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14 Celebrities With Absolutely Wild Backstories

Jackie Chan was abandoned by his birth parents as a child, but through his research for a 2003 documentary, he found out that his mother was a legendary Shanghai gambler and his dad was a gang boss and spy.

Though a lot of celebs grew up in the spotlight, most of them had a life before the world knew their name. Sometimes, what their life was like before fame was more shocking, compelling, or devastating than any story Hollywood could write.

Here are 14 celebrities with wild and surprising backstories:

Content warning: brief mention of violence and abuse.

1. In his late teens, Colin Farrell was brought in for questioning as a suspect in an attempted murder.

Colin on the red carpet

On The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, he said, "I saw a photofit of the guy who actually did the crime and it looked remarkably like me, and for a second, because I had had a blackout that night, I wondered, 'Could I have done such a thing?'"

2. When Kim Kardashian was only 19, she eloped with Damon Thomas, who was around 30 at the time, in Las Vegas. She alleged that she was high on ecstasy at the time.

closeup of Kim

They divorced four years later.

She told Harper's Bazaar, "I used to be so dependent on the guys I was in a relationship with. I don't know why, because I wasn't raised that way. If I looked at myself at 19, I would shake myself and be like, 'Wake up; you are way too smart for this.'"

3. When Rihanna was 15, her secret half-sister Kandy (who was 32) showed up at her door and told her that she had three older half-siblings that were born to their father before he married Rihanna's mother.

Rihanna at an event

Her dad reportedly sold the story to The Sun.

4. Jackie Chan was abandoned by his birth parents as a child, but through his research for the 2003 documentary, Traces of the Dragon: Jackie Chan and His Lost Family, he found out that his mother was a legendary Shanghai gambler and his dad was a gang boss and Nationalist spy.

closeup of Jackie Chan

He also discovered that his parents met when his dad arrested his mom for smuggling drugs.

5. Woody Harrelson's father was a convicted hitman with ties to organized crime. However, Woody didn't have much contact with him because he was in prison for most of Woody's childhood.

closeup of Woody smiling

Woody told the Financial Times, "We were poor, but my mom always took care of us [and] we always had food. It was a lot to raise three kids on her own as a secretary but she did it and she sure did look after us."

6. Jack Nicholson was raised to believe that his grandmother, Ethel May, was his birth mother and his birth mother, June, was his sister. However, when he was 37, Time magazine uncovered the truth while working on a profile and called him to clarify. He asked them not to publish it.

closeup of Jack

June was 18 when she gave birth to Jack in 1937, so her mother raised the baby as her own to prevent her from being shamed for having a child as an unmarried woman. June's boyfriend at the time, Don, was already married, and Ethel May ordered him to keep away from her daughter. June moved away when Jack was four, but he joined her in LA when he was 17.

After getting the call from Time, Jack called his brother-in-law, Shorty, who'd been a father figure, and said, "Shorty, this is the most fucked thing I’ve ever heard."

He was unable to confront Ethel May or June about the information because they'd already died. 

He later told Rolling Stone, "I was very impressed by their ability to keep the secret, if nothing else. It’s done great things for me."

7. When Liv Tyler was eight, she figured out that Steven Tyler was her dad when she saw her younger sister Mia standing at the side of the stage at a concert and felt like she was looking at her twin.

Liv smiling at a crowd during an interview

She told The Jonathan Ross Show, "She looked exactly like me, and I looked at my mum and she had tears in her eyes and I kind of put it all together."

Liv was born Liv Rundgren. Her mom gave her the last name of her then-partner, Todd Rundgren, who raised Liv as if she was his own.

8. Born to American parents, Rose McGowan grew up in Italy in a polygamous cult. However, in the middle of the night, her dad escaped with Rose, her two sisters, and his other wife to protect them from abuse.

closeup of Rose

She told People, "I remember running through a cornfield in thunder and lightning, holding my dad’s hand and running as fast as I could to keep up with him. We hid in an old stone house and had to boil pots of hot water to take baths. [The cult] sent people to find us. I remember a man trying to break in with a hammer."

9. Leighton Meester was born in a federal prison in Texas, where her mom was serving a 16-month sentence for a drug conviction. Leighton's grandmother raised her until her mother's release.

closeup of Leighton

Leighton told Us Weekly, "It makes me very nonjudgmental and open-minded. And I think it just makes me appreciate the things that I have now."

10. At 16, Christopher Walken worked as a lion tamer trainee for a summer.

closeup of Walken

He told the Guardian, "Who’s going to turn that down?"

11. When Julia Roberts was born, her parents couldn't afford the hospital bill, so their friends Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King covered it for them.

closeup of Julia at an event

In a HISTORYTalks interview, Julia said, "My parents had a theater school in Atlanta called the Actors and Writers Workshop, and one day, Coretta Scott King called my mother and asked if her kids could be part of the school because they were having a hard time finding a place that would accept her kids. And my mom is like, 'Sure, come on over.' And so, they just all became friends."

She also said that the Kings' kindness helped her parents "out of a jam."

12. As a student at Morehouse College, Samuel L. Jackson was an usher at Martin Luther King Jr.'s funeral. However, he was later expelled for being part of a group that held the board of trustees (including MLK Sr.) hostage to demand reform from the school. When FBI agents warned his mom that he likely wouldn't survive another year if he stayed in Atlanta, she shipped him off to Los Angeles.

closeup of Samuel

He spent two years working on social services in LA before returning to Morehouse as a drama major. He also met LaTanya Richardson, his future wife who was a drama student at the neighboring Spelman College.

He told Parade, "I decided that theater would now be my politics. It could engage people and affect the way they think. It might even change some minds."

13. After recording her demo, Kesha broke into Prince's house by bribing a gardener with $5, sneaking under the fence, and walking inside through an unlocked door. After coming face-to-face with Prince himself, she left her CD and then ran away.

closeup of Kesha

On The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, she said, "I walk into the elevator, and there is Prince music playing! And then I go up in the elevator and I come out, and I'm on the phone with my mom saying, 'I think I may get arrested,' and then I walk out, and there's Prince playing the guitar, with a beanie on, and I almost pooped my pants. He just kind of looked at me funny. He gave me a look like, 'Who the hell are you?' and I waved around my CD, I put it on the table, and then I ran away."

14. And finally, when Ringo Starr was six, he contracted peritonitis and then was in a coma for several days. After recovering, he contracted tuberculosis. While in treatment, he joined the hospital band, where he played drums for the first time.

Ringo playing the drums

He told CBC, "This woman would come in...and to keep us busy, she came in with percussive maracas, triangles, little drums, and sticks, and she would point to the red dot, and you’d hit the drum, and she pointed the yellow dot, and you’d hit the triangle or the maraca... That’s when I fell in love with drums, and I only wanted to be a drummer from then on. But of course, I had to work on the railways, I had to work on the boats, and I had to work in a factory for several years before it all came true."