ByTommy DePaoli, writer at
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Tommy DePaoli

Since the early days of Hollywood, many celebrities' careers have been carefully constructed to appear glamorous and flawless to the general public. Living the kind of lives most of us could only dream about, these performers become experts in putting on a happy face—even when they're not in front of the camera.

Yet, lurking in the pasts and presents of many of these famous figures are tragic struggles that could have forced even the most pristine lives to screech to a halt. With preserving and commendable endurance, however, these nine celebrities have managed to use their personal struggles as a chance to become even stronger individuals and inspired all of us in the process.

1. Angelina Jolie

She's one of the most beautiful and successful women in the industry, and most of the time, Angelina Jolie seems to have everything together with nary a hair out of place. But Angelina shocked the world in 2013 when she wrote an op-ed for The New York Times bravely detailing her choice to get a preventative double mastectomy after doctors discovered a gene that put her at an 87% chance of getting breast cancer.

Since that moment of honesty, Angelina has continued to speak out about the options for women at risk of getting cancer. In 2015, she again opened up about a taboo topic, this time choosing to get another preventative surgery removing her ovaries and fallopian tubes. Despite the painful confrontation with her own mortality (and the direct reminder that her mother, grandmother, and aunt were all lost to cancer), Angelina used this as an opportunity to educate thousands of women on the how to take personal health care seriously.

2. Liam Neeson

When Natasha Richardson sustained a blunt head injury while skiing in Quebec, she and husband Liam Neeson initially thought she was fine. It wasn't until hours later, when she was rushed to the hospital in critical condition, that the truly fatal degree of the crash became clear. When Richardson was put on life support, Neeson had an extremely difficult decision to make.

Since the couple had agreed to not allow the other to remain in a vegetative state should a tragedy occur, Neeson honored his wife's wishes and took her off life support. Though he was absolutely devastated by the unexpected occurrence, he remained committed to helping others even in his darkest moment. He donated three of Richardson's organs to dying individuals and takes pride in the fact that his late wife is keeping people alive at this very moment.

3. Jennifer Hudson

In one of the most upsetting stories I've ever read, Jennifer Hudson lost her mother, brother, and 7-year-old nephew one grisly night in 2008. An estranged family member shot them all to death in a horrific attack and ultimately received three life sentences on the charges of murder.

Something as brutal as this attack would be enough to keep anyone down, but Hudson has found strength through grief. She set up a charity foundation that offers support to children from all backgrounds, and she named it The Julian D. King Gift Foundation after her nephew. Lastly, she even spoke to Oprah about how she forgives the former brother-in-law responsible for the killings, proving limitless compassion always wins out over violence.

4. Joaquin Phoenix

Joaquin Phoenix is now hugely famous with probably the most relaxed attitude in all of Hollywood, but he shouldered a lot of pain in his early years to get there. When he was only 19 years old, he witnessed his brother River overdose on a probable mixture of heroin and cocaine, and Joaquin was the one who dialed 911 to save him.

The devastating death of his brother forced Phoenix out of the spotlight and into some substance abuse issues of his own. However, he has since attended rehab for alcoholism in 2005 and dedicated himself to social causes like Amnesty International, the Art of Elysium, and the Peace Alliance.

5. Cobie Smulders

This year marked the first time that Cobie Smulders spoke openly about her battles with ovarian cancer when she was just 25 years old. The diagnosis came during her third season on How I Met Your Mother, and doctors told her that she would never be able to conceive children after undergoing multiple surgeries. She proved them wrong, though, and welcomed both a daughter and a son with husband Tara Killam. She chose to speak out now to generate more visibility around those struggling with similar situations:

"I don’t think I’ll ever feel like I’m cancer-free. Now that I’m five years out, I’m trying to think of it as a positive thing and what can I learn from it. And if I can create more awareness, I’ll do it."

6. Robert Downey, Jr.

After hitting the big time in the 1990s, then-rising star Robert Downey Jr. quickly became lured into the hard partying lifestyle of Hollywood at the time, but even before that he would do drugs with his father as early as age six. After getting arrested numerous times on drug-related charges, he spent almost a year in a substance abuse facility and state prison. Following more arrests and relapses, he has remained sober since 2003 and credits his wife with helping him get to be the Iron Man we see on screens today.

"I've struggled. I've failed. I've succeeded. I've partied way too much. I've squandered, resisted, surrendered, repented, labored, begged for second chances, and literally clawed my way to the top."

7. Teri Hatcher

Though most of us know her as sweet and bubbly Susan in Desperate Housewives, Teri Hatcher's real life was plagued by a dark secret that she kept hidden for much of her life. In 2006, Hatcher courageously admitted to Vanity Fair that she had been sexually abused as child by Richard Hayes Stone, an uncle by marriage.

As part of the interview, she revealed that in 2002 she found out that Stone's abusive rampage didn't end with her, and he had gone on to torment another victim who committed suicide at only 14 years old. In an inspiring show of survival after this tragic death, Hatcher aided Santa Clara County prosecutors in giving Stone ample prison time. With her help, he ended up receiving a 14-year sentence and died of colon cancer six years into it.

8. Kelsey Grammer

Kelsey Grammer has always seemed to me like the wise but endlessly friendly uncle who alters between giving excellent life advice and just showing you a good time. Sadly, his contagiously happy attitude becomes even more respectable when you consider Grammer's encounters with excessively violent crimes.

Grammer's father, Frank, was shot to death by a stranger outside of his own home when his son was only 13 years old. Seven years later, Grammer's younger sister Karen, who he was extremely close to, was brutally raped and murdered after simply leaving her shift at Red Lobster. The assailants had gone there to rob the place but decided to abduct Karen when they didn't come up with any money. In more recent years, Kelsey has spoken openly about how he forgives his sister's killer but continues to miss Karen every day.

9. Charlize Theron

The blonde dynamo known as Charlize Theron has made a name for herself with intensely strong and bold female characters in movies like [Mad Max: Fury Road](tag:41445) and North Country. In real life, too, Charlize has shown an equal degree of tenacity following one truly life-changing moment in her early years.

When she was 15 years old, Theron heard her father arrive home in a drunken state, and gun shots soon followed. Her father began shooting into Charlize's room in an attempt to kill her and her mother. In an act of self-defense, her mother grabbed her own handgun and shot Charlize's father dead. She has since utilized her dark past to give truthfully emotional performances in her movies, and she's also been bold enough to shine a spotlight on the overlooked rape crisis in her native South Africa.


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