“Nepo babies” have been around forever. The term nepotism literally comes from describing the advantages that come with being a “nephew of the pope.” So at this point, why haven’t we just accepted that Hollywood nepotism is par for the course? Well, it’s complicated. With increased transparency (today, finding out who someone’s parents are is as simple as a quick Wikipedia scroll) and more places to talk about it (the nepo baby is one of TikTok’s favorite topics), the discourse clearly isn’t going anywhere, as evidenced by NY Mag’s viral story on the topic.
Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with so-called “nepo babies” in theory. It makes sense that if your family is in show business, you’d have exposure to opportunities at an early age and hone that skill set. But, is it really just “the family business,” as some celebrities have recently called it? After all, most parents do what they can to help their children achieve their goals. However, if your parents work in, say, the insurance industry, it’s going to mean that an audition for HBO’s Euphoria might not be a phone call away.
No one chooses their parents, and being born into a world of celebrity is not a guaranteed golden ticket to success. There are plenty of well-documented stories of intergenerational trauma in showbiz dynasties. Mom and/or Dad’s spotlight can come with its own unique sets of issues and pressures, as stars like Lily Allen have called out. But I think it’s also important to acknowledge the obvious: Many people have a very different journey to Hollywood success than those born with affluence and connections. Just as generational wealth means you are more easily able to own your own home or go to college, connections in the industry mean that scoring auditions or meetings with agents are that much easier. It’s just a reality.
Yet, nothing is impossible in our increasingly connected world. Thanks to social media, getting "discovered" has been somewhat democratized. So, no matter where you are starting from as we launch into 2023, this feels like a great time to celebrate those who started from way behind. The non-nepo babies, the self-made, the success stories — this is about them. Consider this your reminder that there are still plenty of non-Nepos blazing their own trail and thriving (and to include them in our New Year’s inspirational manifesting).
In no particular order, here are just a few favorites.
Critically-acclaimed British screenwriter and actor Michaela Coel channeled her trauma into award-winning storytelling.
Born Michaela Ewuraba Boakye-Collinson to Ghanaian immigrant parents, Coel grew up on a council estate in Tower Hamlets, London. She and her sister stayed busy with theater clubs and television, while her mother worked as a cleaner. As the only Black kid in her grade at school, she experienced racism and bullying at an early age, which caused her to start blogging to express her frustration. Eventually, Coel began performing at poetry open mics, where director Ché Walker encouraged her to apply to the prestigious Guildhall School of Music & Drama after seeing Coel perform. Her stageplay (and senior graduation project), Chewing Gum Dreams, eventually evolved into her breakout BAFTA-winning comedy show.
In 2020, Coel was named one of Time's Most Influential People for her work as the creator, director, and star of I May Destroy You, inspired by her own experience with sexual assault. In 2022 she made her big screen debut in Wakanda Forever and continues to forge her unique voice on her own terms in the industry.
Euphoria star Sydney Sweeney’s career is on the up, but she certainly isn’t the spoiled rich kid she played in White Lotus IRL. In fact, her family sacrificed a lot to help her make it onto our screens.
Growing up in rural Spokane, Washington, Sydney Sweeney describes a simple, rose-tinted childhood surrounded by family and living in her “mom’s dream house.” However, at age 12, Sydney got a part in an indie film, and everything started to change. With more and more auditions in Los Angeles, it got increasingly expensive for her parents to support the travel back and forth from Spokane. So her parents eventually decided to sell their dream home and move to L.A. full-time in hopes of making Sydney’s acting dreams a reality.
Soon after moving to Hollywood, her father lost his job, and the family of four ended up living in a small room at a nearby Holiday Inn for nine months when they were forced to declare bankruptcy.
Sweeney has admitted that she felt guilty about the pressures her career put on her family before she landed roles in Handmaid’s Tale, Euphoria, and White Lotus, making her a Gen-Z superstar and fashion darling.
Speaking of Gen Z superstars, Zendaya (born Zendaya Maree Stoermer Coleman) grew up as the child of public elementary school teachers in Oakland, California. In a very “normal” family, as she puts it.
Though very much not a nepo baby, her interest in acting did come from her mother’s summer job at the Shakespeare Theatre in Orinda, California, where she worked as the House Manager. Zendaya spent much of her childhood at the theater, helping her mom run errands. While there, she got the chance to learn acting basics and take part in plays. Zendaya made her TV debut in the role of Rocky Blue on the Disney Channel sitcom Shake It Up.
Since then, Zendaya became the youngest recipient of the Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series at 24. She continues to rack up countless more nominations, awards, and accolades, being recently named as one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People.
Former Disney child star, business owner, actor, singer, and one of Instagram’s most-followed people, with roughly 320 million followers, Selena Gomez is no doubt a success. Yet, the Texas-born star’s journey has not been an easy one. From her public battles with mental and physical health to her food-insecure childhood, nepotism was never an option.
Gomez’s mother was only 16 when she was born, making her early childhood in Texas anything but easy. With her parents divorcing at age 5, Gomez’s family endured financial difficulties throughout her childhood, with her mother often working three jobs to make ends meet. The singer even recalls searching for quarters around the house to afford to put gas in their car. She told Glamour in 2012, “I was frustrated that my parents weren’t together and never saw the light at the end of the tunnel where my mom was working hard to provide a better life for me.”
Despite humble beginnings, Selena overcame her extreme shyness and started working as a child actor in Barney & Friends, getting her big break with a recurring role on the Disney Channel a few years later. Today she reportedly has a net worth of close to $100 million, is one of the “Most Liked” people in history on social media, has won more Nickelodeon’s Kids Choice Awards than anyone else, and continues to debut new projects across mediums.
Oprah is seen by many as the ultimate success story. But her path to the top was certainly not an easy one.
Oprah Gail Winfrey was born in rural Mississippi to a single teenage mother and raised in Milwaukee, where she endured years of abuse. At age 14, she found herself homeless and fled to Tennessee to live with her father—a move that offered her more stability. There, she excelled, becoming a top student in her class. At 17, she won a local beauty pageant, which she leap-frogged into a job as Nashville's first Black news anchor, starting her journey to being the multi-hyphenate powerhouse we all cherish today.
These days she is one of the richest women in the world but continues to share the story of her path to success, acknowledging why examples of triumph and survival are important. In the documentary MAKERS: Women Who Make America, she states, “When you see other people who have come through the worst, survived what you’re going through, that lets you know you can.”
Micheal B. Jordan grew up in Newark, New Jersey. His mother was a counselor at the public school he attended, and his dad was a former US Marine who ran a catering business out of their family home. Although he has referred to their house as being a “hub of community” growing up, there certainly wasn’t any entertainment networking going on.
In fact, Jordan got into acting purely by chance. As an 11-year-old, someone in his doctor’s office waiting room suggested to his mother that he looked like an actor. That comment from a stranger sparked something, and sure enough, after taking local acting classes, he started getting callbacks for shows and meeting agents. Jordan attributes much of his success to his parents’ support, saying, “My parents saw and nurtured noble promise in all of us, my two siblings, Khalid and Jamila, and me.”
Now, as an award-winning Hollywood A-lister, Jordan continues to fulfill that “noble promise” by taking on bigger, more compelling, and more prestigious projects, and becoming a globally recognized force with roles in the Black Panther series and Fruitvale Station, and directing the next Creed movie.
A-list actress Mila Kunis may seem like she’s living the perfect Hollywood fairytale, but her childhood wasn’t an easy one. When she was just 7, her family was forced to flee her birth country of Ukraine due to rising anti-Semitism, seeking refugee status in the States.
Arriving in the U.S. with only $250 and a few suitcases, her highly-educated parents were denied employment in their fields and forced into multiple menial jobs to make ends meet. The transition wasn't an easy one for Mila either, as she admitted about the first year of her life in the U.S. "I blocked out the second grade completely," she said to the LA Times. "I have no recollection of it … I cried every day. I didn't understand the culture. I didn't understand the people. I didn't understand the language.”
She started acting when she was 9 years old when her father heard about an acting class on the radio and decided to enroll Mila in it. As an ambitious young performer, Mila lied about her age to secure her breakout role on That '70s Show at 14. A risk that apparently paid off, opening up her path to becoming a hugely successful actor and producer — and allowing her to be an outspoken voice for other refugees.
Like his wife, Mila Kunis, there was no nepotism in Ashton Kutcher’s past. He did not have the easiest of childhoods, growing up with a twin brother who suffers from cerebral palsy in a family of modest means in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
After high school, Ashton Kutcher enrolled at the University of Iowa to study biochemical engineering, motivated by his brother's cerebral palsy needs. While studying, he was approached by a scout for a modeling contest and won a trip to New York to attend the International Modelling and Talent Association Convention. He dropped out of the university to pursue a modeling career and eventually relocated to Los Angeles, where he auditioned for his breakout role on the massively successful That '70s Show.
Today as well as being a successful actor, he is also a very successful venture capitalist and entrepreneur, an influential voice in Silicon Valley as an early investor in companies like Uber, Spotify, Airbnb, Skype, and Shazam.
Academy award winner Viola Davis has often talked about growing up without wealth. “Although my childhood was filled with many happy memories, it was also spent in abject poverty.” She recalls living in “rat-infested and condemned” apartments, explaining, “I was one of the 17 million kids in this country who didn’t know where their next meal was coming from.”
Born on her grandmother's farm on the Singleton Plantation in South Carolina. Her father was a horse trainer, and her mother was a maid, factory worker, and homemaker, Viola’s mother was also an activist during the Civil Rights movement. When she was 2 years old, Davis was taken to jail with her mother after she was arrested during a protest. Viola credits her high school with instilling her love of acting and the arts. After attending Julliard, she started her career on stage.
Today, Viola Davis is one of the most celebrated actors working in Hollywood and the most-awarded African American actor in history. Her success came 100% from within, and recently she proudly purchased the former South Carolina plantation where she was born 55 years ago. She shared a picture on Instagram, captioning the post, “The above is the house where I was born August 11, 1965. It is the birthplace of my story. Today, in my 55th year of life… I own it…. all of it.”
Justin Bieber grew up in low-income housing in Canada, raised by his teenage single mother who worked a series of low-paying office jobs and slept on a pull-out couch, often without enough to eat.
Despite his lack of privilege, Justin showed a natural aptitude for music and excelled in school, learning to play the piano, drums, guitar, and trumpet. At age 12, Bieber sang in a local singing competition in Stratford, and his Mom immediately posted a video of the performance on YouTube for their family and friends to see. Justin got his big break when the video went viral and was discovered by pop music producer Scooter Braun. Within weeks of Braun tracking down Justin and convincing Bieber's mother to have him sign to Scooters label, he was in Atlanta recording with Usher.
Today, from humble beginnings to getting noticed as a preteen on Youtube. Justin Bieber is one of the best-selling music artists of all time, with estimated sales of over 150 million records worldwide. He has received numerous accolades, including two Grammy Awards and 26 Billboard Music Awards.
We know her as “Jenny from the block,” but how did one of the world’s biggest stars make it in both music and movies? Born Jennifer Lynn Lopez in the Bronx, New York, J-Lo did not have any Hollywood connections growing up.
Lopez has described her parents as “strict,” although music and dance were very much part of her Puerto Rican household. She started ballet at 5, dancing and playing sports all through school, getting her first movie role at 16. However, when she disagreed with her mother about pursuing dancing instead of attending college at 18, she ended up homeless for a while, sleeping on the sofa in a dance studio.
Her singular drive to dance and perform paid off though her net worth today is estimated to be an incredible $400 million dollars, and she has sold over 80 million records worldwide.
Oscar-nominated actor Dev Patel grew up in a London suburb with his Indian immigrant parents, his mother was a care worker, and his father was an IT consultant. He certainly had no Hollywood hookups.
Dev, however, had a natural talent for acting from an early age. While at high school in the UK, Dev was near the top of his class, impressing faculty with his self-penned retelling of the Beslan School Siege and even moving the visiting examiner to tears with his honest portrayal. He got his break when his mother saw an advert for the casting of the indie sleaze classic Skins in the local paper. Upon getting cast, the show’s creative team literally wrote a role around him.
Having made his big screen debut in Danny Boyle’s Academy Award-winning Slumdog Millionaire, Dev has gone on to an oscar nomination and won a BAFTA for his work in Lion. His directorial debut, Monkey Man, is due for release in 2023.
Comedian, rapper, actor, and voice of our favorite magical water dragon from Disney’s Raya, Awkwafina was born Nora Lum to a Chinese American father and a Korean American mother in Long Island. Her father worked in IT, and her mother was a painter who sadly passed away when Nora was just four years old.
The loss of her mother and her family's reaction to it had a big impact on Awkwafina. "My earliest memories of my mom are from when she was already sick," and she felt the weight of others' sorrow around the situation. "Family members would come up to me and cry, and I didn't like that." She cites this experience as the start of her comedy persona. "I tried to do this sideshow of, 'Hey, let me make you laugh,'" she said. "I needed people to feel joy. That's [how] all this began. I was the class clown all the way."
Awkwafina became the first woman of Asian descent to win a Golden Globe as Best Actress for her role in The Farewell. As of 2020, Awkwafina writes, produces, and stars in the comedy series Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens, turning her childhood into one of her biggest successes.
The multi-generational Queen of Country (and let’s be honest, just about everything else at this point), Dolly Parton, has never been shy about her humble beginnings, which she says made her the legendary artist she is today.
Growing up “dirt poor” in rural Appalachia, Dolly Rebecca Parton was one of 12 children. Things were so tight that her father apparently paid the local doctor with a bag of grain for aiding Dolly’s delivery into the world.
Her first exposure to the arts came from family members, including her mother, who sang and played guitar. At an early age, she learned about music while performing in her church. Her experiences growing up in Tennessee and her mother’s optimism informed her signature “Dolly” charm. Since then, she's always relied on humor, telling crowds at her early shows that her family “had running water, only if we ran and got it.”
These days Dolly is more than a household name, she is an American icon, but she doesn’t forget where she came from. Her philanthropic missions hark back to her childhood, particularly the “Imagination Library” books program, which was inspired by her father's inability to read and write. Dolly gifts over one million free books each month to children around the world.
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14 Actors and Musicians Who *Aren't* Hollywood Nepo Babies – InStyle