Before the blockbuster hits and high-profile marriages, Demetria Guynes was a self-described "trailer park kid" whose mother and stepfather were alcoholics who fought frequently and moved often. She dropped out of high school at 16 and eventually landed a role on General Hospital. From there she took off, and for 1996’s Striptease, she earned a then-record $12.5 million.
Bronx-raised Lopez dropped out of college after one semester and lived on the floor of a dance studio while she pursued her career, balancing working at a law firm, taking dance classes and performing in clubs. Her first big job as a backup dancer for New Kids on the Block led to her attention-getting gig as a “Fly Girl” on TV’s In Living Color. Since then, the performer has skyrocketed into stardom as an award-winning singer, actress, fashion designer and television personality—the newest judge on American Idol.
The pop star started off squeaky clean on the children’s television program Kids Incorporated and the girl group Wild Orchid. But when the band went downhill, Fergie partied a little too hard and found herself addicted to crystal meth. She lost her savings and was forced to move back in with her parents. But after kicking drugs in 2002, she joined The Black Eyed Peas and went on to win six Grammys and launch a successful solo career.
Berry made history as the first black woman to win a Best Actress Oscar, for her moving performance as a single mother in 2001’s Monster’s Ball. But long before that, it was Berry’s own mother who raised two daughters alone after her abusive husband left. The family moved out of inner city Cleveland and Berry found success on the pageant circuit as a Miss USA runner-up. Five years later she landed her big break in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever. See her this December in the megastar ensemble film New Year’s Eve.
"It wasn't until two years ago that I made more than my assistant," the reality star has said. After a failed acting career and some entrepreneurial endeavors that never quite made it, the natural foods chef joined The Real Housewives of New York City and won over audiences. Cashing in on her popularity, she created and trademarked her Skinnygirl Margarita, selling the low-cal drink for over $100 million to Jim Beam last winter.
What’s worse than growing up poor? Growing up with no heat. "My parents couldn’t always pay the heating bills," the country star said to Reader's Digest. "We had to go to bed with many layers on and our clothes or coat. A lot of winters I got frostbite." Twain supported her younger siblings after their parents died in a car accident by singing in Canadian resorts. What started out as a means to pay the bills quickly turned into a multiplatinum music career.
The Sex and the City star recalls being embarrassed to receive free welfare lunches while at school in Cincinnati. It was clear that there often wasn’t enough money in her family, which included eight kids. "‘The thing I want most for my children-I would like for them to not be aware of money, which means I have been very aware of my financial situation," she has said. After more than 30 years in the acting biz, Parker’s hard work has certainly paid off.
She grew up on a Texas farm, in a family with lots of love but very little money. After a local beauty pageant win, Longoria moved to Los Angeles and landed a recurring role on The Young and the Restless, earning minimum wage. In 2004, she was cast on the long-running Desperate Housewives and her career as an actress and spokesperson soared. Her first book, Eva's Kitchen: Cooking with Love for Family and Friends hit shelves in April.
"I don’t know what I did in this life to deserve this," Swank said in her Oscar acceptance speech for Million Dollar Baby. "I’m just a girl from a trailer park who had a dream." The actress left said trailer with her mother and set off for California with $75 and a Mobil card to her name. There, the pair lived in a car, then an empty house, before finding a permanent residence. Success hasn’t inflated this two-time Oscar winner’s ego; when in New York she keeps it real by riding the subway.
Hear the story of Celine Dion’s childhood and Dickensian images will run through your mind: multiple children sharing a bed, family sing-a-longs, mama warming socks in the oven on cold Canadian nights. (The family of 14 lived on as little as $165 a week!) Dion was eventually scouted by her manager-turned-husband, Rene Angelil, and began her ascent to the throne of pop royalty. She is currently in the midst of her $100 million, three-year gig in Las Vegas’s Caesar’s Palace. Talk about a fairytale ending.
Whether or not Winfrey exaggerated her poverty-stricken past (as Kitty Kelley’s biography would have us believe), there’s no doubt that sexual abuse and pregnancy at 14 made it rough. But she rose to become a self-made billionaire, and she gives generously to those who need it most.
To say Elliott had a bad childhood would be an understatement; both physical and sexual abuse were all too common for this rapper growing up in Virginia. But after she wrote a song for Raven Symone, phone calls from industry vets including Mariah Carey and Janet Jackson came flooding in.
While she was raising her daughter in a two-bedroom Manhattan apartment, Keys’ single mother juggled multiple jobs to make enough money for piano lessons. It all paid off when the songstress was admitted to the prestigious Professional Performing Arts School, Keys graduated at 16 and landing a record deal soon after. The tenth anniversary deluxe version of her award-winning debut album, Songs in A Minor, was released last month.
When Jewel splashed onto the ’90s music scene with a haunting, folk-tinged single called "Who Will Save Your Soul?", not many knew that she’d written her debut while hanging out on the shores of a California beach, barely employed and living out of a Volkswagen van. "If I could afford an apartment, I couldn’t afford a car," she has said. "If I could afford to pay rent, I couldn’t afford food."
Describing her life before Harry Potter as a "mess," Rowling lived with her daughter on welfare in a run-down council estate apartment while writing the book that started it all. Now she’s even wealthier than the Queen. To all the publishers who turned down her whimsical manuscript: You missed out on a fortune.
"We lived in the ghetto," Blige has said of her childhood. "I’d hear women screaming and running down the halls from guys beating up on them. People chased us with weapons. . . . It was a dangerous place." In 2002 she declared "no more drama" in her life. That meant wiping her slate clean of past demons, including addiction and domestic abuse. The hip-hop star, who recently closed the 2011 Essence Music Festival, has finally come into her own.
This country-and-crossover legend grew up with 11 siblings in a one-room cabin in Tennessee. The family was so poor that the kids played with June bugs as toys. To escape her harsh reality, she learned to play the guitar and began writing her own songs. A good move: Parton’s impressive career stats include a record-breaking 41 top-10 country albums.
“I came here with $35 in my pocket,” the iconic boundary-buster has said about her move from Michigan to New York after high school. “It was the bravest thing I'd ever done." The aspiring dancer struggled to make ends meet while working at Dunkin’ Donuts before finding work as a backup dancer. Thirty years and many reinventions later, Madonna is now the best-selling female recording artist of all time.
Today, the host may be known for her financial expertise, but her past tells a different story. After struggling to pay her way through college, Orman lived in a van while working her first job as a tree clearer. For six years after that, she waitressed, living on $400 a week. After losing money to a bad investment, she was inspired to become a financial advisor. The Suze Orman Show is now one of the highest-rated shows on CNBC, and she’s parlayed that success into nine bestsellers.
Before she was a sitcom star, Barr was a high school dropout working as a waitress. The jokes she cracked to her customers helped her develop her "domestic goddess" shtick, a routine that would catapult her from the comedy clubs of Denver to Hollywood.
Read more about women who have reinvented themselves HERE.