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Goodbye Robert Zimmerman: The Most Significant Celebrity Name Changes

The name you’re given isn’t always the one that sticks. History has shown that when fame is of concern, what somebody opts to go by is sometimes tweaked to offer something with a better ring or a more iconic punch.

The name changes are often done on the sly, so cooly that many of us don’t even know about them. Granted, if we included trends like Brazilian soccer stars going by nicknames (think Pelé in lieu of Edson Arantes do Nascimento) or the many musical stage names out there (Snoop Dogg replaced Calvin Cordozar Broadus Jr. and Bono was selected in place of Paul David Hewson), the list would simply be too long. 

Of the many reimagined names out there, these are the most significant in the wide arena of celebrity and pop culture.

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan plays piano with a harmonica around his neck during the recording of the album ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ in Columbia’s Studio A in the summer of 1965 in New York City, New York. Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer / Getty Images

The king of American folk was actually born Robert Zimmerman. The Minnesotan officially changed his name in August of 1962, just as his musical career was taking flight. Dylan made a bit of a habit of changing his name and even prior to Bob he went by a handful of titles, including Elston Gunn. Many believe Dylan, who doesn’t reveal that much personal info to the media, chose the name as an homage to the great Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas.

John Wayne

It’s hard to imagine a more rugged name than John Wayne but a lot of that is through association. The actor proceeded to personify the American West through scores of classic roles. Wayne was actually born Marion Morrison, a pretty cool and alliterative name in its own right, but perhaps lacking the machismo that proved popular during his era.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Basketball icon Abdul-Jabbar originally went by Lew Alcindor, a shortened version of his birth name Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr. The hyphenated last name, the result of a shift in religion, would become permanently affixed to the graceful hook shots he sank on the regular during an unprecedented 20 seasons in the NBA.

Metta World Peace

Sometimes, you make a list out of sheer ridiculousness. Pro hoops player Ron Artest changed his name to the decidedly audacious Metta World Peace in 2011 while playing for the Los Angeles Lakers. It’s a seemingly bizarre choice by a guy who took part in one of the most violent brawls in NBA history. The physical, defensive-minded player rarely backed down from confrontation and was known for his eccentric personality on and off the court.

Elton John

Piano pop maestro Elton John was born Reginald Kenneth Dwight. It’s hard to imagine the knighted musician ever looking back after opting for a sleeker, more memorable title.

Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali

Born Cassius Clay, global boxing superstar Ali changed his name after converting to Islam. Briefly in between, the outspoken athlete went by Cassius X.

Lana Del Rey

Lana Del Rey

Elizabeth Woolridge Grant is technically Lana Del Rey’s given name. The musician wanted something a little more beach-y and the shift no doubt offered an easier-to-remember title as she was emerging early one as a YouTube starlet. 

Bruno Mars

The smooth-operating pop star we know as Bruno Mars was born in Hawaii with the tag Peter Gene Hernandez. He told GQ that he shifted his name to sound like he was from some distant planet and not be put into a Latin-pop mold by the record industry.

Cat Stevens

Cat Stevens

This name change is actually twofold as the musician was born Steven Demetre Gergiou, the product of a Greek Cypriot father. In the late 70s, Stevens switched to Yusuf Islam as he embraced the Muslim faith.

Ringo Starr

Ringo Starr

Richard Starkey doesn’t have the same pizzazz level as Ringo Starr, but that’s what the Beatles drummer started out with on his name tag. The added “r” to the last name really does take it next level, even for who many consider to be the least famous Beatle.

Oprah Winfrey

Ever-popular personality Oprah subtly changed her name early on. She initially went by Orpah, a nod to the biblical figure of the same name. It feels like a typo, but it’s true. 

Roy Rogers

Roy Rogers

Singer, actor, and western extraordinaire Roy Rogers was born Leonard Franklin Slye. It’s a pretty fantastic birth name, but one perhaps oriented more toward author or musician than television star.

Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn Monroe

The ultimate 20th-century pin-up was born Norma Jean Mortensen Baker. This is easily one of the most dramatic name alterations as it pretty much executes a complete 180-degree turn. 

Bruce Lee

Actor and martial arts legend Bruce Lee began as Lee Jun-Fan. The rumor is that a nurse at the San Francisco hospital where he was born is responsible for the name. Whatever the cause, it’s certainly an Americanization and one we now fully associate with incredible physical ability.

Mark Stock
Mark Stock is a writer from Portland, Oregon. He fell into wine during the Recession and has been fixated on the stuff since…
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