The Stars Who Slummed It

Here are a few things you may not associate with the rich and famous: working as a janitor. Being part of an impoverished family of 14. Living on welfare. Getting shot. Being sexually molested.

And yet, early experiences like these have shaped and driven some of the most powerful and important celebrities in the world, from Jim Carrey, Tom Cruise and Sean "Diddy" Combs to Celine Dion and Oprah Winfrey. Is there a tie between a tough upbringing and fame? Social scientists, who are just beginning to study the phenomenon, say yes.

"We all have a basic need for acceptance and approval by social groups," says Orville Gilbert Brim, author of "The Fame Motive: A Treatise on its Origin and Life Course." "If it's not satisfied, if a person is excluded either in infancy, childhood or, in many cases, adolescence, this frustration becomes the source of a motive or a desire to become famous."

Put another way, fame "offers the possibility to transcend what you have been given as your lot in life," says P. David Marshall, author of "Celebrity and Power: Fame in Contemporary Culture."

Consider Marilyn Monroe. In her unfinished autobiography, the foster child turned cultural icon wrote of her fame, "I knew I belonged to the public and to the world, not because I was talented or even beautiful but because I had never belonged to anyone or anything else."

For Monroe, and those who share her background, fame offered a sense, real or not, of belonging and mass acceptance. And while anyone can be driven toward celebrity, people from poor upbringings can find fame to be an alluring way to fulfill some otherwise unfulfilled need.

A survey conducted by Syracuse University professor Carol M. Liebler and Jake Halpern, author of "Fame Junkies: The Hidden Truth Behind America's Favorite Addiction," found that teenagers who described themselves as often or always depressed were more likely to believe that becoming a celebrity would make them happier. And what's more, teens who described themselves as feeling lonely were also more likely to believe that fame would have a positive impact on their lives.

According to Halpern, money once filled this void -- or at least, it appeared to fill the void. Consider the classic Horatio Alger rags-to-riches story: Redemption was found through financial gain. Today, Halpern says, it is fame rather than fortune that offers the most dramatic and resounding form of redemption.

"In the past, it may have been difficult to become rich, but theoretically anyone could do it, whereas it seemed more unrealistic to even think about fame," he says. But in today's YouTube culture, where everything from reality TV to a MySpace page can launch a career, it is no longer entirely impractical to think that fame and celebrity is attainable.

James Houran, a clinical psychologist who researches celebrity worship, also argues that growing up with limited means not only motivates but actually fosters the imagination and ultimately fuels one's drive for fame. "Because you don't have a lot of action figures or princess dresses to play with, you tend to get very creative," he says. "You have to make due with what you have, and that kind of feeds the resourcefulness part of that ambitious personality."

But exactly how those stars who have elevated themselves from rags to riches handle their fame depends on several things, including how quickly they attain it and what kind of support system they surround themselves with once they have it.

There are those who achieve fame and become overly generous, explains Houran. The way he sees it, these folks came from nothing and are therefore driven to do their part.

Among his examples: queen of all media Oprah Winfrey. Having spent her early years poverty-stricken in rural Mississippi, Winfrey later faced sexual molestation and the death of her child as she aged. Today, the chat-show host is as well known for her generosity as she is for her fame. Buying cars for everyone in her studio audience or funding a $40 million school for girls in Africa are just two of Winfrey's many do-gooder acts.

And then there are those who achieve fame and become very indulgent -- quick to meet not just their every need but their every desire.

"In many ways, they announce their success with the items that they buy," explains Ellis Cashmore, author of "Celebrity Culture."

This may explain the behavior of New York City-born rapper Sean "Diddy" Combs, who moved upstate as a child after the murder of his father. Today, the hip-hop impresario has evolved into a celebrity, in the truest sense of the word. And while he does his part for charity, Combs has never shied away from the luxuries that fame affords. Let his numerous houses and million-dollar soirées serve as evidence.

But the irony in all of this, according to Brim, is that fame doesn't provide the sense of belonging that its seekers long for. Quite the opposite -- it leaves many who attain it feeling empty.

"You think it will make you feel loved, approved of and accepted," he explains, "but in fact, the desire for fame is insatiable."