15 Inspirational Role Models Who Overcame Bullying

Neve Spicer
Written by Neve Spicer Updated on July 23rd, 2021

Standing up to a bully may be the hardest and most frightening thing a child will ever do.

Fearful victims ask themselves, “What should I do? And what will be the consequence of my actions?”

The situation can be made more difficult when children are told by adults to physically fight back. That is why StopBullying.gov explicitly recommends not fighting back. Instead, they list more effective things a child can do if they are being bullied.

Here’s where role models help:

Inspiring adult role models who themselves have overcome bullying can be a source of strength and motivation for children. Their stories can help a bullied child to see that they are not alone; that it can be done; and that the way through needn’t involve fighting.

To this end, we share the tales of 15 wildly successful adults. Each of these bully-busters endured significant torment when they were younger and fought back without violence. They are now world-renowned in acting, music, the sciences, business, politics, and many more professions.

Here are their inspirational stories:

#1 Alice Walker

Alice is a famed writer, poet, and activist who won in 1983 the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for Fiction.

Alice Walker faced bullying many times. Her brother accidentally shot her in the right eye with a BB gun when they were children. She permanently lost vision in that eye, and it scarred over with a white film. Kids delighted in pointing at the injured eye and laughing.

As an adult, the bullying tactics were not from kids but from adults who should know better. In 1967, Alice married Jewish civil rights leader Melvyn Rosenman Leventhal, becoming the first interracial couple married in Mississippi. Throughout her life, she has stood for love and acceptance for everyone.

#2 Elon Musk

Elon is a world-renowned entrepreneur, CEO, and founder of companies such as SpaceX, Tesla, and Neuralink.

Born in Pretoria, South Africa, schoolmates bullied Elon for being the smallest and youngest in his school. These weren’t gentle bullies who teased. He needed to recuperate in a hospital after a group of boys pushed him down a flight of stairs, and he blacked out. After he fell, the boys beat him mercilessly. During his time at school, bullied kids had to continue to attend classes and face their tormentors daily. Musk hated it, becoming lonely and withdrawn.

Even in the most severe cases of bullying, there are places of refuge and saviors who help. Elon looked first to his family. An unusual group, his family had a long history of breaking barriers and doing the impossible, wanderers, and adventurers throughout the generations. Another refuge that became his doorway to the future was computers. He was also a born entrepreneur.

Today, Elon Musk is one of the wealthiest businesspersons globally. He is a high-tech entrepreneur aiming for the stars and tomorrow’s automobiles line.

#3 Kate Middleton

Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Cambridge is a member of the British Royal Family, a mother, and a philanthropist

Kate began school as a first-year secondary student at Downe House, a well-known girls’ boarding school in Berkshire, England. She didn’t start Downe House at 11 years of age but 13. Therefore, most of the other students had a two-year head start in making friends and settling in. Also, Kate wasn’t a boarder but a day pupil, living at her parents’ home. She missed nightly bonding and social activities, putting her at a disadvantage. In primary school, she had been a star of the field hockey team. At Downe, they played lacrosse instead. Kate didn’t successfully make the switch.

Kate Middleton just didn’t fit in well with the cliquey school. She was ignored and teased. The staff felt that she just needed to ignore the pain and carry on. Kate did indeed. She carried on to a far more suited experience for her, transferring to St. Andrews Prep.

Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, is wife to the future King of England, Prince William, a mother to three children, and a valued member of the Royal Family.

#4 Gerald Green

Gerald is an NBA star who has played for several top-flight basketball teams, and anti-bullying activist

Gerald Green was only 11 years old when he and his brother decided to have a jumping contest. They both jumped vertically against a door in their home. Jerald was wearing his mom’s high school ring, but his jump went wrong. A nail on the top of the door trapped ring. As a result, his finger was ripped nearly off his hand.

Remembering his years in school from that day forward, Green told his school-aged audience,

“They called me everything. I heard ‘alien hand’ and all kinds of names while growing up. I had a rough time with it because I remember feeling so much different and not wanting to go to school. Every kid should feel safe while they’re at school, and they should feel they have the same opportunities as everybody else regardless of what they look like or what kind of shoes they have on.”

Gerald Green didn’t need that finger after all; his hands are what won him fame on the basketball court for several professional NBA teams.

#5 Ronda Rousey

Ronda is a former UFC Women’s Bantamweight Champion and professional WWE wrestler

Ronda Rousey is no one’s little lady. She’s tough, but not tough enough to shed childhood teasing like water off the proverbial duck’s back. Like many girls, her body image was her Achille’s Heel.

“When I was in school, martial arts made you a dork, and I became self-conscious that I was too masculine. I was a 16-year-old girl with ringworm and cauliflower ears. People made fun of my arms and called me ‘Miss Man.’ It wasn’t until I got older that I realized: these people are idiots. I’m fabulous.”

Some called her Miss Man, but she proved herself as a world-class judoka and mixed martial artist and was named by fans as the best female athlete ever; oh, she’s also an actor in major Hollywood films.

#6 Barack Obama

Barack Obama

Barack is the former President of the United States.

You’d think that a man who was elected twice as the President of the United States, known for his grace and decency, would never have had to suffer teasing and bullying. When he addressed the White House Conference on Bullying Prevention, he admitted that .kids teased him because of his big ears and unusual name. He admitted he didn’t emerge from that time unscathed.

“Bullying is not a rite of passage for youth, but a practice that can have destructive consequences.”

The conference found that about 160,000 students stayed home just that day before because they feared bullies. Barack Obama shows kids every day that rising above mean kids with small minds will sometimes lead to beautiful things. If he’d stayed at home from school, who knows what would have become of Mr. Obama?

As it happens, Barack graduated from Harvard Law School at the top of his class, worked in the slums of Chicago as an advocate and organizer, and became a US Senator and, twice, as the President of the United States.

#7 Rihanna

Rihanna is one of the world’s most popular and wealthiest singers and an activist in preventing bullying of girls.

Robyn Rihanna Fenty was born on the Caribbean island of Barbados. The other children in Bridgetown teased her about her lighter skin color and her womanly shape. They used any body-shaming teasing that provoked hurt feelings and tears. She was even often called ‘too white’ or ‘not black enough.’

“I didn’t understand. I just knew I saw people of all different shades, and I was light. Now I’m in a much bigger world.”

Funny, but the very things girls teased about have held her in good stead since her music has sold 250 million records worldwide, and she is the wealthiest musician, who’s a girl, with an estimated value of $600 million.

#8 Tom Cruise

Tom is one of Hollywood’s most popular actors for the past 30 years.

Tom Cruise, the star of Top Gun and Mission Impossible, seems to be far above the punching weight of typical schoolyard bullies. Good looks, talent, and an outgoing personality don’t seem to have made Tom immune to cruelty. Tom’s family frequently moved because his father traveled to find work. Tom, therefore, was always ‘the new kid.’

“I was always the new kid with the wrong shoes, the wrong accent. I didn’t have a friend to share things with and confide in.”

He was and still is, relatively small, inviting more attacks from bullies who reasoned he couldn’t fight back effectively. Even his father was a source of pain. Tom called his dad “a bully and a coward” and “a merchant of chaos.” His mother was his inspiration to deal with his troubles, so he reapplied himself, “I’m going to create, for myself, who I am, not what other people say I should be.”

#9 Demi Lovato

Demi is a world-famed singer who now also works closely with two organizations against bullying girls.

You’d think that a woman with this much talent and so many fans might be considered immune to bullying. Not so, Demi Lovato has been bullied as an adult even though she is a famous singer. “People would write ‘hate petitions’ [about me] and send them around to be signed. They’d have CD-bashing parties of my demos,” she recently told People magazine. Haters stood across the street from Lovato’s home, yelling at her. There aren’t too many people who would feel any differently than Demi, who just wanted the bullying to stop. Lovato could have run away and hidden. Worse yet, she could have taken the hate on board and decided she wasn’t good enough, that her detractors and tormentors were right.

Running and hiding is not what she did, however. She began her anti-bullying crusade and now works with PACER’S Teens Against Bullying movement and Secret’s “Mean Stinks” campaign.

#10 Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson

Dwayne is a former WWE wrestling pro and now one of the world’s highest-paid actors

If we were selecting the ‘Man Most Likely to Be Bullied,” it wouldn’t be Dwayne Johnson. The Rock is known worldwide for both his pro-wrestling career and his acting. Johnson’s dad was a Canadian pro-wrestler, Rocky Johnson. Because of Tony’s career, Dwayne and his family moved frequently. The Rock was called by another nickname then, ‘The New Kid.’ The teasing didn’t stop after school. WWE’s Shawn Michaels’ Kliq continued the torment in pro wrestling.

Known now as the Most Electrifying Man, The Rock was one of the most successful wrestlers globally and is now also one of the most admired and highest-paid actors.

#11 Lady Gaga

Stefani is a mega-popstar and activist.

Lady Gaga, born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta in New York City, is one of the most original and creative music stars in the world today. Now, nearly everyone knows who she is, and most admire her. Of course, it wasn’t always that way. In the dangerous social halls of high school, classmates bullied Stephani mercilessly. They told her every day that she was ugly and had a too big nose, and she was annoying. The kids piled on, teasing Stephani for her interest in theater, her singing so often, and her makeup. Bullies go for whatever comment works to make the victim feel less than others. The point is to get the recipient to agree with whatever bullies say, no matter how untrue.

Eventually, Stephani became Lady Gaga, champion of self-worth, standing up to the world when it is cruel, and loving yourself. Her 2011 album and her single title cut, Born This Way, became a youth-empowerment institution, the Born This Way Foundation, in 2012.

#12 Padmi Lakshmi

Padmi is a supermodel, cooking host, and writer, who blends the cultures of India and the US.

Padma Lakshmi was born in Tamil, India, and grew up in the United States. When she was in school, she was the target of bullying girls.

“One time somebody crushed an egg on my head and punched [me] in the face — it was horrible. I used to be called giraffe [because of her 5’10” height], and it just makes you feel so, so alone and so scared.”

Those days are now long behind her as the natural beauty has been in the public eye for more than 20 years as a TV host, model, author, and activist, always finding time in her heart for other bullied girls.

#13 Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali is simply the greatest boxer of all time.

Sometimes, one act can make a child feel worthless and unable to help themselves out of trouble. When Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, was just 12 years old, a bully stole his bike from under him. He relayed the story to a police officer who then offered to teach him boxing. Then, the cop said, you can get your bike back. Those lessons paid off. Ali rose through the ranks of amateur, Olympic, then professional boxing, known as the Greatest.’

Every time Ali witnessed injustice, he would fight for the oppressed’s rights, demonstrating that sometimes, one significant and painful event can give purpose to live a moral and ethical life.

#14 Yul Kwon

Yul is a Yale-trained attorney, Survivor winner, and now a television news host

It seems as though Jul Kwon leads a charmed life, but it was a different story when he was young. Yul was born in New York City to South Korean immigrants. As a kid, Jul had a severe lisp. Many thought he couldn’t speak English and must be a recent immigrant. He kept quiet to avoid being teased or beaten.

People listed Jul as “The Sexiest Man Alive,” he has a law degree from Yale, was the first Asian-American winner of Survivor, and became a CNN special correspondent, a lecturer at the FBI Academy, then deputy chief for the Federal Communication Commission’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau. Take that, speech impediment!

#15 Tom Ford

Tom is a world-class fashion designer and filmmaker

Tom Ford is a Texas boy. “As a kid in the ’60s, I wasn’t great at football; I was not great at team sports, I wasn’t great with my BB gun, which in Texas soon turns into a .410 shotgun and then turns into something else,” he said. Tom wasn’t interested in the same things as the other boys. He was in fashion. “Still to this day if I walk past a group of kids, they can be 8 years old playing soccer, and that ball comes towards me, I panic because, ‘My God, I have to kick that ball and they’re all going to laugh because I’m not great at soccer.’ It’s a sort of instant panic.”

That kind of childhood residue can leave an indelible mark, but, thanks to his supportive family, Ford was able to channel that interest in fashion to a stellar international career; with a family behind you, Ford proved anything is possible.

What to do if you are being bullied?

Here are three great places to start if you are being bullied and want to talk about it, or if you are looking for practical ideas and actions you can take:

  1. What Kids Can Do | StopBullying.gov
  2. Bullying: What To Do If I’m Bullied | Mental Health America
  3. The STOMP Out Bullying™ HelpChat Line

Stand up, stand together

Often, kids who bully have troubles of their own. Many believe that if they point out others’ failings, even minor ones, the heat will turn from them onto another. Others may lack attention from parents or live in a household where bullying happens nearly every day. Substance abuse, mental illness in child or parents, and extreme poverty all may play a role.

It is crucial to get help for kids who are being bullied. It is critical to get that same level of assistance for those who are the bullies.

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Neve Spicer
Written by Neve Spicer Updated on July 23rd, 2021

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