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The art of reinvention: Celebrity second acts

From Madonna to Schwarzenegger, ingenuity is the key
/ Source: Forbes

What if Sylvester Stallone was a U.S. senator, Rush Limbaugh became a liberal icon and Ozzy Osborne drove a New York City bus?

Stranger things have happened. America is the land of the celebrity second act, the place where stalled careers and image problems can be washed away with a carefully executed makeover.

Box-office draw not what it used to be? Try your hand at politics. This is, after all, the country that took a B-list actor and elected him president. Bad-girl image got you ghettoized in sleazy sexpot roles? Time to become a U.N. special ambassador and adopt a few Third World kids.

Our famous faces seem to have mastered the art of reinventing themselves. Maybe they're just enjoying the freedom that comes from being rich and famous. Or maybe audiences get bored of stars so fast that only the supple survive.

Either way, it's clear that the public loves to see people start over. Just turn on the television: “Extreme Makeover.” “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” “Trading Places.” “Pimp My Ride.” We are awash in shows that dare viewers to reinvent themselves. They perpetuate the idea that you can always start your life anew.

Sometimes celebrity reinvention takes the form of the classic immigrant success story. Just ask Arnold Schwarzenegger, who went from scary, heavily accented Austrian bodybuilder to scary, heavily accented California governor.

Other times, reinvention is a necessity. Earvin "Magic" Johnson was one of the National Basketball Association's biggest stars, with three league MVPs under his belt. But after he was diagnosed as HIV-positive, he couldn't play anymore. So Magic made himself over as an entrepreneur. Now he's worth more than ever and owns stakes in businesses ranging from movie theaters to gyms to restaurants.

Other makeovers have helped rehabilitate damaged reputations. In the 1980s, Michael Milken was a hugely rich and powerful Wall Street icon — before questionable securities practices earned him a stint in jail. Upon release, Milken started over, rebuilt his fortune and is now a widely admired philanthropist.

And sometimes changing up your image can actually be the reason why you're famous. Madonna may still make music, but the thing that keeps her in the public eye is her constant stream of redesigned personalities. She's been a material girl, a dominatrix, a disco diva, a hippie chick, a Cabala scholar and even an English matron. She's tried her hand at movies, on Broadway and at writing children's books. Whether you call her Esther, Madge or even Ms. Ciccone, you can consider her the queen of reinvention.

Of course, reinvention isn't always necessarily for the better. Jerry Springer went from boy-genius mayor of Cincinnati to the king of low-rent trash TV. David Lee Roth was once a monster of rock, the frenetic lead singer of Van Halen — now he's struggling in the hosting gig in Howard Stern's old radio slot. And Michael Jackson devolved from the rich and powerful King of Pop to a financially tottering freak of nature.

Love them or hate them, celebrities reflect the culture that made them famous. And if our stars have anything to say, it's that everybody deserves a second chance.