Celebrities Whose Names Sound Fake But Are Actually Real
From Madonna to Zendaya to Thelonious Monk, here are the celebs who use their real names.
Celebrities tend to change their names to be catchier, easier to spell or simply different from another similarly named famous person. But what we like about the following stars is that their memorable, unusual or cool names were given to them at birth, before they were famous.
Baby, they were born this way! (Sorry, no, Lady Gaga is not the singer-actress’ birth name.)
Note that we aren’t including the birth names of children of celebrities, who tend to be given unique monikers to make them stand out like their famous parents.
Legendary jazz pianist Thelonius Monk had a name you might expect of a heavy metal band or a Shakespearean character. But Monk was actually the second of three Thelonius Monks, in between his father before him and his son after him. Monk II’s name was misspelled as “Monk, Thelious, Jr.” on his birth certificate, and he also had an unusual middle name: Sphere. Theolonius is German in origin.
“Just for his name alone, the presence of Thelonious Monk on the planet between 1917 and 1982 has probably registered with more people who know little and care less about jazz than almost any other of its legends,” wrote The Guardian’s jazz critic John Fordham.
Monk’s son goes by T.S. Monk to distinguish himself from his father.
How did famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma get his distinctive name? His Chinese immigrant parents put “Yo” in both his and his sister’s name. “Yo” translates to friendly or friendship. Technically his full Chinese name reads as Ma Yo-Yo.
“There’s a Chinese tradition that all the siblings from one generation share one character in their names in common, or one syllable,” Ma said in an episode of PBS’ “Faces of America” documentary series.
But as for the other “Yo” in his first name, Ma mused, “Either my parents had a sick sense of humor or they — because they did know that Yo-Yo was the name of a toy — either they had no more ideas, and they just said, OK, ‘Yo-Yo.’ But that ended up being my name.”
For all intents and purposes, Oprah has been Oprah since she was a baby. But the full story is that her family intended to name her Orpah, after one of the daughters-in-law in the Book of Ruth.
But here’s how Oprah told the rest of the story to the American Academy of Achievement in 1991:
“I was born, as I said, in rural Mississippi in 1954. I was born at home. There were not a lot of educated people around and my name had been chosen from the Bible. My Aunt Ida had chosen the name, but nobody really knew how to spell it, so it went down as ‘Orpah’ on my birth certificate, but people didn’t know how to pronounce it, so they put the ‘P’ before the ‘R’ in every place else other than the birth certificate. On the birth certificate it is Orpah, but then it got translated to Oprah, so here we are.”
CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer said in a 2011 video Q&A that the most frequently asked question he gets is whether his name really is Wolf Blitzer. “I can assure you my real name is Wolf Blitzer. Didn’t make it up,” he said.
Blitzer is his German-Jewish family’s name, and Wolf was his maternal grandfather’s name. Blitzer’s middle name is Isaac.
He did at one point use the aliases “Ze’ev Blitzer” and “Ze’ev Barak” in the 1970s while writing for Hebrew-language newspapers. Ze’ev means “wolf,” and Barak means “lightning.”
Leonardo Wilhelm DiCaprio is the well-known actor’s full name. Wilhelm is his German maternal grandfather’s name, and DiCaprio is his family name. But the interesting story about how he was named Leonardo includes the family legend that his mother was looking at a painting by Leonardo da Vinci in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence when her baby boy began kicking a lot.
“And so, my dad, being the artist that he is, said, ‘That’s our boy’s name,'” DiCaprio said in an NPR interview.
Interestingly enough, an agent did try to get a young DiCaprio to change his name to Lenny Williams because he said “Leonardo DiCaprio” was “too ethnic,” but DiCaprio refused.
Ono’s first name means “ocean child.” Her mother and sister share the same name, Isoko, which translates to “beach, shore child.” And her brother’s name, Eisuke, translates to “clear river” in one kanji form.
Ono added Lennon to her name after she and John Lennon were married, and Lennon took Ono as his middle name.
Sharon Stone’s alliterative and solidly Hollywood-sounding name is her own! Sharon Yvonne Stone was born in Meadville, Pennsylvania, to Joseph Stone II and Dorothy Stone. Her father was a journeyman die maker and her mother stayed at home. Prior to marrying Joseph Stone, Dorothy Stone was a third generation Irish maid.
At a 2017 awards ceremony, Sharon Stone recalled her mother’s personality. “She never really told me she loved me, and a couple of years ago when I said, ‘Mom, you never really let me lean on you,’ she said, ‘That’s right, I taught you to stand on your own two g-d-mn feet.’ And for a long time, I felt bad about that. Until I really realized what it must have been like to be a 9-year-old maid.”
Billy Bob Thornton
OK, so his full name is William Robert Thornton. But Billy Bob seems to suit the actor from Arkansas better.
“There is some prejudice against actors from the South,” Thornton told the New York Times. “I didn’t really get auditions when I was coming up in Hollywood. They either wanted me to play a hillbilly or a killer, sometimes at the same time! Sometimes they’d even say I wasn’t Southern enough. Really, I am not Southern enough? They wanted me to talk like Big Daddy [in the Mississippi-set ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’].”
Thornton got his first name from his father and his middle name from his maternal great-grandfather. His brothers are John David and Jimmy Don.
Zendaya Maree Stoermer Coleman is the only child of Claire Marie (Stoermer) and Kazembe Ajamu (birth name Samuel David Coleman). She was born and raised in Oakland and became a Disney star at a young age. Zendaya means “to give thanks” in Shona, a dialect in Zimbabwe.
Kelly took ballet as a child and later modeled, so she fulfilled the meaning of her name. “Her walk became something unique: regal above the waist, shoulders back and head high, and a floating quality below, akin to a geisha’s glide, or a swan’s,” wrote Vanity Fair.
At some point after a person becomes famous, it’s hard to separate their name from their fame. So it might be with the late Leonard Nimoy. But he still has a distinctive moniker. Nimoy was born in Boston to Ukrainian-Jewish immigrant parents and grew up speaking Yiddish along with English.
Nimoy has said that he admired his maternal grandfather, who liked adventure and encouraged him to try new things. “He was quietly supportive because he admired that sense of ‘try something, go out and do it.'”
Now there’s an asteroid named Nimoy after the actor most known for his role as Spock in “Star Trek.” In fact, it was Nimoy who came up with the Vulcan “V” hand gesture, basing it on a Jewish blessing.
Actress Uma Thurman has a first name that can have many meanings but was picked for her because in Sanskrit it means “bright one.” Her middle name is Karuna (“empathy,” “compassion,” “mercy”). Thurman’s father, Robert, is an Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies professor at Columbia, a writer and a former Buddhist monk who studied with the Dalai Lama.
“The Dalai Lama was a regular visitor to our house when I was a child. I received his blessings more than once,” Thurman told the Hindustan Times.
Robert and his model wife, Nena, gave all four of their children names with Indian/Buddhist connections. Her brothers are Ganden, Dechen and Mipam (she also has a half-sister from her father’s first marriage). The New York Times once described the family as “the Trapp family of Buddhism, although they don’t sing.”
When Austrian bodybuilder and Mr. Universe Arnold Schwarzenegger was trying to make it big in Hollywood, people wanted to change a lot about him — including his name.
Schwarzenegger told a screening audience during a Q&A in 2015 that he felt fortunate to have “made it.” “That I was able to bridge over to acting even though the majority of people in Hollywood said it would never happen because of my accent because of my body being overly developed, and because of my name — that wouldn’t be able to pronounce,” he said. “All those kinds of excuses. So, I did not listen to the naysayers and was just going after my vision. I was very happy it then worked out.”
Even Mark Hamill, aka Luke Skywalker, advised him to change his name. “I told him to lose his accent for a wider range of roles & to change his last name since no one could pronounce it,” Hamill tweeted. “He did the opposite & became one of the biggest stars EVER.”
British actor Brian Blessed (pronounced with two syllables) has a catchy name and a big personality. “I love my name, Brian Blessed,” he said on an episode of the BBC genealogy TV series “Who Do You Think You Are?”. “It’s the most perfect name. Brian. Blessed. Boom boom. I wouldn’t exchange it for any name.”
Blessed was born in Yorkshire to second-generation coal miner William Blessed and his wife Hilda Wall Blessed.
Americans might best know this Shakespearean actor for his role as Antonio in “Much Ado About Nothing,” the voice of Boss Nass in “Phantom Menace,” or as the voice of Grampy Rabbit in the “Peppa Pig” TV series. But over in Britain, he’s a beloved thespian known for his boisterous persona.
One name singer-songwriter Kesha was born Kesha Rose Sebert in Los Angeles to a singer-songwriter mother. For a while, Kesha spelled her name with a $ sign in place of the “s,” but she went back to her birth spelling in 2014.
“My facade was to be strong, and I realized it was total bullshit,” Kesha said during a Refinery29 SXSW talk about changing back the spelling of her name. “I took out the $ because I realized that was part of the facade. It was a journey and I’m happy — that was me in that part of my life.”
Beloved children’s songwriter and musician Raffi Cavoukian is best known by his first name. He is Armenian but was born in Egypt and raised from the age of 10 in Toronto.
His mother named him after Hakob Melik Hakobian, an Armenian poet who used the pen name Raffi.
“Normally, I would have been named Asadour after my maternal grandfather, but my mother had other plans,” Cavoukian said in his autobiography. “She went to her father for a heart-to-heart chat and said that much as she loved him dearly, she was not so fond of his name … Asadour brushed the matter aside with a colorful Turkish expletive, saying his name was of little concern to him and she was free to choose another … [and] the way was clear for [my mother] Lucie to name me after one of the most celebrated Armenian writers and one of her favorite authors.”
Madonna Louise Ciccone is not the first Madonna in her family. She was named after her mother, Madonna Louise Fortin, who died at age 30 from breast cancer when Madonna was only 5. Her father, Silvio Anthony “Tony” Ciccone, later remarried, but Madonna was always affected by her mother’s passing.
“You walk around with a big hole inside you, a feeling of emptiness and longing … and I think a lot of times that’s why you become an overachiever,” Madonna later said.
When the dancer-singer went into showbiz, she stuck with just her first name.
Usher Terry Raymond IV was born to Usher Raymond III and Jonetta Patton in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Usher continued the tradition, naming the older of his two sons (with ex-wife Tameka Foster) Usher V.
Adele Laurie Blue Adkins’ full name makes you wonder if the songstress ever considered going by the moniker “Adele Blue.” But with a powerhouse voice like hers, one name is probably enough.
Adele was born to Mark Evans and Penny Adkins in London and grew up in the city. Starting at age 14, she attended the prestigious Brit School for Performing Arts & Technology in Croydon, and became famous with her first album, “19,” which was released when she was about the same age.
Former Chicago Bears linebacker, NFL Hall of Famer and sports commentator Richard “Dick” Butkus has a unique and, some might say, slightly unfortunate name. He was the youngest of eight children born in Chicago to Lithuanian immigrants John and Emma Butkus. (Butkus is a common name in Lithuania.)
If he ever got made fun of for his name, he’s certainly shown the teasers by now, as he’s often described as one of the best, most “fearsome” linebackers in NFL history.
“He is part-man, part-monster, glaring at them from the other side of the line as they hover over center waiting to take the snap,” wrote Southern Illinoisan newspaper in 1970. “But quarterbacks really are no match for him. They are just sitting ducks in a carnival arcade.”
Early- to mid-20th century stage and screen actress Tallulah Bankhead had big eyes and a big name. Tallulah was picked as her first name in honor of her paternal grandmother, who in turn had been named after Tallulah Falls, Georgia. Her father, William Brockman Bankhead, was speaker of the U.S House of Representatives, and the Brockman Bankhead family was well-known in Alabama politics.
Orlando Jonathan Blanchard Bloom was born in Canterbury, England. He was named Orlando after his mother’s love for 17th-century British composer Orlando Gibbons. He took his last name from the man he thought was his father for many years, lawyer and anti-apartheid activist Harry Bloom. Orlando’s real father turned out to be a family friend, Colin Stone, who later became Orlando’s guardian. Orlando also has ancestors who lived in India and Tasmania.
Shakira Isabel Mebarak Ripoll was born to a Lebanese father, William Mebarak Chadid, and Colombian mother, Nidia Ripoll Torrado. In Arabic, Shakira means “thankful” or “grateful.”
“I was a real mummy’s girl – still am,” Shakira told The Telegraph in 2009. “And as for my father, well I have an Oedipus complex I’m still working out. I love that man!”
There aren’t that many Benedict Cumberbatches out there, and the actor with a name that reaches Horatio Hornblower levels of awesomeness didn’t make his name up. In fact, with his middle names snazzing up his entire moniker, Benedict Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch could command his own fleet in the Royal Navy.
That’s not to say that some don’t take Cumberbatch’s distinctive appellation seriously or mess it up. But he’s a good sport about it, even appearing in a Jimmy Kimmel segment trying out new names.
Beyoncé Giselle Knowles was born in Houston to Mathew Knowles and Celestine “Tina” Beyince.
Tina grew up in a French-speaking Louisiana Creole family and her last name is French. When she had her daughter, Tina named her after her maiden name, which is pronounced similar to “bay-EN-say.”
“My sister Tina [Knowles] didn’t think we had enough boys in the family to keep the [Beyince] name going, so she gave Beyoncé our last name as the first name,”Beyoncé’s uncle Roland Beyince said at a movie premiere.
When he was first starting out, Keanu Reeves’ agents asked him to change his name. Reeves suggested Chuck Spadina and then Templeton Page Taylor. Luckily, he ended up sticking with his own birth name.
“It’s a movie star name!” Jimmy Fallon told him on “The Tonight Show.”
Reeves was born in Beirut and moved to Australia, then New York and finally Toronto, where he became a Canadian citizen. His mother is British and his father is an American who was born in Hawaii and has Portuguese, Chinese, Hawaiian and British heritage. Keanu’s first name means “cool breeze” in Hawaiian.
While she dropped her first name, the striking Dorothy Faye Dunaway kept her middle and last names to use professionally.
“It was sometime in high school,” her brother, Mac Dunaway said in a 1984 Washington Post story. “She just came home and dropped her first name.”
Her parents are Grace April and John MacDowell Dunaway, Jr. Her father was an Army officer and her mother was a homemaker. The two divorced when Dorothy Faye was 13.
Ryan Rodney Reynolds. With that kind of alliteration, why would you change your name? Reynolds was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, to James and Tamara Reynolds.
Reynolds didn’t have the best relationship with his dad, “a former cop, former boxer, full-time landmine,” he told Mr. Porter. But the two reconciled before his father passed away in 2015 thanks to Reynolds’ wife, Blake Lively. The pair’s oldest daughter, James, is named after Reynolds’ dad.
Kevin Norwood Bacon was born in Philadelphia to Edmund Norwood Bacon and Ruth Hilda Holmes. His father was a well-known Philadelphia architect. “He loved to see his picture in the paper,” Bacon said of his dad in The Guardian. “I wanted to be more famous than him.”
With such a tasty last name, no wonder Kevin Bacon didn’t change it. And now he even has a game named after him: Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.