19 Celebrities Who Failed Before They Succeeded

We often view celebrities as being superhuman, reaching the heights of fame by way of exceptional talent, enviable good looks and charismatic personalities. Like magnets attracting good fortune at every turn, it seems as though they were born with a predisposition for success.

At least, that’s how it looks from our point of view.

What no one ever talks about is how the superstars of today did not start out that way, and that overnight success is largely a myth.

Let’s take a look at a few celebrities who rose above the opposition and made their dreams a reality.

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Many of our favorite actors experienced opposition early on in their careers, getting rejected by casting directors, booed off stage or told they would never make it in the business. Here are a few notable actors who had to overcome serious setbacks before embodying our favorite characters on TV and in movies.

Jim Carrey

“Life opens up opportunities to you, and you either take them or you stay afraid of taking them.”

Comedic genius Jim Carrey had a rough childhood and doubted his future in entertainment when his first few standup routines bombed. Undeterred, he poured his energy into his craft and caught the attention of Rodney Dangerfield, who took him under his wing and helped his career flourish.

His film credits now span a list of blockbuster hits such as The Truman Show, Dumb and Dumber and the Ace Ventura series, proving that being dealt a bad hand in life can still lead to aces.

Oprah Winfrey

“Do the one thing you think you cannot do. Fail at it. Try again. Do better the second time.”

Oprah’s first job was as a television anchor in Baltimore, where she was fired for being too “emotionally involved” with the news stories. Imagine if that experience had discouraged her from pursuing a career in television. We would not have a beloved cultural icon, and she would not be worth the $3 billion that she is today.

Harrison FordGlobe University

“You may get real tired watching me, but I’m not going to quit.”

It’s hard to believe that the actor who played leading roles in the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films was once told he would never succeed in the movie business. Yet that’s exactly what an executive told Harrison Ford after his first film.

Fortunately, he was unfazed by the criticism and went on to produce a body of work that will live on for years to come. He truly has “the force” to succeed.

Jon Hamm

“Don’t be afraid to fail. It’s not the end of the world, and in many ways, it’s the first step toward learning something and getting better at it.”

We can’t imagine the wildly successful Mad Men series without Jon Hamm as the show’s complex and often morally ambiguous lead character, Don Draper. And while he epitomes television success now, Jon Hamm spent the better part of a decade getting rejected for roles — even getting dropped by his talent agency.

Just like deadlines are crucial in the ad world, Jon gave himself until age 30 to make it in the business or he’d give up on acting altogether. Lucky for him — or should I say, for us — he landed several roles before his self-imposed deadline, and eventually beat out 80 other actors for the coveted role of Don Draper.

Lisa Kudrowonline degree programs

“I’ve learned you can make a mistake and the whole world doesn’t end.”

Friends is a staple in American sitcoms, and it wouldn’t be the same without the quirky yet lovable Phoebe Buffay, played by Lisa Kudrow.

With her top-notch acting ability and great comedic timing, Lisa Kudrow first auditioned for the role as Roz in Frasier. She got the part, but was eventually cut from the show before it even aired. Instead of dwelling in defeat, she rebounded with her role in Friends a year later, contributing a huge part to the show’s success.

Marilyn Monroe

“If I’d observed all the rules I’d never have got anywhere.”

The entertainment landscape of the 1950s would have been a drastically different place without Marilyn Monroe. Even decades after her death, her timeless beauty inspires imitators everywhere.

But her traumatic childhood and early rejection in show business could have led her down a different path. Columbia Pictures told her she wasn’t talented enough to pursue an acting career, and a modeling agency advised her to become a secretary because they thought she wasn’t pretty enough. Thankfully, she disagreed.

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Jerry Seinfeld

“Keep your head up in failure, and your head down in success.”

At his first standup event, Jerry Seinfeld froze and was booed offstage. In his first sitcom role, he was fired over “creative differences.”

These experiences might have discouraged others out of the entertainment industry, but not Jerry Seinfeld. He continued to act and perform onstage, and also did that little thing where he created and starred in one of the most successful sitcoms of all time. No big deal.


Pursuing a passion for music and trying to make a living out of it is no easy feat, and musicians are among the hardest working people in the entertainment industry. Some of them are literally “starving artists” before they get their big break, and others struggle for years to get signed by a record label.


“Successful people have a bigger fear of failure than people who’ve never done anything because if you haven’t been successful, then you don’t know how it feels to lose it all.”career college

Jay-Z is truly a “rags-to-riches” story. Born Shawn Corey Carter in a rough neighborhood in New York, Jay-Z always had an interest in music. He began freestyling and writing lyrics at a young age, with influencers such as Marvin Gaye and Donny Hathaway.

He recorded his music and tried to get the attention of many record labels, but to no avail. He persisted in getting his voice heard and decided to create his own record label, Roc-a-Fella records, which allowed him to sell his first album in mass quantities — over 75 million copies, to be exact. He has also won 17 Grammy awards for his unique sound. As the saying goes, if there is no door, build one.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

“Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.”

On a cold January day in 1756, a prodigy was born. At age 5, Mozart was proficient enough on keyboard and violin to perform for European royalty. At age 17, he was hired on as the court musician in Salzburg. But Mozart was a restless man, never content with staying in one place for long. This led to constant job hunting and subsequent dismissals from superiors.

Mozart could never quite make a stable living at his craft and died with little to his name, yet his music is lauded as some of the best ever created.

Madonnadegree programs

“I stand for freedom of expression, doing what you believe in, and going after your dreams.”

The “Like a Virgin” singer has reinvented herself more times than we can count. She raised the bar for what it means to be a pop artist, using sex appeal and sometimes shocking imagery to convey her messages. It’s hard to imagine a world without Madonna — the performer, the actor, the style icon.

Before signing with Sire Records in 1982, Madonna was rejected by the same music producer responsible for the soundtrack in Dirty Dancing. A line from the rejection letter reads: “I do not feel that she is ready yet, but I do hear the basis for a strong artist.” The letter is almost comical now, seeing as it describes one of the “strongest artists” in the world.

The Beatles

“We were all on this ship in the sixties, our generation, a ship going to discover the New World. And the Beatles were in the crow’s nest of that ship.” – John Lennon

The 1960s rock band rose to international fame in record time, epitomizing boy band sex appeal and releasing one hit after another. They captured the hearts of millions of adoring fans. But it might surprise people to learn that the best-selling band in history was once told “no” by a record company, and that “guitar groups are way out of style.”

The members of the The Beatles were undeterred by the rejection and were signed by another label — guitars in hand — just three months later.


Like all professions, being a writer takes time, talent and perseverance. Many of the most revered writers of our day had to push through the fog of doubt and rejection and cling to that inner voice that told them they could do it.

J. K. RowlingJ.K. Rowling

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.”

Before becoming one of the richest women in the world for her Harry Potter series, Joanne Rowling was a single mother struggling to make ends meet. She battled depression and poverty for many years, yet she still made time for her creative writing.

One day as she was riding on a delayed train, the idea for Harry Potter came into her mind. She let her imagination run wild with the story, not having the slightest clue that it would become the framework for one of the world’s bestselling book series.

Stephen King 

“Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.”

Getting a novel rejected is bad enough, but getting it rejected 30 times is even worse. That’s what happened to Stephen King when he tried to get his first novel, Carrie, published. He threw it away in defeat and that could have easily been the end of his career.

Knowing how hard he had worked on it, his wife dug the manuscript out of the trash and told him to submit it again for publishing. He took her advice, made a few revisions and finally got the novel published. It sold over one million copies in the first year. This was only the beginning of a long and lucrative career for the gifted writer, whose novels have inspired popular film adaptations from The Shining to The Dead Zone.

Emily Dickinson

“Luck is not chance, it’s toil; fortune’s expensive smile is earned.”

It could be argued that Emily Dickinson was born in the wrong time period — a time when female writers were not given the same acknowledgement and praise for their work as males.

Throughout her lifetime in the mid 1800s, only about a dozen of her 1,800 poems were published. It was not until her death in 1886 that her younger sister discovered her poetry, compiled it and got it published. She is now considered one of the most important American poets of all time, proving that literary genius can outlive death.

Jack London

“Life is not a matter of holding good cards, but sometimes, playing a poor hand well.”

Before he penned the popular novels White Fang and The Call of the Wild, Jack London endured a childhood of poverty and a series of grueling jobs. The odds were against him to become a writer, a fact that materialized when he received six hundred rejection letters for his first story.

Stephenie Meyer

After three painful years of rejection, Jack London finally got the attention of publishers and became one of the most successful writers of the early 1900s.

Stephenie Meyer

“Sometimes ideas feel like they were already there, and that you’re just discovering them.”

The wildly popular and dramatic vampire series Twilight would not exist if it weren’t for a friend of Stephenie Meyer’s encouraging her to get it published. Stephanie wrote the series in only three months after being inspired from a dream she had.

In an effort to get it published, she wrote 15 letters to literary agencies and all but one of them either rejected her or didn’t even reply. But one was all she needed, and shortly thereafter, eight different publishers competed for the rights to publish her series. Her book deal ended up selling for $750,000, and now she has an estimated net worth of $125 million.


Entrepreneurs are the people with big ideas who are willing to take even bigger risks. They sometimes put everything on the line for their ideas, pouring every bit of energy and every penny they have into a project without knowing the outcome.

Henry Ford 

“Life is a series of experiences, each one of which makes us bigger, even though sometimes it is hard to realize this. For the world was built to develop character, and we must learn that the setbacks and grieves which we endure help us in our marching onward.”

Henry Ford’s early businesses all failed and left him broke five times before he founded the Ford Motor Company in 1903.

His idea that “horseless carriages” could be mass-produced and affordable to everyone, not just the wealthy few, was an exciting concept at the time. He worked for many years developing his plans for gasoline-powered automobiles and eventually his vision became reality.

Steve Jobs Steve Jobs

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”

Steve Jobs failed at his early business ventures and was even fired from Apple in 1985. He  founded a new company, NeXT, which ultimately flopped, and decided to return to Apple in 1997. He worked his way up to becoming Apple’s CEO in 2000.

Focusing his energy on innovative technology, Steve Jobs breathed new life into the brand and is credited for overseeing the developments of the iPod, iMac, iPhone and iPad.

Colonel Sanders

“I’ve only had two rules: Do all you can and do it the best you can. It’s the only way you ever get that feeling of accomplishing something.”

At the ripe age of 65 years old, the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken got a social security check in the mail for only $105. He was frustrated but also motivated to try something new with his life. He had been selling his chicken on a small scale to humble patrons at a gas station, but decided it was time to set his sights higher. He traveled across the U.S. in search of somewhere bigger and better. He knew how good his fried chicken recipe it was; he just needed to find the right people to buy it.

After being told “no” 1,009 times, Colonel Sanders finally got one “yes” in the form of a business deal in Utah. KFC is now one of the most popular franchises in the world with over 18,000 locations.


If we’ve learned anything from these celebrities’ stories, it’s that in the face of rejection, setbacks and failures, hard work and perseverance are the stepping stones to success. No one ever achieved anything by being content with mediocrity and giving up at the slightest hint of defeat. Because in order to become one of the stars, you have to reach for them.