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VOICE OVER: Kirsten Ria Squibb WRITTEN BY: Cassondra Feltus
These celebs have surprisingly tragic family histories. Welcome to MsMojo, and today we'll be looking at the most well-known celebrities with largely obscure tragic pasts. Our countdown includes Anne Heche, Jennifer Hudson, Leighton Meester, and more!

Leighton Meester

Unlike her “Gossip Girl” character Blair Waldorf, Leighton Meester did not grow up in the lap of luxury. Her parents, Doug and Constance, were sentenced to prison on drug smuggling charges just before her birth. Born on April 9, 1986, Meester initially lived in a halfway house under her mother’s care, but later stayed with her paternal grandparents while Constance returned to prison. She was, however, released after serving 16 months of her ten-year sentence. Despite this less-than-ideal start to her life, the actress has described her childhood as surprisingly normal. In 2011, Constance took her daughter to court, alleging physical assault and refusal to provide financial support. Meester was ultimately granted a default judgment and won the lawsuit.

Charlize Theron

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The Tragic Life of Charlize Theron

Throughout her years in the industry, Charlize Theron has established herself as an incredibly talented actress and producer. But you might be surprised to learn that she survived a traumatic upbringing. Theron grew up during South Africa’s apartheid era and lived with her parents Gerda and Charles on a farm near Johannesburg. During this period, her father dealt with substance use disorder and was verbally and physically violent towards his wife. On one fateful night in 1991, Charles attacked Gerda and Theron, firing his gun at them and narrowly missing. This led Gerda to shoot back in self-defense, ultimately killing him. Theron has not shied away from discussing this incident, and attributes her own courage and strength to her mother’s bravery.

Shania Twain

Country-pop icon Shania Twain managed to shield her personal life from the public eye until 2011 when she released her memoir, “From This Moment On”. The book revealed an upbringing marked by financial hardships, to the point where access to food wasn’t always guaranteed. The Ontario native, born Eilleen Regina Edwards, also bore witness to her stepfather Jerry’s violent treatment of her mother Sharon – a treatment which Twain herself also experienced. The singer briefly lived in a shelter for the unhoused with her mother and siblings, and later tried to help out by earning money singing in bars. After her parents died in 1987, Twain began caring for her younger siblings, whom she already considered her own.

Ashley Judd

In the 1980s, single mother Naomi Judd and her oldest daughter Wynonna formed a country music duo, touring together while leaving younger daughter Ashley feeling neglected. The future actress experienced a turbulent childhood, grappling with abandonment and constantly transferring schools. In her 2011 memoir, “All That Is Bitter and Sweet,” Judd revealed that she was sexually assaulted multiple times, but when she tried to seek help, no one believed her. The Judds went on to have headline-making feuds and scandals, though the family remained largely supportive of each other. Tragically, in 2022, after enduring decades of mental health issues, Naomi took her own life in her Tennessee home.

Jennifer Hudson

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Since appearing on “American Idol” in 2003, Chicago native Jennifer Hudson has seen great success as a singer, actress and talk show host, earning a spot in the impressive EGOT club. However, not many people know about the profound tragedy she’s experienced. On October 24, 2008, her mother Darnell Donerson, brother Jason, and nephew Julian King were killed by William Balfour, her sister Julia’s estranged husband. In 2012, he was convicted of three counts of first-degree murder, receiving three consecutive life sentences with no possibility of parole. Balfour got an additional 120 years for home invasion and aggravated kidnapping. Hudson and her family later established the Hudson-King Foundation for Families of Slain Victims and the Julian D. King Gift Foundation.

Viola Davis

Award-winning actress Viola Davis explores complex characters and their plights. But as she detailed in her 2022 memoir “Finding Me,” she has a significant amount of trauma of her own. After she was born in 1965, Davis and some of her siblings left their grandparents’ farm in South Carolina and grew up severely impoverished in Central Falls, Rhode Island. They lived in “rat-infested” apartments that often didn’t have working plumbing or heat. Like many on this list, Davis was forced to witness her philandering father’s violent behavior towards her mother. They also lived in a predominantly white community where she was subjected to racist harassment. Today, Viola Davis acts as an advocate for several issues she faced, including child hunger and poverty.

Sofia Vergara

Best known for playing Gloria on “Modern Family,” Sofia Vergara emigrated with her son from Colombia to Miami, Florida in 1994, leaving the rest of her family behind. Four years later, tragedy struck back home when her older brother Rafael was fatally shot during a failed kidnapping attempt in Bogota. Subsequently, Vergara brought over her mother, her sister Veronica, and younger brother Julio to join her in Miami. Rafael’s death was tough for everyone, but particularly for Julio, who turned to substance use as a coping mechanism. While living in the U.S., he was reportedly arrested 30 times over the span of a decade, ultimately resulting in his deportation in 2011.

Kelsey Grammer

From an early age, “Frasier” star Kelsey Grammer dealt with many personal challenges. The passing of his grandfather, with whom he was very close, was the first of many tragedies, followed by the murder of his father in 1968. Less than a decade later, Grammer’s younger sister Karen was assaulted and murdered by a group of men, including spree killer Freddie Glenn. In 1980, another wave of sorrow struck when Grammer’s half-brothers, Stephen and Billy, lost their lives in a scuba diving accident in St. Thomas. The series of traumatic losses and subsequent self-blame led to Grammer’s years-long ordeal with substance use disorder and legal issues. However, the actor has since sought treatment and successfully found sobriety.

Anne Heche

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The late Anne Heche proved herself to be a fierce talent but her personal struggles tended to overshadow her work. In 2001, she released “Call Me Crazy,” a memoir detailing her lifelong battle with mental illness and her alleged sexual assault at the hands of her father Don. Heche’s mother, Nancy, vehemently denies this. After separating from Nancy, Don lived in NYC, concealing both his sexuality and his AIDS diagnosis. He passed away in 1983, and three months later, Heche’s brother Nathan died in a car crash. The family tragedy continued as her older sister Susan succumbed to a brain tumor in 2006. Sadly, in 2022, Heche was involved in a series of car accidents that ultimately caused her death on August 11th.

Jennette McCurdy

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The entertainment industry has seen the downfall of many child actors, often as a result of their parents’ actions. Unfortunately, Jennette McCurdy knows the experience all too well, having endured physical, emotional, and verbal trauma from her controlling mother, Debra. Debra, who had nursed dreams of becoming a star herself, forced her daughter to follow strict diets, which led to disordered eating and obsessive-compulsive behavior. She made Jennette work even while she was ill and regularly subjected her to physically invasive treatment. In September 2013, Debra passed away after a decades-long battle with breast cancer. Following years of toxic coping mechanisms and therapy, Jennette opened up about her lifetime of trauma in 2022’s “I’m Glad My Mom Died.” Were you surprised by any tragic family histories on this list? Let us know in the comments below.