The Fascinating Stories Behind 15 Celebrity Stage Names

One actor borrowed the surname of her favorite American Girl Doll.
Snoop Dogg performing in Sacramento in 2023.
Snoop Dogg performing in Sacramento in 2023. / Tim Mosenfelder/GettyImages

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of having a memorable moniker if you want to have a successful career in art or entertainment—so it’s no surprise that so many celebrities don’t use their birth names. Read on to find out the inspiration behind 15 stage names, from Snoop Dogg to Brie Larson.

1. Snoop Dogg

Snoop Dogg was born Cordozar Calvin Broadus Jr., but his parents nicknamed him Snoopy because they thought he looked like the famous cartoon beagle.

2. Albert Brooks

Albert Brooks wearing a fedora on a red carpet in 2015
Albert Brooks in 2015. / Vincent Sandoval/GettyImages

Albert Brooks is a brilliantly funny man, but even he might not have made it too far in show business with his birth name: Albert Einstein. Brooks originally tried to go by his first and middle names, Albert Lawrence, but decided that “sounded like a Vegas singer.” The name Brooks was already in his family, so he ran with that. His brother, the late Bob Einstein, actually kept the family surname when he entered show biz, but he was better known by an alias: Super Dave Osborne.

3. Whoopi Goldberg

Whoopi Goldberg took her stage name from the whoopee cushion. The actor, who was born Caryn Johnson, said that a tendency to break wind led a number of friends and colleagues to accuse her of being “like a whoopee cushion.” It was her mother’s idea for Goldberg to pair Whoopi with Goldberg.

4. Jackie Chan

Jackie Chan in a plaid shirt on a red carpet in 2017
Jackie Chan in 2017. / David Livingston/GettyImages

Jackie Chan was working at a construction site in Australia when he got his famous nickname: One of his co-workers, named Jack, couldn’t pronounce Chan’s first name, Kong-sang, so he called him “Little Jack” instead. The name soon morphed into Jackie and ended up sticking.

5. Harry Houdini

Harry Houdini was born Ehrich Weiss, but he took on the stage name Harry Houdini as a tribute to famed French magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin. Harry was likely the Americanized version of his childhood nickname, Ehrie, though it’s also been suggested that Houdini was honoring magician Harry Kellar.

6. MC Hammer

MC Hammer, born Stanley Kirk Burrell, got his nickname from his childhood job with the Oakland Athletics. Longtime A’s owner Chuck Finley adored Burrell, the talented kid who danced in the team’s parking lot, and eventually hired him as a batboy. Burrell earned the nickname “Hammer" due to a resemblance to slugger “Hammerin’" Hank Aaron. When Little Hammer picked up the mic, he became MC Hammer.

7. Alice Cooper

As the legend goes, Alice Cooper—born Vincent Furnier—was playing with a Ouija board that told him he'd been named Alice Cooper in a past life, and he adopted the name for his band (and himself). But the rocker has admitted that the name just came out of nowhere. “There was something about it. I conjured up an image of a little girl with a lollipop in one hand and a butcher knife in the other. Lizzie Borden. Alice Cooper. They had a similar ring,” he wrote in Alice Cooper: Golf Monster.

8. Sugar Ray Robinson

Sugar Ray Robinson was born Walker Smith Jr., but “he borrowed the Amateur Athletic Union boxing card of a friend named Ray Robinson” when he started boxing, per, and the name stuck. Sugar came from his manager, George Gainford, who described Robinson's fighting style as “sweet as sugar.”

9. Michael Keaton

Michael Keaton was born Michael Douglas. He had to change his name in order to join the actors' union because there was already a Michael Douglas in the union. (Yeah, that one.) Keaton isn't a nod to Buster Keaton; Michael Keaton said he just sort of happened upon the name while going through the letters of the alphabet.

10. LL Cool J

LL Cool J stands for Ladies Love Cool James, as you may already know. What you might not know, though, is that the name wasn’t necessarily true from the get-go. James Todd Smith and a buddy were 16 years old when they began calling themselves LL Cool J and Playboy Mikey D in the hopes that it would help their stock with the girls they tried to woo. In a 2008 interview for CBS’s Early Show, LL admitted that “It was just wishful thinking, just hoping for the best.”

11. Pee-wee Herman

Paul Reubens’s Pee-wee Herman character got his name from two different sources: Reubens owned a brand of harmonica called a “Pee-wee,” and he remembered a particularly high-strung grammar school classmate named Herman. Reubens later told Vanity Fair that he ran with the combination because, “I like that it didn’t sound like a made-up name, that it was just kind of cruddy.”

12. Sid Vicious

The Sex Pistols, Sex Pistols, Syd Vicious
Tom Hill/GettyImages

Sid Vicious—who was born John Simon Ritchie, and later went by John Beverley—got his famous stage name from Sex Pistols frontman John “Johnny Rotten” Lydon’s old pet hamster, Sid. The bassist was playing with the critter—whose namesake was Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett—one day when it bit him. He exclaimed, “Your Sid is vicious!” (a nod to “Vicious” by Lou Reed) and Lydon thought the remark was so amusing that he started calling his friend “Sid Vicious.”

13. John le Carré

John le Carré was working as a diplomat when he began writing novels, but the British Foreign Office didn’t allow its employees to publish under their real names. The writer, who was born David John Moore Cornwell, once claimed that he took his pseudonym from a shoe store in London, but he then immediately dismissed it with this statement: “I suspect the story is a lie.” He never really clarified what the truth was.

14. Post Malone

When Austin Post was around 14 years old, he needed a name for his mixtape. So he plugged his real name into a random rap name generator, which spat out Post Malone, and he went with it.

15. Brie Larson

Brie Larson 35th Annual Producers Guild Awards - Arrivals
Elyse Jankowski/GettyImages

Brie Larson was born Brianne Desaulniers. Brie is just a nickname for her Brianne, but the inspiration for her new surname came from a charming place: Her favorite American Girl Doll, Kirsten Larson.

A version of this story was published in 2010; it has been updated for 2024.

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