19 famous figures who went from rags to riches

Dolly Parton
Dolly Parton grew up in a poor family in rural Appalachia.Mark Humphrey/AP Images
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  • These celebrities and entrepreneurs endured hardship before they hit the big time.

  • Francois Pinault, who is now worth $40 billion, was teased in school for being poor.

  • Oprah Winfrey was born into a poor Mississippi family in 1954, but she's now worth $2.5 billion.

Oprah Winfrey grew up poor and went to college on a scholarship.

Oprah Winfrey.John Medina / Stringer / Getty Images

Oprah Winfrey was born into a poor Mississippi family in 1954, but that didn't stop her from achieving unparalleled success. After a traumatic upbringing in which she was abused and molested by two family members and a family friend, she ran away from home at the age of 13. At 14, she gave birth — the child died shortly after.

Winfrey was awarded a scholarship to Tennessee State University. Following an appearance in a local beauty pageant, she went on to become the first African American TV correspondent in the state at the age of 19.

The acclaimed talk show host later moved to Chicago, where she began work on her own morning show,  later known as "The Oprah Winfrey Show." She was the first woman in history to own and produce her own talk show.

The show aired for 25 seasons, from 1986 to 2011. Since moving on from her talk show, Winfrey has founded OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network.

Her net worth is calculated to be about $2.5 billion.

Forever 21 founder Do Won Chang worked as a janitor before he hit it big.

do won chang
Do Won Chang.Alberto E. Rodriguez / Contributor / Getty Images

In 1981, Jin Sook and Do Won "Don" Chang emigrated from South Korea to Los Angeles in pursuit of success and new opportunities. Penniless, without formal education, and speaking in broken English, the Changs struggled at first.

Originally going into the coffee business, they soon discovered that it was not going to be their ticket to success. For a few years, Don worked as a janitor, pumped gas, and served coffee to make ends meet for himself and his family. Everything changed, however, when he made one crucial observation.

"I noticed the people who drove the nicest cars were all in the garment business," Don told the LA Times in a 2010 interview.

Soon after, he opened a 900-square-foot clothing store called Fashion 21. It would go on to become the fast-fashion retailer Forever 21. Though the store once brought in billions of dollars per year, the retailer filed for bankruptcy in 2019. In 2020, Forever 21 was sold for $81 million to Authentic Brands Group.

According to Forbes, Jin Sook and Do Won Chang had a combined net worth of $5.9 billion in 2015. Their combined net worth has since fallen to $1.6 billion and risen again to $3 billion.

Leonardo Del Vecchio, whose eyeglasses empire makes Ray-Bans and Oakleys, once lived in an orphanage.

Giorgio Armani and Leonardo Del Vecchio
Giorgio Armani (left) and Leonardo Del Vecchio.Stefania D'Alessandro / Contributor / Getty Images

Now a multi-billionaire, Leonardo Del Vecchio grew up as the child of a widowed mother who struggled to make ends meet, and who eventually sent him to an orphanage.

To earn a living, Del Vecchio went to work in a factory making molds for auto parts and eyeglass frames.

At the young age of 23, he opened his very own molding shop. That eyeglass frame shop would become the world's largest producer and retailer of sunglasses and prescription glasses, Luxottica, which manufactures brands like Ray-Ban and Oakley.

Leonardo Del Vecchio died at age 87 on June 27, 2022. According to Forbes, his net worth was valued at $25 billion at the time of his death.

Dolly Parton grew up in a poor family in rural Appalachia.

Dolly Parton
Dolly Parton.2020 Billboard Women In Music/Getty Images

Dolly Parton was born as the fourth of 12 children. Her parents, Robert Lee and Avie Lee Owens, struggled to make ends meet for their large family.

According to a previous article by Insider, Lee was a tobacco farmer and a construction worker who never learned to read or write after leaving school at a young age. Parton's mother was the daughter of a preacher who devoted her life to raising her children.

However, despite her humble origins, Parton grew up surrounded by musicians who encouraged her ambitions. Her uncle, Bill Owens, got 10-year-old Parton her first gig on "The Cas Walker Show" in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Parton has been in show business for six decades and has won nine Grammy awards. Her music catalog contributes the most to her considerable fortune. According to Forbes, the estimated value of her song catalog is thought to be $150 million.

Her net worth was $375 million as of 2022, Forbes reports, but the singer is definitely generous with her money. In 2020, Parton donated $1 million to help fund a potential COVID-19 vaccine.

Halle Berry once slept in a homeless shelter.

Halle Berry.
Halle Berry.Gabe Ginsberg / Contributor / Getty Images

Years before Halle Berry won an Oscar, she slept in a homeless shelter. A struggling actress desperately wanting to make it in Hollywood, the star sought out cheaper housing alternatives. She says, however, that her struggles during her early acting career made her stronger in the end.

In an interview with People, Berry said, "It taught me how to take care of myself and that I could live through any situation, even if it meant going to a shelter for a small stint."

Sarah Jessica Parker's family couldn't afford electricity or birthday presents.

Sarah Jessica Parker
Sarah Jessica Parker.James Devaney / Contributor / Getty Images

Long before Sarah Jessica Parker landed the iconic role of New York writer Carrie Bradshaw on HBO's "Sex and the City," she was just a small-town girl from Nelsonville, Ohio.

According to an article by Finances Online, Parker went through a point in her life where her family rarely celebrated birthdays, holidays, or other family occasions. One of nine children, Parker remembered times when the family couldn't afford to pay for electricity or their phone bill.

Parker landed her first Broadway role at age 11, and soon after moved to Hollywood in 1981 to appear on the TV show "Square Pegs." She also has multiple movie titles under her belt in addition to the reboot of "Sex and the City," "And Just Like That..." She reportedly makes more than $1 million per episode, according to Variety.

Ed Sheeran dropped out of school and slept in subway stations.

Ed Sheeran
Ed Sheeran.Jeff Spicer / Stringer / Getty Images

Ed Sheeran is now one of the biggest names in music, but he started off as a struggling artist in London's music scene.

The singer would often spend nights sleeping in the London Underground train stations or on top of heating vents.

"There was an arch outside Buckingham Palace that has a heating duct and I spent a couple of nights there. That's where I wrote the song 'Homeless' and the lines 'It's not a homeless night for me, I'm just home less than I'd like to be,'" Sheeran wrote in his book, "A Visual Journey."

Once, while playing a gig at a local homeless shelter, he met a drug-addicted sex worker named Angel. Sheeran was so moved by her story that he dedicated his song "The A Team" to her. This song would become one of Sheeran's first breakout singles, catapulting him into the spotlight.

Sheeran now sells out stadiums across the globe and had a net worth of $64 million in 2020.

Multi-billionaire Kenny Troutt's racehorse won the Triple Crown in 2018, but before that, he was the poor son of a bartender.

Kenny Troutt
Kenny Troutt.Lexington Herald-Leader / Contributor/ Getty Images

Kenny Troutt paid his way through Southern Illinois University by selling insurance on the side while he attended classes. The son of a bartender, Troutt grew up in a poor family.

However, after graduating from college, he would go on to found the long-distance phone company Excel Communications. In 1996, 12 years after he founded the company, he took it public.

In 1998, Kenny Troutt sold Excel Communications to Teleglobe in a $3.5 billion deal. He took the money he made from the deal and reinvested the profits in stocks, bonds, and racehorses.

He currently owns WinStar Farm in Versailles, Kentucky, which has brought forth a Kentucky Derby winner.

Troutt now has a net worth of $1.5 billion.

Sheldon Adelson delivered newspapers before he became a multi-billionaire.

Sheldon Adelson
Sheldon Adelson.Sheldon Adelson.Shahar Azran / Contributor / Getty Images

Though the late Sheldon Adelson and his family have a net worth of a whopping $29.8 billion, he came from humble beginnings.

Adelson grew up the son of a cab driver in Dorchester, Massachusetts, and slept on the floor of his family's apartment. At the young age of 12, Adelson got his first taste of making money by delivering newspapers around his neighborhood.

Forbes profile of the billionaire claims that after dropping out of the City College of New York, Adelson "built a fortune running vending machines, selling newspaper ads, helping small businesses go public, developing condos, and hosting trade shows."

After losing a majority of his money in the recession, Adelson earned most of it back and became the CEO and chairman of Las Vegas Sands, the largest casino company in the world.

Adelson died at age 87 on January 11, 2021.

Francois Pinault was teased in school for being poor — now he's the leader behind luxury goods group PPR, which sells brands Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent.

francois pinault
Francois Pinault.DAMIEN MEYER / Staff / Getty Images

One noteworthy rags-to-riches tale is that of Francois Pinault. According to Inc, Pinault dropped out of high school in 1947 after he was teased by his classmates for being poor. He then started working at his family's timber trading business.

Soon, he was buying up smaller firms and flipping them for large payouts, causing others to criticize his "ruthless" work ethic. He went on to start PPR, a luxury goods group.

Pinault's son, Francois-Henri Pinault, is the honorary chairman and CEO of the luxury group Kering, which owns the fashion brands Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen, and Gucci.

Once the richest man in France, Francois Pinault and his family's current net worth is calculated to be worth $39.9 billion, according to Forbes.

John Paul DeJoria sold Christmas cards and newspapers to help support his family.

John Paul DeJoria
John Paul DeJoria.Axelle/Bauer-Griffin / Contributor / Getty Images

Before he was the mastermind behind shampoo giant John Paul Mitchell Systems and Patron Tequila, John Paul DeJoria was just a first-generation American trying to make it.

After his German and Italian parents divorced when he was 2, he began selling Christmas cards and newspapers to help support his family — all before he turned 10 years old.

"We grew up in downtown LA, in the Echo Park area. We didn't know that we were really going through tough times because everybody was going through the same thing," he told Forbes in 2011. "I remember once in junior high school, on a Friday, my mom came home from work and said to my brother and me, 'You know, between us, we have only 27 cents, but we have food in the refrigerator, we have our little garden out back, and we're happy, so we are rich.'"

After taking a job in a Redken factory, DeJoria became intrigued by the shampoo industry. He took a $700 loan from the company and invested it into his own brand, John Paul Mitchell Systems. Going door-to-door selling his product, DeJoria slept in his car, hoping his product would capture buyers' attention.

John Paul DeJoria now has a net worth of $2.9 billion.

Leonardo DiCaprio comes from a drug-torn town outside of Los Angeles.

Leonardo DiCaprio
Leonardo DiCaprio.Albert L. Ortega / Contributor / Getty Images

Before Leonardo DiCaprio was one of the biggest names in Hollywood, with box-office smashes like "Titanic," "The Revenant," and "The Wolf of Wall Street" under his belt, he was a poor kid growing up on the outskirts of LA.

The actor claims he saw great poverty, drug use, and violence at a young age, which now allows him to portray the darker side of humanity in his films.

Following backlash for his role in "The Wolf of Wall Street," which critics said glamorized drug use, DiCaprio defended the role by comparing it with his own childhood.

In a 2014 interview with The Times, he said, "Who am I to talk about this? It goes back to that neighborhood. It came from the fact that I grew up very poor, and I got to see the other side of the spectrum."

DiCaprio's estimated net worth was valued at $29 million in 2015.

Arnold Schwarzenegger experienced hunger riots in post-World War II Austria.

Arnold Schwarzenegger
Arnold Schwarzenegger.Stephan Woldron / Contributor / Getty Images

Before he was in "The Terminator" and later became the governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger lived in a home without electricity or running water. He has said his father, an alcoholic police chief, was aggressive towards him and ridiculed his dreams.

After rising to fame as a bodybuilder, the five-time Mr. Universe winner moved to the US in 1968 and started appearing in movies, including "Conan the Barbarian" and "The Terminator" franchise.

The roles have earned him a pretty penny: Schwarzenegger reportedly earned $29 million for his role in 2003's "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines."

Celine Dion grew up in a poor family as one of 14 children.

celine dion
Celine Dion.Axelle/Bauer-Griffin / Contributor / Getty Images

Celine Dion grew up in Canada as the youngest of 14 siblings. Her family went through hard times trying to support Dion and her siblings.

"We were three, four in the same bed," Dion told CBS News. "I did not have a bedroom. Up the stairs, before going in the bedrooms, there was a little ramp. And my bed was there."

Eventually, Dion realized her musical abilities and began performing at small local events. She went on to climb to the top of the charts with hits like "My Heart Will Go On" and "It's All Coming Back To Me Now."

As her fame rose, so did the star's net worth. As of June 2022, Dion is valued at a whopping $470 million.

J.K. Rowling was a single mom struggling to make ends meet before she wrote the Harry Potter books.

J.K. Rowling
J.K. Rowling.Samir Hussein / Contributor / Getty Images

Before the idea for "Harry Potter" famously came to J.K. Rowling in a dream, the writer was a single mother struggling to pay her rent.

Rowling battled depression and other obstacles before becoming one of the most successful female writers in recent history, as well as one of the most beloved British authors of all time — though she has now faced controversy over what have been deemed transphobic statements.

The author's net worth stands at $60 million as of June 2020, with seven "Harry Potter" novels and a hugely successful resulting movie franchise to thank for it.

Steve Jobs was the child of two immigrants and became a millionaire by age 23.

Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs.Justin Sullivan / Staff / Getty Images

Though Steve Jobs is now exalted as one of the greatest minds in modern history, he came from humble beginnings.

Jobs' young, working-class parents struggled to support him and make ends meet. He was soon taken in by another couple, Paul and Clara Jobs. Jobs was fascinated by computers, even at a young age. However, Jobs never liked formal education.

After dropping out of college after his first semester, he started working at video game manufacturing company Atari. A while later, Jobs created the first-ever Apple machine together with Steve Wozniak. The duo funded their entrepreneurial venture through untraditional avenues at first — Jobs sold his Volkswagen bus and Wozniak sold his beloved scientific calculator.

By age 23, Jobs was worth $1 million. He was the youngest person on Forbes' list of the country's richest people at the time — no small feat without inheriting any family wealth. He made $10 million by age 24 and crossed the $100 million mark by the time he was 25.

Before he passed away at the age of 56 in 2011, he was reportedly worth $10.2 billion.

Larry Ellison worked odd jobs in California before founding Oracle. He is now the fourth-richest person in the world.

Larry Ellison
Larry Ellison.Justin Sullivan / Staff / Getty Images

As the co-founder of Oracle, Larry Ellison holds an impressive net worth of $112.1 billion and is the fourth-richest person in the world.

Ellison was born in Brooklyn, New York, to a single mother and, according to Inc, he was raised by his aunt and uncle. After his aunt passed away, the future mogul moved to California and made a living by working odd jobs here and there.

Eventually, he founded a small software development company called Oracle in 1977. It is now one of the largest technology companies in the world.

Lakshmi Mittal grew up in a poor Indian family in Rajasthan.

Lakshmi Mittal
Lakshmi Mittal.Oli Scarff / Staff / Getty Images

Steel-industry tycoon Lakshmi Mittal wasn't always rolling in dough. Rather, he grew up in a poor Indian family near Rajasthan.

According to BBC News, Mittal "established the foundations of his fortune over two decades by doing much of his business in the steel industry equivalent of a discount warehouse." He bought up parts of other steel companies that were going cheap and transformed them into profitable ventures.

According to Forbes in 2022, Mittal was the 15th richest Indian person and has a current net worth of $16.8 billion.

In his high school yearbook, Ralph Lauren answered a question about his future goals with one word: "millionaire."

Ralph Lauren
Ralph Lauren.Gilbert Carrasquillo / Contributor / Getty Images

Ralph Lauren always dreamed of being rich and successful. In his 1957 DeWitt Clinton High School yearbook, Ralph Lauren reportedly wrote "millionaire" as one of his greatest life goals — little did he know that he would come to surpass that figure.

The youngest son of Jewish immigrants living in the Bronx, Lauren escaped his own reality by entering into a new one. Young Ralph Lipschitz (he would later change his surname to Lauren) loved movies, and some say that Old Hollywood stars continue to inspire his designs.

"He would literally fall into the fantasies of the movies of that era," Michael Gross, author of "Genuine Authentic: The Real Life of Ralph Lauren," told Bloomberg. "He truly did project himself into the scenes in which men like Gary Cooper and Cary Grant were playing. He sees the characters that populate his dreams and visions, and that vision — that ability to step into a fantasy world — Ralph brought to the fashion business."

Ralph Lauren now has a net worth of $7.1 billion.

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