20 celebrities who changed their legal names for a chance at fame

By Harriet Piercy

Updated Nov 29, 2023 at 03:13 PM

Reading time: 9 minutes

There’s nothing too surprising about celebrities wanting to change their legal birth name—all actors, writers and musicians are choosing to live in the realm of make-believe, after all. Obviously, they’ve got to change their name before the world gets to hear their less memorable version. In fact, a name can actually be the make or break to their success in the spotlight. It’s got to be punchy enough to remember, different enough to whose names are already out there waltzing around being famous and, let’s be honest, easy to spell or say in any language. Sorry, the main actress in Ex Machina, you’re an A-lister, but you will forever be the name of your films rather than your own…

Here are 20 celebrities that dodged the danger of being forgotten and changed their names early enough to survive on the red carpet. Spoiler alert: it’s not only the real names behind their facades that shocked us, it’s the reasons behind the changes as well.

1. Marilyn Monroe was Norma Jeane

Of course I had to start with the poster girl of stardom, our babe Marilyn Monroe who, surprisingly, wasn’t quite born as sparkly as she sounds. Instead, her real name paints the picture of a midwestern gal who chews gum vigorously with her mouth open. She was actually born Norma Jeane Mortenson, but was baptised with the surname Baker and later married into Dougherty—mouthful central. And so, legally her name changed to Marilyn Monroe in 1956, although she had been using the name for years prior to it becoming official.

According to TIME Magazine, the name was juggled between suggestions after she signed a contract with 20th Century Fox in 1946, until finally studio executive, Ben Lyon, offered up what we all know her to be today.

2. Miley Cyrus was Destiny Hope Cyrus


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You’d think that famous parents would know how to stage name their own child, but evidently not. Miley Cyrus, albeit destiny had her career path decided either way, was once literally called Destiny Hope Cyrus. I know. Thankfully, the name Miley came from a nickname her father Billy Ray Cyrus used to call her when she was little, Smiley, which was further shortened to Miley. The actress-turned-pop star legally changed her name in 2008, two years after the hit show Hannah Montana first aired in 2006.

3. Oprah Winfrey was Orpah Winfrey

It took me a few reads over to see that one too—it actually started as a silly misspelling. Talk show host, author and overall ultra-famous person, Oprah Winfrey, was actually named Orpah Winfrey. The name was supposed to be inspired by a biblical figure in The Book of Ruth, but no one knew how to spell or pronounce it properly so it gradually morphed into what we know today as Oprah. A name so strong that it’s recognised on a first name as only name basis. Nailed it.

4. Katy Perry was Katheryn Hudson


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A classic ‘who got there first’ moment is singer Katy Perry changing her name from Katheryn Hudson, to avoid being confused with the already famous actress Kate Hudson. Born and raised in Southern California as the middle child of two Christian ministers, non-religious music was forbidden at home. Perry grew up singing hymns, then moved to Los Angeles to try to make it in the secular music realm (aka, tunes that probably would offend the church) which is when she adopted her mother’s maiden name ‘Perry’ instead.

After a slow start to stardom and a couple of record label failures, in 2007, Capitol Records saw the potential in the wannabe singer and put out Perry’s EP Ur So Gay, and then the song only a few don’t know, ‘I Kissed a Girl. I won’t delve into what the church thinks of her now, but Perry, we love you, ok? 

5. Jamie Foxx was Eric Marlon Bishop


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Stand up comedian turned actor, Eric Marlon Bishop, or rather, Jamie Foxx, is as sneaky and sly as his namesake. Foxx explained the reason behind the name change to David Letterman on the Late Show and said that when he was starting out on stages, he clocked onto the fact that female comedians were so rare they would always score a slot. “So I went to the list and wrote down unisex names. Stacy Green, Tracy Brown… Jamie Foxx! And I’m the first guy called. He goes, ‘Jamie Foxx, is she here?’ I said, ‘No, brother, that’s me.’ And then I go on stage and I get a standing ovation,” he shared. Cheeky, we know, but what would the comedy scene be without our Foxx?

6. Lorde was Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O'Connor

Lorde was Ella Marj-who? I can’t even read that let alone say it all in one go. So thank you, Lorde, from all of us. But also kudos to you—your fame depended on it. Although still just ‘Ella’ to her friends and family, the New Zealand songstress told Interview Magazine that when she was coming up with a stage name, she thought ‘Lord’ was “super rad,” but apparently too masculine. “Ever since I was a little kid, I have been really into royals and aristocracy, so to make ‘Lord’ more feminine, I just put an e on the end! Some people think it’s religious, but it’s not,” she revealed.

7. Rihanna was Robyn Rihanna Fenty


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Another one namer, Rihanna (meaning ‘sweet basil’ in Arabic) is actually Robyn Rihanna Fenty. According to an interview she did with The Rolling Stone, most of her friends and family still call her that too. “I get kind of numb to hearing Rihanna, Rihanna, Rihanna,” she said, but “when I hear Robyn, I pay attention.” She is one of the few celebs who make full use of their real name. It’s even been categorised in a way that makes complete sense: first name for her friends and family, middle name for all of us and surname for her business venture, Fenty.

8. Frank Ocean was Christopher Edwin Breaux


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If there ever was a purely loveable reason to change a name, it would be Frank Ocean’s reason. Born Christopher Edwin Breaux, as we can I’m sure by now understand how much a name can shape one’s life, the musician later decided to metaphorically shed his skin and rebirth his identity. In a 2011 interview with Complex he revealed that he changed his name on his birthday the year before (so 2010) and “it was the most empowering sh*t I did for sure. I went on LegalZoom and changed my f*cking name. It just felt cool. None of us are our names. If you don’t like your name then change your name.” Simple.

9. John Legend was John Roger Stephens


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As far as celebrity status goes, we have self-proclaimed Lorde’s, and of course, we have Legend’s too. Fake it ‘till you make it, friends. Born in Ohio as John Roger Stephens, by college he was directing an a cappella group at the University of Pennsylvania, which is also around the same time he met fellow songwriter and artist Kanye West. From there, a partnership was born that allowed them both to climb the fame ladder. According to an interview with The List, it was during these early days that the name came to stick. Legend stated, “The first guy to call me that was J. Ivy. He’s a spoken word artist from Chicago. I met him through Kanye.” And according to Today, he further shared, “We were all in the studio together. He just started calling me ‘The Legend’ because he thought I sounded like one of our old school soul legends. And it just caught on with our little group of friends, and then they were like, ‘We should call you John Legend.’ And it just really was in our little circle.”

10. Joaquin Phoenix was Joaquín Rafael Bottom

Started from the Bottom now we’re… stop it. Talk about soaring from the ashes—alright, I’ll stop. Who we know as Joaquin Phoenix was born Joaquín Rafael Bottom. He actually self-named himself ‘Leaf’ Phoenix as a child, to be more like his two older siblings, Rain and River. His younger siblings were Liberty and Summer—you can tell why he felt a little left out. The actor’s parents were part of a religious cult called The Children of God, but left it and renamed the family name as Phoenix to symbolise their rebirth.

11. Bruno Mars was Peter Gene Hernandez

Peter? Who would’ve thought? In an interview with GQ, the singer explained that he had actually been nicknamed Bruno his entire life because as a toddler he resembled the wrestler Bruno Sammartino. He was born to a Puerto Rican Jewish percussionist from Brooklyn and a singer and dancer from the Philippines who met in Hawaii. Bruno Hernandez didn’t match up to his genre in music though, as he explained to the publication that the name stereotyped him into Latin or Spanish music. To avoid that, he adopted the surname Mars.

12. Nicki Minaj was Onika Tanya Maraj

Nicki Minaj told The Guardian that she wasn’t the one to choose her stage name, someone else did, “One of the first production deals I signed, the guy wanted my name to be Minaj and I fought him tooth and nail. But he convinced me. I’ve always hated it.” The rapper stated that she prefers to be called by her real name by close friends and family. And although she took baby steps into using the name and began using Nicki Maraj, when it came to being signed by a record label, she was cornered into what name would sell better.


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Minaj is one tough cookie too—with a difficult start in life, she committed her career to making enough money to look after her mother. Her father had issues with drugs and alcohol which led to abuse, Minaj told Rolling Stone, “When I first came to America, I would go in my room and kneel down at the foot of my bed and pray that God would make me rich so that I could take care of my mother. Because I always felt like if I took care of my mother, my mother wouldn’t have to stay with my father, and he was the one at the time, that was bringing us pain. We didn’t want him around at all, and so I always felt like being rich would cure everything, and that was always what drove me.”

13. Calvin Harris was Adam Richard Wiles

Scottish musician Calvin Harris changed his name from Adam Richard Wiles for a somewhat surprising reason. He explained in a 2009 interview that he used the name Calvin Harris in an attempt to become “racially ambiguous.” Harris said that “my first single was more of a soul track, and I thought Calvin Harris sounded a bit more racially ambiguous. I thought people might not know if I was black or not. After that, I was stuck with it.” Oookay then.

14. Pink was Alecia Beth Moore

Alecia Beth Moore was nicknamed Pink, at first for a rather sad reason. According to The Things, the singer used to get bullied at summer camp by kids who would pull her trousers down, leading her to blush so hard they’d call her Pink.


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She owned it though, and the name solidified after the singer was inspired by Steve Buscemi’s character Mr Pink in Reservoir Dogs. The List reported that she ran into the actor in New York before her first album came out. “I had these big f*cking Elton John glasses on, pink hair and carried a Pink Panther toy. I went ‘Steve! Mr Pink! I’m Pink! Because of you! I’m going to have an album and you’re going to know who I am!’ And he was like ‘What the f*ck, lady?’ and just ran away from me. I’ve never met him since.”

15. Natalie Portman was Neta-Lee Herschlag

Neta-Lee Hershlag, or as we know her, Natalie Portman, was born in Jerusalem to her father, an Israeli gynaecologist named Avner Hershlag, and her mother, Shelly Stevens. The Stevens family changed their name from Edelstein when they arrived in the US from Russia and Austria. According to Britannica, the actress changed her name primarily for privacy reasons, because at just 13-years-old, the actress landed a role in Léon: The Professionala film with obvious (and uncomfortable) sexual undertones—and the young star wanted to protect herself from unwanted attention.

16. Whoopi Goldberg was Caryn Elaine Johnson


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Actress Whoopi Goldberg might just be my favourite name change on this list. Born as Caryn Elaine Johnson, she was eventually nicknamed ‘Whoopie’ because of her whoopee cushion-like nature, if you get what I mean. The actress apparently had friends who noticed she had a bit of a flatulence problem while working in a theatre in San Diego, and the no-shame Whoopi told The New York Times that “if you get a little gassy, you’ve got to let it go. So people used to say to me, ‘You’re like a whoopee cushion’. And that’s where the name came from.” What a queen. As for her last name Goldberg, Whoopi’s mother felt her daughter should take a name that was part of the family heritage, which was in fact Jewish, so Whoopi Goldberg was born.

17. Ben Kingsley was Krishna Pandit Bhanji

Soon after gaining fame as a stage actor and then film actor in the movie Gandhi (1982), for which he won an Academy Award, Ben Kingsley gave up his birth name Krishna Pandit Bhanji because he feared that a foreign name would jeopardise the success of his acting career.

18. Michael Caine was Maurice Joseph Micklewhite

Another name bites the dust as what was once Maurice Joseph Micklewhite became the internationally well-known Michael Caine. The actor explained to New York Magazine that based on the advice from an agent, he named himself after Humphrey Bogart’s character in The Caine Mutiny (1954) and said that “Bogart was my hero, and even though he came from a sort of snobby, aristocratic family—he was a distant relation of Princess Diana—when I was a kid I thought he was a tough guy. The American cinema in general always made stories about working-class people; the British rarely did. Any person with my working-class background would be a villain or a comic cypher, usually badly played, and with a rotten accent. There weren’t a lot of guys in England for me to look up to.”

19. Olivia Wilde was Olivia Cockburn


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As a nepotism baby, the actress has writers trailing throughout her family tree and her parents Andrew and Leslie Cockburn are well-known international journalists. As well as playing Gwendolen in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest in high school, the actress revealed to Vogue, that her name change was “in honour of family members who wrote under pen names and for her love of Oscar Wilde [that] she left Cockburn behind.” Phew!

20. Brad Pitt was William Bradley Pitt

Stardom doesn’t really get much bigger than Brad Pitt, but if he’d kept his first name as his first name to us, would he still embody the essence of the Brad Pitt we’ve come to know and love? The actor dropped William to go by Bradley and soon after shortened it upon leaving Missouri school—which he also dropped out of, missing graduation, because “he just could not wait anymore to start pursuing his movie career,” as stated by The List.

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