Controversial figures who still found success

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July 29, 2019
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Controversial figures who still found success

There are many paths to success: Some people find it by maintaining popular views, saying and doing things that are sure to please the masses. They shy away from controversy and work hard to stay out of situations that might threaten their likability. Often, these are the same folks who have high popularity ratings and more conventional personality types, attracting lots of devoted, similar-minded fans. The strategy works—there's certainly no shortage of famous, well-liked figures who've achieved extraordinary success.

Others, however, take a less conventional route. These folks are typically independent by nature, marching to the beat of their own drum and not spending time worrying about what others think. They're not afraid to say what's on their mind, sometimes admittedly to their detriment. Often, these are the types of people who no one feels neutral about—they're either loved or hated. They face criticism, but by staying true to themselves, they also connect with fans in a way that others often can't.

It's difficult to define what makes someone controversial, but it usually involves something about them, whether words, deeds, or actions that have divided public opinion. Sometimes they were involved in scandals that made them unpopular for a certain amount of time and then they rebounded. Other times, they've led controversial lives from the beginning.

One key distinction, though, is that truly controversial people have supporters, too—a mix of fans and foes, while those who only have detractors are simply disliked.

To honor the people who've managed to achieve that balance and find success despite the considerable controversy, Stacker put together a list of celebrities who've become successful despite the scandals.

You may also like: 30 musicians with legendarily long careers

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Mark Zuckerberg

The Facebook mogul has been controversial since he first launched his social media site at Harvard, where some accused him of being cutthroat and using the website to enhance his romantic prospects. Mark Zuckerberg was called out for questionable privacy boundaries long before the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, and others have lambasted him for purposefully introducing addictive technology to the world.

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Johnny Depp

Mega-celebrity Johnny Depp has courted controversy since he first rose to fame in the 1990s, making headlines for his rock 'n' roll behavior. Depp's more well-known scandalous moments include him getting arrested for trashing a hotel room, suing his former managers, and paying $3 million to shoot Hunter S. Thompson's ashes out of a cannon. However, he remained successful throughout most of his career, pulling in more than $650 million for his movies. It wasn't until domestic abuse allegations surfaced in 2016 that the negative spotlight prompted a downward spiral for both his career and his finances.

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Megan Rapinoe

U.S. Olympic soccer champion Megan Rapinoe was controversial even before President Donald Trump began tweeting about her. With signature platinum hair and an outspoken, independent attitude, she first made waves in 2012 when she came out as gay and again in 2016 when she kneeled during the national anthem. Most recently, she received flack for dying her hair pink before the World Cup and refusing to sing along during the anthem (though she remained standing this time). However, she went on to win the championship and is currently one of the hottest names in sports.

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Kim Kardashian

Criticized early on for being “famous for no reason” and often accused of being vapid, tawdry, and attention-seeking, Kim Kardashian's entire career seems to have been built on controversy. Besides her provocative dress and social media presence some have called narcissistic, Kardashian was involved in numerous scandals, including promoting appetite-suppressing lollipops, dressing as the Virgin Mary, and allegedly darkening her face for an ad (which some accused of resembling blackface). Though millions love her, many of her detractors are passionate enough to suggest that she staged her robbery at gunpoint in Paris.

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Nikola Tesla

The man who invented the alternating current (of AC/DC fame) led a life full of controversy and detractors, ranging from people who thought he was a crazy dreamer to others who played down his contributions. His famous feud with Thomas Edison has divided scientists even today into "Team Tesla" and "Team Edison" camps. Still, in addition to the alternating current, he's credited with inventing X-rays, wireless transmission, and the induction motor, among other things.

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Barack Obama

As the first African American president of the United States, Barack Obama was a controversial figure whose detractors often highlighted the racial divide in America. His campaigns were marked by debates about his birth certificate and controversies over things like his pastor, Jeremiah Wright. His policies as president were also often controversial with things like the health care overhaul (aka “Obamacare”), the Great Recession bailout, and his policies toward Afghanistan. However, he still managed to get elected twice and maintained an average approval rating of 47.9.

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Amy Schumer

Irreverent comedian Amy Schumer has never shied away from controversy and dark humor, beginning with her first off-Broadway play, which was a comedy about breast cancer. Over the years, she's received criticism for numerous comedy bits as well as comments she's made personally, ranging from sex to body image to Donald Trump. "I like tackling the stuff nobody else talks about," she told the St. Louis-Post Dispatch. "Like the darkest, most serious thing about yourself. I talk about life and sex and personal stories and stuff everybody can relate to, and some can't."

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Tom Cruise

Hollywood hunk Tom Cruise has been controversial for many things during his long career, including his past relationship with the much younger Katie Holmes (a romance that prompted him to jump up and down on Oprah's couch). But the most famous and consistently controversial subject is his involvement with the Church of Scientology, which has prompted opinion pieces, news specials, online gossip, and even full-length documentaries.

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Muhammad Ali

Boxing legend Muhammad Ali wasn't only famous for being the heavyweight champion of the world. In 1967, he refused military induction during the Vietnam War, prompting a widespread backlash from Americans and others who felt he was neglecting his patriotic duty. Ali cited religious beliefs, but he fined and sentenced to five years in jail, though he did not serve time. 

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Cardi B

Rather than running from controversy, rapper Cardi B seems to thrive on it. Before launching her rap career, she was a controversial figure on VH1's “Love & Hip Hop: New York,” the reality TV show that put her in the spotlight. As a former adult entertainer with a fiery personality, she had a host of detractors. She went on to achieve enormous success, becoming the first solo female artist to win a Grammy for Best Rap Album and bringing in an estimated net worth of more than $8 million.

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Ellen DeGeneres

When comedian Ellen DeGeneres came out as a lesbian in 1997, it caused a major stir, especially when the character she played on her sitcom “Ellen” came out, too. The move made her the first openly gay lead character on a prime-time TV show and caused many fans to jump ship. But for every detractor, DeGeneres also had loads of devotees, making her a truly controversial figure.

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David Bowie

From heavy cocaine use and pro-fascist comments in the 1970s (which he later blamed on his alter ego, “The Thin White Duke”) to criticism over a religious-themed music video as recently as 2013, David Bowie was never short on controversy. While his detractors criticized the late rock musician's eccentricity, it was this unapologetically unique personality and fashion sense that drew fans to him, particularly his gender fluidity, which he toyed with at a time before it was mainstream. “Bowie was so defiantly, gloriously oddball, so utterly unafraid of what society might think of him... that he made it OK for other people to be different as well,” wrote Kaite Welsh for The Telegraph.

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Hillary Clinton

Whether it's Benghazi, Uranium One, or the use of a private email server to conduct official business, controversy has swirled around Hillary Clinton throughout her political tenure. But even before the former presidential nominee held public office, she was a fiery figure, beginning at Wellesley College when she publicly lambasted a Republican senator, landing in Life magazine as a result. Her policies have been controversial, too, particularly as they relate to health care, social security, and foreign affairs.

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Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino makes controversial movies, says controversial things, and generally courts controversy wherever he goes. The prolific filmmaker's movies have been criticized for being racist, misogynistic, overly graphic, overly violent, and a host of other negative things. He's received flack for an on-set car accident involving Uma Thurman and for comments he's made that seemed to defend Harvey Weinstein and Roman Polanski. However, he remains one of the most successful and well-known filmmakers of the modern era.

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Yoshiro Nakamatsu

With a whopping 3,300 patents under his belt, Japanese inventor Yoshiro Nakamatsu is no doubt successful yet also controversial and eccentric. He reportedly spends time in a 24-karat gold “Calm Room” at his home to block radio waves that he believes are harmful to his imagination, and he dives underwater to spark creativity, recording ideas with a waterproof memo device. People have called him crazy, weird, and outlandish for some of his inventions, most recently for a self-defense wig for Donald Trump.

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Lady Gaga

Between wearing a meat dress to an awards ceremony, using Catholic imagery in music videos, and getting into a lawsuit with an ex-boyfriend, pop star Lady Gaga is always making controversial headlines. But her wild and eccentric ways have by no means halted her success. The singer boasts nine Grammys, two Golden Globes, and an Oscar—not to mention a boatload of money.

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George Carlin

Funnyman George Carlin was a classic example of a guy who knew he was controversial and couldn't care less. The controversy was part of the standup comedian's brand. Carlin's humor included jokes about a variety of taboo subjects. One of his most famous routines was called "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television." In 1972, he was arrested on obscenity charges after performing the piece at a Milwaukee festival.

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Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc was one of the most controversial figures of her time. The rebellious young peasant girl led the French army to victory with no formal military training, but was mocked by detractors and arrested by the Burgundians for wearing men's clothes, among other alleged crimes. They interrogated her and ultimately burned the young martyr at the stake. On top of her sweeping military victory, she went on to become one of the world's most famous historical figures and was canonized as a saint in 1920.

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Eminem was one of the most controversial rappers of his day—a figure that most people had strong opinions about one way or the other. Some accused him of promoting misogyny, homophobia, and violence in his graphic music while others called him a lyrical genius. He often spoofed the controversy in his music and was prone to seeming publicity stunts such as performing a duet with Elton John at the 2001 Grammy Awards.

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Dennis Rodman

Dennis Rodman's eccentric personality, both on and off the court, has long made him a controversial figure. As an NBA player, he famously showed up to games with wild hairstyles, tattoos, and piercings, frequently getting ejected for both verbal and physical altercations. Off the court, he wore a wedding dress to a book launch, claiming he wanted to marry himself. He has on several occasions met with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, whom he called a “friend for life.”

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Donald Trump

From sexual assault allegations to the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape to the investigation into Russian election meddling, U.S. President Donald Trump seems unable to escape scandal and controversy. Even before his presidency, the real estate mogul was a controversial figure as both a businessman and reality TV star. A Forbes estimate of his net worth in July placed it at $3.1 billion, and he currently holds one of the world's most powerful positions—clearly finding success despite the controversy.

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Mae West

Mae West was the kind of lady who epitomized the phrase "a woman before her time." The Hollywood entertainer was born in 1893 yet didn't hesitate to do things like write provocative screenplays, star in sultry movies, and pose for sexy pinup posters. She was known for her suggestive quotes and double entendres (e.g., "I generally avoid temptation unless I can't resist it"). Her brazenness earned her much criticism and controversy, yet she remained rich, famous, and hugely successful.

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Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs was controversial for the way he managed his business as well as for his personal life. The Apple founder was a perfectionist who demanded a great deal from his employees and often fired people without notice. For years he denied paternity of his first child (while she and her mother lived on welfare), and at one point, he went as far as to swear in court he was “sterile and infertile.” All of these things made Jobs a controversial figure, yet he was also hugely successful—a billionaire who was called a genius by fans and who shaped the landscape of modern technology.

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Hugh Grant

Hugh Grant suffered his share of controversies, the biggest of which occurred in 1995 when he was arrested with a prostitute he picked up on Sunset Strip. Embarrassing details of the encounter emerged, and Grant struggled to save his relationship with long-time girlfriend Elizabeth Hurley—things were not looking good for the British actor. However, he managed to rebound, going on to star in more than a dozen features including career-defining hits like “Bridget Jones's Diary” and “Love Actually,” both of which he made after the scandal.

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Charles Darwin

The father of evolution didn't enjoy a warm embrace from the scientific community when he first published his theories. Some criticized him as being anti-religious, particularly devout Christians who felt Darwin's theories threatened their Biblical worldview, and many scientific thinkers lambasted his methodology. Nevertheless, "On the Origin of Species" went on to sell millions of copies and remains a definitive piece of scientific literature 200 years later.

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Roseanne Barr

From backlash over her screeching rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" during her sitcom's original run to getting fired from the reboot for making racist tweets, comedian Roseanne Barr has been a magnet for controversy since she began her career. She once posed as Adolf Hitler for a photo while holding a platter of "burnt Jew cookies" and another time was sued by George Zimmerman's parents (the man who killed Trayvon Martin) after tweeting their home address. Still, the comedian has won an Emmy and a Golden Globe, accumulating a net worth estimated at $80 million.

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Megyn Kelly

The onetime Fox news host turned NBC anchor was fired from the latter role for making comments about blackface, but she has always incorporated controversy into her routine. She's held an ongoing feud with President Donald Trump and has interviewed controversial figures such as Vladimir Putin and reality star Jim Bob Duggar (the latter of whom was dealing with his son's molestation allegations at the time).

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The pop queen began her career in the 1980s with a public image based on pushing boundaries and being provocative. In her heyday, she wore cone-shaped bras, lapped up milk off the floor, and burned crosses in videos, among many other stunts. But none of these things ever stopped her from becoming one of the most successful, well-recognized pop singers in history.

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George W. Bush

The 43rd U.S. president's time in office was marked by extreme swings in public opinion that broke records on both ends. After the 9/11 attacks, Bush's approval rating peaked at 90%—the highest in Gallup history. But by the time he left office, they had plummeted to an abysmal 22%, the lowest final rating for an outgoing president in the history of the polling. Controversies that dogged Bush's presidency included Guantanamo Bay, Hurricane Katrina, and the unpopular war in Iraq.

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Charlie Sheen

Between Charlie Sheen's wild and reckless drug use to his 2015 disclosure that he is HIV positive, the “Two And A Half Men” actor's name is practically synonymous with controversy. After starring in the Oscar-winning film “Platoon” in 1986, the fast-living star quickly began accumulating controversies which continued for decades. Highlights included a $50,000 tab with famous Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss, numerous stints in rehab, a handful of assault charges, and at one point accidentally shooting his fiance in the arm.

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Colin Kaepernick

Former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick sparked controversy in 2016 when he began sitting during the national anthem (which eventually morphed into kneeling) to draw attention to racial inequality in the U.S. Fans were immediately divided—some praised the athlete for his commitment to social justice while others, including President Donald Trump, accused him of being unpatriotic. He was unable to get a contract in 2017 and later filed a grievance against the league for colluding to keep him out. However, the athlete emerged from the controversy after he landed a major deal with Nike and scored an NFL settlement estimated between $60 and $80 million.

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Benazir Bhutto

Benazir Bhutto—the daughter of onetime Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto—was one of the most controversial figures in Pakistani history, as well as that of the Muslim world. After her father, who founded the Pakistan Peoples Party, was imprisoned following a military coup, she and her mother published a book encouraging citizens to demonstrate. They were later both imprisoned themselves, and her father was executed. But she remained an activist despite her detractors, and she eventually became prime minister herself—the first woman to ever lead a Muslim nation. She was assassinated in 2007—but not before leaving an indelible mark on Pakistan and the Muslim world.

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Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson's music and dance videos were controversial even before child molestation allegations or hanging his baby off of a balcony. Before that, he was a controversial figure for doing things like grabbing his crotch during performances, inventing wild new dance moves (such as the moonwalk), marrying Elvis's daughter, and dramatically changing his appearance. Earlier this year, the documentary “Leaving Neverland” brought new attention to the child molestation scandal, reinvigorating the controversy around the King of Pop.

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Susan B. Anthony

Susan B. Anthony was perceived as extremely controversial for her views at a time when slavery was still legal, and women weren't allowed to vote. Anthony collected signatures for anti-slavery campaigns as a teen, and she helped lead the charge for women's voting rights when she was a young adult. While many supported her, Anthony had countless more detractors. Still, she managed to pave the way for one of the most significant advances for women in history, dying just 14 years before the 19th Amendment was passed.

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Bill Maher

Beginning with his in-your-face late-night show “Politically Incorrect” in the 1990s, where the whole idea was to say things that were unpopular at the time, left-leaning comedian Bill Maher has long courted controversy—it seems to be the fabric of his brand. It's hard to find an episode of his current HBO show “Real Time with Bill Maher” that doesn't produce a controversial clip, many of which turn into viral YouTube videos. Among his most famous controversies were interviewing alt-right figure Milo Yiannopoulos, claiming that “millions” of Muslims supported the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and using the N-word on TV, the latter of which came close to getting his show canceled.

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