From Rags to Riches
updated 08/09/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 08/09/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT
$75 Million gross from his plays
Once homeless, a hit playwright spends like a playboy
Think you have trouble keeping track of your car keys? Talk to Tyler Perry. "Since 1998, I've had maybe 16 cars," says Perry. "I've got a Bentley GT sports coupe and a Rolls-Royce and a Range Rover." And don't get him started on air travel. His first private jet was "a nightmare," he says. "Bad weather and I bounced all the way in there." So he was forced to lease a bigger jet. Forget first class. "I use Marquis Gulfstream or Falcon," he says. "I know where the bathroom is, I know where everything is."
If Perry, an actor-writer whose touring musical comedy plays have raked in millions on the urban theater circuit, likes to chill in his $5 million, 26-room mansion outside Atlanta now, it's only because he spent so long out in the cold. Growing up poor with three siblings in a cramped New Orleans house, Perry, 34, had a stormy relationship with his father, Emmitt, 63, a contractor. His wrists still bear scars of the marks he says he made trying to commit suicide as a kid. Years later he began writing after seeing an episode of Oprah in which she said it was cathartic. "After I found a dictionary and looked up cathartic, I realized what she was saying, so I started writing," he says. As he did so, each memory was gold: "I call them God's little flashes of light."
Moving to Atlanta, he saved $12,000 working as a bill collector and used-car salesman and spent it renting a theater to show his semiautobiographical comedy play about childhood, I Know I've Been Changed. Thirty people showed up. Broke again, he bunked in his car while planning his next production. "I'd save money and put the show up." One night in 1998, when he thought he couldn't go on anymore and the heat in the theater went out, "I looked out the window [of the theater]," he says, "and there was a line around the corner."
Today that play and five of Perry's other shows—comedies mixing social satire and gospel music, including three starring his beloved character Madea, a no-nonsense mama played by Perry in drag—boast ticket and DVD sales of $75 million. (He based the character on his aunt Maeola and mother Willie Maxine, 59.) "I sent them to a really nice hotel," he says. "My Aunt Maeola takes her food and puts it in this box on the dresser and starts pressing in these numbers and she's like, 'What's wrong with this microwave?' It was the safe." A movie based on his play Diary of a Mad Black Woman is now filming. And Perry is building a Beverly Hills house near Martin Lawrence's. "All of the material stuff is just a representation of what's inside," says Perry, who is single. "My life is wonderful."
$20 Million in skin-cream sales
You've got to hand it to the manicurist: Her idea earns millions
In December 1998, Rosie Herman was $75,000 in debt from the fertility treatments it took to have her twin daughters and had maxed out five credit cards. The former manicurist from Tomball, Texas, also had a condition she called "lizard skin"—hands so dry they cracked and bled. One day her sister Schura Normand stopped by with some Origins salt scrub. "Rosie's looking at it and she says, 'I can make that stuff,'" recalls Normand, "'and I can make it better.'"
What she didn't expect was to make a fortune. Using the Origins ingredients list as a guide, Herman mixed her own scrub and gave it to a dozen friends as Christmas gifts; those friends asked to buy more for others, and a business was born. Five years later Herman, 42, has sold $20 million worth of her $25-a-jar One Minute Manicure and has men's, kids' and facial lines in the works. "I feel like I have a success story," she says, "that encourages other people to follow their dreams."
When she started out, Herman, then a stay-at-home mom, wanted only to make enough money to take her daughters Jordan and Emily, now 6, to Chick-fil-A once a week. As the orders poured in, she needed more money for ingredients—so she racked up a $10,000 bill on her sister's credit card, keeping her husband, Neal, 50, then a carpet salesman, in the dark. "We owed so much, and here I was owing more," she says. Soon, though, she was making $2,000 a weekend at craft fairs, and local salons began carrying the product. In 2001 she nabbed a national distribution deal.
Named 2003 Texas Business Woman of the Year, Herman now has a factory in Houston and works only when the kids are at school. The family traded their brick l,000-sq.-ft. home for a four-bedroom, 4,000-sq.-ft. French provincial house on three acres, but "you'd never know she had money," says Normand, 37, who owns a medical supply company. All of her furniture was bought wholesale, and she still puts dresses on layaway—a hangover, says Herman, from her coupon-clipping days. "It's just one of those things," she says. "You always plan for the worst."
Sold software company for $1.8 Billion
Arriving with just $2, a refugee finds success
During the Vietnam War, Trung Dung's father was an officer fighting the communists on the American side. After Saigon fell, Dung's father was sent to a labor camp, and Trung, his family penniless, would "go to a garbage dump and dig out old plastic bags. I'd take the bags home, wash them and sell them to be recycled."
Finally in 1984, when Trung was 17, he and his older sister Hanh Tran separately escaped to Indonesia on fishing boats and won refugee status. He later arrived in Boston, he says, with about $2 in his pocket and shared a three-bedroom apartment with 10 others. Though he spoke little English, Dung (pronounced Young) passed his GED, then blazed through two degrees, in applied math and computer science, in three years at the University of Massachusetts Boston. "The first day I sat in the college room, I just couldn't hold my tears," he says. "I said, wow, this is really great." By his second year he had earned a full scholarship but still cleaned toilets and swept floors to support his family while he was in school.
These days Trung, 37, can support them in luxury. After graduate study at Boston University, Trung invented a new kind of Web browser and marketed it via a business called OnDisplay with his friend, venture capitalist Mark Pine. In 2000 they sold the company for $1.8 billion. Dung pocketed "tens of millions," he says but won't be more specific. It was plenty, however, to afford opulent homes for his father, Hanh and younger sister Thao (his mother, Ny, died of cancer in 1995, five years after she and the rest of the family made it to the U.S.) and a San Francisco mansion for himself and his wife, physician Nanphuong, 36, and their 8-month-old son Anphou. His one personal splurge: a $160,000 2000 Porsche Turbo. "Trung doesn't love money," says Pine. "He loves the challenge of succeeding."
Now CEO of a software start-up, Fogbreak, Trung says he's ever grateful for his opportunities: "When I first came over here, it was like I had been in the desert so long and I just stumbled across a huge body of water. I jumped in and started drinking."
$300 Million from a radio network
Secretary tunes in, buckles down and buys 68 radio stations
In 1983 Cathy Hughes looked out the window of her one-bedroom apartment in Washington, D.C., in time to see her Chevy being repossessed. "I watched them jack it up and drive it away," she says. "I thought, There's not much more.'"
She was wrong. Today Hughes, 57, is worth an estimated $300 million and is the chairwoman of Radio One, the largest African-American-owned radio broadcaster in the U.S. Hughes grew up in the projects of Omaha, Neb., where she worked as a secretary and a gofer at a radio station before moving to D.C. to work in radio ad sales. In 1980 she and then-husband Dewey Hughes, a TV reporter and producer, put together a group of investors and borrowed $1 million to acquire a small radio station, WOL. The debt payments were crushing, and the marriage foundered. Then the repo guys came calling. Unable to keep up her rent, Hughes lost her apartment and slept on the floor of the radio station while raising a son, Alfred Liggins III, from a previous marriage. "But my work was wonderful because I was there 24/7."
Her skills on air (she anchored a talk show) and off (she answered the phones) pushed WOL into profitability, and in 1987 Hughes bought a second radio station, Magic 102.3. That was the birth of an empire that today includes 68 radio stations and a new cable station, TV One, a joint venture with Comcast that competes with BET. Shuddering at the memory of the apartment of her childhood—where, she says, "they'd turn the heat off at 11 p.m. and we often had to sleep in our coats"—the single Hughes now has a 17-acre farm in Pasadena, Md., and pays for the college educations of her seven nieces and nephews. Perhaps the best part of success is passing it on: Son Alfred, now 39, is today the CEO of Radio One. "My mother had a vision to do something with her life," he says, "and her mantra is that if you can believe it and conceive it, you can achieve it."
IF ONLY I'D THOUGHT OF THAT
Find a need and fill it—or pack it carefully: Karen Young peddles packing wrap on eBay
Five years ago Karen Young was a self-described couch potato with a serious I Love Lucy addiction. A stay-at-home mom, she had trouble feeding her two daughters on her husband J.B.'s $30,000 salary as a mortgage broker. "We were struggling paycheck to paycheck," says Young, 45. "it was rough."
To ease the financial pressure, Young hit the Internet and began auctioning off her household clutter and knickknacks from garage sales. She was soon doing a swift trade, but packing costs were biting into her profits. "I knew I couldn't be the only one with this problem," says Young. Sensing an opportunity, she contacted a Chicago manufacturer in March 1999, and within days semitrailers were in her driveway unloading 750-ft. rolls of bubble wrap. Young began hawking 50-ft. lengths on eBay for $2.95, rounding up potential customers on the auction site's chatroom. This year her company, ShippingSupply.com, will hit close to $1 million in sales. "It's nice to be your own boss and come to work wearing pajamas," says Young.
The Crawfordsville. Ind., couple have upgraded from a three-bedroom rambler-style home to a century-old five-bedroom Victorian and ditched their 1980 Oldsmobile for a Chevy Astro. Best of all, they don't have to worry about sending Katy, 19, and Amy, 17, to college—or paying the bills. "Now," says Young, "I can buy groceries whenever I want."
Susan Horsburgh and Kyle Smith. Wendy Grossman in Houston, Ethel M. Johnson in Atlanta, Lisa Ingrassia in Washington, D.C., Jason Bane in Denver, Melody Simmons in Baltimore and Shia Kapos in Chicago