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11 Household Names Who Owe Their Careers to Viral Fame


Apr. 20 2020, Updated 3:13 p.m. ET

In the days of old Hollywood up until the early 2000s, most celebrities' similar paths to stardom. Usually, they were discovered by an industry muckety-muck like a talent scout, agent, casting director, or record exec. Then they got lucky with a hit single or a prominent role in a buzz-worthy film or beloved TV show, and within a few years they were household names.

But these days, there are tons of ways to become famous, and a lot of people with talent and an appetite for attention have carved new, previously unlikely paths to celebrity. Here are some people who might have lingered in obscurity had they come into their own a few decades ago.

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1. Cardi B

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Cardi B is honestly the inspiration for this list. The Grammy winner definitely didn't go through the traditional channels to become a household name, but willed it so with a combination of charisma, hard work, and being essentially undeniable. She started out as a viral star on Vine and Instagram, which led to a role on Love & Hip Hop: New York, which led to a successful recording career. Now she's winning awards left and right and selling out arenas.

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2. Kim Kardashian

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If Kim Kardashian had been born a decade or two earlier, it's hard to imagine she'd be as recognized as she is today. Socialites aren't anything new, but until recently they never had a great deal of recognition outside of their home metropolises of L.A., NYC, and London. But Kim K. somehow managed to go from "daughter of OJ Simpson's lawyer" to "stylist friend of socialite Paris Hilton" to an internationally famous entrepreneur worth several hundred million, all because of a leaked sex tape with singer Brandy's less famous little brother. 

Kim has recently turned her platform into an opportunity to work with the current administration on prison reform initiatives.

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3. Justin Bieber

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While Justin was discovered by a talent scout, one Scooter Braun, the means by which Scooter discovered the teenage singer were unconventional — at the time. Back in 2007, the idea of becoming internationally famous from YouTube was bordering on absurd. But because Scooter was impressed by the songs the Biebs posted on his channel, he's able to fill stadiums around the world.

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4. Darren Criss

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Emmy winner Darren Criss was discovered for his role on Glee through a YouTube channel he shared with some friends in his University of Michigan theater program. Clearly Ryan Murphy is a big believer in his talent, as he continued to cast him in other projects after the Fox musical series ended. After a small part in American Horror Story: Hotel, he was cast as serial killer Andrew Cunanan in the second season of Murphy's critically acclaimed American Crime Story anthology subtitled The Assassination of Gianni Versace

Darren's performance earned him a Golden Globe and Emmy, and he's soon to appear alongside Woody Harrelson, Luke Evans, and Patrick Wilson in a WWII drama entitled Midway.

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5. Kylie Jenner

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While I don't want to clutter this list up with Kardashian-Jenners, I would be neglectful in including this young billionaire, whose net worth and stardom may have eclipsed her half-sister's. It's one thing to become world-famous the way Kim Kardashian did. It's another to become equally successful because you're related to somebody like Kim Kardashian. Nevertheless, Kylie has built a cosmetics empire worth $1B at the ripe young age of 21.

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6. Shawn Mendes

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What YouTube did for Justin Bieber, the short-lived video platform Vine did for Shawn Mendes, who posted seconds-long covers on Vine. In fact, it was a cover of a Justin Bieber song that made Shawn a viral sensation, eventually attracting the attention of an artist manager, who helped him get signed to Island Records. While your grandma might not recognize his name, Shawn is one of the top 50 stars on Instagram, just behind Cardi B.

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7. Guy Fieri

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It's hard to believe this is how he started, but Guy Fieri is one of the few cases where the winner of a reality competition show targeted at discovering "the next big thing" actually did become the next big thing. Guy completed on the second season of The Next Food Network Star and then managed to become the network's most bankable personality. Guy owns several restaurants, has several TV shows, and is a household name, all from one basic cable competition series.

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8. Pamela Anderson

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Way before she was in Playboy or on Baywatch, Pamela Anderson was working as an aerobics instructor in the '80s when she was featured on the Jumbotron at a B.C. Lions game in Vancouver, Canada. She was wearing a Labatt beer t-shirt, and the crowd loved her — so much that Labatt hired her as their spokesmodel. It was that super unconventional discovery that led her to become one of the most lusted-after women in the world.

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9. Kate Upton

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The Sports Illustrated beauty struggled to get work as a model for years, but Kate Upton didn't really gain visibility until a video of her doing the Dougie at an L.A. Clippers game went viral. Then, the following year, photographer Terry Richardson uploaded a video of her doing the Cat Daddy dance. Unfortunately, that video was shared without her permission and she was actually horrified by that invasion of her privacy by the controversial photographer. 

She clearly has mixed feelings about the video, which has been viewed over 27 million times as of this writing. Though she felt the sexy upload was a violation, it also made her a household name and gained her runway and editorial jobs that probably would not have come her way otherwise.

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10. The Weeknd

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Abel Tesfaye is better known as The Weeknd, a stage name he made up on the fly when he decided to upload some tracks to YouTube that had been rejected by other artists and producers. The mystery artist caught the attention of people online, most notably a fellow native of The Six. Toronto rapper Drake liked what he heard so much he featured The Weeknd on his blog, grabbing the attention of music critics and ultimately propelling him to wider fame.

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11. Tori Kelly

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You would think being on American Idol was Tori's path to fame, but the truth is she didn't even make it past the Top 24 in her Season 9 appearance on the show. The AI judges must be kicking themselves now for passing on her. Undeterred, Tori self-produced her first EP in her bedroom and continued sharing music on YouTube, growing a following of over 2 million on her channel. 

She eventually caught the eye of producer and talent scout Sccoter Braun, who has a pretty good track record with YouTube musicians — just ask The Biebs. Fast forward a couple years and she's the Billboard Breakthrough Artist of 2015 and voicing the main character in the feature movie Sing. Take that, Simon.

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