For bullied kids, it’s hard to imagine a life without anxiety and fear of taunting or physical abuse, but the fact is, even in what seems like the worst bullying situations, it does eventually get better. Lots of celebrities and famous figures have recently spoken out about their experiences as the targets of bullies, and their stories offer inspiration to anyone who is bullied, whether it’s in the schoolyard or the boardroom. Read on to find out how these famous, successful people moved beyond their bullies, and how some of them even used their experiences as bullying victims to fuel their success.
Chris Rock isn’t afraid to hand out the insults these days, but back in school, he was often the target. As the only black kid in a New York City School, Rock stood out, and was frequently bullied and beaten up. According to Rock, he “got beat up just about every day. I got called n**ger every single day. I got kicked and whatever.” In fact, his experience in school was so bad, he is the subject of a true-to-life sitcom, Everybody Hates Chris, which chronicles his often painful experiences growing up in NYC. Not everyone gets an outlet like TV to share their bullying experiences, but Rock has cathartically benefited from the show: one of his former teachers sent an apology letter to him after seeing the previews, saying, “I knew it was hard on you, but I had no idea. If anything happened to you because of me, please forgive me.”
As one of the most beautiful and talented women in Hollywood, it’s hard to believe that anyone would pick on Oscar winner Kate Winslet about her looks, but it’s true. Growing up, Winslet was bullied and teased for being chubby. Her nickname at school was Blubber, and she was once even locked in the art cupboard. And although she is now adored by many worldwide, girls at school told her that no one would ever “fancy” her. Winslet may have grown out of her young awkwardness, but she has not yet shed the painful words of her youth. She says that she still feels like “the fat schoolgirl” and even now doesn’t “consider [herself] some kind of great, sexy beauty, acknowledging that magazine covers are retouched, and she’s greatly helped in films by hair, makeup, and lighting.
Although Miley Cyrus seems to be quite popular as a teen, her pre-teen (and pre-fame) years in Tennessee were a completely different experience. At school, there was an “Anti-Miley Club” full of “big, tough girls” who were “fully capable of doing [her] bodily harm” and went above and beyond in their bullying pursuit. Cyrus was once locked in a bathroom during class: “They shoved me in. I was trapped. I banged on the door until my fists hurt. Nobody came.” Other incidents included challenging Cyrus to a fight, which only ended when the principal stepped in. And when Cyrus wasn’t being physically abused, she was being teased, with classmates telling her, “Your dad’s a one-hit wonder. You’ll never amount to anything — just like him.” Fortunately for her, Cyrus did not listen to nay-sayers, scoring the role of “Hannah Montana” and a ticket to fame and fortune.
Sir Ranulph Fiennes is known as the world’s greatest living explorer, and he has the Guinness Book of World Recordstitle to prove it. But before he scaled the summit of Mount Everest — at the age of 65, no less — he had to face a different kind of challenge: bullies at Eton College. Growing up, Fiennes was an “attractive boy,” and at the time, it was considered normal to tease pretty boys. And tease they did, taunting Fiennes with whistles and shouts of “tart, tart,” an experience he recalls as “remorseless nastiness” that nearly drove him to suicide. But Fiennes survived bullies, much as he has survived so much else: a career in the British army, discovering the lost city of Ubar in Oman, performing a self-amputation of his necrotic fingertips, and even completing the Land Rover 7x7x7 Challenge for the British Heart Foundation, which included completing seven marathons in seven days on seven continents, just four months after suffering a heart attack and double heart bypass surgery. And his “pretty boy” attractiveness worked for him in a positive way: Fiennes was one of the final six contenders for the role of James Bond.
President Bill Clinton was once the leader of the free world, but this iconic politician came from humble beginnings. As a junior high schooler, he was picked on relentlessly for being a “fat band boy” with bad taste in clothes. Their taunting culminated in an incident at a junior high dance: one older student teased Clinton about his carpenter’s jeans, and even hit Clinton in the jaw. But Clinton did not give the bully what he wanted, choosing to stand his ground rather than fight back or back down. Clinton shares in his memoir,My Life, “I had learned that I could take a hit and that there’s more than one way to stand against aggression.” He survived the incident, and his status as a band geek paid off, with Clinton becoming a talented and celebrated saxophone player in addition to his life in public service.
Few people who were bullied ever get a chance at revenge, though we’re sure they do fantasize about it. Winona Ryder is one of the lucky few who have been able to get back at a bully, even in the smallest of ways. Although she is a popular actress, she was beaten up and taunted in middle school by students who said she looked like a boy. Ryder recalls, “I was wearing an old Salvation Army shop boy’s suit. As I went to the bathroom I heard people saying, ‘Hey, faggot’. They slammed my head into a locker. I fell to the ground and they started to kick the s**t out of me. I had to have stitches. The school kicked me out, not the bullies.” Although Ryder remembers the incident clearly, one of her bullies conveniently forgot when, years later, she ran into her at a coffee shop and asked Ryder for an autograph. Apparently, Ryder did not forgive or forget, responding, “‘Do you remember me? Remember in seventh grade you beat up that kid?’ And she said, ‘Kind of’. And I said, ‘That was me. Go f*** yourself.’” Although it’s best to forgive your bullies and move on, we’re hoping that Ryder was able to enjoy her cathartic revenge.
In 2008, Michael Phelps earned respect worldwide for his performance at the Beijing Olympic Games, as he earned the title of greatest Olympian ever with his all-time record for most individual gold Olympic medals, a total of nine. And although he has been called “amazing,” “incredible,” and even “Sportsman of the Year,” Phelps was branded with much different terms as a kid. He was taunted for his “sticky-out ears” and lisp, as well as his long arms, which ultimately took him to greatness. It seems that the taunting Phelps experienced encouraged his greatness as well, with coach Bob Bowman reporting, “Michael is the motivation machine — bad moods, good moods, he channels everything for gain.” Including, we presume, childhood taunting. Phelps is apparently able to take any adversity and turn it into a reason to train harder, going so far as to train during Christmas. His story is one of particular inspiration to bullied kids everywhere, showing that you can not only survive taunting, but turn it into motivation to be amazing.
Most people imagine that the life of a prince is quite privileged and pleasant, and although we’re sure Prince Harry has his fair share of royal privileges, he’s also gotten more than his fair share of taunting. The reason? His red hair. Although in America, red hair does not carry a stigma, in the UK, “gingers” like Harry are picked on for their colored hair and fair skin. Harry’s army pals frequently call him the “Ginger Bullet Magnet,” and have joked that they would buy ginger wigs to wear in Iraq, presumably to prevent insurgents from identifying the young prince. Harry’s girlfriend, however has a more flattering nickname: “Big Ginger.” However, Harry’s hair hasn’t kept him from success, as he is currently a captain in the Army Air Corps, with honorary military appointments in the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. Prince Henry is also philanthropically active, acting as patron of several charity organizations, including Sentebale, a charity he co-founded to support orphans and vulnerable children in Lesotho.
Bullying doesn’t just happen in grade school, and even the rich and famous take hits now and then. Emma Watson, one of the stars of Harry Potter, is the unfortunate proof of that. This year, Watson dropped out of Brown University, claiming that she wanted to focus on her acting career, but it is widely believed that she left due to bullying. According to fellow students, Watson was frequently mocked in classes, with students chiming in, “Three points for Gryffindor!” and other taunts when she answered questions in classes. But Watson has decided to give school another go, announcing that she will be taking part in an exchange program with Worcester College, Oxford, and completing her studies at Brown University.
Eva Mendes is one of Hollywood’s leading ladies, but as a young girl, she suffered attacks from bullies. She explains, “I was a gawky, skinny girl with big teeth and that made me an easy target. I had two bullies and they tortured me all through junior high school.” And although they made her miserable at school, eventually, she found the courage she needed to push back against them. “Only later could I see that I was showing them my fear and that’s what they were pouncing on.” Mendes recalls, “When I finally stood up to my bully, that’s when things changed for me,” and she encourages those who are being bullied to stand up for themselves as well. Although Mendes is proud that she showed courage and fought back against her bullies, she does think they left their mark: “I’m sure those experiences explain why I’ve been so anxiety-ridden in my adult life.”
Emma Watson isn’t the only one who has been ostracized for her fame and success: Christina Aguilera experienced bullying in school from kids who did not understand her love of performing. Aguilera has been in the spotlight since age six, and her childhood was anything but common. So while she was performing shows at night, the other kids at school were just trying to win their next soccer game and keep up with homework. Aguilera shares, “I would get a lot of cold shoulders because there was just no way they could relate to what I loved to do. You know, it’s not really normal for a child to just want to be in front of the camera and on stage … You know, it was hard for me to relate to other kids because I didn’t have the same interests.” The bullying and isolation got so bad that the tires on Aguilera’s family car were slashed, and they moved. But once she joined the Mickey Mouse Club, she enjoyed being with other kids who also enjoyed performing, and since then, Aguilera has seemed to leave her bullies behind, although she certainly seems to get beat up by the tabloids.
Jessica Simpson is another star who still deals with bullies in the media, but unfortunately, tabloids were not the first to get a crack at her. Simpson seemed to be popular in school, as a homecoming queen and cheerleader, but she reports that she was a victim of the school’s mean girl group: “I had girls egging my home, writing curse words on the sidewalk in paint — just saying really nasty things about me.” It got so bad that, sadly, she quit cheerleading, but the star credits her unfortunate youthful experiences with helping her as a high profile celebrity, learning how to deal with constant scrutiny from the media. “I grew up in that fishbowl of always being judged and watched. I really do believe that was God preparing me for the life I’m living now.”
As a celebrated Hollywood sex symbol, it’s hard to imagine an unattractive, bullied Jessica Alba growing up. But the star insists that it’s true, and that she had a terrible time fitting in at school. Her family didn’t have as much money as others in her class, she had a Texan accent, and buck teeth. She was deemed uncool, and frequently attacked for being different. Alba spent her lunches in the nurses’ office for solitude and safety, and her dad had to walk her to school so that she wouldn’t be provoked. She never fought back, not wanting to lower herself to the level of her bullies, but she did find an outlet for her frustration and fear: acting classes. Alba recalls, “The idea that for an hour I could be someone different was amazing. I was determined that this was something I was going to be good at. This was a part of my life no bully could ruin.” She says that her lessons at drama school “changed everything” and sparked a lifelong love of acting. Alba encourages others who have been bullied to use fear as fuel: “You have to make it push you to become a stronger person, in whatever way that may be.”
Sandra Bullock is both beautiful and stylish, not to mention talented, but back in school, her style wasn’t exactly appreciated. The actress’ mother was a German opera singer who would bring home European clothes for the young Bullock to wear, which the other kids thought were frumpy. Bullock also suffered from a lisp, which only added to the fire. But the star made it through her bully troubles, and she credits her mother with giving her the confidence to do so, remarking, “Uniqueness was something my mother pounded into me. I’ve made peace with the fact that the things that I thought were weaknesses or flaws were just me. I like them.” She encourages girls who are going through trouble to persevere, even in the face of bullies: “Don’t change. Be who you are.”
Tom Cruise, the star of Top Gun and Mission Impossible is beloved for his talent and looks worldwide, but as a kid, he wasn’t so appreciated. Cruise’s childhood was spent on the move, as his father constantly uprooted the family to find a new source of work and support the family. As a result, he was always establishing himself over and over again at new schools: “I was always the new kid with the wrong shoes, the wrong accent. I didn’t have the friend to share things with and confide in.” And at each school, he faced the fresh experience over and over again. He was small for his age and easily pushed around. Eventually, he learned to stand up for himself, but at every new school, he had to fight over and over again. “Your heart’s pounding, you sweat, and you feel like you’re going to vomit. I’m not the biggest guy, I never liked hitting someone, but I know if I don’t hit that guy hard he’s going to pick on me all year. I go, ‘You better fight.’ I just laid it down. I don’t like bullies.” Cruise found strength and inspiration in his mother, who he says, “rose to the occasion,” supporting the family on her own with three jobs. Once seeing her success, Cruise turned a corner, deciding, “I’m going to create, for myself, who I am, not what other people say I should be.”