Your favorite actor or actress might have changed their name long ago. Such decisions aren’t usually made haphazardly. There are often valid and sometimes complex personal or professional reasons for doing so.
A birth name could be tricky to spell or pronounce. Maybe a celebrity wants to shield their family from unwelcome attention, so they take a new name.
Sometimes a name just does not align with the persona that a star—or their employer—wants to project to audiences, so it gets ditched for another, more suitable one.
For example, Cary Grant was born Archibald Leach. During Hollywood’s Golden Era, when powerful movie studios autocratically controlled everything having to do with their stable of on-screen talent, someone’s name was considered a key element of what made them appealing to moviegoers.
The name Cary Grant was thought by the suits at Paramount Pictures, where he signed on in 1932, to be ideal for this suave actor who exuded dapper sophistication. Much more so than Archie Leach!
In addition, rules of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) state that no two actors can have the exact same name. That could prompt a performer to add a middle initial to their name, or simply assume a totally new first and last name.
There are some fascinating backstories behind celebrity name changes. Here are a few we think you’ll find illuminating and fun to read about.
1. David Bowie
One of this chameleon-like performer’s earliest on-stage incarnations was Ziggy Stardust, his exotic, androgynous alter ego from the early 1970s—but that was not his permanent stage name.
Bowie’s birth name was rather bland: David Robert Jones. The British musician wanted a new moniker, but he sought to sidestep any mix-ups with another youthful pop star of that era, Davy Jones of The Monkees, according to KXAN-TV the NBC affiliate in Austin, Texas via Time.
For his stage name, he turned to Texas lore. According to author John Lyons, who wrote America in the British Imagination: 1945 to the Present, Bowie reportedly liked a classic Western movie starring John Wayne, The Alamo (1960). A man named Jim Bowie gained renown from his role in the Battle of the Alamo. (He and his brothers are credited with inventing the Bowie knife.)
Lyons wrote that the singer took the name Bowie to honor him. Who would ever link David Bowie with a figure from 19th-century American history?
2. Diane Keaton
The star known for her riveting portrayal of crime boss wife Kay Corleone in the Godfather films was born Diane Hall. Her nickname, according to The List, is Annie, thus the title of the Woody Allen-directed comedy for which she won an Academy Award for best actress in 1978.
She took the name Keaton because she was informed that another person named Diane Hall was already in the actors’ union. Keaton is reportedly her mom’s maiden name.
3. Audrey Hepburn
She was a lady of consummate dignity and poise whose chic fashion style was her trademark in films like Charade (1963) and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). What her birth name was is not totally clear, which just adds to her mystique.
Hepburn’s obit in The New York Times stated that it was Edda van Heemstra Hepburn-Ruston. Other sources claim that she was born as Audrey Kathleen Ruston. Her father, Joseph Victor Anthony Ruston, altered his name to Hepburn-Ruston, reportedly because he thought—wrongly, as it turned out—that he was related to James Hepburn, who was married to Mary, Queen of Scots. From all those names, the name Audrey Hepburn emerged—and it stuck.
4. Charlie Sheen
Sheen’s dad is actor Martin Sheen. Martin’s birth name was Ramon Antonio Gerardo Estevez. He still laments the long-ago decision he made to change his name in order to make himself more marketable in the entertainment business.
As for Charlie, whose birth name was Carlos Irwin Estevez, he reportedly went with the name Charlie Sheen to prevent confusion with an uncle whose name was also Carlos Estevez (per The List). He also reportedly said that he did not feel very connected with his Spanish heritage while he was growing up. Charlie’s brother, Emilio, and his sister, Renee, both retained the last name Estevez.
5. Miley Cyrus
She was born Destiny Hope Cyrus. That name just didn’t seem to suit this effervescent young woman. Her parents, singer Billy Ray Cyrus and Tish Cyrus, said that she was a frequent smiler as a baby, so she got the nickname Smiley. Later on, it was abbreviated to Miley. In 2008, Cyrus legally changed her name to Miley Ray Cyrus, with Ray being in honor of her father and her grandfather, Ronald Ray Cyrus (per The Things).
6. Joaquin Phoenix
You might be wondering how Joaquin Rafael Bottom became Joaquin Phoenix. The answer has to do with the Academy Award-winning actor’s parents.
They once belonged to what The List referred to as “a religious cult,” the Children of God. That organization eventually disbanded, so the Bottoms figured they would rename themselves to mark their new spiritual reset. Joaquin went by the name Leaf Phoenix—his brother and sister’s names were River and Rain, respectively—until he finally returned to his original first name.
7. Natalie Portman
This actress’ impressive talent has kept her front and center for years, ever since her breakout turn in The Professional (1994) when she was just 13.
Even as a young teen, she had astonishing range and power as an actress. Her ability attracted attention like a magnet, yet she prefers to stay on the periphery of the limelight, not an easy thing to do when you have an Academy Award on your shelf. Portman was born Natalie Hershlag (per Marie Claire). To safeguard her family’s privacy, she took the name Portman from her paternal grandmother.
8. Winona Ryder
Geography has something to do with Winona Ryder’s first name. She was called Winona by her parents after Winona, Minnesota, which is her birthplace. Her birth surname is Horowitz, so where did Ryder come from?
This gets kind of complicated, because Ryder reportedly told The Hollywood Reporter that her family changed their name from Tomchin to Horowitz when they immigrated to Ellis Island. Ryder, who is of Russian-Romanian descent, said that last name belonged to one of her father’s favorite singers, Mitch Ryder, so she picked it. Thus, Winona Ryder came to be.
9. Meg Ryan
This charming actress whom we know from roles in films like Top Gun (1986) and When Harry Met Sally (1989) came into the world with a pretty lengthy handle: Margaret Mary Emily Anne Hyra. That would have been a lot to remember, even for her most ardent fans. The List reported that Ryan opted for a shorter, snappier-sounding name when she decided to join SAG years ago. Ryan is actually her maternal grandmother’s maiden name.
No matter what the reason for a celebrity’s name change, the choices they made about what to call themselves give us some valuable insight into their family background and their take on stardom itself. It’s hard to imagine these and other A-listers going by any other name than the ones we have come to know and love.