From Billboard-charting musical hits to award-winning television series, see if you recognize these famous Michiganders.
MICHIGAN—Eminem. Bob Seger. Kid Rock. Some famous Michiganders need no introduction and proudly represent their home state. For other celebrities, their origins might not be so obvious.
Many famous folks have had to move to California or New York for the sake of their careers, but that doesn’t mean you ever really forget where you’re from. And for Michiganders, that hometown pride can run deep. Whether remembering fond days playing football at a Michigan university, attending live shows at one of Michigan’s many live venues, or simply the community of a childhood neighborhood, these famous Michiganders are still as fond of the Mitten State as any of us.
Here’s a few famous Michiganders whose origins you might not have realized.
Hometown: Huntington Woods
Even if you don’t know her, you definitely know Kristen Bell’s most iconic role as Disney’s Princess of Arendelle, Anna, from the hit movie Frozen. Or maybe you’ve seen her portray the recently-deceased “Arizona trash bag” Eleanor Shellstrop on NBC’s The Good Place. But in real life, actress Bell is neither a fantasy princess nor a trash bag from Arizona, but instead, a charming down-to-Earth everywoman from the Detroit suburb of Huntington Woods.
“I very much appreciate that I was raised outside New York or Los Angeles, and had the chance to already figure out who I was,” Bell said about her upbringing in a 2007 interview with Saturday Night Magazine. “My parents gave me really good values and taught me to always be grateful for what I have and I think that makes me a much happier person now.”
Bell was born in 1980 to a mother who worked as a registered nurse, Lorelei, and a TV news director father, Tom. Her parents divorced very young, but this just gave Bell a bigger family. Her mother’s second marriage gave her two half-sisters, Laura and Megan, and two half-brothers, Matt and John. Her father’s second marriage gave her two stepsisters, Sara and Jody. Through Houzz, Bell gifted her stepsister, Sara, a basement remodel to her Detroit house in 2017.
Bell had a natural talent for acting from an early age. She attended Burton International Academy in Detroit, a multicultural school, and also took singing lessons and tap-dancing lessons. She landed her first acting role in a community theater production of Raggedy Ann and Andy where she played a banana and a tree. Later, she performed with Stagecrafters, another community theater troupe. She attended high school at Shrine Catholic High School in Royal Oak. By the time she was a high school freshman, she had an agent and was acting in local commercials. Bell graduated in 1998, and her senior yearbook voted her “Best-Looking Girl.”
The same year that she graduated high school, Bell’s best friend and fellow Stagecrafters actor, Jenny DeRita, was tragically killed in a car accident. Bell was devastated and entered a state of depression, where she didn’t leave her room for days. But Bell ultimately called this the start of her adulthood, when she learned not to take anything for granted. Though the death of her friend made Bell consider giving up, she did go on to attend New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Bell studied musical theatre, which certainly came in handy for her eventual role as a Disney Princess. During college, she first started taking medication for anxiety and depression, where she felt “terrible and exhausted” daily.
“It was just a generalized dark cloud over me,” Bell said in a 2021 interview with Self Magazine. “I felt like my real personality was in a tiny cage inside my body.”
Bell acted in several campus productions, including the musical Hair. When she was just four credits shy from completing her degree, Bell quit school to play Becky Thatcher in the Broadway production of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. She later appeared in The Crucible with Liam Neeson and Laura Linney. In 2002, Bell moved to Los Angeles, where she received her first big break playing the lead role in the Lifetime original movie Gracie’s Choice. Bell’s career continued to skyrocket, catapulting her to stardom in 2004 when she landed the lead role in the teen noir mystery series Veronica Mars.
Though Bell may have left behind the Mitten State for the City of Angels, she held one Michigander pastime close to her heart: hockey. Without it, she may never have married her husband and fellow Michigander, Dax Shepard. Bell was a fan of the Detroit Red Wings since her teens, idolizing Darren McCarty and Chris Osgood. She met Dax Shepard at a 2007 dinner party hosted by a mutual friend, but according to the actress, there were “no sparks” in that relationship at first. In fact, Shepard talked a bit too much for her. It wasn’t until two weeks later, at a hockey game between the Los Angeles Kings and Detroit Red Wings, when Bell and Shepard struck up a conversation as fellow Michiganders. They started flirting at the game and struck up a relationship. Though the relationship was a bit toxic at first, and they briefly broke up three months in, they strengthened their relationship. Shepard proposed to Bell in 2009, thanks to a convincing argument from Arrested Development star Jason Bateman.
Bell’s marriage and family life has been strengthened by her own stances and values. Bell and Shepard didn’t get married until 2013. They wanted to wait until their gay friends had the same right to marry, and they finally tied the knot after the Defense of Marriage Act was overturned. The couple had two daughters, Delta, born in 2014, and Lincoln, born in 2018. Bell started the digital series Momsplaining to delve into her life as a mother and offer parenting tips.
Most recently, Bell provided a face to a COVID-19 awareness campaign to encourage Oakland County residents to wear masks. “The Only Way To Beat It Is To Face It” campaign is a public education campaign that was funded through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. Bell posted a supportive message to her Instagram Story in 2020.
This comedian may find a lot of things funny, but the negative stereotypes surrounding Detroit aren’t part of those things. Keegan-Michael Key has performed a comedy sketch with then-President Barack Obama at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. He created the Emmy Award-winning sketch comedy series Key & Peele with Jordan Peele. In addition to an anticipated role as Toad in Illumination’s upcoming Mario film, Key voiced characters in Toy Story 4, Hotel Transylvania, and The Lego Movie. He even portrayed basketball legend Michael Jordan on Epic Rap Battles of History. Yet despite his many claims to fame, Key is humble enough to remember his roots, and he takes time to visit Detroit whenever he can.
Key is biracial. Both his biological parents and adoptive parents are mixed-race couples. He has Belgian and Polish heritage on his mother’s side and African-American ancestry on his father’s side. Key had two half-brothers on his father’s side, including comic book artist Dwayne McDuffie, but Key only found out about them after both brothers had died. He was born in Southfield and adopted by two social workers from Detroit.
Key’s childhood home was on Woodstock Drive in north Detroit, very close to the intersection of 8 Mile Road and Woodward Avenue. He told Huffington Post how he fondly remembered the sense of community in his neighborhood, where kids played in the street. Key became acquainted with sketch comedy through Saturday Night Live, and specifically became fond of it after his stoic father laughed at a 1983 sketch involving Eddie Murphy and Stevie Wonder.
The now-prolific actor originally wanted to pursue veterinary science until a drama teacher changed his mind. Key attended Shrine Catholic High School in Royal Oak, where he was a self-proclaimed class clown. A drama teacher encouraged him to play the role of Jesus in a production of Godspell, one of his first forays into theater. After playing this role, he decided to switch his career aspirations to acting. After high school, he attended University of Detroit Mercy, where he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in theater in 1993. He was a member of the Phi Kappa Theta fraternity. He then earned a Master of Fine Arts in theater at Pennsylvania State University in 1996.
Throughout the 90s, Key was active in Michigan’s acting community. He worked at the Michigan Renaissance Fair in Holly. Key was one of the founding members of Planet Ant Theatre in Hamtramck, a non-profit artist community that started in 1996. Planet Ant Theatre was formerly Planet Ant Café. It serves as an artist incubator for actors, directors, sound designers, and stage managers. Starting in 1997, Key honed his comedy skills while working with the now-defunct Second City Detroit. Eventually he moved to Second City’s primary location of Chicago, where he stayed until he got a job offer for MADtv. At the time, Key was trying to schedule an audition with Saturday Night Live. If he hadn’t accepted the MADtv offer, he never would have met Jordan Peele, who was hired shortly before Key. The two actors started the series Key & Peele on Comedy Central, which put Key’s career in motion. But even after moving to New York and Los Angeles, Key still loves his hometown.
“Some of the friendliest, friendliest people you’re going to meet are going to be in Detroit,” Key told the Huffington Post. “We’re very kind, and we’ll sit and have a conversation with you. I think we’re met with the energy that we put out. You’ll find in Detroit, if you come with an open heart, we’ll just as soon accept and embrace you.”
Aside from his pet project Planet Ant, Key told the Detroit Free Press about some of his other favorite hangs in the Motor City. He loves the Detroit Institute of Arts, specifically the Detroit Industry Murals, which are 27 hand-painted panels displaying the full spectrum of Detroit’s industrial heritage and history. Key loves how the art is both universal and specific to Detroit. One of Key’s favorite hotspots is Cadieux Cafe on the east side. He calls it “his bar” since both he and the bar are Belgian. He also has fond memories of seeing Second City Detroit alums perform there.
“When I come home to Detroit, I want to help somebody, but that’s only because I had a community to help me,” Key told the Detroit Free Press. “It doesn’t matter if it is comedy or drama, find your tribe and do everything you can to be helpful.”
TIME’s 2019 Entertainer of the Year calls Motown her home. Born Melissa Jefferson, Grammy award-winning singer-songwriter Lizzo is nationally known for her rap vocals, flute performances, and body positivity. Her breakout hit “Truth Hurts,” which won Song of the Year and Record of the Year at the 2020 Grammy Awards, was reportedly about a man from Detroit who gave her “boy problems.”
Lizzo was not always the rap sensation she is today. In fact, as a child in Detroit, she was not even allowed to listen to rap or R&B music due to her family’s religious beliefs. Growing up in the Pentecostal Church, gospel music formed the young would-be singer’s musical repertoire. She has credited the origin of her love for music to the gospel music that she sang with her family. She even had a childhood morning ritual, where she would sing and dance to her favorite songs in front of a mirror.
Lizzo and her family moved to Houston when the aspiring musician was nine years old. She started learning the flute at the age of 10. The young Melissa Jefferson started going by “Lissa” as a teenager. This nickname evolved into her current stage name Lizzo when Jay-Z’s 2001 song “Izzo” grew in popularity. Around the same time, Lizzo and her friends formed a musical group called Cornrow Clique. After graduating high school, she attended the University of Houston where she studied classical music with an emphasis on the flute. But her collegiate career would soon be cut tragically short.
In 2009, when Lizzo was 21 years old, her father Michael Jefferson died. Michael had been a strong influence and support for Lizzo’s music, and his death sent her into a deep depression. The singer has frequently mentioned these dark days, where she had dropped out of school, become homeless, and started living in her car. The singer has recounted how she spent this year crying in her Subaru on Thanksgiving.
“I hadn’t been eating because I didn’t have money, and I was honestly the smallest physically I’d ever been,” Lizzo recounted during her Grammy Award acceptance speech. “And still, that was the worst I’d ever felt about myself.”
Lizzo continued to live out of her car for about a year. Although the loss of her father made her want to give up, she kept pushing forward. By 2011, she moved to Minneapolis, where her career took off after she responded to an ad for a band looking for a singer. She released her debut album “Lizzobangers” in 2013 and collaborated with Prince in 2014 for his album “Plectrumelectrum.” In 2016, she signed with Atlantic Records, then released “Good as Hell” as a single later in the year. The rest was history. The diva has since performed alongside Harry Styles for the 2020 Super Bowl and released “Rumors” with rap icon Cardi B.
Lizzo still gets sentimental when visiting Detroit, as her family still lives in the Motor City. As a successful hip-hop diva, Lizzo has taken care of her mother, Shari Johnson-Jefferson, including buying her a house, car, and brand new wardrobe. But in particular, Detroit reminds Lizzo of her father.
“I wish you could see this… I’d say you wouldn’t believe it—but you knew what I would achieve even back when I couldn’t,” Lizzo said of her father on Instagram in 2021. “All the hugs and love I gave my daddy are still here. I can feel it. Love never dies.”
That dreamy indie pop song you just heard on the radio might be the creation of this Alpena native. Born Jonathan Visger, Absofacto is best known for the 2017 indie-pop ballad “Dissolve,” released on the EP “A Thousand Peaces.” The song went viral on video-sharing app TikTok in 2019. By 2020, it reached #1 on Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart. The same year, Absofacto released the sequel to “Dissolve,” called “Someone Else’s Dream.” Visger’s trending career, though, has been over a decade in the making.
Though he may be trending on the radio now, Jonathan Visger started as a skater kid from the small northern Michigan town of Alpena. Visger did not have any formal music training. Throughout high school, he played in multiple bands and grew in Alpena’s local self-made music scene. Visger majored in computer science at Michigan Technological University, but found that he spent most of his time making music. After one semester, he dropped out and started pursuing a music career. He attended a music recording school, Recording Institute of Detroit, for music industry knowledge.
In 2004, Visger formed the indie rock band Mason Proper with friends from high school, bassist Zac Fineberg, guitarist and keyboardist Matt Thomson, guitarist Brian Konicek, and drummer Garrett Jones. According to Visger, Mason Proper strove to make music that “doesn’t sound like anything else.” The band moved to Ann Arbor, where they played in many live shows and toured nationally and internationally. They released one album under their own label, Mang Chung, then re-released it when signed to New York-based Dovecote Records. A second album was released under Dovecote as well.
Absofacto is Visger’s solo project that absolves itself of music genre constrictions. Songs released under the Absofacto name are made using multi-tracking; Visger creates the music electronically using multiple samples and sounds for instrumental tracks. “A Thousand Peaces” was released the same year Absofacto signed with Atlantic Records. “Dissolve” did not perform well until user SunriseMusic uploaded the song to TikTok. Over three million videos have since been made to the song. After a controversial video trend emerged using the song, Visger and the Absofacto fans reclaimed the song to spread sexual abuse awareness on TikTok. Visger is even working with RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, to initiate dialogue about how TikTok can better monitor trends that are triggering to survivors of sexual abuse.
You may know him from his aggressive advertising of Old Spice products, unintentionally breaking things on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, singing Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” in White Chicks, or playing for the NFL in the 90s. But you’ve definitely seen at least one node in the expansive career of Western Michigan University and Interlochen Center for the Arts alum Terry Crews.
Crews grew up in Flint when the auto industry was booming. His father, also named Terry Crews, was an autoworker who was also an abusive alcoholic. Crews started working out at the age of 13 to try and become stronger so he could protect his mother Patricia. Yet, he also found an escape through creative pursuits. He learned how to play the flute after receiving the instrument as a Christmas gift from a great aunt. He was also fond of drawing superheroes.
“For me, art was my peace,” Crews said during a Distinguished Speaker Series at University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. “I remember as a kid pulling out the paper, pencils and colored pencils and markers, and I would get lost for hours and hours.”
After attending Flint’s Southwestern Academy, Crews got an art scholarship to attend Interlochen Center for the Arts. He then earned a full scholarship to Western Michigan University to play football, but he majored in art. His first job in the arts was actually as a courtroom sketch artist in 1987, a job that he got as a result of his father. By stroke of luck, he was the sketch artist for Flint’s worst murder trial when the original sketch artist couldn’t make it.
Crews played defense for the WMU Broncos, where his team won the 1988 Mid-American Conference Championship. He got drafted to the Los Angeles Rams in 1991. He played for several other teams, including the Green Bay Packers, San Diego Chargers, Washington Redskins, and Philadelphia Eagles. By 1997, he retired from the NFL and moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career. His first foray into acting was when the self-funded anti-drug production Young Boys Incorporated, which was filmed in Detroit. Crews co-wrote and co-produced the film. He soon started acting in commercials, such as the Old Spice commercials. From there, he started acting in films and television.
Although Crews has more than enough things to keep him busy, he told MLive in 2019 that he’d love to return to Michigan. “I have no idea when I can get back, but believe me, I will jump at the chance if there’s a time to squeeze it in,” Crews said.
If you’re still repping Team Jacob over Team Edward, we don’t blame you—it’s hard to dislike Taylor Lautner. The Grand Rapids-born actor is best known for being the werewolf in a love triangle in the Twilight series, which made him the highest-paid teen actor in 2010. Most recently, he received media coverage for proposing to his same-named girlfriend, Taylor Dome. This was not the only Taylor that Lautner dated, as he also had a brief fling with songstress Taylor Swift.
Until the age of 11, Lautner lived in Hudsonville, a town just west of Grand Rapids. His father, Daniel, was a pilot for Midwest Airlines, and his mother, Deborah, was a software company worker. He also has a younger sister, Makena. Before he was a teen heartthrob, Lautner was a karate prodigy. He began studying martial arts at Fabiano’s Karate School at the age of six. After training under seven-time world karate champion Mike Chat, who also played the blue Power Ranger, Lautner became the Junior World Forms and Weapons champion. By the age of 12, he was a three-time Junior World Champion.
Lautner became interested in acting after attending Mike Chat’s camp at UCLA and learning other martial artists went into acting. He auditioned for a Burger King commercial at the age of seven, which he didn’t get. He was bullied in school for his interest in acting. But his karate roots made Lautner disciplined and persistent. His first acting gig was in a promotional spot for Nickelodeon’s Rugrats movie at the age of nine. When Lautner told his parents at ten years of age that acting was what he wanted to do, they were ready to support his career. The family moved to Los Angeles in 2003, when Lautner was 11, to help him break into acting.
After the success of Twilight, Lautner’s career endured a few bumps and abandoned projects. It became hard to escape the fame of his role as Jacob Black, and he decided to be pickier about his role choices. His last roles were in 2016 with Scream Queens and Run the Tide, but we think a resurgence in his career isn’t far off. In 2020, Lautner bought a house on nine acres of land in California. And with a wedding on the horizon, it might not be long before we see this Michigan Karate Kid on the big screen once again.
Hometown: Pontiac and Rochester Hills
America’s culture in the 80s wouldn’t have been the same without the iconic hits of “Material Girl” and “Like A Virgin.” And Michigan’s nightlife culture wouldn’t have been the same without Madonna.
The Queen of Pop was born Madonna Louise Ciccone in Bay City. She is a middle child with five siblings. She was raised in the Detroit suburbs of Pontiac and Rochester Hills. Her father, Italian immigrant Tony Ciccone, worked as an engineer designer for Chrysler and General Motors. When Madonna was only five years old, she struggled with her mother’s sudden death of breast cancer. Madonna’s mother, also named Madonna, was buried in Kawkawlin near Bay City. Tony remarried, selecting the family’s housekeeper Joan. Long after Madonna’s rise to fame, Tony and Joan opened the Ciccone Vineyard & Winery on the Leelanau Peninsula.
Madonna credits her lack of inhibition to losing her mother and her rebellious attitude to her struggles to accept her stepmother. She also became motivated to get as much as she could out of life, after the loss of her mother taught her that death could come at any time. Madonna attended high school at Rochester Adams High School, where she was a straight-A student and cheerleader. However, she never quite felt like she fit in. She met her ballet instructor Christopher Flynn, who inspired Madonna not only to dance, but also to support the gay community, as he was a gay man.
Flynn introduced Madonna to the gay nightlife in Detroit. Menjo’s in Detroit is said to be the first gay bar she ever danced at. An urban legend claims she was kicked out of Menjo’s for exposing herself. Menjo’s still has the disco ball that Madonna used to dance under.
“I finally felt like I was not alone, that it was OK to be different and to not be like everybody else,” Madonna said during her acceptance speech at the 2019 GLAAD Media Awards, as she recalled her memories from Detroit’s gay nightlife. “I was not a freak. I felt at home, and it gave me hope.”
After high school, Madonna received a dance scholarship to attend the University of Michigan. The Queen of Pop was a Wolverine from about 1976 to 1978. During her time in Ann Arbor, she lived in apartment 10A in University Towers. She worked at the Blue Frogge bar and disco, now known as Rick’s American Cafe, where she met songwriter and producer Steve Bray, who she dated on and off. She also frequented the Rubaiyat, a gay bar that is now the site of LIVE Nightclub. Madonna dropped out and moved to New York City in 1978. Her boyfriend from Michigan, Steve Bray, joined her in her first band, the Breakfast Club, and later formed Emmy and the Emmys with her. Madonna signed with Sire Records in 1982, but opted not to work with Bray for her debut 1983 album, Madonna. Bray later composed songs and wrote lyrics for the Broadway adaptation of The Color Purple.
As Madonna’s career turned her into one of the most influential musical artists in the world, she distanced herself from her home state. However, Detroit still held a special place in her heart, and her philanthropic efforts touched her hometown, including a donation to charter school Detroit Prep.