10 Exceptionally Clever Female Con Artists

Ann O'Delia Diss Debar (a.k.a. Swami Laura Horos)
Ann O'Delia Diss Debar (a.k.a. Swami Laura Horos)
Bain News Service, Library of Congress // No known restrictions

You've heard of "con men"—short for confidence men—but what about the con women of the world? Some deceitful dames used their wits and well-laced lies to achieve great wealth, fame, and even the advantages of the aristocracy.

1. Aurora Florentina Magnusson (a.k.a. Helga de la Brache)

Back before blood tests were readily available, it was pretty easy to con your way into a wealthy family line. One Swedish orphan proved all you need is a grandiose backstory. In the mid-19th century, Aurora Florentina Magnusson declared herself Helga de la Brache, the secret daughter of King Gustav IV of Sweden and Queen Frederica of Baden.

She concocted an elaborate tale of the divorced royals reuniting in a German convent and leaving her to live with her "aunt" Princess Sophia Albertine of Sweden. Following Sophia's death—Magnusson's story goes—she was forced into an asylum, where her claims of noble parentage were sure to be ignored. After her "escape," Magnusson petitioned Sweden for a royal pension deserving of her claimed lineage. However, a trial in 1876 proved all of the above to be pure fiction. Magnusson faced fines, but no jail time. From there, she lived quietly with her female co-conspirator, Henrika Aspegren, for the rest of her days.

2. Mary Carleton (a.k.a. Princess van Wolway)

The old orphaned princess line was also employed by this 17th century Englishwoman. After two failed and simultaneous marriages, a resulting bigamy trial, and a fling with a wealthy nobleman, Mary Carleton fled England for the Netherlands. It was upon her return that she used her posh presents and romantic fantasies to remake herself as Princess van Wolway from Cologne.

With this ruse, she seduced and sometimes wed a string of men, playing each only to rob them. It's believed many of her victims were too embarrassed to reveal her deceit. But enough spurned lovers spoke up that her crimes did catch up with her, earning Carleton a death sentence by hanging at age 30.

3. Ann O'Delia Diss Debar (a.k.a. Swami Laura Horos)

Having taken on a slew of aliases in the course of her criminal career, little can be nailed down about this American con woman, including her real name. As enterprising as she was infamous, Ann O'Delia Diss Debar conned countless people through various scams that capitalized on 19th-century spiritualism. This earned her an enemy in dedicated debunker Harry Houdini, who denounced her in his book A Magician Among The Spirits, along with the whole Spiritualism movement, for “mothering this immoral woman.”

The New York Times described her as a “wonderful crook who without personal charm or attraction has set nations agog with her crimes since her girlhood.” After repeated convictions for fraud in the U.S.—and one for rape and fraud in London—Debar vanished from the spotlight and the police blotter. She was last spotted in Cincinnati in 1909.

4. Big Bertha Heyman (a.k.a. The Confidence Queen)

Cigarette card depicting notorious 19th century American criminal Bertha Heyman
Cigarette card depicting notorious 19th-century American criminal Bertha Heyman
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

After coming to America in 1878, this Prussian con artist followed in the criminal footsteps of her forger father, regularly ending up in jail. Arrest record aside, Bertha Heyman was considered one of the sharpest con artists of her day. She often played on people's hubris, greed, and ambition to her own ends, offering them the promise of wealth later in exchange for a fat load of cash now.

Even behind bars, she managed to bend people to her will. Not only did she swindle more victims while in jail, but she also convinced prison officials to allow her breaks from confinement to take carriage rides around Manhattan and visits to the theater. It's little wonder she earned the title "The Confidence Queen."

5. Barbara Erni (a.k.a. The Golden Boos)

Born to a homeless couple in 18th century Liechtenstein, Erni concocted an unusual way to make a living, and it earned her the nickname "The Golden Boos." She'd travel the countryside with a trunk she claimed was full of treasure. Wherever she'd stop, she'd ask her hosts to lock it up somewhere safe—like where they kept their valuables. The next day, both the trunk and her host's valuables would be gone.

But how did it work? Erni had a person with dwarfism as an accomplice who'd lie in wait within the trunk. Left alone, he'd emerge to rob the place before both would make their getaway. While her accomplice's fate is lost to history, Erni was eventually caught. After confessing to 17 robberies, she was beheaded in 1785. Erni has the dubious distinction of being the last person executed in Liechtenstein before its death penalty was abolished.

6. Mary Baker (a.k.a. Princess Caraboo)

An image of Princess Caraboo from "Devonshire characters and strange events" by S. Baring-Gould
An image of Princess Caraboo from Devonshire Characters and Strange Events by S. Baring-Gould (1908)
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

One of the most famous princess cons ever perpetrated was the brainchild of an English servant with a big imagination. In 1817, a striking woman in exotic garb appeared in a small English village, speaking in an indecipherable tongue. A Portuguese sailor conveniently popped up, claiming he could translate. She claimed to be Princess Caraboo of the island Javasu. Hers was a story of tragedy and danger that had her escaping pirate captors by jumping overboard and swimming through a storm to the safe shores of the English Channel.

This tall tale launched her to near-instant fame, and earned her fans in the wealthy Worrall family who feted and cared for her with lavish attention. Even when a former employer revealed Baker's true identity, the Worrall family stood by the charming impostor. They paid for her passage to Philadelphia, where her fame—despite its fraudulent claims—only grew. She later returned to her true homeland (England, not Javasu), occasionally donning her Caraboo costume for public performances.

7. Cassie Chadwick (a.k.a. The Lost Carnegie)

Born Elizabeth Bigley, this Canadian con artist took the princess routine in a distinctly American direction by claiming to be the heiress of a massively wealthy industrialist. Her cons started small in Cleveland, with Chadwick dabbling in fortune-telling and forgery. After some jail time served for the latter, the forty-something grifter began her biggest con, claiming to be the illegitimate daughter of steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie.

She said he sent her substantial payments to keep her silent, and this was enough for many to give Chadwick hefty loans. One bank lent her a quarter of a million dollars based on her claims, and later went out of business because of it. Carnegie himself attended her eventual trial, which earned Chadwick 10 years in prison. She died in jail in 1907 at the age of 50.

8. Linda Taylor (a.k.a.. The Welfare Queen)

She wasn't just a con artist, but a galvanizing element of Ronald Reagan's 1976 campaign, where the future president declared, "She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.”

Reagan's depiction of "The Welfare Queen" has since been decried as hyperbolic and worse. But Taylor did exploit the welfare system to great lengths through setting up aliases, and spinning her ill-gotten gains into jewelry, furs, and a Cadillac that she'd proudly drive to the public aid office. Taylor eventually did serve time for these offenses. She has also been accused of kidnapping and murder, although never convicted.

9. Jeanne of Valois-Saint-Rémy (a.k.a. Comtesse De La Motte)

A portrait of Jeanne de Saint-Rémy, 1786
A portrait of Jeanne de Saint-Rémy, 1786
Bibliothèque nationale de France, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

A Frenchwoman of the 18th century with dubious noble ties, Valois-Saint-Rémy spawned a con so big that it's said to have helped incite the French Revolution by irreparably damaging the reputation of Queen Marie Antoinette. The Affair of The Diamond Necklace involved the conning comtesse convincing the out-of-favor Cardinal de Rohan to procure a fabulous necklace for the queen. Desperate to get in the queen's good graces once more, Cardinal de Rohan wrote the royal letters, for which Valois-Saint-Rémy forged responses. She even employed a Marie Antoinette lookalike for this scam, which ended with de Rohan handing over the hefty piece of jewelry valued at 1,600,000 livres.

When its makers demanded payment from the queen, Valois-Saint-Rémy was arrested and her deception revealed. But in the subsequent trial, the forged letters convinced many that the queen was actually carrying on an affair with the cardinal, further damaging her public persona. The necklace vanished, presumably disassembled for the sale of its many diamonds. Valois-Saint-Rémy served time, but managed to escape and fled to London. In 1789, she published her memoir, wherein she boldly blamed the late Marie Antoinette for the whole ordeal.

10. Sarah Rachel Russell (a.k.a. The Beautician From Hell)

This Victorian-era hustler exploited vanity for profit, promising clients at her upscale London salon everlasting youth courtesy of her special products, such as Rejuvenating Jordan Water, Circassian Golden Hair Wash, Magnetic Rock Dew for Removing Wrinkles, Royal Arabian Face Cream, and Honey of Mount Hymettus wash—all of which were essentially snake oil.

She also dealt in blackmail, and lured women into an Arabian bath that was rumored to have a secret spy hole where men could pay for the privilege to peep. Her trial in 1868 caused a massive stir, not just for her crimes, but also because it revealed that the women of London were paying far more (in money and attention) on make-up and beauty treatments than social mores suggested. Yet her three years in prison did little to change Russell, who, a decade after her original conviction, faced fraud charges once more. This time, the Beautician from Hell died in prison.

A version of this story first ran in 2015.

8 Surprising Facts About Andy Kaufman

Andy Kaufman in 1981.
Andy Kaufman in 1981.
Joan Adlen, Getty Images

For fans of the late comedian Andy Kaufman (1949-1984), the debate over whether Kaufman was more interested in antagonizing audiences or making them laugh still rages. During a career that saw him appear on stage and on television (Taxi), the performer often blurred the lines between his real persona and the characters he inhabited.

For more on Kaufman, keep reading. Thank you very much.

1. Andy Kaufman got a letter from his doctor that kept him from being drafted.

Born in New York City on January 17, 1949, Kaufman was raised in Great Neck, Long Island and displayed an interest in performing from an early age, entertaining children at their birthday parties when Kaufman himself was only 8 years old. After graduating from high school in 1967, Kaufman though he might be drafted for military service but didn’t wind up serving. His doctor wrote a letter explaining that Kaufman seemed to have no basic grasp of reality, let alone the Vietnam conflict. Joining the Army, the doctor wrote, might cause Kaufman to completely lose his mind. The letter, which likely contained a good measure of hyperbole, earned him a permanent 4-F deferment from service. He went on to attend Grahm Junior College in Boston.

2. Andy Kaufman’s stand-up act was very, very bizarre.

Kaufman got his start in the early 1970s performing at comedy clubs in New York and Los Angeles. Unlike most comics of the time, Kaufman didn’t write a conventionally-structured act. Instead, he would take on the role of performance artist, confusing audiences with stunts like reading from The Great Gatsby and threatening to start over if they complained. He would also drag a sleeping bag on stage and climb into it or do his laundry with a portable dryer. These appearances were sufficiently provocative that Kaufman sometimes hired off-duty police officers to break up fights in the crowd or intercept people trying to attack him.

3. Andy Kaufman once opened for Barry Manilow.

Before Kaufman got television exposure, it was easy for bookers to assume he was a polished and conventional performer. As a result, Kaufman got a number of gigs in the early 1970s opening for established musical acts like the Temptations and Barry Manilow. Appearing onstage in 1972 before the Temptations came out, Kaufman wept and then shot himself in the head with a cap gun. Similarly bizarre behavior was also displayed before a Manilow concert, with irate members of the audience having to be calmed down by Manilow himself.

4. Andy Kaufman was once voted off of Saturday Night Live.

Kaufman succeeded in drawing attention to himself on stage, which led to being invited to perform on Saturday Night Live beginning in 1975. During these appearances, Kaufman would take material from his act, including his lip-syncing of the theme to the Mighty Mouse animated series. Such stunts drew a mixed reception from viewers. From 1975 to 1982, Kaufman made a total of 14 appearances on the show. Then, producers decided to offer viewers the chance to “vote” Kaufman off by calling in to cast their ballot. On the November 20, 1982 broadcast, 195,544 callers asked that the show not permit him to come back on. They outnumbered the 169,186 viewers who called in support of him. While the bit was intended to be humorous, Kaufman honored the results and never appeared on Saturday Night Live again.

5. Andy Kaufman once took his entire audience out for milk and cookies.

Kaufman eventually took his show to Carnegie Hall in 1979, where he was greeted by 2800 people who had come to appreciate his eccentric approach to performing. At the show's conclusion, he invited the entire audience to board buses waiting outside the building. Kaufman took them to the New York School of Printing in Manhattan, where he served the nearly 3000 attendees milk and cookies. He later gave them a ride on the Staten Island Ferry.

6. Andy Kaufman thought about franchising Tony Clifton.

One of Kaufman’s great ruses on the public was dressing as the abrasive lounge singer Tony Clifton, complete with prosthetic chin and torso padding, all while insisting Clifton was an entirely different person. Kaufman sometimes enlisted associates, including his brother Michael and his writing partner Bob Zmuda, to put on the make-up. In 2013, Michael told Vice that Kaufman’s plan was to have Clifton become a roving character. “Andy had been talking about franchising Tony Clifton before he died,” Michael Kaufman said. “He was going to have one in every state.”

7. Andy Kaufman insisted on an Andy Kaufman stand-in for Taxi.

When Kaufman agreed to appear on Taxi (1978-1983) as Latka Gravas, a version of the “Foreign Man” character he had been performing on stage, he had a peculiar request: He wanted to be expected on set for only two of the five shooting days for each episode. While Kaufman didn’t seem to want to do it at all, the paycheck allowed him to pursue his more experimental brand of comedy. Producers agreed. In 2018, co-star Carol Kane, who played Kaufman's love interest, told The Hollywood Reporter that the cast “would work with a fake Andy who wore a sign around his neck that said ‘Latka.’”

Kaufman also showed up to shoot an episode as his alter ego Tony Clifton, insisting that he was not Kaufman. Star Judd Hirsch got so angry that he had Clifton thrown off the set.

8. Andy Kaufman broke character for Orson Welles.

While there were certainly times Kaufman spoke from the heart, it was rare to see him break any one of his myriad characters in front of an audience. That happened—fleetingly—when Kaufman appeared on The Merv Griffin Show in 1982 on a night it was being guest-hosted by legendary film director Orson Welles. Sporting a neck brace from his stint in professional wrestling, Kaufman didn’t keep up appearances for long. After Welles told him he was “fascinated” by his characters, talk turned to Kaufman’s “Foreign Man,” his Elvis Presley imitation, and his “third character,” Tony Clifton. “Well, he wasn’t a character,” Kaufman said, correcting himself. “There’s a lot of debate over whether it’s a character or a real guy, and that’s Tony Clifton, but that’s a whole other story.”

“That’s metaphysics,” Welles replied.

The Full Names of 37 One-Name Celebrities

Rihanna and Madonna attend the Tidal launch event in New York City.
Rihanna and Madonna attend the Tidal launch event in New York City.
Kevin Mazur/Getty Images For Roc Nation

A rose by any other name probably wouldn't smell as sweet, at least not in the cases of some of these one-named celebrities. From A-Z, here are the full names of some of your favorite mononymous stars, and the reasons they dropped the rest of their names.

1. Adele

Singer Adele performs
Sascha Steinbach/Getty Images

Real Name: Adele Laurie Blue Adkins

As far as we can tell, Adele’s first name is simply distinctive enough to stand on its own. Plus, “Adele Adkins” sounds a bit like she should be playing at the Grand Ole Opry (which would be lovely, but not quite the sound she’s going for).

2. Awkwafina

Awkwafina attends the 2020 Critics' Choice Awards in Santa Monica, California.
Awkwafina attends the 2020 Critics' Choice Awards in Santa Monica, California.
MATT WINKELMEYER/GETTY IMAGES FOR CRITICS CHOICE ASSOCIATION

Real Name: Nora Lum

“There’s really no great, symbolic story,” Awkwafina told Cosmopolitan of her chosen moniker. "I just really thought it was funny when people try to subtilize products like Neutrogena," she said. "Because I just imagine someone sitting there thinking about all these weird names, especially the water names. But anyway, I just came up with it when I was 16 and thought it was really funny. And then I eventually adopted it."

3. Beck

Musician Beck attends the KROQ Absolut Almost Acoustic Christmas 2019 at Honda Center on December 07, 2019 in Anaheim, California
Scott Dudelson/Getty Images

Real Name: Bek David Campbell

He added the “c” to his real name, hoping that it would prevent people from pronouncing his name as Brock, Breck, Beak, or Bic. Fun Fact: Beck's mother is Bibbe Hansen, an original Warhol superstar.

4. Bono

Bono of music group U2 performs onstage at the 2016 iHeartRadio Music Festival at T-Mobile Arena on September 23, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Real Name: Paul David Hewson

Without a doubt, Bono is the only rock star in the world named after a hearing aid. His school friends in Dublin all gave each other nicknames, and his was "Bono Vox," Latin for "good voice," based on the Bonavox hearing aid store. Eventually he dropped the "Vox" and became the Bono we all know today.

5. Charo

Pop music icon Charo attends "Dancing with the Stars" Season 24 at CBS Televison City on March 27, 2017 in Los Angeles, California
David Livingston/Getty Images

Real Name: Maria Rosario Pilar Martinez Molina Baeza

I mean, Charo is 31 characters (not including spaces) shorter than her real name, so you can see why she decided to shorten things up. But why “Charo” instead of “Maria” or even something more distinctive like “Rosario”? As it turns out, “Charo” is actually not an uncommon nickname for “Rosario.”

6. Common

Rapper Common performs on stage at The Moore Theatre on July 14, 2019 in Seattle, Washington
Mat Hayward/Getty Images

Real Name: Lonnie Corant Jaman Shuka Rashid Lynn

Lynn adopted the stage name "Common Sense" at a young age, then shortened it to Common after he was sued by a band using the name handle.

7. Drake

Drake accepts the Top Billboard 200 Album award for "Views" during the 2017 Billboard Music Awards at T-Mobile Arena on May 21, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Real Name: Aubrey Drake Graham

Drake is a better rapper name than Aubrey. Back when he was an actor on Degrassi, though, Aubrey served him well.

8. Eminem

Eminem
Christopher Polk/Getty Images for MTV

Real Name: Marshall Bruce Mathers III

The rapper’s stage name was originally M&M, a reference to his initials. He eventually began spelling it phonetically instead.

9. Enya

Singer Enya attends the Clive Davis annual Pre-Grammy Gala at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 11, 2017 in Beverly Hills, California
Scott Dudelson/Getty Images

Real Name: Eithne Ní Bhraonáin

Because she knew that most of the world would scratch their heads when presented with the Irish “Eithne,” Enya changed her name to the phonetic spelling of her real name. Yep, “Eithne” = “Enya.”

10. Flea

Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers performs in concert during The Getaway World Tour at the AT&T Center on January 5, 2017 in San Antonio, Texas
Rick Kern/Getty Images

Real Name: Michael Peter Balzary

The itchy moniker goes back to Balzary's high school days, when friends called him “Mike B the Flea.”

11. Gotye

Musician Gotye, winner Best Alternative Music Album for "Making Mirrors" and Best Pop Duo/Group Performance for "Somebody That I Used To Know", poses in the press room at the 55th Annual GRAMMY Awards at Staples Center on February 10, 2013 in Los Angeles,
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Real Name: Wouter “Wally” De Backer

It’s the French version of his real name, Wouter. "Wouter translates into French as 'Gaultier,'" Gotye told Interview Magazine. "When I was in my early 20s, I wanted a name for my project that was kind of personal and similar to the way that I felt about my music: using the past to broaden into the present. I called her up, and she reminded me of that name. I decided how to spell it as a kind of jumbled surname, Gotye. I wanted a name that had passion. I came up with my own spelling for it, and that’s where it comes from."

12. Hammer

MC Hammer attends the premiere of Lionsgate's "All Eyez On Me" on June 14, 2017 in Los Angeles, California
David Livingston/Getty Images

Real Name: Stanley Kirk Burrell

Yeah, if you’re of a certain age, you probably know him as MC Hammer, but he dropped the Master of Ceremonies a while back. The “U Can’t Touch This” rapper and former batboy for the Oakland A's received his nickname from an unlikely source: Pedro Garcia, then of the Milwaukee Brewers, who thought a young Burrell was a dead ringer for Hammerin’ Hank Aaron. (Reggie Jackson has also taken credit for the nickname.)

13. Ice-T

Ice-T performs onstage at the Premiere Ceremony during the 60th Annual GRAMMY Awards at Madison Square Garden on January 28, 2018 in New York City
Theo Wargo/Getty Images

Real Name: Tracy Lauren Marrow

The name is a tribute to Iceberg Slim, a reformed pimp who later wrote novels. “I’d taken my name as a tribute to Iceberg, and then it hit me one day—dude is a writer. I thought he was fly because he was a pimp, but I realized that I really admired him because he was a writer,” Ice-T wrote in his autobiography.

14. Jay-Z

Shawn "Jay Z" Carter makes an announcement on the Steps of City Hall Downtown Los Angeles for a Labor Day Music Festival at Los Angeles City Hall on April 16, 2014 in Los Angeles, California
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Real Name: Shawn Corey Carter

There are a few theories as to where Jay-Z came from, including that he was paying homage to his mentor, Jaz-O, or that it was a nod to the spot in Brooklyn where the J and Z trains meet up. But Carter maintains that it’s just a variation on his childhood nickname, “Jazzy.”

15. Ke$ha

Kesha attends the 2018 Billboard Music Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 20, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada
John Shearer/Getty Images

Real Name: Kesha Rose Sebert

Kesha is her real name, but the dollar sign was part of her party girl image. She’s actually just Kesha now; she dropped the symbol several years ago. In a discussion at SXSW, Kesha told Refinery 29, “I let go of my facade about being a girl who didn't care. My facade was to be strong, and I realized it was total bullshit. I took out the $ because I realized that was part of the facade.”

16. Liberace

Liberace in the back seat of a limo
Terry Disney/Getty Images

Real Name: Władziu Valentino Liberace

It's just his last name. After using the stage name “Walter Busterkeys” for a time, Liberace decided to go by his surname only as a nod to his idol, pianist Igancy Paderewski, who did the same.

17. Lizzo

Recording artist Lizzo performs at The Chelsea at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas on October 25, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada
David Becker/Getty Images

Real Name: Melissa Jefferson

Contrary to popular belief, Jefferson swears that her moniker was not inspired by the Jay-Z song “Izzo.” It came about in middle school, when she and her friends created nicknames by adding “O” to the end of their names. “You would be Gayle-O,” she told Gayle King. Because the musician went by Lissa at the time, she became Lisso, which eventually evolved into Lizzo.

18. Ludacris

Rapper Ludacris performs in concert during So So Def 25th Cultural Curren$y Tour at State Farm Arena on October 21, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images

Real Name: Chris Bridges

"Ludacris' is something that I made up," Bridges told MTV News in 2000. "It just kind of describes me. Sometimes I have like a split personality. Sometimes I'm cool, calm, and collected, and other times I'm beyond crazy. I'm ridiculous, I'm ludicrous. Plus my birth name is Chris, so it kind of incorporates that.”

19. Madonna

Madonna performs a tribute to Prince onstage during the 2016 Billboard Music Awards at T-Mobile Arena on May 22, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Real Name: Madonna Louise Ciccone

While we're in the M section: Madonna's given name is, in fact, Madonna.

20. Moby

Moby performs onstage during The Last Weekend Kickoff LA Presented by Swing Left at The Palace Theatre on November 1, 2018 in Los Angeles, California
Scott Dudelson/Getty Images

Real Name: Richard Melville Hall

“The basis for Richard Melville Hall—and for Moby—is that supposedly Herman Melville was my great-great-great granduncle,” Hall once explained.

21. Nenê

Nene Hilario #42 of the Houston Rockets reacts on the bench during the second half against the Washington Wizards at Toyota Center on April 3, 2018 in Houston, Texas
Tim Warner/Getty Images

Real Name: Maybyner Rodney Hilário

Nenê is one of the few mononymous people in the U.S. to have legally switched to a single name. The Brazilian basketball player, who most recently played for the Houston Rockets, was called “Nenê” as a child because he’s the youngest kid in his family and nenê is Portuguese for “baby.”

22. Pink

Recording artist Pink performs on stage during Pink at Nomadic Live! at The Armory on February 2, 2018 in Minneapolis, Minnesota
Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

Real Name: Alecia Beth Moore

According to the magenta musician herself, it was a cruel childhood nickname: "It was a mean thing at first; some kids at camp pulled my pants down and I blushed so much, and they were like, 'Ha ha! Look at her! She's pink!' And then the movie Reservoir Dogs came out and Mr. Pink was the one with the smart mouth, so it just happened all over again."

23. Prince


BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images

Real Name: Prince Rogers Nelson

The artist formerly known as The Artist Formerly Known as Prince was, indeed, born Prince Rogers Nelson.

24. ?uestlove

Questlove of music group The Roots performs onstage during the 2016 BET Awards at the Microsoft Theater on June 26, 2016 in Los Angeles, California
Kevin Winter/BET/Getty Images for BET

Real Name: Ahmir Khalib Thompson

Before he was ?uestlove, the former Ahmir Khalib Thompson wanted to be plain old ?, which he meant to mean “anonymous.” When people started calling him “Question Mark,” he changed his name again to “B.R.O. the R. ?” That didn’t work either: fans thought his name was Brother Question Mark. He finally arrived at ?uestlove because “in the old days, your name ended in rock, ski or love. ?uestrock was not happening and neither was ?uestski. So ?uestlove became my new old school name, ’cause I’m so old school!”

25. Raffi

Real Name: Raffi Cavoukian

Because when your name is actually Raffi, you don’t need a surname.

26. Rihanna

Rihanna attends the Queen & Slim at AFI FEST 2019.
Rihanna attends the Queen & Slim premiere at AFI FEST 2019.
FRAZER HARRISON/GETTY IMAGES

Real Name: Robyn Rihanna Fenty

The singer/actor from Barbados goes by her middle name professionally. "I get kind of numb to Rihanna, Rihanna, Rihanna," she told Rolling Stone, noting that her close friends and family still call her by her first name. "When I hear Robyn, I pay attention."

27. Sade

Singer/songwriter Sade performs at the MGM Grand Garden Arena September 3, 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Real Name: Helen Folasade Adu

Though her given name may be Helen, no one has ever referred to the velvet-voiced singer as such. Her parents called her Sade, a shortened version of her middle name, from a young age.

28. Sinbad

Sinbad attends Pilot Pen & GBK Celebration Lounge - Day 2 at LÕErmitage on September 15, 2018 in Beverly Hills, California
Rebecca Sapp/Getty Images for GBK Productions

Real Name: David Adkins

Adkins thought using one distinctive name would help him stand out in the saturated world of stand-up comedy. He chose Sinbad after the mythological seafarer, telling Ebony magazine: “Sinbad was a leader. When monsters would show up, the men would scream out Sinbad’s name. He wasn’t the biggest guy, but he was clever and resourceful. He was a loner and lived life as a journey.”

29. Skrillex

Skrillex performs during the SnowGlobe Music Festival 2019 at Bijou Park on December 31, 2019 in South Lake Tahoe, California
Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

Real Name: Sonny John Moore

Here’s another case of a high school nickname that got carried over into adulthood. “Throughout my teen years my friends would call me Skrillex or Skril or Skrilly. Just became a stupid nickname that came out of the social online networking handles," Moore explained. "Really means nothing.”

30. Slash

Slash performs onstage at the GIBSON NAMM JAM Opening Party 2020 at City National Grove of Anaheim on January 16, 2020 in Anaheim, California
Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for Gibson

Real Name: Saul Hudson

The Guns N’ Roses guitarist credits a rather surprising source for his badass nickname: character actor Seymour Cassel. Slash was friends with Cassel’s son, and after observing him always running around “in a hurry, hustling whatever it is I was hustling at the time,” Cassel dubbed him Slash.

31. Twiggy

Twiggy Lawson attends a private screening of 'The Boy Friend' hosted by Twiggy at Kings Cross Everyman Cinema on October 23, 2019 in London, England
David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Everyman

Real Name: Lesley Lawson (née Hornby)

When the fashion model was just a girl, kids at school referred to her as “Sticks” because she was so thin. Her boyfriend later gave her a slightly nicer (?) version of the nickname, which became her name when she hit it big. “Twiggy is a stupid name for a woman in her 40s,” she once remarked, “But it would be hard to drop.”

32. Usher

Usher performs at the 62nd Annual GRAMMY Awards on January 26, 2020 in Los Angeles, California
John Shearer/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

Real Name: Usher Terry Raymond IV

Let’s just say it’s a good thing Usher didn’t go the route of Drake and other celebs who eschewed their first names for their “cooler” middle names.

33. Voltaire

Portrait of French writer, essayist and philosopher Francois Marie Arouet de Voltaire (1694-1778), author of "Candide
The Print Collector/Getty Images

Real Name: François-Marie Arouet

Is it any surprise that Voltaire liked wordplay? The Latinized spelling of his surname is “AROVET LI,” and “Voltaire” is an anagram of that.

34. will.i.am

Will.i.am attends The Voice UK 2019 photocall at The Soho Hotel on December 16, 2019 in London, England
Eamonn M. McCormack/Getty Images

Real Name: William James Adams, Jr.

“I liked playing with words. I noticed that my name was a sentence, meaning one with will, who is strong-willed. And so I called my mom and said, ‘Hey, Mom, do you mind if I call myself Will.i.am?’ She was like: ‘Whaaa? You’re crazy.’ She was cool with it.”

35. Yanni

Yanni performs at The Greek Theatre on June 9, 2018 in Los Angeles, California
Oliver Walker/Getty Images

Real Name: He was born Yiannis Chryssomallis, though that's sometimes Americanized to John Yanni Christopher.

See “Raffi,” above. Actually, Yiannis is a very common name in Chryssomallis's native Greece. He was known as “John” to his classmates at the University of Minnesota. Yanni is a just a slight variation of his given name.

36. Zendaya

Zendaya attends the Bvlgari B.zero1 Rock collection event at Duggal Greenhouse on February 06, 2020 in Brooklyn, New York
Steven Ferdman/Getty Images

Real Name: Zendaya Maree Stoermer Coleman

Zendaya is her real name. She’s never used her last name professionally, though, because her first name is so distinctive. “I [dropped my last name because I] just thought it was cool, like Cher or Prince,” she told Allure.

37. Zucchero

Zucchero Sugar Fornaciari attends the 70° Festival di Sanremo (Sanremo Music Festival) at Teatro Ariston on February 05, 2020 in Sanremo, Italy
Daniele Venturelli/Getty Images

Real Name: Adelmo Fornacirari

Zucchero is the Italian word for sugar, a name given to him by one of his elementary school teachers. It’s also an apt description for his sweet, sweet music: The Italian musician has worked with everyone from Ray Charles to Pavarotti and has a couple of World Music Awards and a Grammy nom under his belt.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER