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6 Celebrities Who Recovered From Financial Failure Before They Became Famous

Nothing is quite as American as a good rags-to-riches story, and it’s safe to say that many folks also enjoy the occasional macabre tale of the riches-to-rags variety. But despite all the attention paid to financial failures and cautionary tales, there are many hardworking people who have managed to rebound from the brink of financial disaster and bankruptcy. Some of them are even major celebrities that you’d never associate with monetary mishaps.

Here are several famous people who managed to rebuild their bank accounts after a substantial financial setback. If you’re feeling down about your own situation and need a little pick-me-up, these household names might just put the wind back in your fiscal sails.

Financial Failures Who Made a Complete Recovery

1. Walt Disney

Walt Disney Company

We know that Walt Disney and his successful company brought us some of the most beloved entertainment of our time. You’d be hard-pressed to find an American without an opinion regarding a favorite Disney movie or Disney character.

However, Walt Disney’s company and his bank account weren’t always synonymous with success. In the 1920s when his corporation was just starting out, Disney lost the rights to several of his most popular animated characters (including Oswald the Lucky Rabbit), which cost him an enormous amount of lost revenue. Then the Great Depression hit. By the early 1930s, The Walt Disney Company was just scraping by. Disney had to mortgage his house and use most of his meager earnings from the “Silly Symphonies” and “Mickey Mouse” animated shorts to fund the production of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

Fortunately, “Snow White” was a huge success and helped Disney begin to turn his business and personal finances around. However, he continued to struggle, and by 1940, following the release of “Pinocchio,” The Walt Disney Company was $4.5 million in debt.

It wasn’t until Disney began to diversify his production that he began to profit. He created films intended for international markets (“Saludos Amigos” and “The Three Caballeros”), wartime shorts for the U.S. and Canadian governments (such as “The New Spirit” Donald Duck short for the U.S. Treasury Department, and “Food Will Win the War” for the U.S. Department of Agriculture), sheet music (via The Walt Disney Music Company), television specials (such as 1950’s “One Hour in Wonderland” on NBC), and eventually a theme park, Disneyland, which was developed beginning in the late 1940s and opened in 1955. Disney also entered a profitable distribution deal with Howard Hughes’ RKO Pictures, and even resorted to good old-fashioned mass layoffs, wiping out more than 40% of his staff of 1,000 employees in 1946, according to historian Ken Pollson.

Disney’s course of action worked wonders to line his personal and company coffers. Upon his death in 1966, Disney’s net worth totaled $5 billion, according to Celebrity Net Worth, and in 2014 his namesake company brought in a revenue of nearly $49 billion.

2. J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter Author Jk Rowling

J.K. Rowling, author of the “Harry Potter” book series, is now worth an estimated $1 billion. However, her finances and personal life were once a tragic tale.

In the early 1990s, Rowling was teaching English in Portugal where she met and married a journalist. Barely a year later, their tumultuous marriage ended in divorce shortly after she gave birth to her daughter. In the aftermath, she and her young daughter moved to Scotland to be closer to family, but with no job, Rowling’s troubles continued. Out of options, she turned to state benefits for help and returned to school to obtain a teacher certification. It was during this time that Rowling finished writing the first of her “Harry Potter” books. However, success took its time in coming. The manuscript was rejected by 12 publishing houses before she finally found one – the publishing house Bloomsbury – willing to pick it up.

With fans on both sides of the pond, Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series has now sold more than 450 million total copies of all seven books, according to Publisher’s Weekly. The books also spawned eight major motion pictures.

3. Madonna

Pop Music Singer Madonna

You may know Madonna for the way she transformed pop music and has constantly reinvented herself to remain relevant throughout the course of her decades-long career. She is one of the wealthiest musicians alive, and her net worth is estimated at $800 million, according to CNN Money.

But Madonna encountered plenty of financial hardships in the beginning. Before getting her start in the entertainment industry, she found herself broke in New York City, and took a job at Dunkin’ Donuts in Times Square to make ends meet. According to Us Weekly, she was fired on her very first day of work for squirting donut jelly onto a customer. According to Andrew Morton in his biography, “Madonna,” the Queen of Pop spiraled through a series of additional fast food jobs, including a gig at Burger King, and raised extra money by modeling nude for the Art Students’ League and for photographers Bill Stone and Martin S. Schreiber. Finally, in 1979, she got her break in the music scene.

4. Colonel Sanders

Restaurant Owner Colonel Sanders

By 1955, Harland Sanders – better known as Colonel Sanders – was a well-established cook and restaurant owner. He had been cooking fried chicken for hungry patrons at his Corbin, Kentucky restaurant, Sanders Court and Café, since the mid-1930s, and had every reason to believe that he could continue doing so. However, the mid-century Interstate highway boom changed his plans in an instant.

The new Interstate 75 completely bypassed his restaurant in Corbin, thereby siphoning patrons away from the business. He was forced to sell the location and pay down his debt, which completely broke him financially. However, in 1959 – now freed from his Corbin location – Sanders opened a new restaurant and business headquartered in Shelbyville, Kentucky. He took his recipe on the road to sell franchises, and by 1960 he had 400 Kentucky Fried Chicken locations to his name. In 1964, he sold the company for $2 million and became a salaried brand ambassador.

5. Mary Kay Ash

Mary Kay Ash Cosmetics

You’ve likely heard of Mary Kay Cosmetics, since it’s one of the most popular beauty brands in America. The story behind the brand, however, is the story of one woman who refused to give up, despite a quick succession of painful financial and personal problems.

In 1963, Mary Kay Ash felt the sting of sexism when she was passed over for a promotion at her job, which was given to a man that she herself had trained when he was hired. She quit her job and decided to launch a cosmetics company with the help and financial backing of her husband. However, he died of a heart attack just one month before they planned to open the business. According to the Mary Kay website, Ash sunk her $5,000 life savings into the business, and launched it with the help of her 20-year-old son, Richard Rogers. Today, her company sells $200 million in cosmetic products each year.

6. John Paul DeJoria

John Paul Dejoria

Although John Paul Mitchell Systems is highly regarded in salon haircare, the brand had very humble beginnings. John Paul DeJoria was a first-generation American who, before the start of Paul Mitchell Systems, struggled to make ends meet. The first time he found himself homeless was at age 22 – his wife left him and their two-year-old son and took all the money. The second time was while launching the shampoo line with his friend Paul Mitchell on a meager budget of $700.

Today, DeJoria’s haircare products net nearly $900 million per year. But that’s far from his only claim to fame, and not even his greatest success. John also co-founded The Patrón Spirits Company (yes, the tequila) and has interests in a range of other businesses and philanthropic endeavors as well.

Final Word

Cautionary tales are powerful because they warn people about risky decisions that could lead to personal or financial difficulty. After all, no one wants to turn into a cautionary tale themselves.

But if you’ve suffered a financial setback, remember this: Your story isn’t over yet, and you have the power to change your situation, just like these six famous people who were able to turn their lives around with hard work and perseverance. You won’t turn into a cautionary tale unless you allow your circumstances to write the story that you should be writing for yourself.

Have you ever recovered from negative financial circumstances?

Mary McCoy, LMSW is a licensed social worker who works closely with individuals, families, and organizations in crisis. She knows first-hand how financial choices can prevent and mitigate crises, and she's therefore passionate about equipping people with the information they need to make solid financial decisions for themselves and their loved ones. When Mary isn't on her soap box, you can find her hiking, jogging, yoga-ing, or frolicking with her family.