THEN AND NOW: What 25 famous musicians looked like at the beginning of their careers

Melina Glusac,Max Kalnitz
·16 min read
Miley Cyrus
Miley Cyrus in 2006 and 2020. Hikari Yokoyama and Gotham/Getty Images
  • Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Beyoncé, and Alanis Morissette have come a long way since "Star Search."

  • Justin Bieber's mom began uploading YouTube videos of her son singing in 2007, while Post Malone got his start on SoundCloud.

  • Katy Perry started off as a gospel singer.

Everyone's gotta start somewhere. 

From a young Justin Bieber singing his heart out on YouTube, to Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, and Christina Aguilera honing their talents on "The Mickey Mouse Club," the world's most famous musicians were once just like everyone else in the business: trying to make it big.

Insider took a look back at 25 famous musicians at the dawn of their careers and compared their humble beginnings to where they are now. 

Before she was a certified diva, Mariah Carey was just trying to promote her new record.

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Mariah Carey on the show "Video Soul" in 1990 and at the 2018 American Music Awards. BET and Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

It's hard to believe that Mariah Carey was once unknown, but in the early 1990s, her career was just getting started. 

She made her national television debut on "The Arsenio Hall Show" in 1991, shortly after releasing her first single, "Vision of Love." Hall introduced her as a "very impressive young talent," and Carey's performance earned thunderous applause. She's since won five Grammys from 34 nominations and broken multiple chart records.

Britney Spears was on "Star Search" in 1984, before becoming the Princess of Pop.

britney spears transformation
An 11-year-old Britney Spears on "Star Search" in 1984, and Spears performing in 2018. CBS and C Flanigan/FilmMagic via Getty Images

Britney Spears got her start young. She first appeared on Star Search in 1992, at age 11, singing a strong rendition of The Judds' "Love Can Build A Bridge." Her stage charisma was undeniable, but Spears lost the competition to Marty Thomas. She later joined "The Mickey Mouse Club," and, after scoring a smash with 1999's "Baby One More Time," quickly became known as the "Princess of Pop." 

She's one of the best-selling music artists of all time.

Like Spears, Christina Aguilera got her start on "Star Search."

christina aguilera
Christina Aguilera on "Star Search" in 1989, and performing at the 2017 American Music Awards. CBS and Michael Tran/FilmMagic via Getty Images

Another pop diva, Christina Aguilera got her start even younger. The fledgling musician appeared on "Star Search" at the age of 9 in 1989, singing Etta James' "Sunday Kind of Love." Like Spears, Aguilera was eliminated early on — but she soon joined "The Mickey Mouse Club" and saw a meteoric rise to success after her song "Genie in a Bottle" was released in 1999.

A young Whitney Houston debuted on "The Merv Griffin Show" in 1983, and Griffin called her "simply breathtaking."

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Whitney Houston on "The Merv Griffin Show" in 1983, and at the 2004 World Music Awards. NBC and Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Whitney Houston was completely unknown until musical magnate Clive Davis discovered her in the early '80s. Davis set up her first performance on "The Merv Griffin Show" in 1983 — when Houston was just 19 years old — by saying, "She was [a] stunning beauty, stunning vocalist, and I brought her on national television. I introduced her to the next generation. If there would be a Lena Horne, a new Dionne Warwick, it would be Whitney." 

Houston didn't release her debut album until two years later, but after that, her career sky-rocketed. She remained one of the world's most lauded singers until her death in 2012.

 

Drake jump-started The Weeknd's career after coming across his mixtape in 2011.

The Weeknd
The Weeknd performing in 2011 and at the premiere of "Uncut Gems" in December 2019. Clinton Gilders and Jean Baptiste Lacroix/Getty Images

Abel Tesfaye, better known as The Weeknd, anonymously released his first three songs on YouTube in February 2011. Two weeks later, Pitchfork graded one of the songs, "What You Need," as a "Best New Track." Later that month The Weeknd dropped a full mixtape, "House of Balloons," which piqued Canadian rapper Drake's interest so much, he shared it on Twitter.

Between the Drake publicity and numerous music websites naming the album one of the year's best, The Weeknd quickly gained popularity and made his identity public. He signed a record deal with Universal Republic and the rest is history. 

Alanis Morissette was big-haired and upbeat on her 1990 "Star Search" appearance.

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Alanis Morisette on "Star Search" in 1990 and performing in 2018. CBS and Don Arnold/WireImage

Five years before "You Oughta Know" swept the national airwaves in 1995, Canadian-American rocker Alanis Morissette was trying to get her name out there on "Star Search." She appeared on the popular talent competition in 1990, singing a surprisingly upbeat song and styling big hair and neon clothes — a stark contrast to the grungy image she would later assume. 

"Jagged Little Pill" — the album that spawned several hits, including "You Oughta Know" — would go on to win 4 Grammy Awards, and sell over 30 million copies

Justin Bieber was discovered on YouTube.

justin bieber
A young Justin Bieber performing "With You" on his YouTube channel, and Bieber performing in 2017. Youtube/Justin Bieber and Samir Hussein/Samir Hussein/Redferns

Justin Bieber's mom began uploading videos of her son singing to YouTube in 2008. Bieber was just 12 years old when producers discovered the videos, flew him out to Atlanta to audition, and quickly paired him up with a mentor, Usher. Almost immediately, Bieber released "One Time" and became an international phenomenon.

Demi Lovato started her career as a child actor on "Barney and Friends."

Demi Lovato
Demi Lovato in 2009 and in 2020 performing a Super Bowl LIV. Bob D'Amico and Focus On Sport/Getty Images

She later moved over to the Disney Channel to star in "Camp Rock" in 2008 and then her own show, "Sonny with a Chance," from 2009 to 2011.

She went on to release six studio albums, joining the impressive list of Disney stars to make it big after their child acting careers. 

Taylor Swift got her foot in the door writing and singing country songs before her pivot to pop.

taylor swift transformation
Taylor Swift in 2006 and at the American Music Awards in 2018. Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc via Getty Images and Steve Granitz/WireImage via Getty Images

It's no secret that Swift got her start singing country music. She moved from Pennsylvania to Nashville when she was just 14 to break into the music industry, soon becoming the youngest artist signed to the Sony/ATV Music publishing house. She wrote many of her early hits, like "Picture to Burn" and "Our Song," and eventually crossed over from country to pop, establishing herself as one of the world's biggest pop stars. 

Sir Elton John has been rocking his eye-catching costumes since 1970.

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John's first US television appearance on "The Andy Williams Show" in 1970, and playing a concert in Detroit in 2018. NBC and Scott Legato/Getty Images

Sir Elton John released his first American album in 1970, and began to make television appearances at the time. That same year, he sang one of his now classics, "Your Song," on The Andy Williams Show, a popular variety show at the time. He began to achieve success almost immediately and has since won five Grammys, two Oscars, a Tony, a Kennedy Center Honor — and been knighted by Queen Elizabeth. 

In 2007, Lady Gaga was excited about the launch of a single that kick-started her career.

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Lady Gaga in 2007 and at ELLE's 25th Annual Women In Hollywood Celebration in 2018. Twitter/Lady Gaga and Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for ELLE Magazine

Two years after getting signed to but quickly dropped from Dej Jam Records in 2005, Lady Gaga was working at Interscope Records writing hits for stars including Brittany Spears and New Kids on the Block. That year, Akon saw Gaga performing a burlesque show and offered to sign her to Kon Live, a subsidiary of Interscope.

She went on the release her first album "Fame" which included the hit single "Just Dance," which would go on to launch her career. Since then, she's worn meat dresses and other outrageous outfits, dyed her hair blonde, won a slew of Grammys, and won an Oscar for her song, "Shallow," from "A Star Is Born."

Before Beyoncé achieved success with Destiny's Child, she was in another group called Girls Tyme.

beyonce transformation
Beyoncé performing on "Star Search" with Girls Tyme in 1993, and Beyoncé onstage during the On The Run II Tour in 2018. CBS and Larry Busacca/PW18/Getty Images for Parkwood Entertainment

Before Beyoncé went solo and achieved legendary status, she was part of Destiny's Child — but before that she was in another all-girl group, Girls Tyme. The crew appeared on the 1993 season of "Star Search," and Queen B actually samples the introduction to the performance in her song "***Flawless."

When rapper B.o.B. released "Nothin' On You" in 2010, everyone obsessed over Bruno Mars' feature.

bruno mars
Bruno Mars at the 2010 Jingle Ball and the 60th Annual Grammy Awards in 2018. Mike Coppola/FilmMagic via Getty Images and Presley Ann/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

Bruno Mars achieved moderate success in the studio early in his career, writing hits for artists like K'Naan, but he wasn't publicly known. This changed when B.o.B.'s "Nothin' On You," which featured Mars, became a hit in 2010. The same year, Mars released his first solo single, "Just The Way You Are." Since then, the "Uptown Funk" singer has become a hit machine

Eminem was discovered by producer Dr. Dre in the late 1990s.

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Eminem at the Source Hip-Hop Music Awards in 1999 and at the rag & bone X Eminem London Pop-Up in 2018. Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage via Getty Images and David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Rag & Bone via Getty Images

Eminem had a tough early life, which he traced in his biographical film "8 Mile" in 2002.

His career first took off after releasing "The Slim Shady EP" in 1997, which was discovered by former N.W.A. member and producer Dr. Dre. He then released his first solo single, "My Name Is," in 1999 and would follow that with many more appearances, hit songs, and controversies. Eminem released a new album, Kamikaze, in 2018, and he even performed at the 2020 Oscars — although some viewers were confused about that.

Drake used to be an actor on "Degrassi: The Next Generation."

drake transformation
Drake on "Degrassi: The Next Generation" and in May 2018. CTV Television Network and Prince Williams/WireImage via Getty Images

The popular Canadian rapper Drake seems to produce hit after hit these days. But before music, Drake — real name Aubrey Graham — found minor success staring in the long-running teen soap opera "Degrassi: The Next Generation" as wheelchair-bound Jimmy Brooks. Drake began making hip-hop mixtapes while he was still working on the show, eventually earning the attention of Lil Wayne. He was signed to Wayne's label in 2008, and the rest is chart-topping history.

Madonna got her start as a dancer and New York "scenester."

madonna
Madonna in a publicity photo for 1985's "Desperately Seeking Susan" and performing in 2017. Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images and Venturelli/Getty Images for LDC Foundation

While studying dance on a full scholarship at the University of Michigan, Madonna earned a six-week scholarship to study at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City. That led to her performing with choreographer Pearl Lang in 1978, who then encouraged her to drop out of college and pursue dancing full time.

After short stints working various jobs including as a showgirl in Paris and drumming in Dan Gilroy's band Breakfast Club, she started her solo career with the single "Everybody," which reached number one on the dance charts in 1982 and helped her sign a deal with Sire Records. Her career lived beyond the '80s: Madonna managed to score hits in the '90s and 2000s, solidifying her title as the "Queen of Pop."

Harry Styles got his start with the rest of One Direction on "The X Factor."

Harry Styles
Harry Styles arriving at an "X Factor" press conference in 2010, and Styles at SiriusXM Studios in March 2020. Neil Mockford and Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

Harry Styles was just 16 years old when he auditioned for "The X Factor." Although his rendition of Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely" didn't win over the judges, he was brought back with four other rejected solo contestants — Niall Horan, Liam Payne, Louis Tomlinson, and Zayn Malik — to advance in the competition as a group, thus forming what would eventually become One Direction.

One Direction went on to make history with the release of "Up All Night," which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart and was the first debut album from a UK artist to debut at the No. 1 spot. 

Since leaving One Direction in 2016, Styles has released two albums, "Harry Styles" and "Fine Line," and has starred in movies including "Dunkirk" and the forthcoming Marvel movie "The Eternals." 

Lil Wayne got his start at Cash Money Records at the ripe age of 16.

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Lil Wayne in 2000 and 2018. Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage via Getty Images and Johnny Nunez/Getty Images for BET

Before he went solo, rapper Lil Wayne started in the group Hot Boys signed to Cash Money Records. The group included up-and-coming rappers B.G., Juvenile, and Turk, in addition to Wayne, and spawned the moderately successful albums "Get It How U Live!!" (1997) and "Guerilla Warfare" (1999). Soon after, Wayne went solo and got even more successful, eventually founding Young Money Records, which later signed Drake and Nicki Minaj.

During her "19" era, Adele used to sport a beehive hairdo like Amy Winehouse.

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Adele in 2008 and at the Grammys in 2017. Jay Clendenin/Los Angeles Times/Contour by Getty Images and Dan MacMedan/WireImage via Getty Images

Adele sky-rocketed to fame after the release of her 2008 album "19," and its breakout single "Chasing Pavements" climbed the charts. At the time, Adele sported heavy eye makeup and a beehive hairdo, most likely emulating Amy Winehouse, an artist Adele has claimed "changed her life." "19" marked the beginning of an amazing career: 15 Grammys later, Adele is still churning out hits. 

Like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake was a member of the "Mickey Mouse Club."

justin timberlake transformation
Timberlake on "The Mickey Mouse Club" in the early '90s and at the 2018 iHeartRadio Music Festival. CBS and JB Lacroix/WireImage via Getty Images

Justin Timberlake was a young talent on "The Mickey Mouse Club" in the early 1990s. On the kid-friendly show, which was a breeding ground for future talent, Timberlake performed goofy skits and musical numbers — one of them with future *NSYNC member JC Chasez and Oscar-nominated actor Ryan Gosling. By 1995, though, *NSYNC had fully formed, and Justin Timberlake was on his way to superstardom.

At age 15, Rihanna sang Mariah Carey's "Hero" — and was signed to a label a year later.

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Rihanna performing in 2003 and at the anniversary event for her makeup line, Fenty Beauty, in 2018. Youtube and Caroline McCredie/Getty Images for Fenty Beauty by Rihanna

Rihanna was signed to Def Jam records at just 16 years old, but before that, she was a young singer from Barbados trying to make a name for herself. One of the earliest recordings of her is at a talent contest when the future pop star was just 15, singing Mariah Carey's "Hero." After sharpening up her skills, she released her first album, "Music of the Sun," in 2005 — and has since secured her place as one of pop's most popular acts with multiple Grammys and MTV awards

Raised in a strict Christian household, Katy Perry started off as a gospel singer.

katy perry transformation
Katy Perry on her tour bus in 2001 and at a gala in 2018. Youtube and Steve Granitz/WireImage via Getty Images

Pop royalty Katy Perry started out as a Christian singer in the early 2000s. Her first album was a gospel record called "Katy Hudson," which is the singer's real name, and it was actually well-received by critics. But it was a commercial flop, so Perry quickly switched directions, taking her mother's maiden name and assuming a more "pop" identity. Over a decade and countless record-breaking songs later, it is safe to say the transition paid off. 

Ever since starring in "Hannah Montana," Miley Cyrus has had a successful career.

Miley Cyrus
Miley Cyrus in 2006 and 2020. Hikari Yokoyama and Gotham/Getty Images

Since starting her career as the star of Disney's "Hannah Montana" from 2006 to 2011, Miley Cyrus has become a household name. The pop icon churned out numerous hits from early material like "The Climb" to the raucous 2013 hit "Wrecking Ball."

Ariana Grande got her start on the Nickelodeon show "Victorious."

Ariana Grande
Ariana Grande in 2014 at the Kids' Choice Awards, and in 2020 at the Grammys Steve Granitz/Getty Images

The world may never have been blessed with the music of Ariana Grande if Gloria Estefan hadn't discovered her during a cruise ship performance when she was 8 years old. 

But before Grande was dropping certified bops like "thank u, next" and "7 rings," the pop superstar was a cast member on the Nickelodeon sitcom "Victorious." Grande played the bubbly character Cat Valentine from 2010 to 2013 and went on to star in a short-lived spinoff sitcom "Sam & Cat" from 2013 to 2014 with Jennette McCurdy of "iCarly." 

Since releasing her debut album "Yours Truly" in 2013, Grande has gone on to release four additional albums with another on the way. She has been nominated for 11 Grammys and has won one, Best Pop Vocal Album for the album "Sweetener."

Like many popular rappers today, Post Malone got his start on SoundCloud.

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Post Malone in 2016 and 2018. Raymond Hall/GC Images and Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Post Malone — real name Austin Post — dropped out of community college and moved out to LA only a few years ago. He claims to have gotten into music through Guitar Hero 2, which he quickly mastered and which led him to pick up a real guitar. After releasing his single "White Iverson" to SoundCloud to much success, Malone is now one of the most popular acts in music. 

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