In 2020, Tyler Perry became a billionaire. But that isn’t what makes his life most remarkable. At Selfmade, we admire his success as an actor, writer, director, producer, and entrepreneur, but most of all, we respect his dedication to his vision. Overcoming childhood abuse, spending almost a decade putting on theatre productions to almost no audience—long before the world saw the value in Tyler Perry’s art, he was determined to make it anyway.
This determination isn’t something that ended when Perry became a household name. Because even as a billionaire, he is well known for his compassion and how he cares for others. Far from the image of so many wealthy people concerned with their own success, Perry’s life is about lifting others up and teaching them about having faith in themselves and their community. And in doing so, he has spawned more success stories than we will ever know.
The Pain and the Pen
Tyler Perry was born in New Orleans, Louisiana on September 13, 1969. His mother worked at a daycare center, and his father was a carpenter. Both of his parents were teenagers when they got married and started having kids. His father was an alcoholic and would physically and verbally abuse him and his mother daily. One of the beatings was so bad, he blacked out and didn’t wake up for three days. The repeated abuse got so bad that at one point, he attempted to take his own life because he felt that it was the only way to escape the never-ending pain he was experiencing.
Despite all of this, Perry was still a very well-spoken and intelligent young boy. Everyone told him that he should grow up to be a preacher. He originally wanted to be an architect, so he spent a lot of time studying and sketching buildings. Perry also watched a lot of TV, with his favorites being sitcoms and the Oprah Winfrey show. In one of the episodes, Oprah told her audience that journaling could be a cathartic way to deal with pain. He took this to heart and began writing. He says that day changed his life. Years later, he would meet and become close friends with Oprah.
I was a wounded child being raised by wounded children. So when I grew up to be a teenager, I was very angry and frustrated, but didn’t know why...But I learned from Oprah that it was cathartic to write things down. It helped me grow into the man I am today.”-Tyler Perry
Perry would write characters that were going through horrible situations, and he had to really sit and think about why they were in pain. By creating these stories and characters in his head, he dealt with his reality in a much better way. Although he loved architecture, writing soon became his true passion. But the idea of making a living as a writer didn’t seem possible when he was young. So when Perry wrote a play, he was afraid to show it to anyone. But a friend found it in his apartment, and they told him how good it was. All he needed was this encouragement from a friend, and he began to believe that it might be possible to make it as a writer.
Seven Years of Empty Seats
One year, Tyler Perry went to Atlanta, Georgia for a spring break festival called “Freaknik,” and his eyes were opened wide to the possibilities of what life could be. When he arrived in the city, he was blown away by how different life was for Black people there compared to New Orleans. For the first time in his life, he saw Black lawyers and doctors, as well as middle-class families going out to restaurants and the movies.
He decided to move to Atlanta and find actors to put on the play at the 14th Street Playhouse. Tyler worked as many odd jobs as he could to save up $12,000. He put all of the money he needed for his rent and car payment into bringing that play to the stage. He needed 1,200 people to show up on the opening night to break even. Only 30 people showed up.
I don’t think dreams die – I think that people give up.”-Tyler Perry
This did not deter Tyler Perry. He kept trying. He went right back to working whatever minimum wage job he could get and saved up for the next play. Whenever the theater would give him the opportunity to perform his show, he would quit his job, perform, and fail again. From 1991 to 1998, this cycle continued, and he put on that play to a nearly empty theater for 7 years straight.
Then, when he was 28 years old, he finally found an audience. On the opening night of his play, he looked outside the window, and this time there was a line stretching around the block. At the end of the play, the audience gave him a standing ovation. From that night forward, he only performed sold-out shows.
Things that come easily may not be as appreciated as the things you work hard for, that you struggle for.”-Tyler Perry
His second play was called “I Can Do Bad All By Myself,” where he premiered his most famous character- a grandmother named Madea. Before he ever went on TV, Madea had made Tyler Perry a fortune. He had already made $100 million on ticket sales and $20 million on merchandise. For a lot of people, they would see that as having “made it” and retire young. But for Tyler Perry, this was only just the beginning.
From Small Stage to Big Screen
Tyler Perry’s first feature-length film was Diary of a Mad Black Woman, which starred his stage character Madea. Even though the play was incredibly successful, many theater executives turned down the movie when he pitched it. They clearly didn’t know what they were missing because when the film finally came to theatres, it earned $22 million in its first weekend alone. The critics bashed the movie, but his fans loved it..
I know my audience, and they’re not the people the studios know anything about.”-Tyler Perry
One of the pieces of advice that Perry gives is to never argue with “what is.” He believes it’s a waste of energy to argue about how unfair something is when it will never make a difference. Instead of fighting what is, Perry has always chosen to just go in the other direction. It’s exactly what he did when he started his television show.
When Perry was told that it would be impossible to get his TV series “House of Payne” on the air, he went ahead and filmed 10 episodes anyway. People thought he was crazy. This was very different from the business model that production companies usually use, where they film one pilot episode and shop it around to networks. But this leap of faith worked out perfectly for Perry.
When two large TV corporations merged, they suddenly found they had a significant gap in content that needed to be filled quickly. So they bought “House of Payne,” specifically because it was the only show with 10 episodes ready to go. Soon after, a studio stepped in to purchase 90 more episodes, making it a syndicated series. All because Tyler went his own way without fighting “what is.” Now, the TV industry calls this the “10-90 method”, but they might as well call it the Perry Method because it didn’t exist before Tyler Perry did it.
In 2001, Tyler Perry finally had a chance to meet his hero, Oprah Winfrey. This was when she gave him a piece of life-changing advice: own everything. Instead of dealing with all the gatekeepers at production companies, it made more sense for Perry to start his own company. So he did just that. In 2019, Perry retired his character Madea and created Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, Georgia.
Stepping in and Saving Lives
Even after all of his professional and financial success, Perry still had a lot of unresolved family trauma to work through. Tyler decided to talk about his abuse publically—and he chose to do it on the show that gave him his start: Oprah. After talking about his trauma, he received thousands of letters from fans who thanked him for speaking out and giving victims a voice. He opened up as someone who would never judge people for their struggles, and in return, received thousands of letters from fans saying that he saved their life.
I’ve never chased money. It’s always been about what I can do to motivate and inspire people.”-Tyler Perry
But Tyler Perry’s generosity extends far beyond the spotlight. Has earned a reputation for being an angel for celebrities in need. He was recently in the spotlight for sheltering Meghan Markle and Prince Harry in his own home after they left the royal family. He made sure they had full security detail while settling in the United States during the Covid-19 pandemic. When they faced racism and anger in their own family, Tyler Perry stepped up to protect them.
Tyler Perry has taken even more significant steps to help people during the pandemic. African American communities, in particular, have been disproportionately affected by Covid-19, and Perry has taken it upon himself to help counter distrust in taking the vaccine. He appeared on a special presentation on BET called “Covid-19 Vaccine And The Black Community”, where he sat down to ask scientists and doctors questions on behalf of the Black community. And at the end of the special, he chose to take the vaccine—and his entire staff took it, too. The boy who had wanted to end his own life had grown to become a man who was now saving the lives of countless thousands of people. All because he believed in his dream, followed his vision, and never stopped when the rest of the world would.