Family Ancestry of Famous Names Today

Overview

How would you choose the 100 most famous people in our world – and here I am talking about 100 famous people in the English-speaking world?

The choice is clearly subjective.  Everyone of course would come up with their own different list.  It is probable that we would all agree on half or even three quarters on the list.  But the remaining numbers on our lists would be different depending on our individual perspective – bearing in mind our age, sex, race or background, where we lived and our own particular interests.

My own criteria in making these choices ran as follows:

  • that the person should be alive at the time of writing (i.e. in 2024)
  • that he or she is well-known and widely known in the English-speaking world, or at least in some part of it and not just on a transitory basis.  As such, most of the information about him or her would be part of the public record and to write about it would not therefore be an invasion of their privacy.
  • and, as well, that their family history and background should contain something of interest to us and give us perhaps some insight into that person and what it was that made that person in particular famous.

Here follows my list of the hundred famous people in the English-speaking world today.  Click on any name of interest to you from the list below:

The Famous 100

Of the 100 famous people on this list:

  • 76 are men and 24 are women – clearly not an even split.
  • 56 are American (including 9 African Americans and one Latino), 32 come from Britain and Ireland, and 12 from other English-speaking regions or countries (Caribbean, Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand).
  • 15 are politicians, 16 businesspeople, 10 could be described as TV personalities, 6 are writers, 17 actors, 16 singers, 12 are sports men or women, and 8 with sundry other claims to fame – all told they are a fairly diverse group of people.
  • and, in terms of age, there are on the list 14 pre-Boomers, 37 Boomers, 28 Gen X, 20 Millennials, and just one Gen Z – a wide age spread but as yet not much recognition of the Gen Z.

Note that half of the famous people in this list were born before 1965 and would 60 or over or approaching 60 today.  Pre-Boomers are defined here by those born before 1946, Boomers those between 1946 and 1964, Generation X those between 1965 and 1980, Millennials those between 1981 and 1996, and Generation Z those after 1996.

If you have other suggestions about the make-up of this Famous 100, please let me know.

Which Famous Person Has Generated the Most Interest?

Of the list of one hundred famous names, these were the ten most clicked-on names in 2023, with their top ten ranking also shown for 2022:

  1. Tyson Fury  (3)
  2. Taylor Swift (10)
  3. Elon Musk  (1)
  4. Brad Pitt  (8)
  5. Joe Biden  (18)
  6. Boris Johnson (2)
  7. Michael Jordan  (9)
  8. Denzel Washington  (4)
  9. Beyonce Knowles (-)
  10. Johnny Depp  (17)

Tyson Fury, Taylor Swift and Joe Biden have been risers; while Elon Musk and Boris Johnson have gone down.

The three who have dropped out of the top ten in 2023 have been Lindsey Graham, Lewis Hamilton, and Jacob Rees-Mogg.

And What Made Them Famous? 

There are 100 famous people here – in all different roles and activities.  Is there some common thread between them?  Something that they have and that we the unfamous don’t have?

Factors  

We considered eight different factors as to why people might become famous:

  • Family
  • Education
  • Family support
  • Talent
  • Perseverance
  • Dealing with adversity
  • Right place, right time
  • and Luck!

So we looked at every one of our famous people and put them into one of these eight categories.  Some might have fit into more than one category, but we could only choose one.    Obviously there was an element of subjectivity in this.  Even so, the exercise may give us some insight into what factors were important.

The following was our tally in percentage terms for the famous hundred:

  • Family (8%)
  • Education (14%)
  • Family support (14%)
  • Talent (15%)
  • Perseverance (10%)
  • Dealing with adversity (20%)
  • Right place, right time (11%)
  • and Luck (8%)

Family (8%).  Being in the right family is probably not as important as it once was.  The right family counts for a lot less today than it did 100 years and more ago when elite families held sway – the aristocracy in England or the 400 in New York for instance.

In Britain today we could count Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle as famous here for having married into the Royal Family.

Would George W. Bush have been the 43rd President of the United States if George Bush had not been the 41st President?  Similarly with Justin Trudeau in Canada and his father Pierre.  Anderson Cooper and his Vanderbilt mother and ancestors may be more debatable.

Education (14%).  Education counts as well.  We count here solely elite education, such as what might come from the Ivy League or equivalent schools in America and Oxbridge (Oxford and Cambridge) in Britain.

Elite education appears a more important factor to success in Britain than in America, particularly if we count in the elite feeder public schools such as Eton and Harrow.  Famous Britishers with Oxbridge educations have included Tony Blair, Stephen Fry, Hugh Grant and Boris Johnson.

However, the American elite education contribution here would rise if we were to include dropouts such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg who went on to become tech pioneers.

Family Support (14%).  This means the support from parents or from their closest.  By itself the estimated share is 14%.  But parents have also probably paid for elite education and this would double the share here to 28%.

The list includes the likes of Jamie Dimon the banker and Malcolm Gladwell the writer.  They have each credited their parents with enabling them to take the next leap forward.  Jamie Dimon had also a business mentor in Sandy Weill and Malcolm Gladwell might see the Washington Post as his writing mentor.

Tiger Woods would credit his father, Keanu Reeves his step-father.  Beyonce achieved fame initially in Houston with the girl-group Destiny’s Child which her father Mathew Knowles had created.  And the singers Celine Dion in Montreal and Mary Black in Dublin had husbands who nurtured their careers.

Then we have the larger-than-life careers of Rupert Murdoch and Donald TrumpRupert Murdoch was the successor to his father Keith’s media empire in Australia, which he took over unexpectedly when he was at Oxford and just twenty-one.  Donald Trump was the second but favored son of his father Fred and his real estate business.  He started working for his father when he was twenty-two years old.

Talent (15%).  Pure talent must come into the equation, particularly in sports.  Among those we have included here are Michael Jordan and LeBron James in basketball, Tom Brady in football, Ian Thorpe in swimming, and Lewis Hamilton in motor-racing.

However, talent is not enough.  Each one of those who succeeded must have had perseverance in order to get to the top.  There were probably as many equally talented people around at their time, but they lacked that perseverance and never realized their potential.

Perseverance (10%)  We have perseverance as a separate category, where perseverance rather than talent has been the more important factor for them to succeed.

A prime example is Joe Biden – a young Senator in 1972, the US Vice-President in 2012, and the US President in 2020 – a fifty-year career in perseverance.

For the actor Morgan Freeman success did not come until he was fifty and the film Driving Miss Daisy became a big hit.   We have also included here – because of the longevity of their careers – the journalist Bob Woodward and the fashion editor Anna Wintour.   

The Irish talk-show host Graham Norton spent eight years in London as an unemployed actor, working those long, difficult years as a barman and waiter.  Then, in his mid-thirties, he was discovered and his career took off.

Dealing with Adversity (20%).  Some were born with a silver spoon, some were helped along the way.  But others were not.

In fact, if you looked at their life when they were twenty, you would think that it had failure written all over it.  And yet the reverse happened.

An abusive father would be one bad situation.  That was the case with the actor Tom Cruise who was split from his father in Canada at twelve; or master chef Gordon Ramsay who left his Somerset home at sixteen; or businessman Elon Musk who fled South Africa for America at the age of eighteen.

A rocky childhood saw actor Johnny Depp drop out of high school at fifteen.  The actor Tom Hanks had his problems as well and grew up awkward and shy and lonely.

The same could be said for the singer/songwriter Bruce Springsteen who was left by his parents at twenty when they departed for California.  And another singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell found herself broke, pregnant and alone in Toronto at twenty-one.

And then there were the cases when the father had abandoned the family almost after their birth, the case with the singer Adele and the basketball player LeBron James.  For some African American families, a sad heritage of bygone slavery has been a recurring absent father and it has been the maternal line that had held the family together.

In these and other cases, it was seemingly this adversity which provoked the determination and ambition to succeed.

Right Place, Right Time (11%), Some of the famous people might have gone into other categories, but we have put them here as, more importantly, their rise came at the same time as the opportunities in their field became suddenly available to them.

Big Tech was one such place.  Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg were both college drop-outs.  But they saw the opportunity and took it.  Bill Gates pioneered Microsoft in the early 1980’s and Mark Zuckerberg did the same with Facebook twenty years later.  Each in their time changed the face of their industry.

Then there was the British entrepreneur Richard Branson.  In the 1970’s and 1980’s he expanded his business empire from records into airlines and railways and sundry other areas.  With his showman approach, he was able to appeal to the tastes of the newer younger generation of British consumers that had emerged at that time.

Michael O’Leary started out as an accountant at Ryanair.  He became its CEO in 1994 just at the time that low-cost airlines were taking off in Europe.  He positioned Ryanair to be the leader in this growing segment of the market.

And Luck (8%).  The last category we have is luck.

Would Catherine Zeta Jones have started off on her successful acting journey if her parents had not won £100,000 in a national bingo competition in the early 1980’s?  This enabled them to move to a better place in Swansea and to pay for her dance and ballet classes.

Or would Jared Kushner have been so well-known if he had not married the daughter of the man (Donald Trump) who would become the US President in 2016?

Chance has its place.

But luck can also be cruel and can go the other way.  Silicon Valley has backed many shaky start-ups in its time.  But Elizabeth Holmes got exposed as a fraud and ended up in jail.  In Britain Liz Truss lasted for just 44 days as Prime Minister before being booted out of office.

Conclusion

What have we learnt from this?  Many factors can play a role, including talent, perseverance and luck.

But the two that stand out, family support and dealing with adversity, give two alternate routes to fame.  The first is that you make it with the loving support of your family and friends and your family provide you with the best education.  The second is the opposite.  No loving support is available.  Instead, adversity has provoked a very strong determination and ambition to succeed.

Written by Colin Shelley