Celebrities live lives with which most people are unfamiliar. Even their deepest, darkest, most personal secrets sometimes make their way into newspapers, online, or into the tabloids. On one hand the celebrity lifestyle is wonderful, but on the other side it can be highly invasive and upsetting for the celebrity in question. Which is why it shouldn’t be surprising that there are many celebrities who kept diseases secret. Once they’re diagnosed with sometimes fatal diseases, the outpouring of false sentiment can be enough to turn even the most upbeat person cynical. There have been a great number of famous people with secret illnesses who only spoke about their disease once they were free and clear. Other celebrities who were secretly sick never spoke about their issues. Only after their passing do their friends and family tell the public about their affliction. Which celebrities kept their diagnoses secret? Famous people including David Bowie, Cobie Smulders, and Freddie Mercury are below.
Actor Charlie Sheen made headlines in 2015 when he announced in an interview with Matt Lauer on the NBC show “Today” that he is HIV positive. Sheen had learned of his diagnosis about four years prior to his announcement, he said. But HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, is no longer considered a death sentence as it was decades ago. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that about 1.2 million Americans are currently living with HIV. HIV destroys one type of immune system cell, called T cells, which makes it difficult for people with the virus to fight off infections. When HIV has wiped out a larger percentage of a person’s T cells, he or she is considered to have acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS. Today, medications known as antiretroviral therapy can help slow the progression of HIV and also protect the body’s immune system, according to the CDC. And new preventive medications called pre-exposure prophylaxis, which can be taken as a daily pill, have been shown to be highly effective in preventing infection with HIV in people who have a high risk of contracting it.
Brad Grey was considered a giant in Hollywood. Grey, fomerly the chairman and CEO of Paramount Pictures, had an eye for up-and-coming talent and greenlit some of the studio’s biggest blockbuster successes – including Transformers. But he harbored a secret from most of his Hollywood pals – Grey was dying of cancer. Grey died on May 14 from an undisclosed case of cancer, which shocked many of his friends. Friends and colleagues told the Los Angeles Times they had no idea he was sick, and the last time they saw him he was greeting guests at the Chateau Marmont.
In the wake of Gene Wilder’s death, at the age of 83, on August 29, 2016, the comedian’s family announced he had been privately suffering from Alzheimer’s for three years before passing. According to a statement released by Jordan Walker-Pearlman, a nephew Wilder raised like a son: The decision to wait until this time to disclose his condition wasn’t vanity, but more so that the countless young children that would smile or call out to him ‘there’s Willy Wonka,’ would not have to be then exposed to an adult referencing illness or trouble and causing delight to travel to worry, disappointment or confusion. He simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world.
David Bowie’s death sent shockwaves across music and film communities worldwide. Hardly anyone realized the singer and actor had been suffering from liver cancer for the 18 months before he died. According to reports, the performer wanted to go “without any fuss.” Bowie was an English singer-songwriter and actor. He was a leading figure in popular music for over five decades, acclaimed by critics and fellow musicians for his innovative work. His career was marked by reinvention and visual presentation, his music and stagecraft significantly influencing popular music. During his lifetime, his record sales, estimated at 140 million albums worldwide, made him one of the world’s best-selling music artists. On 10 January 2016, two days after his 69th birthday and the release of the album Blackstar, Bowie died from liver cancer in his New York City apartment. He had been diagnosed 18 months earlier but had not made the news of his illness public. The Belgian theatre director Ivo van Hove, who had worked with the singer on his Off-Broadway musical Lazarus, explained that Bowie was unable to attend rehearsals due to the progression of the disease. He noted that Bowie had kept working during the illness. According to a speech given by long time friend and actor Gary Oldman, his final words were: “Music has been my doorway of perception and the house that I live in.”
The Apple CEO died suddenly in 2011 after a secret battle with cancer. The innovator had staved off pancreatic cancer for nearly two decades but let very few people (Disney CEO Bob Iger was one) knew of his diagnosis. He had lost consciousness the day before and died with his wife, children, and sisters at his side. His sister, Mona Simpson, described his death thus: “Steve’s final words, hours earlier, were monosyllables, repeated three times. Before embarking, he’d looked at his sister Patty, then for a long time at his children, then at his life’s partner, Laurene, and then over their shoulders past them. Steve’s final words were: “OH WOW. OH WOW. OH WOW.” He then lost consciousness and died several hours later. Governor Jerry Brown of California declared Sunday, October 16, 2011, to be “Steve Jobs Day.” On that day, an invitation-only memorial was held at Stanford University. Those in attendance included Apple and other tech company executives, members of the media, celebrities, close friends of Jobs, and politicians, along with Jobs’s family. Bono, Yo Yo Ma, and Joan Baez performed at the service, which lasted longer than an hour. The service was highly secured, with guards at all of the university’s gates, and a helicopter flying overhead from an area news station.
The Queen lead singer was diagnosed with AIDS very early on in the epidemic’s initial outbreak. He made his final public appearance almost 26 years ago, and while members of the band knew he was battling the disease, Mercury kept it a secret from fans and the public, denying all reports. “We didn’t know actually what was wrong for a very long time,” said May years later. “We never talked about it and it was a sort of unwritten law that we didn’t, because Freddie didn’t want to. He just told us that he wasn’t up to doing tours, and that’s as far as it went. Gradually, I suppose in the last year and a bit, it became obvious what the problem was, or at least fairly obvious. We didn’t know for sure.”
Williams’s suicide was seemingly brought on by depression, which the actor had been battling for years. However, in the days following his death, his wife claimed the onset of Parkinson’s, which had begun a few years prior, was what pushed him to take his own life. Robin Williams: actor, comedian, philanthropist. But it was his role offscreen, as a family man, that he held closest to his heart. At the age of 63, the comedic icon was found inside his home after hanging himself with a belt. In her first interview since her husband’s death in August 2014, Susan Schneider Williams bravely opened about her husband’s demons — and the complicated diagnosis she says ultimately led to his untimely death. Susan also shared her husband’s final words to her, and they are nothing short of tear jerking… Robin Williams will forever be known as one of the funniest and most talented performers in the history of American entertainment. Susan broke down in tears as she shared the last words Robin said to her before he died. “I was getting in bed and he came in the room a couple of times… and he said, ‘Goodnight, my love.’ “And then, he came back again. He came out with his iPad, and he looked like he had something to do. “And that was like, ‘I think he’s getting better.’ “And then, he said ‘Goodnight, goodnight.’ “That was the last.’”
A shocking death for film fans, Rickman had been keeping his cancer diagnosis a secret for some time, according to a statement. Clearly Rickman wanted to endure the fatal disease on his own without fanfare. To the younger generation, he will always be Severus Snape, the deliciously villainous teacher who appears bent on making the hero’s life a misery in the Harry Potter films. Others will remember him from movies as varied as Die Hard and Truly, Madly, Deeply or for his distinguished stage career. Luminaries of film and theatre paid tribute to the actor, who stars in two films out later this year. Emma Thompson, a close friend who worked with him on Love Actually and Sense and Sensibility, said she had “kissed him goodbye” and spoke of a “moment of painful leave-taking”.
Michael J. Fox
TV and film star Michael J. Fox, known for starring in iconic movies such as “Back to the Future,” was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1991, when he was 30 years old. Fox waited seven years before going public with his diagnosis. Although he admits to having bad days, he no longer looks at living with Parkinson’s as a battle or a fight, he told Parade magazine in 2012. Parkinson’s disease is a neurological disorder that affects a person’s ability to walk and move. It arises when the neurons in the brain that produce a chemical called dopamine, which helps to control body movements, begin to break down and die. Symptoms include shaking, problems with balance, difficulty swallowing, difficulty making facial expressions (a mask-like face), and muscle aches and pains. The condition is more common in people over 50. About 50,000 to 60,000 new cases of Parkinson’s are diagnosed each year in the U.S., according to the National Parkinson Foundation.
While the actress is free and clear now, she privately battled ovarian cancer for a couple of years. The cancer required multiple surgeries, and only five years after being cancer free, Smulders spoke on the disease. Cobie Smulders shared her experience of being diagnosed with ovarian cancer when she was 25. After multiple surgeries, and a big lifestyle overhaul, the How I Met Your Mother star came out on the other side with a clean bill of health and her fertility intact—she has since given birth to two girls. While getting ovarian cancer at such a young age is rare, it’s not impossible. Luckily, the prognosis is usually better than if you get this type of cancer when you’re older.
The Oscar winner battled cancer not once, but twice. Several years ago, she overcame ovarian cancer and has also undergone a double mastectomy to rid herself of breast cancer. Only years later did Bates open up about the battles. If not for a close friend urging her to visit the doctor, Kathy Bates may not be here today. “She saved my life,” recalls the star of “American Horror Story” of her diagnosis. She had been feeling flushed and tired, but chalked it up to work. “It would have been easy for me to write off all of those things if she hadn’t been there.” Despite testing negative for the BRCA gene mutation—”I didn’t feel that was a get out of jail free card,” Bates says, noting her family history of cancer—the actress was eventually diagnosed with breast cancer nine years after surviving ovarian cancer. She admits, “I was less vigilant. I’d come off a show and I was exhausted. I really wished I had caught it then.”
Saunders, a British comedian and actress, battled breast cancer in secret when she was diagnosed in 2009. She even hid her hair loss, due to chemo treatments, with a wig. Only when she was clear of the disease did she tell her story.
While Douglas did reveal he was undergoing surgery to remove cancerous tumors, the actor kept the severity of his disease somewhat secret. He was at risk of losing his tongue and jaw, and only after he was clear of that did he real how serious the cancer had been.
The world-famous singer passed away on December 31, 2015, after a long battle with hepatitis C and liver disease. In an interview, her sisters cited her need to be protective of her family so she kept her illness private.
In 1999, daytime talk show host Montel Williams went public with his diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS), a debilitating disease that affects the brain and spinal cord. “My primary symptom is pain,” Williams told Oprah Winfrey on her talk show in 2009. “I’ve got pain from my shins to my feet, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and it’s been there for the last 10 years.” About 400,000 Americans have multiple sclerosis, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. As with other autoimmune disorders, multiple sclerosis occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks the person’s healthy tissue. It is not known exactly what triggers the condition. Williams lives with the disease by paying close attention to three things: his diet, exercise and medication, he said on “Oprah.” While there are no known ways to prevent MS, a 2016 meta-analysis found a link between coffee intake and a reduced risk of MS. The study showed an association, rather than proving cause and effect, but it’s possible that caffeine may have a protective effect on the brain and spinal cord, according to the researchers.
The star of The Sopranos was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003. Only in 2008 did she tell her story. She is free and clear today.
The famous novelist had battled breast cancer for six years before passing away. Only she and her two daughters knew of her diagnosis.
The singer was diagnosed with a near-fatal, serious case of Lyme disease which kept her bedridden for five months. Only when she was clear of the scare did she tell her story.
Veteran actress Candice Bergen has revealed she suffered a minor stroke back in 2006, which left her with some memory loss. In an interview with New York magazine, the 65-year-old actress revealed she only took two weeks off working on TV show Boston Legal to recover. But six years later ‘my memory is just… it’s not quite the same,’ she admits. The star, who is making her Broadway début in Gore Vidal’s The Best Man says she was reluctant to admit it because ‘I just don’t want it to be a liability.’
Pop star Selena Gomez canceled her 2013 tour when she was diagnosed with lupus. After her diagnosis, Gomez underwent a round of treatment and took a break from the public eye, she told Billboard magazine in 2015. The chronic autoimmune disease is much more common in women than in men, and is typically diagnosed when women are of childbearing age. When a person has lupus, the body attacks its own cells as if they were harmful invaders, according to the Lupus Foundation of America. This can cause symptoms throughout the body, ranging from skin rashes and mouth ulcers to kidney problems and inflammation of various organs. There is no cure for lupus, but there are treatments, such as corticosteroids and monoclonal antibodies, to help people with the condition manage their symptoms. For people with more serious forms of the disease, drugs that were developed to treat cancer may be used. Other celebs, such as Nick Cannon, Lady Gaga, Toni Braxton and Seal, also have lupus.
Writer and actress Lena Dunham described her decade-long struggle with endometriosis in her November 2015 newsletter, Lenny Letter. Dunham said that, since puberty, she has suffered from irregular periods, abdominal pain and chronic exhaustion. Her life changed the moment she finally received the diagnosis of endometriosis, Dunham wrote. Endometriosis occurs when cells from the lining of the uterus become displaced and grow in other areas of the abdomen or body, leading to pain and irregular bleeding. The condition can also cause problems when women try to get pregnant. Medications can help women manage the pain associated with endometriosis and slow the progression of the disease. In some scenarios, surgery is used to remove growths of endometrial cells from the body, according to the Endometriosis Foundation of America. Other celebrities with endometriosis include Susan Sarandon, Padma Lakshmi and Jillian Michaels.
Actor Tom Hanks announced that he has type 2 diabetes during an interview on the “Late Show with David Letterman” in 2013. Hanks said he had been dealing with high blood sugar levels for years when his doctor told him they were high enough to meet the criteria for diabetes, he told Letterman. (When a person’s blood sugar levels are elevated but not high enough to be considered diabetes, they have what is known as “prediabetes.”) When a person has diabetes, the body cannot effectively control its blood sugar levels. Diabetes can increase a person’s risk for heart disease and, if unmanaged, can cause serious problems, including nerve damage, blindness and kidney failure. A 2015 study from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases found that about half of American adults have either diabetes or prediabetes. Type 2 diabetes can be managed with regular exercise and a healthy diet. Actress Halle Berry and celebrity chef Paula Deen also have announced that they have diabetes.
After finding red, flaky patches of skin on her legs in 2011, the “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” star was diagnosed with psoriasis on an episode of her family’s TV reality show. Her mother, Kris Jenner, also has the disease. Psoriasis is an autoimmune disease, meaning the condition results when the immune system attacks the body’s own cells rather than foreign invaders. The skin disorder appears as raised red patches with thick, silvery scales. About 7.5 million Americans have psoriasis, according to the National Psoriasis Foundation. The disorder, which can range from a mild skin rash to a debilitating condition, can flare up for a few weeks or months, but also subsides for periods of time. Although psoriasis has been thought of as a skin condition, recent research has suggested that the inflammation associated with psoriasis may be present in other parts of the body, and may impact heart health. Experts think experiencing high levels of stress, taking certain medications, drinking alcohol or smoking can trigger a flare-up. The symptoms of psoriasis are treatable, but there is no cure for the condition.