Nobody’s born famous.
Okay, fine, if you’re born into royalty—or you’re a Kardashian—maybe you’re born famous, but the vast majority of celebrities have normal lives before they become household names.
Sometimes, those lives aren’t very remarkable. Other times…well, hey, you’ve read the title of this article. We looked into a few celebrities’ pre-public lives to see what made them tick (or, at least, to figure out how you can go from “mortuary beautician” to “world-famous talk show host” in a matter of years).
1. George Clooney was an insurance salesman.
For a decade, Clooney pursued his dream of being a professional actor while working various day jobs to make ends meet. That meant scrimping, saving, and getting creative with his limited funds.
“I was a struggling actor for 10 years and I have a great understanding of what it’s like to try to make things work,” Clooney told The Daily Mail. “I would buy suits that were too long in the leg, cut the bottoms off and hem them up with a stapler, and use the leftover fabric to make ties for work.”
— MN Plus | Gold Class (@mnplustv) January 31, 2016
Hey, he had to look his best for one of his day jobs: insurance salesman.
“I sold insurance door to door—cold calls, knock knock, ‘Hi, do you have whole life insurance? We can turn whole life into term life and you can put the rest of your money into your retirement fund!’” he recalled. “Believe me, it’s a terrible job.’
Clooney says that experience helped him appreciate the success he found later in life.
“I didn’t really think I was ever going to get to this place in my life, and so I think we should enjoy it and have fun with it,” he told CNN.
2. Whoopi Goldberg was a mortuary beautician.
Goldberg was a comedian before she started acting, but stand-up and improv don’t really pay the bills. She worked a variety of odd jobs, but the oddest was probably her stint as a mortuary beautician.
“I did hair and makeup on dead people,” she said in an appearance on Oprah’s Master Class. “There was an ad in the paper! And I’m a licensed beautician as well, because I went to beauty school.”
WEIRDEST PREVIOUS JOBS OF CELEBRITIES.
Whoopi Goldberg worked as a mortuary beautician. pic.twitter.com/EI0ywnjowR
— ETEN Tv Show (@EtenTvShow) October 8, 2014
Goldberg got the job. On one of her first days, she entered the mortuary to meet with her boss, but couldn’t find him.
“In the old days, they used to have these big, thick doors—wooden doors,” the comedian recalled. “[It was] kind of chilly in the room, and [it] had these drawers. So, I go in, and he’s not in there.”
That’s when she started hearing a strange scratching noise.
“My brain is saying, ‘Hey, that’s not a sound we should be hearing right now,’” she said. “As I start to look around, I see that one of the drawers is moving—and it’s moving out, it’s opening.”
The drawer opened and Goldberg bolted, hitting her head on the door and knocking herself unconscious. When she came to, her boss greeted her. He had set up the whole thing.
“He said, ‘Now, the worst thing that you could imagine has happened. That’s it. That’s the worst thing that can happen. It’s already happened…You still want to work?’”
That sounds pretty horrific, but Goldberg said that the prank helped her overcome her anxiety about the job.
3. Christopher Walken worked in a circus (and tamed lions).
Granted, this wasn’t Walken’s main gig, but he spent much of his childhood as a circus performer. Occasionally, that meant working with big cats (this was long before circuses started limiting their use of animal performers).
“Yeah, when I was a kid, I worked in the circus,” Walken explained to Vanity Fair. “It was a touring circus that was owned by a man named Terrell Jacobs. It was just one big tent, and he was a lion tamer.”
Christopher Walken when he worked for the circus as a lion tamer, early 60's. pic.twitter.com/aaiSNfHTgJ
— History Lovers Club (@historylvrsclub) May 23, 2018
It’s impossible to read this next paragraph without imagining Walken’s voice.
“He didn’t have any kids, but the bit was that I would dress up as his son in an identical outfit,” the actor said. “When he would finish his act, there would be one lion left, and I used to go in and have this lion do tricks. It was a female named Sheba, and she was very sweet. Like a dog, really. I would wave the whip, and she would run and sit up and roll over and do things.”
Before his acting career, Christopher Walken worked as a lion tamer in a circus. pic.twitter.com/fnCxYmHNEp
— Fast Facts (@FastFacts60) June 9, 2015
Feel free to make your own “more cowbell” joke. We’re blanking.
4. Danny DeVito was a hairdresser—and studied to be a makeup artist.
At the age of 19, Danny DeVito was a typical aimless teen. He had no career prospects, so his sister Angela gave him a job at her beauty parlor. He started sweeping the floors, but eventually, he was performing services for the salon’s clients.
“Mainly shampoos, sometimes some coloring,” DeVito told The Guardian about his first job. “I love being around women.”
A young Danny DeVito pic.twitter.com/c9OyTBE58j
— 41 Strange (@41Strange) August 5, 2019
“I loved [Angela],” DeVito said in another interview with The New York Post. “And I worked for her like a slave for two years.”
Eventually, his sister asked him to learn about makeup so the salon could offer more services. DeVito agreed and enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where he studied makeup artistry. He also took a few acting classes—and discovered he preferred acting. He decided to pursue the craft.
“I had to tell my family,” DeVito said, his tone indicating that the conversation wasn’t easy.
DeVito didn’t become a superstar overnight; he spent a few years performing in off-Broadway plays, including the role of asylum inmate Martini in an adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In 1975, he reprised the role for the Oscar-winning film, and decades later, he’s one of the most recognizable faces in Hollywood.
No word on whether he does his own makeup (but we doubt it).
5. Meghan Markle was a calligrapher.
The current Duchess of Sussex wasn’t exactly a nobody before she met Prince Harry. She was a moderately successful American actor, with roles in films like Horrible Bosses and Get Him to the Greek, and while she wasn’t a household name, she had a fairly decent career.
Like we needed one more reason to love #MeghanMarkle , turns out she was a part time calligrapher before putting on her tiara! The letter love is real right now. 💌https://t.co/Rhe6EHhRt5 pic.twitter.com/egKOc4bpYV
— Sugar Paper (@sugarpaperla) December 20, 2018
Of course, that didn’t happen right away, and like most unknown actors, she struggled financially while pursuing her dream. She supported herself by working at Paper Source, a small decorative stationery shop in Beverly Hills. There, she used her calligraphy talents to pen wedding invitations and other important correspondence. She also taught a class on calligraphy—seriously, she’s really good at it.
“I would sit there with a little white tube sock on my hand so no hand oils got on the card, trying to pay my bills while auditioning,” she told Esquire. “I’m glad that in the land of no one seeming to appreciate a handwritten note anymore that I can try to keep that alive.”
So, how’d she learn the lost art of great handwriting?
“I went to an all-girls Catholic school for like six years during the time when kids actually had handwriting class,” she said. “I’ve always had a propensity for getting the cursive down pretty well. What it evolved into was my pseudo-waitressing job when I was auditioning. I didn’t wait tables. I did calligraphy.”
6. Bob Barker trained as a fighter pilot (and knows karate).
The former host of The Price is Right spent his years onscreen as a kind, grandfatherly figure, explaining the games to the show’s contestants and celebrating with them when they won. The next time you catch an old rerun, however, keep this in mind: Bob Barker could have totally destroyed any one of those contestants.
After graduating high school, Barker briefly attended college on a basketball scholarship before enrolling in the United States Naval Reserve for fighter pilot training. World War II ended before Barker received an active duty assignment, and he returned to college, where he earned a degree in economics.
— Queso del Diablo (@WarrenPeas64) November 12, 2017
In 1956, he landed the hosting gig for the radio quiz show Truth or Consequences, and while working on that long-running show, he met an unlikely friend: Chuck Norris. Barker was fascinated by the martial artist’s prowess, and he asked for pointers. That led to eight years of training; Barker now has a red belt (a notch below a black belt), and he credits karate with his excellent health.
“It’s great exercise,” he told The Washington Post. It’s also a great way to put Adam Sandler in his place.
Chuck Norris gave Bob Barker karate lessons for eight years. pic.twitter.com/76V47jEZyN
— Ty Kitchens (@tykitchens) July 18, 2014
Oh, and by the way, the current host of The Price is Right is no slouch, either; Drew Carey served in the Marine Corps from 1980 to 1986. That’s where he got his trademark crew cut and thick-rimmed glasses.
7. Rachel McAdams worked at McDonald’s.
We love the alliteration there: McAdams at McDonald’s. Fun, right?
Not so much, according to McAdams. She describes the fast-food restaurant as a “great place to work,” but says she wasn’t great at it.
“I had a little bit of an OCD thing with hand washing and just didn’t have time,” she told Glamour. “They were like, ‘Hey, the drive-through’s backing up. Stop washing your hands!’ I was not a great employee; I broke the orange juice machine one day.”
— fnktion Inc. (@fnktion) November 19, 2017
Hey, if you’re getting in trouble for washing your hands too often while working food service, you’re probably not a terrible employee.
McAdams didn’t linger in the fast food industry for too long, as she booked her first leading film role in 2002’s The Hot Chick at the age of 24. Two years later, she’d starred in The Notebook and Mean Girls, and her McDonald’s days were far behind her.
8. Bob Ross was a master sergeant in the United States Air Force.
In fact, Ross’s successful military career helped him develop his skills as a painter. While stationed in Alaska, Ross was impressed with the state’s incredible landscapes, so he started painting them on the insides of gold-panning tins. Local tourist shops would buy them to re-sell.
“I developed ways of painting extremely fast,” Ross told The Orlando Sentinel. “I used to go home at lunch and do a couple while I had my sandwich. I’d take them back that afternoon and sell them.”
Bob Ross in his Air Force days pic.twitter.com/YxMMmK1Ygf
— ˗ˏˋ Bob Ross ˎˊ˗ (@tbhbobross) August 10, 2016
At the same time, Ross had to fulfill his duties as a first sergeant. That meant a lot of yelling.
“I was the guy who makes you scrub the latrine, the guy who makes you make your bed, the guy who screams at you for being late to work,” he said. “The job requires you to be a mean, tough person. And I was fed up with it. I promised myself that if I ever got away from it, it wasn’t going to be that way any more.”
He retired after 20 years in the Air Force, then began a second career as an art teacher. A public television station put Ross’ painting classes on the air, and within a year, 60 PBS stations had signed on to air The Joy of Painting. He became the world’s most famous painting instructor—without raising his voice once.
9. Angelina Jolie wanted to be a funeral director.
What is it with actors and funeral homes?
To be clear, Jolie never actually worked funerals (that we know about), but she did study the mortuary arts as a teenager. Her grandfather passed away, and she was disappointed with the presentation at his funeral.
— MN Plus | Gold Class (@mnplustv) February 5, 2016
“If this whole acting thing didn’t work out that was going to be my path,” she told 60 Minutes. “It sounds like this very strange, eccentric, dark thing to do but in fact I lost my grandfather and was very upset with his funeral. How somebody passes and how family deals with this passing and what death is should be addressed in a different way.”
“I thought I could do better, so I got a home course when I was about 14. I did a mail-order degree,” she said.
Jolie characterized this period of her life as “heavier, darker times,” but she claimed she was dead serious (pardon the pun) about becoming a funeral director. Hey, it’s a living.