Celebrity comeback stories are so undeniably rare. For every celeb who makes it back to the top of the Hollywood heap after a seismic fall, there are countless others who lie in their own wreckage and who will never again find fame.
In the world of celebrity, you’re only as good as what you did last. So if you have a headline-grabbing incident like being so drugged you fall asleep in the bedroom of a house that is not yours (Robert Downey Jr.), failed to have a hit of any kind in more than a decade (John Travolta), getting arrested for a DUI or perhaps throwing eggs at your neighbor’s house (we’re looking at you, Justin Bieber) — the odds of working on anything substantial again are incredibly slim.
Some celebs fall from grace due to drug, alcohol or behavioral issues. Others simply fell out of favor with a fickle public. This is a lesson in perseverance ... these 25 celebrities never gave up and found themselves back on top — achieving some of the greatest celebrity comeback stories of all time.
Who: Drew Barrymore
Fall from grace: She was everybody’s darling at the age of 6 in the Steven Spielberg stunner E.T. Great kiddie roles followed for Drew Barrymore with Cat’s Eye, Firestarter and Irreconcilable Differences. Drew has said that she started drinking when she was still in her single digits at Hollywood parties. Drugs soon followed, and being young in the Hollywood whirlwind sucked her in fully. By 14, Drew was in rehab. Once out, she tried to commit suicide and went back to rehab. When she was released, she had found peace in her life. In 1990, she chronicled her addiction troubles in her memoir Little Girl Lost.
How long was she out? Seven years — there were no major film roles for Drew from 1985 to 1992.
What brought her back? Sobering up and busting that child actor bubble with an erotic turn in 1992’s Poison Ivy where she played a teenager seducing her BFF’s dad. Then Scream arrived in 1996 and the comeback was on! Roles followed in The Wedding Singer, Ever After: A Cinderella Story and Never Been Kissed. In 2000, she served as a producer of and star in Charlie’s Angels and her place on Hollywood's A-list was secure, where it remains to this day. She even made her directorial debut in the roller derby comedy, Whip It, cementing her place as one of the best celebrity comeback stories.
Who: Robert Downey, Jr.
Fall from grace: Robert went from a go-to teen actor in films like Weird Science and Back to School ... then to more adult roles in Less Than Zero and Chaplin, the latter earned him an Oscar nomination. Robert started a downward spiral of epic proportions. From 1996 to 2003, he was the poster child for drug abuse and addiction. In 1996, he was arrested for possession of a loaded gun, heroin and cocaine. That wasn’t rock bottom. He continued his fall until he entered rehab and stayed there for over a year.
How long was he out? He somehow managed to work through this period but wasn't even close to where he was before. He had small roles in forgettable films as his star was majorly fading. Robert was even given a role on Ally McBeal that was supposed to serve as a comeback in 2000. By 2002, he had been fired from the show.
What brought him back? Realizing his talent was titanic and that the path he was on only had one conclusion — death — he sobered up and poured himself into his work. By 2007, he was completely clean and scored the role of a lifetime: Iron Man. The rest is history. He is now one of the most bankable and popular actors in Hollywood. His is a comeback story of the highest order.
Who: Paula Abdul
Fall from grace: Paula Abdul was huge in the '80s and early '90s as a singer and in-demand choreographer. Then drugs and changing musical tastes pushed her to the sidelines. She couldn’t get anyone to answer her calls, listen to her music or even hire her to choreograph their videos. It was as if society had moved on.
How long was she out? Almost a decade from her last hit to a fateful phone call from …
What brought her back? Simon Cowell. The music impresario called in 2001 and gave Paula the gig on a little show called American Idol that would once again make her a huge star. She served as a judge alongside Cowell and Randy Jackson until 2007. She’s still put to work as a judge on various music and dance shows to this day. Now, if only Paula can keep from falling off the stage!
Who: Neil Patrick Harris
Fall from grace: After playing Doogie Howser, M.D. on the show that bore his name, Neil Patrick Harris was seen as just a kid actor after the show completed its run from 1989 to 1993.
How long was he out? Nine years.
What brought him back? Playing himself in 2004's Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle. It. Was. Legendary! The role found Neil lampooning his pure childhood actor image, snorting cocaine and riding around in a car with topless women. It was such a far stretch that it busted that childhood actor bubble that surrounded him — and then, the phone rang. He scored the role of a lifetime in 2004 as the Lothario, Barney Stinson, in How I Met Your Mother. Harris has since become a king of Broadway as a song and dance man, and as a go-to host for the Emmy Awards and the Tony Awards — and is a Tony winner himself for 2014's Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
Who: Ben Affleck
Fall from grace: Ben Affleck was not always the Oscar-winning actor/director/screenwriter who everyone knows. After making his mark in 1992’s School Ties, 1993’s Dazed and Confused and a pair of Kevin Smith flicks, Chasing Amy and Mallrats, Affleck leapt to the top of the A-list with his buddy Matt Damon when the duo won Best Original Screenplay for Good Will Hunting — in which they both starred. His blockbuster career crested with his turn in Armageddon. Then, he had a string of massive failures that lasted from 1999 to 2007 (save that Michael Bay ensemble epic Pearl Harbor). The worst had to be the 2003 blockbuster bomb that was Gigli. That film saw him starring opposite his girlfriend at the time, Jennifer Lopez. He would also become better known as Lopez's boyfriend than for his thespian talents.
How long was he out? Eight years.
What brought him back? Getting behind the camera. He returned to the top of the Hollywood heap in 2007 with his directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone. Then Ben stunned again as a director in 2010 with the stunning film, The Town. Two years later, he was the toast of the town as a Best Picture winner for his following directorial effort, Argo. Since then, he hasn’t looked back. Even with his personal addiction issues, Ben is still firmly on the A-list, and it's doubtful he is going anywhere.
Who: Martha Stewart
Fall from grace: Martha Stewart was the domestic maven in a crowded marketplace that found her to be the gold standard. Then, in 2004, she was sent to prison for insider trading — a crime, she pointed out, had been committed by many men who never saw a day in jail. Many thought her career was over. After all, she was now a convicted felon.
How long was she out? One year.
What brought her back? "It's a good thing" she came back with a vengeance when she got out of jail in 2005. Her empire expanded, and she scored multiple TV shows like The Martha Stewart Show and one that found her cooking with none other than Snoop Dogg in Martha & Snoop's Potluck Dinner Party on VH1. She, again, was seen as the go-to domestic goddess of home décor, cooking, books and even pet wares.
Who: Mike Tyson
Fall from grace: Mike Tyson was the greatest boxer in the world. Then, he was accused of rape, served prison time and bit off Evander Holyfield’s ear in a bout in 1997 (eww). His boxing career was over.
How long was he out? Eight years.
What brought him back? Pop culture nostalgia with a scene-stealing role in The Hangover in 2009. It endeared Iron Mike to millions and now he’s an entertainment business fixture. He even got his own Broadway show, Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth, in 2012 and an animated TV show, Mike Tyson’s Mysteries, that premiered in 2014 and is still on. Mike's has been one of the more impressive celebrity comeback stories.
Who: Britney Spears
Fall from grace: Britney Spears was on top of the world after scoring five straight hit albums and a landslide of singles. Then it all spiraled out of control. She lost custody of her children after she was seen driving with her son on her lap. She shaved her head, attacked a car with an umbrella, had that 55-hour marriage that got annulled, then went through a series of stints in rehab and an admittance to the UCLA Medical Center’s psychiatric hospital in 2008.
How long was she out? Almost a year.
What brought her back? Having her life placed in the hands of her father, via a conservatorship, certainly helped. The album Circus released soon after she left the hospital in 2008 definitely upped her spirits. The record was a smash hit with catchy dance tracks that set the club world on fire. Britney also had that time away from Kevin Federline, whom experts had blamed for an unhealthy relationship. Britney worked hard to get her kids back, and she did triumphantly. She scored a wealthy Las Vegas residency that recently concluded, and she's announced a new one starting in 2019. These Vegas residencies … they print money. Good for you, Brit!
Who: Dave Chappelle
Fall from grace: Dave Chappelle was a nationally known comedian and had his own hit show on Comedy Central from 2003 to 2005. He signed a $50 million contract with the network that was by far the highest in history. As the crew geared up for the show's third season, he just walked away.
How long was he out? Ten years.
What brought him back? The desire to entertain people again and use his fame platform to get people to talk about the issues of the day. His first role back was in Spike Lee's Chi-raq in 2015. Then he hosted Saturday Night Live in 2016 and was a hit. He used his opening monologue to talk about affairs of the day, and right and wrong, especially with the upcoming election that would put Donald Trump in the White House. He released four comedy specials on Netflix, and even won a Grammy in 2018 for two of them. Dave went on to be seen in the Bradley Cooper-directed instant classic A Star is Born.
Who: John Travolta
Fall from grace: From Grease to Saturday Night Fever, there was no more of a household name than John Travolta. Then the '80s hit, and a string of box office failures led him to what must have felt like the dustbin of Hollywood history. Sure, he had those Look Who’s Talking movies — which were indicative of the types of films he was being offered during the Decade of Decadence. His last major film, at that time, that was remotely well received was 1985’s Perfect.
How long was he out? Nine years.
What brought him back? Quentin Tarantino. In 1994, John appeared in the filmmaker’s, Pulp Fiction, and was once again on the radars of the American movie-going public. He also nabbed an Oscar nod. That was followed with a series of hits including: Get Shorty, Broken Arrow, Phenomenon, Michael, Face/Off and Primary Colors.
Fall from grace: As a prodigy of Dr. Dre, Eminem rocked to the top of the charts with massive hits off of four straight hit albums from 1999 to 2004.
How long was he out? Five years.
What brought him back? Eminem took a break from music to try to get sober. He was reportedly addicted to prescription drugs and alcohol. Even though he felt that he had gotten sober, returning to the spotlight was difficult. He wondered how he could be creative without the help of drugs and booze. But in 2009, he came back with a vengeance with the smash record, Relapse, and then the following year produced the aptly named, Recovery, which spawned the hit song with Rihanna, “Love the Way You Lie.”
Who: Christina Aguilera
Fall from grace: In 1999 a former Mickey Mouse Club star became a musical sensation with the release of her single “Genie in a Bottle.” This served as the beginning of an avalanche of hits for Christina Aguilera, such as “Come on Over,” “What a Girl Wants,” “Dirtty,” “Beautiful,” “Fighter” and many more. The, her career took a massive shot to the head with the failure that was the movie, Burlesque. She followed that up with flubbing the lyrics to the National Anthem on the biggest stage for the American public — 2011’s Super Bowl.
How long was she out? Technically, just over a year. But when it comes to album releases, she had nothing in the till for half a decade.
What brought her back? The Voice! Sharing the stage with Blake Shelton, Adam Levine and Cee Lo Green, Christina was able to use the medium of television and have millions rediscover why she became a sensation in the first place … her pipes. In 2018, she released her first album in five years, Liberation, and launched a successful tour.
Who: Justin Bieber
Fall from grace: The first true YouTube musical sensation, Justin Bieber, rocketed to fame when he was discovered by manager Scooter Braun. His album My World (and My World 2.0) produced a slew of hit singles and made him an overnight sensation. Never Say Never, a movie about his rise to fame, was a smash hit. Starting in 2012, he became his own worst enemy. He attacked a paparazzo, his relationship with Selena Gomez hit the skids, he fainted during a London show and drugs were found on his tour bus in Sweden. His shiny pop star image further went south when he was arrested for a DUI in Florida with Xanax and pot in his system. Following that, he was arrested in Los Angeles for throwing eggs at his neighbor’s house.
How long was he out? Just over a year.
What brought him back? He found God with celebrity pastor Carl Lentz and made headlines for the right reasons — his singing. His return-to-fame album, Purpose, produced a bevy of hit singles, including: “What Do You Mean,” “Sorry” and “Love Yourself.” The album went platinum seven times over. Justin married Hailey Baldwin and it appears love, God and smash hits were all it took to return to the top.
Who: Vanessa Williams
Fall from grace: When Vanessa Williams was crowned Miss America in 1983, she made history. Vanessa was the first African-American woman to score that honor. Then, nude photos of her in sexually explicit positions appeared in Penthouse. She had to relinquish her crown, and many thought she would just go away. She did ... at first.
How long was she out? Five years.
What brought her back? In 1988, she released an album (girl can sing!) and scored with hits like “Save the Best for Last” and the theme song from the Disney smash hit Pocahontas, “Colors of the Wind.” Then, the acting roles started piling up. In 1996, she starred with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the blockbuster Eraser. Then 2006 brought her to a new level of fame as the villain in ABC’s Ugly Betty. After that show concluded, she sauntered over to Wisteria Lane and joined Desperate Housewives. Now, she’s seen as a legend. She’s come a long way from Penthouse pariah to entertainment icon.
Who: Rob Lowe
Fall from grace: Rob Lowe was the best-looking member of the so-called Brat Pack that ruled the '80s. That all came crashing down when a tape emerged of Lowe entertaining a teenage girl in his hotel room during the 1988 Democratic National Convention. It was a massive scandal. So was the sexual harassment charge levied against him by a former nanny. Lowe retreated from the public eye, denied any wrongdoing and entered rehab. The sexual harassment charge against him was ultimately dropped.
How long was he out? Four years.
What brought him back? Lowe returned with a bang in 1999 with his role in The West Wing. He left that show at the height of its popularity to star in another hit, Brothers and Sisters. He then decided to show the world that he has a comic streak and joined the Parks and Rec cast. No one should be surprised that he’s funny. Anyone remember his turn in Wayne’s World or Tommy Boy?! By the way, Lowe has been sober since he turned 25.
Who: Betty White
Fall from grace: Betty White became a household name after appearing in films and television series (including the iconic The Mary Tyler Moore Show). After that show ended, it seemed that the good roles had dried up. Or did they?
How long was she out? Seven years from the end of her hit show to her next smash.
What brought her back? Oh, just a little show called The Golden Girls. Launched in 1995, the program brought her into the living rooms of millions of Americans and it appeared that White was on top once again. The Golden Girls went off the air in 1992 and her name seemed to disappear from public consciousness yet again. With the arrival of The Proposal in 2009 opposite Ryan Reynolds and Sandra Bullock, she was a major scene-stealer that endeared her to millions. She has never looked back. Betty appeared in the hit TV sitcom Hot in Cleveland from 2010 to 2015 that cemented her role as an American treasure.
Who: Paul Reubens
Fall from grace: Paul Reubens was a hero to millions as his alter ego, Pee-wee Herman. He starred in Pee-wee’s Playhouse from 1986 to 1990. From there, he scored two hit movies based on the character — Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Big Top Pee-wee. In 1991, he was caught masturbating in a porn movie theater, and it all went away.
How long was he out? Three years.
What brought him back? Instead of staying completely hidden, he took small roles in films like Johnny Depp’s Blow and Mystery Men, where he received high acclaim for his work. Then, he revived Pee-wee, and it’s like he never went away. Since then he has amassed an army of credits, including bringing back his iconic youthful character of Pee-wee in a series of shorts that started in 2010 and culminated with a full-on return with the TV special, The Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway.
Who: Tina Turner
Fall from grace: Tina Turner came to prominence as the vocal powerhouse half of Ike and Tina. The married musicians had a slew of hits, including their iconic take on Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary.” After enduring years of alleged abuse from Ike, she finally gathered the courage to leave and then spent years just trying to get her head on straight. One of music’s greatest voices was silent.
How long was she out? Eight years.
What brought her back? In 1984 Tina unveiled the album Private Dancer and its first single seemed to be a narrative for her horrid marriage to Ike. “What’s Love Got to Do With It” was a smash hit — going to number 1. She released follow-up hits including the title track, “Better Be Good to Me.” The album scored her four Grammy awards. Since then, Tina has remained on top, touring constantly and scoring hits for years including “The Best” and “We Don’t Need Another Hero” from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. All told, Tina has sold over 200 million records. Her place in celebrity comeback stories was chronicled in the Oscar-nominated film, What's Love Got to Do With It.
Who: Matthew McConaughey
Fall from grace: After scoring the role that put him on our radar in Dazed and Confused, Matthew McConaughey starred in a series of action movies, rom-coms and other flicks that found him saying yes to everything that landed on his agent’s desk. After a while, the projects were flops — such as How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, the epic bomb Sahara and Failure to Launch. It appeared he was done with the A-list.
How long was he out? Four years.
What brought him back? Matthew's celebrity comeback story occurred in 2013 and was dubbed “The McConaissance.” After all those stinkers, he strung together a string of headline-grabbing turns with Magic Mike, The Wolf of Wall Street, True Detective and then the role that firmly put him permanently on top, Dallas Buyers Club. He won an Oscar for that role, and his acceptance speech has gone down as the stuff of legend. Matthew hasn’t looked back since.
Who: Mickey Rourke
Fall from grace: After Mickey Rourke earned fame as being one of the biggest stars of the '80s, but he fell on hard times and reportedly fell into heavy drinking. He even tried to make it as a boxer.
How long was he out? 15 years.
What brought him back? It started with his turn in Sin City, but his comeback was completely secure with his Oscar-nominated turn in 2008’s The Wrestler. He actually won a Golden Globe for that movie and then scored a role in Iron Man 2 as the film’s villain, Ivan Vanko.
Fall from grace: Kesha was a hit-making machine, beginning in 2009 with chart-topping hits such as “Tik Tok,” "We R Who We R,” “Timber” and “Die Young.” Then after years of alleged mental and physical abuse by her producer/boyfriend Dr. Luke, she retreated from the public eye in 2012. She entered rehab for psychological help and sued Dr. Luke for sexual assault and battery. He, in turn, has sued her for $40 million for defamation. The case against him was dropped and his case against her are still working their way through the legal system.
How long was she out? Three years.
What brought her back? Kesha was finally feeling good in her own skin and put her abusive past behind her. She captured all that emotional pain in her 2017 release of the beautifully personal chart topper “Praying.” The record featuring that track, Rainbow, was an announcement to the world that Kesha had returned and had no plans of going anywhere.
Who: M. Night Shyamalan
Fall from grace: In August of 2002, Newsweek hailed M. Night Shyamalan as “The next Spielberg” after the release of his first three films — The Sixth Sense, Unbroken and Signs. Then, he couldn’t make a hit for years.
How long was he out? In this case, M. Night wasn’t really out. It was just that he hadn't crafted a successful movie — both critically and at the box office — for 13 years!
What brought him back? In 2015, M. Night released a found footage movie called The Visit. Critics and audiences were blown away. He followed that success with the blockbuster Split. At the end of that film it was revealed that it was in fact a sequel to 2000’s Unbroken. Fans’ jaws dropped. Now with the third film in that trilogy, Glass, set for 2019, his comeback as one of Hollywood’s finest and most eerie storytellers seems solid.
Who: Mariah Carey
Fall from grace: After years of record-breaking hit singles throughout the '90s, Mariah Carey hit the wall psychologically, personally and professionally. In 2001, she had a legendary celebrity meltdown on the MTV set of TRL. That same year, her film Glitter bombed, and for the first time in her career, the songbird failed to get a single hit song off her 2002 album, “Charmbracelet.”
How long was she out? Three years.
What brought her back? What she is famous for — her stunning vocal talent. Also contributing to her triumphant return: rest, self-care and a stint in rehab for exhaustion. In 2005, The Emancipation of Mimi saw her return to the top of the charts with “We Belong Together” and “Shake it Off.”
Who: Carlos Santana
Fall from grace: Guitar virtuoso Carlos Santana was a rock god who emerged from that eclectic and electric '60s San Francisco music scene. After making the most explosive performance at Woodstock in 1969, he and his band had a parade of rock 'n' roll hits that spanned several years. Carlos hadn’t had a hit album in years and decided to switch labels in an effort to return to the top of the hit album peak.
How long was he out? Seven years.
What brought him back? Something truly Supernatural. Music impresario Clive Davis stepped in, signed the guitar king and orchestrated a comeback album that featured Carlos performing a bevy of beautiful songs with some of music’s biggest names at the time. Supernatural debuted in 1999 and went 15-times platinum. Yes, that’s 15 million records sold! Carlos cemented his storybook comeback on Grammy night when he took home a stunning 10 golden statues.
Who: Winona Ryder
Fall from grace: Winona Ryder was an '80s and '90s darling with hits such as Beetlejuice, Heathers and Edward Scissorhands. Then in 2001, the world immediately knew she changed. Winona was arrested for shoplifting in Beverly Hills, taking more than $5,000 worth of loot. Her trial brought the world’s cameras down on Hollywood. Winona was found guilty, served her community service and probation and then … slipped away from the public eye soon after.
How long was she out? Three years.
What brought her back? Although she worked regularly from 2006 on in mostly supporting parts or lead roles in indie films, her marquee name was not at all what it had been pre-shoplifting. Then in 2016, Winona came back with a bang, starring in the Netflix smash Stranger Things.