Celebrities Who Used Fame to Launch Careers in Politics

By Jake SchroederLast Updated Apr 18, 2020 9:37:32 PM ET
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The current U.S. President is proof positive that a little bit of celebrity can't hurt when it comes to making the transition into politics. After all, a race for political office is essentially a popularity contest, and many celebrities-turned-politicians happily use their famous names to get the audiences they need to get elected.

From President to Governor and various other positions in the political pecking order, these celebs made the transition to public service with varying degrees of success. Let’s see how many famous faces you remember.

Donald Trump

Love him or hate him, Donald Trump is one of only two celebrities to successfully turn a popular persona into the presidency. The other celebrity was once an actor, but he didn’t have the same level of name recognition that Donald Trump had. Trump was a bona fide A-lister before he even launched his television show.

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Trump: Photo Courtesy: NBC Universal/IMDb; @rudepundit/Twitter

He rose to fame as rock star real estate developer in New York City and, eventually, across the globe. His reputation as a Playboy with unrivaled bravado only enhanced his tabloid allure, and his rise to the highest office in the land has further boosted his Q rating.

Sonny Bono

Sonny Bono is often remembered for his marriage to Cher and his tragic demise in a skiing accident in 1998. Often lost in the shuffle is the fact that Bono served as mayor of Palm Springs, California, and later served in the United States House of Representatives.

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His stint as mayor lasted five years, from 1988 to 1992. Bono didn’t retire from politics when his term was over. Instead, he took the next step into national politics. He was a current member of Congress at the time of his death.

Kane

Glenn Jacobs is known by most as Kane, the often-masked wrestler famous for intimidating his opponents with his sheer size and gruffness. In 2018, he became much more than a wrestler when he followed in the footsteps of former wrestling great Jesse Ventura and successfully won a race for political office.

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Which office? Jacobs became the county mayor of Knox County, Tennessee, after running on a platform focused on low taxes, improving education, increasing jobs, community safety and transparency. It’s a classic Republican ticket, and Jacobs rode the pro-Trump wave to victory.

Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan is one of the most respected presidents in history, partially because he managed to avoid much of the partisan bickering that we see today. Before he toppled the Soviet Union, revived a previously lagging American economy and implored Russian President Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall, Ronald Reagan was the star of Bedtime for Bonzo.

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Well, some would argue that Bonzo the monkey was actually the star of Bedtime for Bonzo, but you get the point. Reagan was one of the first actors — or celebrities in general — to make the transition into politics. Think of him as Trump before Trump.

Shirley Temple Black

Younger generations probably haven't heard of Shirley Temple Black — a.k.a. singing, dancing, child sensation Shirley Temple. She hasn't been culturally relevant for quite some time, thanks to the fading nature of celebrity, but Black was more than just a celebrity. The child star of the ‘30s and ‘40s got her second wind as a politician.

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Her first shot at politics wasn't actually successful — she lost her Congressional run in 1967. She remained determined and was awarded an ambassadorship to Ghana in 1974 during the Ford administration. Better late than never!

Clay Aiken

If Clay Aiken was invisible, as his most popular song imagines, then he wouldn’t have been much of a politician or a musician, for that matter. As it is, Aiken is one of the most well-known American Idol runners-up.

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With his folksy Southern twang and his C-list name recognition, he used his celebrity to gain a foothold on the path to political office. He ran for United States Congress in 2014 as a Democratic candidate for his home state of North Carolina. He lost, but it could be worse. He could be invisible.

Kal Penn

Instead of Harold and Kumar going to White Castle, it looks like Kumar was more intent on going to the White House. At least, that’s the impression you might get when you hear that actor Kal Penn — obviously of Harold and Kumar fame — took a detour into politics for a while.

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Penn didn't actually run for political office, but he served various roles in the Obama administration as a player in the White House Office of Public Engagement. So, as it turns out, Kumar really did go to the White House.

Linda McMahon

The First Lady of Wrestling as the wife of WWE founder Vince McMahon, Linda McMahon apparently had some big dreams of her own. Beyond being the CEO of WWE, she had some political aspirations.

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McMahon ran for the United States Senate twice, in 2010 and 2012, and lost both times. President Donald Trump, who has his own history with the WWE, appointed McMahon Administrator of the Small Business Administration. That counts as holding political office, even if it wasn’t by election.

Fred Thompson

All the OG Law and Order fans will immediately recognize Fred Thompson as District Attorney Arthur Branch, who always offered sage advice. Thompson's Southern drawl and silver tongue were no act, and he took those attributes to the political arena when he won a U.S. Senate seat in 1994.

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He served the people of Tennessee for nearly 10 years until 2003. In 2008, he tried for the Republican presidential nomination, but he lost out to John McCain along with all the other Republican hopefuls.

Clint Eastwood

Some stars, including Presidents Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump, end up becoming more famous for their political status than their previous celebrity status. That’s not true for Clint Eastwood, who was once the mayor of Carmel, California. That fact is impressive but pales in comparison to his ongoing acting and directing accolades.

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So, Dirty Harry was once Dirty Mayory, a fact that might win you trivia night someday (if you're lucky). He also served as a member of the California State Park and Recreation Commission under two different governors. It's yet another notch on Eastwood's political belt.

Manny Pacquiao

Manny Pacquiao is a stone-fisted boxer who stands at only 5 feet, 5 inches tall. Height aside, the Pac-Man has a career record of 62-7 and is still fighting at the young age of 40. In recent years, he has parlayed his massive stature in his home nation of the Philippines into a political career.

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Pacquiao was elected to the Philippine House of Representatives in 2010 and then became a senator in 2016. He currently serves in his senatorial role and has given no hint of giving it up any time soon.

Jesse Ventura

Wrestlers like Kane turning to a political life would seem a bit absurd if it weren't for Jesse Ventura, who proved that a career in WWE wasn't a non-starter for political life. In fact, Ventura's notoriety as the wrestler known as "The Body" may have been an advantage in launching his political career.

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In 1998, Ventura was elected to the governor's office in the state of Minnesota, a surprising development for those who didn't understand Minnesotans' attraction to a guy who always, always said what was on his mind. Ventura's also a minor movie star, which doesn't hurt his popularity.

Al Franken

Al Franken is one of the names on this list that younger generations may only know as a politician. Those who are a little more seasoned know Franken as a former comedian on Saturday Night Live first and as a politician second.

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Franken was elected to the United States Senate from the state of Minnesota in 2009. He held that position through 2018, when he became embroiled in allegations of sexual misconduct and chose to step down from his position. He continues to maintain his innocence with respect to the allegations.

Stacey Dash

Stacey Dash was first introduced to the world in the movie Clueless, which dropped in 1995. She went on to have a modest career in film and television and a more successful career as a model. She has transitioned into a political figure in recent years, showing support for President Trump and even launching her own political foray.

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Dash ran for a Congressional seat in California in 2018 but was unsuccessful. Her "Dash to D.C." campaign was always a longshot, considering she was running as a Republican in California.

Wyclef Jean

The man behind "Perfect Gentleman" apparently thought he would be the perfect politician for his home nation of Haiti, which he has supported in his music throughout his career. Wyclef has massive name recognition in Haiti, but that wasn’t enough to propel him to the presidency of the troubled nation.

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Wyclef wasn't actually ever on the ballot. It turns out you have to live in Haiti for five years prior to the election. Wyclef is way too wealthy to move back to Haiti, so his bid for the presidency was denied.

Arnold Schwarzenegger

The man known as "Ah-nuld" is a massive, massive movie star, a career that started when he became the most successful bodybuilder of his time. Movies such as Terminator, Twins, Kindergarten Cop, Junior, Predator and True Lies propelled Arnold to superstardom, so it was only fitting he would run for office in the state that is home to Hollywood.

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Arnold was one of the rare Republicans to be elected Governor of California. Not surprisingly, he was just as beloved by his supporters as he was loathed by his detractors. Arnold traded universal admiration for polarization when he ran and won, and he regrets nothing.

Cynthia Nixon

Cynthia Nixon may not have been the most famous lady in the Sex and the City crew, but there's no denying she’s an extremely recognizable celebrity. She played some minor roles in other films and television shows, but her second career in politics is what has kept her relevant.

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Nixon went for it in a big way. She ran as a Democrat against incumbent New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in the 2018 election cycle. Cuomo was the institutional candidate with more funding and political clout behind him, and it ultimately proved too much for Nixon to overcome, despite getting the vote of the Bernie Sanders’ crowd.

Bill Bradley

Bill Bradley is a name that Millennials and Gen Z may not know. Even older folks who don't follow professional sports may not recognize the name. Bradley, who has served in the United States Senate for nearly 20 years, had a long and illustrious career in the National Basketball Association before diving into politics.

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As a New York Knick, Bradley played more than 700 games and won multiple NBA championships. He was so successful as an NBA big man that he was ultimately inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

Jim Bunning

Baseball buffs certainly know the name Jim Bunning, as he is one of only 23 pitchers to pitch a perfect game in their career. The man who was perfect as a pitcher eventually decided he wanted to try his hand at politics. It turns out that it was a pretty good choice.

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Bunning served in the United States Senate as a representative for the state of Kentucky. His career spanned from 1999 to 2010, a good stretch in politics — but not nearly as long as his 23-year baseball career.

Jack Kemp

Something about sports seems to translate well into politics. Maybe it’s the perception that athletes are gritty, tough and capable of pulling off a critical victory when faced with immense pressure. Maybe it’s just the prior name recognition. Either way, this former Buffalo Bills quarterback found success in both his sport and political lives.

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As a quarterback for the upstate New York franchise, Kemp was a seven-time Pro Bowler, which is particularly impressive when you learn he only played seven seasons. His football career spanned from 1962 to 1969, while his political career ran from 1971 to 1989.

Melissa Gilbert

Little House on the Prairie, anyone? If you're not a fan of the wholesome show from the ‘70’s, then you may not know Melissa Gilbert was once a TV celebrity. She decided to put the name recognition she had to the test when she decided to run for political office.

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Gilbert planned on running for a congressional seat in the state of Michigan, representing the 8th district. It appeared that she was the likely nominee, but then health problems led her to drop out of the race.

Steven Michael Quezada

Steven Michael Quezada is one of those character actors that you know from somewhere, but may not be able to remember exactly where. His most well-known project was a role playing a DEA agent in Breaking Bad alongside primary character, Hank Schrader.

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But Quezada is more than just an actor. He won a position on New Mexico Bernalillo County Commission District 2 in 2017, making his role as a New Mexico public official seem even more believable.

Ben Stein

Bueller? Bueller? Bueller? These are perhaps the most famous words associated with Ben Stein’s entertainment career, but he has served as much more than just a teacher to Ferris Bueller. He has played roles in other big-budget movies like Casper, The Mask, Ghostbusters 2 and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

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Stein has hosted his own game show and even had a stint in politics, which is why he earned a spot on this list. His role was less traditional, politically speaking, as he served as a speechwriter for two presidents, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.

John Gavin

John Gavin is an actor whose most notable role came in the horror classic Psycho. His career was on a steep upward trajectory. Many even believed he was next in line to play James Bond after George Lazenby. Sean Connery returned to nix that idea, but Gavin went on to great things nonetheless.

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It turns out that his role as the President of the Screen Actors Guild came in handy for his political future. He served as the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, one of the country's most important allies, between 1981 and 1986.

Ben Jones

Ben Jones is definitely somebody the younger generation will struggle to recognize, as his most notable TV role was "Cooter," the lovable mechanic in the original television version of The Dukes of Hazzard. The bumbling mechanic act was obviously purely for fun, as Jones proved sharp enough to win political office.

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He served two terms as a Congressman from Georgia. As such, he was notably one of the few Democrats to call for Bill Clinton to resign in the midst of impeachment proceedings related to Clinton's perjury.

Roseanne Barr

Roseanne Barr gained a loyal following as a comedian who went on to star in a television show bearing her own name. In recent years, she has taken her sharp-tongued persona to the political arena, focusing on an anti-war message, as the presidential candidate for the Green Party.

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Barr has gotten into hot water recently for making comments that some deemed controversial, and the controversy all but vanquished her political career. Still, to make it onto the presidential ballot as an actor is a feat that must be recognized and commended.

Jerry Springer

Jerry! Jerry! Jerry! That was the chant of crowds during the course of The Jerry Springer Show's 27-season run. Springer was always willing to play mediator amidst the mayhem while trying to impart whatever life lessons he could to his typically misguided guests.

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This celebrity had a political life before getting into showbiz. He served as the mayor of Cincinnati, Ohio, from 1977 to 1978 after serving on the Cincinnati City Council for a number of years. Springer went on to become a political radio commentator before going on to star on TV.

George Takei

George Takei got his big break as Hikaru Sulu, the helmsman of the USS Enterprise on the (not nerdy at all) sci-fi classic Star Trek. Takei has enjoyed something of a resurgence as a "cool" older guy among the younger generations, but they probably aren’t aware that he has a past in politics.

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Takei was an Alternate Delegate at the 1972 Democratic National Convention and then proceeded to inject himself into California politics. He ran for the Los Angeles City Council in 1972 and then the California State Assembly in 1980. He didn't win either, but the effort still counts!

Antonio Sabàto Jr.

Okay, so Antonio Sabàto Jr. isn't exactly a household name, but he is technically someone who once qualified as a celebrity (however minor) and went on to launch a career in politics. If you don't know — and you can absolutely be forgiven for not knowing — Antonio Sabàto Jr., he was a model and an actor before hopping into politics.

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Being good looking is never a bad thing for politicians, and he threw his handsome hat in the arena when he ran for a California congressional seat in 2018. He lost but achieved more than 22% of the vote.

Cherie DeVille

Does an adult film actress ever really have a shot at succeeding in politics? Cherie DeVille put that question to the test when she announced her candidacy for President of the United States in the 2020 race. Sure, she ended up canceling her run before it ever really got started, but the candidacy still lasted 17 months!

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Skeptics may point to her election-themed adult film and accuse Cherie of pulling a fast one by only pretending she was running for President. But who can really say she wasn't 100% serious?