When you’re a successful actor or musician, you probably feel like you’re on top of the world. In the moment, you may believe life is always going to be this way, but if Hollywood’s taught us anything, it’s that everything can change in a flash.
Sometimes, performers decide to retire from the industry unexpectedly early. Other times, factors outside their control send their careers in a downward spiral. While giving up on your dreams may be the easiest choice, many of them decide to give it one last shot — and they end up somewhere greater than they could’ve imagined.
Here are 14 celebs who had big comebacks:
Some entries mention substance abuse and sexual assault.
THE BEGINNING: As a child actor, Ke Huy Quan played key roles in iconic movies like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Goonies.
THE DOWNTURN: After the success of his early years, Ke struggled to find worthwhile roles. Disappointed in the lack of opportunities for Asian actors in Hollywood, he quit acting in his 20s. However, after seeing Crazy Rich Asians in 2018, he decided to sign with a new agent. He booked Everything Everywhere All at Once, but COVID hit after filming wrapped. He wasn’t able to find any more work until after the movie’s premiere, and he lost his health insurance as a result.
On The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, he said, “I was so worried because I was experiencing everything I experienced as a kid, when I was auditioning, and I couldn’t get a job. When you work with Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford, and George Lucas, you can’t go anywhere but downhill from there. And that’s exactly what happened!”
THE COMEBACK: EEAAO practically took over the world, bringing Ke back to the spotlight in a big way. He became the first Asian man to win a film award at the SAGs, then he won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
In his Academy Awards acceptance speech, he said, “I spent a year in a refugee camp and somehow I ended up here on Hollywood’s biggest stage.”
THE BEGINNING: Brendan Fraser was a ’90s movie icon, starring in films like The Mummy and Gods and Monsters.
THE DOWNTURN: He largely stepped back from the public eye in the aftermath of allegedly being sexually assaulted in 2003, which he first spoke out about in 2018.
He told GQ, “I didn’t want to contend with how that made me feel, or it becoming part of my narrative. … I became depressed…I was blaming myself and I was miserable. … Am I still frightened? Absolutely. Do I feel like I need to say something? Absolutely. Have I wanted to many, many times? Absolutely. Have I stopped myself? Absolutely.”
He also told CBS Mornings, “I spoke up because I saw so many of my friends and colleagues who, at that time, were bravely emerging to speak their truth to power. And I had something to say, too.”
THE COMEBACK: In 2022, Brendan played the lead in The Whale, which has been hailed as his comeback performance. At the Academy Awards, he won Best Actor for it.
THE BEGINNING: As a child actor, Raven-Symoné got her big break on The Cosby Show. She went on to be a Disney Channel star with her own series, That’s So Raven, as well as a main role in the Cheetah Girls franchise.
THE DOWNTURN: After starring in Sister Act on Broadway, Raven considered herself retired from the entertainment industry.
She told the LA Times, “I actually didn’t want to do anything, because the entertainment industry will drain you and then spit you out if you’re not what they want and then leave you for dead.”
THE COMEBACK: In 2015, she joined Sister Act producer Whoopi Goldberg as a cohost on The View. Over a year later, however, a conversation with Disney execs inspired her to resign from the talk show and return to the network. She’s starred on and produced the spinoff Raven’s Home ever since.
“Disney understood me. They knew it’s not about my sexual orientation. It’s about having fun, it’s about family, it’s about comedy, it’s about good content. … I love them forever for embracing me,” she told the LA Times.
THE BEGINNING: In the 2010s, Jennifer Lawrence rose to fame in the Hunger Games and X-Men franchises. In 2013, she famously fell on the stairs at the Oscars while going up to collect her Best Actress award. She was also known for her “cool girl” persona.
THE DOWNTURN: In 2014, Jennifer fell on the Oscars red carpet, but people accused her of faking it as a publicity stunt. As public opinion shifted against her, she also experienced less critical and commercial success at the box office. After making only three movies from 2017–2019, she disappeared from the public eye for two years.
She told Vanity Fair, “I was not pumping out the quality that I should have. I just think everybody had gotten sick of me. I’d gotten sick of me. It had just gotten to a point where I couldn’t do anything right. If I walked a red carpet, it was, ‘Why didn’t she run?'”
THE COMEBACK: In 2021, she reemerged to promote Don’t Look Up, telling Vanity Fair that she was nervous because she hadn’t “spoken to the world in forever.” Her reserved appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert was also well received. In the following years, she’s seemed to focus on two things — protecting her privacy and prioritizing projects that excite her.
In 2022, she told the New York Times, “Full circle, I’m kind of getting the life that I imagined. There’s an occasional article about me walking out in Ugg boots, but other than that, the interest has lessened, God bless it.”
THE BEGINNING: Winona Ryder experienced immense success in the late ’80s and through the ’90s, transitioning from campy movies like Beetlejuice and Heathers to Oscar-nominated turns in Little Women and The Age of Innocence.
THE DOWNTURN: In 2001, she was arrested and charged for allegedly stealing nearly $5,000 worth of clothes and accessories from a Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills. She was convicted of vandalism and grand theft and had to pay $6,355 in restitution, do 480 hours of community service, and undergo counseling. She lost out on roles because directors couldn’t get insurance on her, and she took a step back from being in the public eye.
She told Net-A-Porter, “A lot of people had the perception that I just disappeared in the 2000s. And I did, but only from that world. I appeared elsewhere, I promise you. I was transformed into doing stuff I really wanted to do — it was a great awakening. It just wasn’t in the public eye.”
THE BEGINNING: After rising to music superstardom in the ’80s, Janet Jackson embarked on the Rhythm Nation World Tour, which became the most successful debut tour in history, in 1990. She also landed a new record deal. Signing with Virgin Records made her the highest-paid recording artist at the time.
THE DOWNTURN: While performing at the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, Justin Timberlake ripped fabric from Janet’s costume, briefly exposing her breast. While his career quickly recovered, hers suffered. She unfairly bore the brunt of the blame. For example, the Grammys revoked her invitation to present, and her next album, Damita Jo, received very little radio play.
THE COMEBACK: Janet released a two-part documentary in 2022, sharing her side of the story. She also announced a huge tour and promised that she’s working on new music.
In her documentary, she said, “Justin and I are very good friends, and we will always be very good friends. We spoke just a few days ago. He and I have moved on, and it’s time for everyone else to do the same.”
THE BEGINNING: In 1983, Vanessa Williams became the first Black woman to be crowned Miss America.
THE DOWNTURN: Mere weeks before her yearlong reign was set to end, Penthouse magazine published nude pictures of Vanessa without her permission. The heads of the pageant forced her to resign.
THE COMEBACK: After losing her crown, she worked hard to make a name for herself in movies, TV, and music. She appeared in iconic movies like Bye Bye Birdie and Soul Food and received Grammy nominations for hits like “Save the Best for Last” and “The Right Stuff.” She also had stints on shows like Desperate Housewives and Ugly Betty. In 2015, she finally received a public apology from the Miss America Organization, and in 2022, it was announced that a limited series about her forced resignation is in the works.
In 2021, she told Page Six, “I think I was really centered in knowing I know who I am and I’ll get there, and once the dust settles, you’ll see. … And also distancing [myself] from the two opposite symbols of Miss America and a scandalized beauty queen and me being a normal kid in the middle who was a junior in college.”
THE BEGINNING: In the late ’90s and early ’00s, Jennifer Coolidge burst onto the scene with breakout roles in American Pie and Legally Blonde.
THE DOWNTURN: There were “like five people that kept [her] going for 20 years with these little jobs.” Though she went on to play main roles on shows like Joey and 2 Broke Girls, she felt that the “big dreams and expectations” she had when she was younger got “sort of fizzled by life.” She also began to doubt herself.
Reflecting, she told Variety, “The saddest thing about life is that you just make decisions about yourself. If I’m not getting great roles, I come to the conclusion that people think I’m incapable of that. And then I make the decision that I am incapable of that.”
THE COMEBACK: In 2021, Jennifer’s role in The White Lotus marked a breakthrough. Her performance earned her a Golden Globe, an Emmy, and two SAG Awards.
In her Golden Globes acceptance speech, she said, “[White Lotus writer and director] Mike White, you have given me hope…you’ve given me a new beginning. … You sort of changed my life in a million different ways.”
THE BEGINNING: Robert Downey Jr.’s acting career started early in life with small roles in his father’s movies. As he got older, he earned his own place among Hollywood’s top talent, going from comedies like The Pick-up Artist to more prestigious projects like Chaplin, which earned him an Oscar nomination. However, from childhood, he dealt with substance abuse, and as an adult, he spent time in rehab and prison as a result. After being released from prison, he joined the cast of Ally McBeal in a role that earned him a Golden Globe and a SAG Award.
In 2003, he told the Guardian, “Funny isn’t it? For some people, that’s the litmus. Will he ever be as good again as he was on Ally McBeal? You put a Hugo Boss suit on a guy, clean him up a little, feed him his lines and he manages to perform like he isn’t a drooling goo-goo. … ‘Wow! He’s fantastic!’ I’m probably not the best person to ask about that period. It was my lowest point in terms of addictions. At that stage, I didn’t give a fuck whether I ever acted again.”
THE COMEBACK: Afterward, he committed himself to sobriety, making use of medication, therapy, and 12-step recovery programs. He returned to the big screen with 2003’s The Singing Detective. However, the movie that truly transformed his public image and his career was 2008’s Iron Man. Though Marvel Studios was initially against casting him, director Jon Favreau, who saw many similarities between the actor and Tony Stark, fought for him. Of course, he ended up being the absolutely perfect choice for Iron Man.
Jon told CinemaBlend, “It was my job as a director to show that it was the best choice creatively…and now the Marvel Universe is the biggest franchise in film history. … That was a big gamble on whether or not [Robert] was really serious about it…and now history has definitely proven that he was dead serious about it and now he is the biggest star in the world.”
THE BEGINNING: When starting her music career in Minneapolis, Lizzo was part of several different groups and experienced local success. She also released a solo album, Lizzobangers, in 2013. In 2015, her sophomore album, Big Grrrl Small World, achieved critical acclaim. In 2016, she signed with Atlantic Records and made her major label debut with “Good As Hell.”
THE DOWNTURN: In 2017, Lizzo released “Truth Hurts,” but it was “probably one of the darkest days [she’s] had ever in [her] career.” The disappointing response to her new song had her considering quitting music altogether.
She told People, “I remember thinking, ‘If I quit music now, nobody would notice. This is my best song ever, and nobody cares.’ I was like, ‘Fuck it, I’m done.’ And a lot of people rallied; my producer, my publicist, and my family, they were like, ‘Just keep going because this is the darkest before the dawn.'”
THE COMEBACK: Two years later, Lizzo found commercial success with “Juice,” but that April, Netflix used “Truth Hurts” on the soundtrack for the rom-com Someone Great. Fans loved the song, and it became her first top 10 hit. Her major label debut album, Cuz I Love You, actually came out on the same day as the movie. It then went on to win three Grammys (including one for “Truth Hurts”).
She told People, “Who would have thunk? What a moment in a movie can do for an artist is crazy. I had everything else: the hard work, the good music, touring — but then there’s that extra-special magic that nobody really knows what it is that can really change your life. … Now the song that made me want to quit is the song that everyone’s falling in love with me for, which is such a testament to journeys: Your darkest day turns into your brightest triumph.”
THE BEGINNING: In the ’80s, Laura Dern broke out through roles in movies like Mask and Blue Velvet. In the ’90s, her star continued to rise as she earned an Oscar nom for Rambling Rose and then played a career-defining role in Jurassic Park.
THE DOWNTURN: Just months after Jurassic Park, she guest-starred on Ellen as Susan, a lesbian who helped the titular character on her coming out journey in “The Puppy Episode.” After that, job offers stopped coming in, and Laura didn’t work for a year.
She told Vulture, “[The cast] only [filmed the episode] for what, 10 days? We all spent the next couple of years really struggling in work and safety. It was radical to experience that. It was the only time I ever experienced having to have full security detail. But what was amazing, which I will never forget, that when she looked in my eyes, she said it was the first time she said, ‘I’m gay’ out loud. We didn’t rehearse it, so when she said it to me, and was looking in my eyes and holding my hands and I felt her shaking … the gift — it makes me want to cry — the gift of that, the intimacy of what that means, was such insight for me. And I’ll carry it for the rest of my life.”
THE COMEBACK: Rather than view it as a setback, Laura is “forever grateful” to have been part of such a monumental episode. Her next project was the 1998 TV movie The Baby Dance, which earned her a Golden Globe nomination. She, of course, went on to star in bigger, highly acclaimed productions, such as Big Little Lies and Marriage Story.
“By good fortune of the long path of a career, you can look back and say, how great to have it be felt, how backward we are,” she told Vulture.
THE BEGINNING: After an unimpressive debut and unsuccessful first album, Shania Twain found immense success with her 1995 sophomore release, The Woman in Me. She cemented herself as a music icon worldwide.
THE DOWNTURN: In 2009, Shania delayed a promised new album to allow herself time to heal from things in her personal life, such as her separation from her first husband, and to focus on her son. After contracting Lyme disease, she had to work with coaches to restore her voice. Her next album, Now, came out in 2017. She also began her second Las Vegas residency in 2019, but it was cut short due to COVID.
THE COMEBACK: In 2022, she released the Netflix documentary Not Just a Girl along with a compilation album. In early 2023, she released a successful new album, Queen of Me, and announced a new tour as she basked in the glow of the “Shania-ssance.”
She told the Toronto Star, “I’m still alive, and I’m healthy. I’m getting to enjoy all of these fabulous fruits of all these years of work, effort, and heart.”
THE BEGINNING: Cameron Diaz made the move from modeling to movies with The Mask in 1994. She went on to be nominated for four Golden Globes and three SAG Awards.
THE DOWNTURN: After playing Miss Hannigan in the 2014 adaptation of Annie, Cameron announced her retirement from acting.
In a video for In goop Health: The Sessions, she told Gwyneth Paltrow, “I just decided that I wanted different things out of my life. I had gone so hard for so long, working, making films, and it’s such a grind. And I didn’t make any space for my personal life.”
THE COMEBACK: However, in 2022, she decided to come back to the industry to star in the upcoming Netflix movie Back in Action alongside her Annie costar Jamie Foxx.
Jamie told Entertainment Tonight that he convinced Cameron to come back to acting by asking her, “Do you wanna have some fun? Just have some fun!”
And finally, THE BEGINNING: After several years of trying to make it in the music industry, Kesha had a breakthrough in 2009 with her hit single “Tik Tok.” She released many successful songs in the early 2010s, but she was also heavily criticized for her “wild party girl” persona.
THE DOWNTURN: In 2014, Kesha sued her producer, Dr. Luke, for alleged sexual abuse. He countersued, and the two spent years in a complicated legal battle. Because she was locked in a contract, Kesha was unable to record new music until 2016, when Sony finally permitted her to record without the producer.
THE COMEBACK: In 2017, Kesha released her powerful comeback single, “Praying.” The song and her new album, Rainbow, both received Grammy nominations.
If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE, which routes the caller to their nearest sexual assault service provider. You can also search for your local center here.
If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse, you can call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) and find more resources here.