Many celebrities might convince you that dropping out of school is a good idea, but doing it takes a lot of courage. Some of the people on this list got into trouble as teens and didn’t have many academic opportunities, others already knew for certain what they wanted to do with their lives, and school wasn’t a part of it. Whatever their reasons may be, these celebrities share one thing in common: they all have the talent and the discipline to make it in the real world without a high school degree, and not many people can say the same.
Life is tough, man. When you’re a kid everything might seem cool and fun, but then you grow up and life kicks you in the ass. Suddenly you’re an adult and you must take care of yourself. A high school degree can help a lot, but what happens when your true passion doesn’t care whether you graduated or not, and instead depends on your talent and the willpower necessary to make it in the big time. That and the fact that a lot of people will give you a hard time just for thinking about pursuing those dreams. This is what many celebrities have had to overcome. Contrary to what some may think, only a few A-listers have had it easy all their lives, most have struggled through many hardships, lousy parents, altercations with the law, and other difficulties life will eventually throw at you. Here are a few of the most famous dropouts in the celeb world.
15. Leonardo DiCaprio
Leo was born in LA in 1974 and got the acting bug at an early age. He was attending high school before he decided to drop out in his third year, focusing on perfecting his acting skills instead. DiCaprio first got into the business by acting in commercials and taking part in the TV series Growing Pains. He eventually got cast as a regular for the short-lived series Parenthood.
Leo got his first breakout role in the movie This Boy’s Life when Robert De Niro handpicked him to play the lead role in the film. By 1993, he had already been nominated for an Academy Award thanks to his supporting role in the movie What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. The critics loved DiCaprio’s performance, and it helped him launch the career he has today. It would not be long until he received mainstream recognition. In 1996, he got cast in Romeo + Juliet, and Titanic followed one year later. After that, the Academy Award winning actor would take part in many memorable movies like Gangs of New York, Catch Me If You Can, and Inception.
14. Mark Wahlberg
Wahlberg’s upbringing wasn’t very conventional. He was into some sketchy stuff back in the day and got into trouble at a very young age. As an early teen, he had developed a drug addiction, consuming cocaine along with other substances. By 15, he had been involved in many incidents where he allegedly harassed and assaulted innocent people because of their racial background. He pleaded guilty to assault charges and was sentenced to two years in correction, where he served a total of 45 days. He was not able to finish high school at that time. After serving some time in jail, he decided to go straight and narrow.
In 1990, Wahlberg had already started recording with other dancers and rappers under the name Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, and found commercial success with their single “Good Vibrations.” Their debut album, which was produced by his brother Donnie, hit number one. He would later go on to model for one of Calvin Klein’s most famous ads and star in numerous films, becoming the well-known artist he is today.
13. Jim Carrey
Jim Carrey is one of the funniest guys alive. He has been making everyone laugh since Ace Ventura came out, maybe even before that. Nevertheless, Ace’s childhood wasn’t easy. Born in Ontario, Canada, Jim had very humble beginnings, and when his family was struggling economically, he decided to drop out of high school to pitch in. His parents were also very supportive of the fact that he wanted to pursue a career in comedy. They would often drive Jim to shows, even though his early material wasn’t popular. His family struggled for some time until he polished his act and was noticed by legendary comedian Rodney Dangerfield.
Rodney took Jim under his wing, hiring him to open his shows. This won Jim some recognition as a comedian, which in turn helped him land other jobs. Carrey later turned his interest to film and had a breakout year in 1994 when he starred in movies like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Dumb and Dumber, and The Mask.
12. Ryan Gosling
Ever since The Notebook, this Canadian heartthrob has been sweeping girls off their feet, establishing himself as one of Hollywood’s most eligible leading men.
Born in London, Ontario, Ryan was raised in a Mormon home, although he claims he could never identify himself with Mormonism. The religion, however, was still a big part of his life. Gosling was raised mostly by his mother and sister after their parents divorced, an event Ryan says caused him to think like a girl. He also seemed to have difficulty staying in school; he had trouble reading and had no friends until his teen years. He loved the movies, however, and they influenced him a great deal. Once, after watching First Blood, young Ryan got suspended because he started throwing steak knives at his classmates.
Due to his lack of interest in school, Ryan’s mother decided to homeschool her son, which gave the actor a sense of autonomy he never had before. Ryan started to perform with his sister, singing in weddings and accompanying his uncle on his Elvis Presley tribute act, he also got involved in a ballet company. He states performing gave him a huge boost in confidence. At age 17, he decided to drop out of school and focus on his acting career.
11. Robert Downey Jr.
Another cool dude on this list of dropouts is Ironman — I mean Robert Downey Jr. Born in Manhattan, Robert Downey Jr started off his career as an actor at a very young age. He was raised by his parents who were also in the filmmaking industry, in a home that was “surrounded by drugs”. Having been introduced to marijuana at the age of 6 by his father, RDJ started using drugs as a bonding experience with his dad.
The actor, known for his roles in Ironman, and Sherlock Holmes, started his acting career at the age of five when he appeared in Pound, one of his father’s films. Later in his life, he moved to England and even studied classical ballet. When he came back to America, it wasn’t long until he dropped out of Santa Monica High School and moved to New York to pursue acting as a living.
10. Drew Barrymore
Drew Barrymore has been on the map since she was a baby. She was raised as a part of one of the most important acting families in the world and started appearing on television at a very young age. She landed her first film role as Gertie in E.T. at the age of 7 and has continued to appear in countless movies. Her acting opportunities kept the actress too occupied to finish school but may have also immersed her into a world she was not ready to face as a young girl.
While sharing a turbulent relationship with her mother, Drew started going out to nightclubs when she was just a kid. By the time she turned 13, she had already started using drugs on a regular basis, an event that led her to be admitted to an institution for the mentally ill. Once she got out, she tried to commit suicide when she was 14, landing herself back into rehab for the second time. At the age of 15, Barrymore was already emancipated from her parents and living on her own. Luckily for her and for us, the multiple award-winning actress could turn her life around as she grew up, transforming into one of the funniest and most successful artists of our time.
Another celebrity that didn’t finish school happens to be one of the most famous music artists in history: Jay Z. Raised in some housing projects in Brooklyn, Jay grew up with his mother and three siblings. His real name is Shawn Carter. Shawn got in with a bad crowd when he was young. At the age of 12, he even shot his brother in the shoulder because he had stolen from Shawn. Life as a kid was hard for the rapper. Before he started his career in the music industry, Jay-Z dealt drugs, was shot at multiple times, got arrested, and received all manners of abuse. After attending the same classes in high school as two other future rappers — The Notorious B.I.G. and Busta Rhymes — Shawn dropped out of school entirely.
At that moment, Carter fell into the drug dealing business, and it wasn’t until the late 1980s that Jay-Z would start making his way through the music industry. In the 90s, he did some rap battles against some big names like LL Cool J, getting some recognition in the area. He would later appear on shows of his own and managed to turn his life completely around. Today he’s married to Beyoncé, has one kid, and is widely considered part of music royalty.
8. Tom Cruise
Tom Cruise was raised in an abusive home. His father used to beat him and his siblings every time he got the chance. Cruise has expressed his feelings towards his dad in different interviews, calling him a “bully and a coward”. The family moved from Syracuse, New York, to Canada when Tom was just a kid, where he started middle school and got interested in drama. During his early education, Tom got involved in different improvised plays with his classmates.
The family relocated back to the U.S after Tom’s mom left his father. The Mission Impossible star was about to graduate high school when he decided to drop out and pursue an acting career. He attended 15 schools in 14 years during his childhood —impressive to be honest. After deciding to act for a living Cruise went on to play major supporting roles in movies like Taps and The Outsiders. After a few years, he starred in the film Risky Business, a career-maker for Cruise and a classic still considered very popular today.
7. Keanu Reeves
Keanu was born in Beirut, Lebanon, but was raised mostly in Canada. His father abandoned the family when he was just 3 years old but still maintained contact with Keanu until he was 13. Keanu, along with the rest of the family, moved around a lot during his childhood since his mother married four times while he was growing up.
The actor has stated that school just wasn’t his thing. He was better in sports than academics and dreamed of being a professional hockey player for Canada. He was also the kid that asked too many questions in class and always had run-ins with the staff. This led to an expulsion from one of the schools he was attending. Keanu eventually decided to enroll in an alternative school while he was working as an actor, but ultimately dropped out of it anyway. When he turned 20 he received a green card through one of his stepfathers and decided to make the move to LA for acting.
6. Jessica Simpson
As a kid, Jessica was already a star in the making. The beautiful singer was very ambitious growing up, auditioning for The Mickey Mouse Club at an early age. During her run, she ended up being a semi-finalist alongside Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, and Britney Spears. She wasn’t selected for the show, however, claiming she got nervous after seeing Christina’s amazing performance. Still, her singing dreams did not stop there. After The Mickey Mouse Club, Jessica was told to audition for a Christian music label, which immediately hired her to start working on her debut album.
As her singing career started to occupy her time, Jessica had to drop out of school in order to focus her attention on work. After some time, Jessica signed with Columbia Records when she was spotted by Tommy Mottola, who was the head of the record label at that time. Her fresh look and singing abilities were exactly what he was looking for.
5. Johnny Depp
Johnny has always been a self-proclaimed oddball. He was that awkward kid growing up that never wanted to play with other kids his age, and instead holed himself up in his room playing guitar. When he was 15, his parents split. Depp had to start taking care of his family and received the monthly child support payments from his dad. At the age of 16, he decided to drop out of school and focus on his garage band, The Kids. The group gained some recognition, opening shows for bands like The Talking Heads and B-52s, but they still weren’t making enough money.
In 1983, Depp moved to LA with his wife, still struggling to make ends meet. One evening he was introduced to Nicholas Cage. Thanks to Cage, Depp was able to find an agent and eventually got cast in the horror film Nightmare on Elm Street. It wouldn’t be until 1987, however, when the actor got a starring role on the television series 21 Jump Street, that Depp became an overnight star.
4. Hilary Swank
Even though we know her as Million Dollar Baby, Hilary Swank’s early childhood was far from that picture. The Academy Award-winning actress lived in a trailer park for part of her life and her family struggled to stay afloat. As a kid, Hilary excelled in sports, especially gymnastics, and had already made her stage debut by snatching a role in a production of The Jungle Book at the age of 9. When she was 15, she moved to Los Angeles with her mother to find acting gigs, living out of their car until they could afford to rent an apartment. On her decision to leave school, the actress has reflected that – “I felt like such an outsider. I didn’t feel like I fit in. I didn’t belong in any way. I didn’t even feel like the teachers wanted me there. I just felt like I wasn’t seen or understood.”
Luckily, everything turned out right for Swank thanks to her perseverance and talent. In 1994, she got her first starring role in The Karate Kid, where she could show off her gymnastics abilities. The role opened many other acting opportunities and transformed Hilary into a total star.
3. Gisele Bündchen
Actors and musicians aren’t the only ones who have to drop out of school sometimes in order to pursue their dreams. This was also the case for international supermodel Gisele Bündchen – highest earning supermodel in the world in 2012 and the first Brazilian model to find success internationally. The former Victoria Secret Angel dropped out of school when she was only 14 years old so she could fulfill her dreams of becoming a model. She was spotted while shopping in São Paulo by a modeling agency. She subsequently moved to São Paulo to start her modeling career and had her first big break at Fashion Week in New York City.
Gisele is renowned for her ability to walk in very high heels and for pioneering the horse-walk, which is when you kick your feet up behind you as you’re on the catwalk and then stomp them on the ground in front of you.
2. Chris Rock
Another famous artist among our list of high school dropouts is legendary standup comedian Chris Rock. He was raised in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where he attended a school with very few black students. This led to Chris having to endure bullying and fights from the white kids, who didn’t care too much for him. The bullying carried on during his teen years until he decided to drop out of high school in the tenth grade. On his shows, Chris has joked about how dropping out in the tenth grade is the dumbest thing you could possibly do, since – “it’s the same or even worse than dropping out of school in the second grade, maybe worse because the kid who drops out in second grade has 8 years of work experience”. After dropping out, Rock worked in many fast-food restaurants, earning minimum wage in most of his jobs.
Chris started doing comedy in 1984 and worked his way up until he was spotted by the one and only Eddie Murphy, who decided to mentor young Chris into stardom.
1. Christina Applegate
Christina Applegate is one of those child actors who successfully transitioned into acting as an adult and has been constantly present in the business for the past thirty years. She started getting acting jobs when she was a baby, appearing in TV commercials for Playtex when she was just months old. As a young child, Applegate won minor roles in some films before landing a role as the overly sexualized teen in the comedy TV series Married With Children. She had dropped out of school during her junior year, just before landing her job on the sitcom.
Her role as Kelly Bundy on the show was iconic, making her one of the hottest actresses at the time. The show ran for ten years before getting canceled in May 1997. During those years, the young actress also appeared in many films like Vibrations, Mars Attacks! and Wild Bill. After Married With Children was canceled, Christina starred in many projects, including the NBC sitcom Jesse in 1998, a role that brought her critical acclaim and won her a People’s Choice Award for her performance.