role as Queen of Pop. But while most of us will remember the drama of 2007, not everyone is familiar with her early years, which were arguably worse.

Growing up, Britney’s family was apparently so poor that her abusive, alcoholic father would apparently go out hunting for rabbit or squirrel to feed the family. While Britney denies that ever happened, the reality is they were poor. Rather than getting a job, Lynn Spears decided the best way to get rich quick was off the back of her daughter’s vocals. Unfortunately for Britney, it worked, and she became the sole breadwinner to a family of 5.

At 13, she was drinking. At 14, she was having sex, and was allowed to have boys stay over. Her mother also set her up with an 18 year old for PR purposes. At 15, she was doing drugs. Then her career skyrocketed, the meltdown happened, and she had to be placed under conservatorship. But despite the fact that her father was an abusive alcoholic who once held a reported at knifepoint for 4 hours, he was deemed a more suitable guardian than Lynn, who apparently has little contact with Britney these days.

For all her fame, money, and success, not many of us would want to trade places with Britney. But while her story may be unenviable, it is ultimately a happy one. The tale of the star who stared death in the face only to bonk him with an umbrella is one that will be told for decades to come.[10]

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fact checked by Jamie Frater