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Top 10 Celebrities With Tragic Childhoods

VO: Rebecca Brayton
Script written by Victoria Toltesi Just because these are amongst some of the most successful people on earth, doesn’t mean everything has come easily - let alone happily - for them. These celebrities have some of the saddest upbringings in the world, let alone in the world of famous people! Some of these celebrities grew up with abusive parents, a life of sexual assault, the death of multiple family members or even being born while their mother was in prison!

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Top 10 Celebrities With Tragic Childhoods

Sometimes inspiration can come from the darkest of places. Welcome to and today we’re counting down our picks for top 10 celebrities who had tragic childhoods.

For this list, we’ll only be looking at famous people who lived through hellish experiences growing up, which means we’re excluding celebrities like Keanu Reeves and Jennifer Hudson who experienced tragedy a little later in life, as that is a list for another day.

#10: Woody Harrelson

Some people’s fathers have conventional jobs like a lawyer, an accountant… But Woody Harrelson’s father preferred the art of killing as a professional hitman. Charles Harrelson wasn’t just any hitman though: he gained notoriety as the first person to kill a federal judge in the 20th century, and when he claimed to be a part of the JFK assassination, but the FBI called BS on his claims. Woody didn’t really know his father because he went on to serve a life sentence, but we have to assume he drew some inspiration from him when he got a part in “Natural Born Killers” as a famous serial killer…

#9: Shania Twain

She may have the voice of an angel, but her childhood was less than heavenly. Growing up in a family of 5 kids meant her family was poor and that Shania often went to school hungry. Twain also saw her father abuse her mother, which was a scary thing for a child to experience. When her parents died in a car accident in 1987, it left the 22-year-old alone to take care of her younger siblings. Twain used her vocal talents to keep food on the table, and even if it wasn’t the best of circumstances, Shania’s upbringing pushed her to where she is today.

#8: Demi Moore

Her life has been filled with ups and downs, but her childhood was especially sad; Demi Moore was cross-eyed as a child, which required two corrective surgeries, and she suffered from kidney dysfunction. Her biological father left before Moore was born, so her mother, Virginia, and stepfather Dan Guynes raised her. Unfortunately, they constantly fought and drank, and ultimately separated when Demi was 16. Two years later, the only father Moore had ever known, her stepfather Dan, committed suicide. Even when Demi was a young adult, she tried to help her mother, paying for Virginia’s rehab stint, but when she refused the treatment, Demi cut off contact with her. They would only briefly reconcile when Virginia was dying of cancer in 1998.

#7: Leighton Meester

Leighton Meester had a less-than conventional upbringing, starting at the moment of her birth. During her mother Constance’s pregnancy with Leighton, she was serving a prison sentence. When it came time to give birth, Constance was allowed to deliver in a hospital but for the next 3 months Leighton was nursed by her mother in a halfway house, after which her grandmother took care of her. Constance then returned to prison to complete her sentence for drug smuggling. Her parents did manage to get their life on the right track after some time, but a start like that obviously wasn’t easy.

#6: Ashley Judd

Judd has never shied away from sharing about her experience as a rape and sexual assault victim, and has used her celebrity to raise awareness and fight back. When she released her memoir in 2011, she also revealed the secrets of her turbulent childhood. Being the daughter of country star Naomi Judd made for a dysfunctional upbringing; the family constantly moved while Naomi and Ashley’s sister Wynona chased fame. Ashley was also exposed to her family’s drug use and her mother’s toxic relationships, becoming a victim of abuse and molestation and leading her to have thoughts of suicide. Today, Judd is a proud justice warrior, using her experience to protect others from similar fates.

#5: Joaquin Phoenix

We wish being born into an organization some people call a Christian cult had been the worst of Joaquin’s woes… but as one of 5 children, he also had to perform musically on the streets with his siblings to keep his family off the streets. Eventually, he and his siblings achieved varying levels of success, but it came at a price. Just three days after his 19th birthday, on October 31st, 1993, Joaquin watched his older brother River die of a drug overdose outside an LA nightclub. Seeing a loved one pass away right in front is traumatic enough, but TV and radio stations soon repeatedly broadcast his harrowing 911 call, causing Joaquin to take a brief break from showbiz.

#4: Charlize Theron

Most teenagers worry about school and making friends, but when Charlize Theron was 15 she had very different fears. Her father Charles Theron was an alcoholic, and on the night of June 21st, 1991, he threatened both his wife and his daughter. This forced her mother Gerda to fatally shoot her husband, and wound his brother. Having your father attack you and then seeing him die is pretty horrific, but Charlize also learned that her mom had her back no matter what, and we can’t help but think that, as devastating as this undoubtedly was, it gave Charlize the experience she needed to portray powerful women on the silver screen.

#3: Oprah Winfrey

Oprah’s life seems to have come straight out of a novel; growing up in a very poor household in Mississippi, she was beaten with a stick as a form of corporal punishment for bad behavior, she was molested by family members and family friends beginning at age 9, and got pregnant at 14 – but the premature baby died soon after being born. This resulted in her being sent to live with the man she considered her father, something that Oprah saw as a second chance. As such, she turned her life around over the next few years, ultimately building an entire empire out of nothing, and going on to become the wealthiest African-Americans of the 20th century.

#2: Ray Charles

At the tender age of 5, Charles saw his older brother drown. By that time, he’d already started to lose his sight to what’s ben attributed as glaucoma, but it was completely gone by the time he was 7. Most mothers might coddle their child if they went blind, but not Aretha Robinson; she still had Ray chop wood, and never let him use his vision as an excuse. In fact, it’s because of her encouragement that Charles got into music after she put him in a school for the Deaf and the Blind. Even though Aretha never got to see Charles succeed, as she died when he was just 14, Ray turned his tragic past into something beautiful by pioneering soul music.

Before we get to our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions:
- Dave Navarro
- Tyler Perry
- 50 Cent

#1: Kelsey Grammer

The almost Shakespearean tragedies that befell Kelsey Grammer started when he was just 13, when his father Frank was shot by a crazed lunatic in front of his home. A mere seven years later, his 18-year-old sister, Karen, was abducted, raped, and brutally murdered. To make matters even worse, Kelsey was forced to identify her body. The tragedy doesn’t end there though, as 5 years later Kelsey’s half-brothers died in a freak scuba diving accident. Despite all of these tragedies happening before he was even 25, Grammer was ultimately able to persevere and find success as an actor, comedian and more.

Did you agree with our list? Which celebrity do you think had the saddest story? For more celebrity top 10s published every day, be sure to subscribe to

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