Success is a slippery word. Ask a dozen people to define it, and you’ll receive 12 different answers, none of them wrong. Take a poll on how to find it, and hundreds of paths will suddenly appear amongst the trees. The right trail is always changing, multiplying and contracting—and is different for each of us. See? Slippery.
So how would you define success for a poor Black boy growing up in 1970s New Orleans? Would you lower expectations if you knew his father was so abusive he attempted suicide to escape the beatings? If you knew he was molested by people in his community, would that alter how you judged his progress through life? For this boy, success might simply mean surviving childhood. Maybe, if he’s lucky, he’ll find the path that leads to being a kind man with a decent job. Nothing special.
“Nothing special” is not good enough for Tyler Perry. The little boy from New Orleans not only survived, he became the most unlikely power broker in Hollywood, earning millions and connecting with a legion of fans with his poignant, funny, down-to-earth interpretations of African-American family life in his plays, movies and sitcoms. Perry took his own route to success, if only because the easiest paths were blocked by his turbulent childhood. But his upbringing also gave him the tools he needed to hack through the trees and underbrush as he blazed his own trail.
“You have to understand everything that has happened to you, especially things beyond your control, weren’t about trying to destroy you as much as they were about molding and forming you as a person,” says the creator of such media as Diary of a Mad Black Woman, the Madea series and Tyler Perry’s House of Payne. “That’s really difficult for a lot of people to understand. But if you begin to realize every moment in your life happened for the greater good of who you are, you can use it for others. It can really elevate you and change your whole trajectory. I think that’s what happened to me.”
The impact of journaling on Tyler Perry’s life
Perry’s experiences were enough to break most people. The pain and anger grew inside him like a fire, eating away at him. It wasn’t until he caught an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show championing the therapeutic benefits of writing about your experiences that Perry’s outlook began to change. But even in the private pages of his diary, he couldn’t be truly honest about his tragic upbringing. Fearful others might read his words, he invented characters who revealed his experiences and feelings. In the process, he let the hate and venom flow through his pen. He was still livid, but he had a place to siphon off the bile when it threatened to overwhelm him.
“Journaling gets it out of you and onto paper; it is a catharsis,” Perry says. “It helps you to understand, unload and heal. And what is amazing about it, if you go back to something you’d written a year ago—be it fear, struggles, something you couldn’t get past—when I went back and looked through all the things I thought were huge for me to get past, being able to read [about them] inspires me. It encourages me that everything is OK; this too shall pass.”
But it wasn’t until a friend found his diary that something clicked.
“Man, Tyler, this is a really good play,” his friend said.
Suddenly, Tyler Perry looked at his words in a new light and a different kind of fire settled in his stomach. He left New Orleans for Atlanta—not exactly a hotbed of performance art, but Perry’s path to success is not one well-traveled.
“I knew I wouldn’t be in a position to come to Hollywood and audition and act and all those things; I had to have another way,” Perry recalls. “I knew more of what I didn’t want to do than what I did want to do… I couldn’t imagine going to L.A. It’s such a tough road for people. I have such a respect for people who can come into this town and get into this system and strive and be successful. It drains me; it rips at the very fabric of my soul to do that. I wanted to come in my own way, and the plays seemed the best entrance.”
“Why does that make me angry?”
Perry didn’t find instant success in Atlanta either—far from it. He took jobs as a bill collector and a used car salesman, among others. He sometimes lived out of his car to make ends meet. I Know I’ve Been Changed debuted in 1992, costing him his life savings of $12,000 to produce. It was widely panned and sparsely attended before quickly closing. Over the next six years, Tyler Perry constantly tweaked the play, tightening the action and revealing his themes of self-respect and redemption more clearly. By 1998, Perry was so discouraged by his constant failings that he was ready to give up.
“I was losing faith. In those six years of struggling, I’d really gotten to a point of thinking, this is never going to work,” Perry remembers. “But every time I thought that, there was someone else who’d come along and help my dream find a new life.”
Perry tried one last time. On opening night, even as he was deciding it was time to give up his dream, people lined up outside the theater. The show played to packed houses and rave reviews. He took his play on the road, created new productions and perfected his signature style of portraying everyday African-American families featuring strong women, lots of laughs and the sometimes ugly realities that go on behind closed doors.
“The great thing about writing is that every character has a motivation,” Perry says. “When I started to track down characters’ motivations, I started to do the same thing to my own motivations. ‘Why does this bother me so much? Why does that make me angry?’ So once I tracked down motivations back to the root, it allowed me to untie a lot of the anger and release the sting.”
The root, Perry found, was his father. Shortly before he played to sold-out shows in 1998, he called his dad to tell him the harm he had caused, the anger he had hatched inside his son. Instead of fighting back, his father said only, “I love you,” before hanging up the phone. Perry knew immediately something was different.
Tyler Perry is writing what he knows
“I knew something had changed, but I didn’t know that I had just gone from a diesel engine to unleaded, and the fuel I had used—anger—wouldn’t burn anymore. It wouldn’t motivate or inspire me,” Perry says. “I had to find a new way to use everything else I had in me to keep going. That became the opposite energy of negativity—positivity. This is what happened to me. This is what I went through. How do I pass this on to inspire and encourage someone else?”
Perry was reaching hundreds of thousands of people across the South with his plays, but to get his message out to the masses, he’d have to tackle Hollywood. In 2005, the film adaptation of Diary of a Mad Black Woman was released. It grossed more than $50 million, nearly 10 times what it cost to produce the movie. The project was a success monetarily, but it also laid the groundwork for Perry’s popularity. Audiences fell in love with the grumpy, tell-it-like-it-is, tough-loving grandmother Madea, played by Perry himself. A fan favorite from Perry’s plays, the character became the focal point of 12 films, but has made brief appearances in multiple films and television series.
Some have criticized Perry, saying his characters invoke racial stereotypes that demean African-Americans. Spike Lee reportedly described Perry’s work as “coonery and buffoonery,” a quote Byron Pitts, former 60 Minutes correspondent, read to Perry during a 2009 interview. Perry responded, “You know, that pisses me off. It really does. Because it’s so insulting. It’s attitudes like that that make Hollywood think that these people do not exist and that’s why there’s no material speaking to them.”
Perry says Madea combines elements of the strong women of his childhood.
“I don’t know if any culture is like the Black culture when it comes to the woman,” he says. “[The woman] is at times the mother and father, she is the strength, the love and the corrector. That is the way it was in my house. My mother was a major role model. Just her care and love for people and how she took care of all of us. How her heart only beat one way; she only knew love.”
Do one thing well
Now Tyler Perry, 53, is among the Hollywood elite, ranked No. 8 on Forbes’ 2022 list of “The Highest-Paid Entertainers,” with earnings estimated at $165 million. His movies make money, and he captures the attention of the African-American demographic like no one else.
But old habits die hard, and Perry hasn’t let go of the person who made him a success. Angry and introverted as a young man, Perry still has trust issues. He works 12 to 14 hours a day, owns and controls the rights to his film and television projects and remains single. There’s no one to tell him to stop, slow down or share the burden—a fact Perry seems to revel in. It’s a system that works for him; he’s not used to taking the well-traveled path to success. He remains wary of Hollywood, going so far as to build his own state-of-the-art studio in Atlanta.
Convention aside, Perry believes the secret to his career is simple, something anyone can apply to their own pursuits. For “someone who is trying to be successful—who has an idea and doesn’t know if it will happen or work—you have to find one thing,” Perry says. “I know people are jacks-of-all-trades and do a million things, but find one thing and do it so well that it affords you the opportunity to do all the other things.”
And Perry, like anyone else, has his own definition of success, his own opinion on the right path to choose. “Success for me has clearly been about being able to live in the present—live fully and in this moment,” Perry says. “Learning how to come down into the moment and really appreciate it and enjoy it, that’s what success is. When you can do that, every moment of your life will be successful. Whatever you’re working on, whatever your business, whatever you’re trying to be, if you can be fully in the moment, I think that will change your life.”
This article was published in September 2011 and has been updated.