Oprah and Other Celebrity Women Who Grew Up Poor

From Hollywood A-listers to industry leaders, there are plenty of celebrity success stories that didn’t start on easy street — in fact, some of the wealthiest Americans today grew up so poor they almost lived on the streets. Read on for inspiring stories from some of the most successful women today who started at the bottom — and what poverty taught them about the climb to the top.

Started From the Bottom…

Started From the Bottom…

From Hollywood A-listers to industry leaders, there are plenty of celebrity success stories that didn’t start on easy street — in fact, some of the wealthiest Americans today grew up so poor they almost lived on the streets. Read on for inspiring stories from some of the most successful women today who started at the bottom — and what poverty taught them about the climb to the top.

J.K. Rowling

J.K. Rowling

British author J.K. Rowling has earned over $1 billion with her Harry Potter franchise, but the 48-year-old’s life wasn’t always so magical, so to speak. After divorcing her first husband in 1993, Rowling, who lived in Edinburgh, Scotland with her baby daughter, was definitely down on her luck. “I was as poor as it’s possible to be,” she has said about those dark years when she could barely make ends meet. The single mother lived on welfare and in U.K. government housing while she wrote the first book of her series, “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” at a café while her baby slept in a stroller beside her. Rowling couldn’t even afford a typewriter for her manuscript until she was awarded a small Scottish Arts Council grant. 

“I remember 20 years ago not eating so my daughter would eat. I remember nights when there was literally no money,” she’s said. Still, Rowling found it hard to relax once the money started rolling in from her successful writing career. “I was terrified of pressing the wrong button and losing everything and having to look my daughter in the face and say, ‘We briefly had a house and now through a stupid error…’,” says the multi-millionaire author — who would be worth billions if not for the millions she gives to charity each year.

Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey

Oprah, the one-named phenomenon and multi-billionaire media mogul started out so poor in rural Mississippi that she has said she wore clothing made out of potato sacks by her grandmother. After years of financial and emotional turmoil (from sexual molestation to teenage pregnancy that resulted in the death of her newborn), Winfrey persevered by believing in a “power greater than herself.” By age 19, she was the youngest and the first African-American women to anchor the news at Nashville's WTVF-TV, laying the groundwork to host her own Chicago morning show in 1984. By 1986, that show, now called The Oprah Winfrey Show, became nationally syndicated — and the highest-rated talk show in TV history.

Today, her empire is worth nearly $3 billion. Yet Oprah admits she still fights emotional doubts stemming from her brutal early life. “Everyone is looking for that validation. I know what it feels like to not be wanted… you can use it as a stepping stone to build great empathy for people,” says Winfrey. “Anybody who has been verbally abused or physically abused will spend a great deal of their life rebuilding their esteem.'

Sarah Jessica Parker

Sarah Jessica Parker

The 49-year-old Sex and the City star and fashion business entrepreneur may walk the red carpet in Chanel and Manolo Blahnik today. But Parker wasn’t born with a silver spoon in her mouth. She and her seven siblings grew up living hand-to-mouth in Cincinnati. “We were on welfare,” recalled the actress in 2000. “I remember my childhood as Dickensian. There was no great way to hide it. We didn’t have electricity sometimes,” has said the mother of three. “The phone company would call and say, ‘We’re shutting your phone off.’ And we were all old enough to either get the calls, or watch my mother’s reactions or watch my parents shuffling the money around.”
 
Today, Parker may be reportedly worth close to $70 million and can afford an $18.9 million Manhattan townhouse, but she still finds it hard to shake some of her habits from her destitute days. “I find so many things in the streets, and my husband makes fun of me because there’s almost not one walk I’ve taken in New York City where I haven’t found a coin or something of value,” she recalls. “My friends know me so well, and they know how terrified I am of being broke and they think it is hilarious and humorous.”

Dolly Parton

Dolly Parton

Dolly Parton is now in her late 60s, but the country singing legend still remembers growing up dirt poor in the Tennessee mountains as if it was yesterday. “”[My father]’d make $2,500 — if it was a good year, $3,000 — and that’s what we lived on. The rest we raised ourselves. My dad didn’t have an education, so he made a living with his back and hands,” she has said. Parton went on to make 42 top-selling country albums, run a successful production company and even own her very own theme park. Yet, life in that one-room cabin that she shared with her parents and 11 other siblings has been an impossible memory for Parton to shake. 

“I still cook like an old mountain woman. It’s just my husband and me, but I cook in big pots, and put [the leftovers] in the freezer,” Parton has said. “I learned the value of a dollar, even to this day,” she says. “I always think of the people I could feed.”

Ursula Burns

Ursula Burns

Ursula Burns, the 55-year-old CEO and chairman of Xerox, has come a long way — and we don’t just mean because she started out as an intern at Xerox upon graduating from New York University. The first African-American woman to head a Fortune 500 company was raised in the pre-gentrified, rough-and-tumble Lower East Side in Manhattan “when it was really bad, when the gangs were there and the drug addicts were there,” she has said. Burns gives most of the credit for her meteoric rise to her mother. “[It was] 150 percent my mother. My mother was pragmatic, focused and extremely, exceedingly practical, and she was the ultimate self-determining person.” To put Burns through Catholic school, her mother ran a daycare center from their apartment and ironed shirts for a doctor in exchange for medicine they couldn’t afford. 

Burns says she still lives by the advice her mother, now deceased, would tell her and her two siblings. There was: “Where you are is not who you are,” for example. Or, “Don’t act like you’re from the gutter because you live in a place that’s really close to the gutter.” Burns says the guidance of her mother even filters into her role at Xerox. She’s been known to repeat one of her mother’s phrases, even if it’s not so grammatically correct: “Stuff happens to you, and then there’s stuff that you happen to.” Admits Burns: “There’s a little bit of this childhood kind of poverty — you know, pragmatism — that you never can get rid of.”

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