From Madea to the House of Payne: the Life of Tyler Perry

Tyler Perry is most notably known for his iconic character, Madea. The sassy character was the brainchild of Perry, and he also played the character. Aside from the countless Madea movies, Perry built his empire through producing, screenwriting, acting, and directing. He has done it all and changed the industry.

Tyler Perry at the world premiere of Marvel Studios Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
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Perry became the first African American to receive the prestigious Emmy Governors Award, but behind his successful career is a tragic backstory. He might be one of the highest-paid men in the industry, but his road to the top was anything but easy. Keep reading to find out the untold truth about Tyler Perry.

Born With a Different Name

Tyler Perry was born Emmitt Perry Jr. in New Orleans, Louisiana, to Willie Maxine and Emmitt Perry Sr. Perry was named after his father but later changed his name to distance himself from his abusive dad. The actor’s childhood was anything but easy because his father’s answer to everything was to “beat it out of you.”

Sportsman Earvin
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Aside from physical abuse, Perry revealed that his father would play “mind games.” The actor opened up to Oprah Winfrey, saying, “It was like living in h*ll. I feel like I died as a child.” He said he used his imagination to escape from everything.

His Childhood was Brutal

During the interview with Oprah, Perry added, “I could go to this park in my mind that my mother and aunt had taken me to. I’m there in this park running and playing, and it was such a good day.” He used this image of the park to escape whenever someone did something horrible to him.

Writer director Tyler Perry and Lionsgate's Joe Drake
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Perry shared that his father beat him in different ways. He recalled his father once using a vacuum cord. He still doesn’t understand why his father was so abusive, and as a child, he wanted the abuse to end. Perry didn’t know what to do.

He Asked for Help

After one of his father’s beatings, Perry waited till his dad was asleep and ran to his aunt’s house. He told her what had happened and showed her marks from the abuse. She was horrified and confronted Perry’s father with a gun. His aunt refused to let Perry stay with his father any longer.

Tyler Perry
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Perry’s aunt said, “I knew he couldn’t stay there with him. And his mother took him everywhere with her after that.” However, their rescue wasn’t before Perry attempted to take his life to escape the abuse. He didn’t think there would be a way out until he found the courage to tell his aunt.

There Was Outside Abuse

While life was hard at home because of his father, that wasn’t the only abuse Perry dealt with. By the time he was ten, he had been sexually abused by three men and a woman. The traumatic experience left him with many issues, and Perry said it confused him about his sexuality.

Director Tyler Perry
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Perry carried these traumatic experiences with him through life. He said, “All these people had given me something to carry. I think that everyone who’s been abused, there is a string to the puppet master, and they’re holding you hostage to your behaviors and what you do.”

He Tried to Distance Himself

After everything he had been through, Perry wanted to distance himself from his past. He decided to change his name when he was 16 to Tyler instead of Emmitt so he wouldn’t share a name with his father. He cut ties with his dad because of the abuse.

Playwrite Tyler Perry and singer Monica
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His tough home life came with many challenges preventing Perry from finishing school. Perry was an angry person because of the abuse, and he had a huge outburst at school. He was kicked out of high school but later completed his GED.

Kickstarting His Career

Although he never finished high school, Perry’s GED was enough for him to kickstart his career at 22. He was inspired by an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show, where someone described the therapeutic effect of writing and how it helped them work through their problems.

Actor Tyler Perry
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The episode gave Perry the idea to start writing, and he began writing a series of letters to himself. The letters became the basis for the musical I Know I’ve Been Changed. In 1990, Perry realized it was time to take his career into his own hands.

His First Show

In 1990, Perry moved from New Orleans to Atlanta to start building a new life. Within two years, his musical I Know I’ve Been Changed was performed at a community theater. At 22, Perry financed the show with his life savings of $12,000.

New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin and Actor Tyler Perry
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Perry’s play included Christian themes of dignity, self-worth, and forgiveness. It also addressed issues that hit close to home for Perry, like child abuse and dysfunctional families, and the musical helped Perry work through those memories that haunted him.

He Kept Trying

While his musical made it to the community theater, Perry wanted more. He continued to rewrite his play for the next six years, but it kept receiving lackluster reviews. It wasn’t until 1998 that he finally succeeded in restaging his musical.

Actors Tasha Smith (L) and Tyler Perry
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Perry brought his musical to the House of Blues and the Fox Theatre. Once I Know I’ve Been Changed succeeded, Perry continued to create stage productions, touring them on the urban theater circuit. He started to develop a large African American following.

It Was a Long Road

Once his career took off, there was no stopping Perry. However, it was not easy to get there. During the years when he was trying to make his play successful, Perry had to live out of his car. He shared on Instagram a bit about his struggles.

Hosts Tyler Perry (L) and Halle Berry
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Perry wrote, “After leaving my job, trying to do my play, and it not working out, I had nothing. I was so broke and hungry I couldn’t afford rent. I ended up homeless and sleeping in the car.” Still, he didn’t give up on his dream.

His Car Was Gone

After another failed attempt to get his play off the ground, Perry got a consistent job. However, he discovered his car was gone when he went to collect his paycheck. Perry said, “It had been repossessed. I was devastated. All I owned was the car.”

Tyler Perry
Photo by Jason Kempin/WireImage for Lionsgate

He felt heartbroken, but things turned around when I Know I’ve Been Changed attracted large audiences. The show toured from 1998 to 2000, featuring Perry as the main character. It opened the doors for so many more opportunities that made him the star he is today.

His Career Took Off

Once his first show was a success, Perry’s following plays were also big hits. According to a Forbes report in 2005, he sold “more than $100 million in tickets, $30 million in videos of his shows, and an estimated $20 million in merchandise.” His shows were also attended by about 35,000 people weekly.

Actors Mary J. Blige, Kwesi Boakye, Taraji P. Henson, Tyler Perry
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In 2005, Perry raised $5.5 million in part from the ticket sales of his stage productions to fund his debut feature film, Diary of a Mad Black Woman. The film was based on one of his plays and grossed about $50.6 million.

The Beginning of Madea

The turning point in Perry’s career came in 2006 when he made his directorial debut in the film adaptation of Madea’s Family Reunion. It was the beginning of Perry’s empire, and the film opened at number one at the box office with $30.3 million.

Tyler Perry's Madea's Big Happy Family
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His now iconic character, Madea, was inspired by his mother, Willie Maxine, and his gun-toting Aunt Mayola. The character first appeared in Perry’s 2000 play I Can Do Bad All By Myself when an actress didn’t show up to a performance in Chicago.

He Stole the Show

Although Perry was only supposed to be on stage for only a few minutes, he made his role bigger by using the other performer’s lines. He stayed on stage for the rest of the show, and everyone loved him. He stole the show, and Madea made her film debut in Diary of a Black Woman.

Tyler Perry visits SiriusXM Studios
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Perry then established Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta in 2006 because he wanted to change the industry for people of color. He told Variety, “That’s what I was doing in Atlanta, building that sense of power for myself so that I can hire more people of color, women, and open the door to diversity.”

Inspired By Another Comedian

In Perry’s Madea films, he often portrays multiple characters, including Madea. He credits Eddie Murphy for making him believe he could get away with playing a female character. Murphy portrayed his entire family, including the women in Nutty Professor and Nutty Professor II: The Klumps.

Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry
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Some people might have thought it was weird for a man to play a female character, but it has become more normal over the years, thanks to Murphy and Perry. Even John Travolta portrayed a woman in the film adaptation of Hairspray.

Signing a Big Deal

Many people overlooked Perry’s films at the start of his career, but one major production company saw his potential. Perry’s first three films were produced in partnership with Lionsgate, and in 2008, they signed a three-year first-look deal with Perry.

Director Tyler Perry
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The deal was exactly what Perry needed to get his movies off the ground. Although Lionsgate didn’t have much of an international reach, his films made millions during the partnership with the studio. However, Perry wasn’t always happy with the studio as he evolved throughout the years.

Parting Ways

After four years of working with Lionsgate, Perry and the studio parted ways because they failed to find common ground. As Perry evolved in his career, he and the company had creative differences, and he wasn’t thrilled with Lionsgate’s limited international reach.

Kim Kardashian and Tyler Perry
Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/VF22/WireImage for Vanity Fair

Perry’s films usually made about $50 million at the box office with Lionsgate, but he wanted to do more. He also felt frustrated by the marketing of his films. In 2012, Perry became a free agent and had more room to work with other entertainment companies.

House of Payne

While Madea was one of his most iconic film characters, Perry has also had tremendous success in television. In 2006, he produced the sitcom Tyler Perry’s House of Payne, which ran for eight seasons. The series was about an African American family dealing with struggles of faith and love.

Tyler Perry
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When the show premiered in 2006, it ran as a 10-show pilot. The show was a hit, and TBS was interested in making a deal with Perry. He signed a $200 million 100-episode deal with the network, and the first two episodes of Season 2 premiered in 2007, receiving high ratings.

He Lost His Mother

In 2009, Perry’s mother, Willy Maxine, passed away. During an interview with Oprah, Perry opened up about his childhood and his mother. He said, “She was my saving grace because she would take me to church with her.” He loved seeing her smiling in the choir.

Tyler Perry
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After her death, Perry finally opened up about the abuse he suffered as a child. He waited until she died because he didn’t want to cause her more pain than she had already suffered. Perry revealed that his father also abused his mother, and she couldn’t escape.

They Tried to Run Away

Perry’s mother was also being abused by his father, and she tried to leave with Perry and his two siblings. They packed up the car and drove to California to escape. However, Perry’s father reported the car stolen, and Maxine was arrested.

Mariah Carey and Tyler Perry
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Perry’s uncle drove them back to Louisiana while his father beat his mother in the back seat the entire ride. Perry said, “My mother wasn’t strong like my aunt. She was very passive. She did not have the backbone to stand up for herself, so she certainly couldn’t stand up for me.”

He Forgave His Father

After his mother’s passing, Perry opened up to his fans about his painful past. He expected to receive a call from his father but got something very different. His father sent a message through his brother, saying, “ If I had beat you one more time, you probably would have been Barack Obama.”

Tyler Perry (C) and Cast of Sistas and The Oval attend
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Despite the lack of remorse, Perry bought his father a mansion in Louisiana and sent him checks every month. Perry said he forgave his father because it was the only way he would start to heal. However, he always wondered why his dad hated him so much.

Not the Father

Perry always wondered why his father hated him so much. His mother insisted Emmitt Sr. was Perry’s biological father, but that never felt right. After his mother’s death, Perry took a DNA test with his brother, which revealed they did not have the same father.

Tyler Perry Honored With Star On Hollywood Walk Of Fame
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He took the same test with his father, confirming what he already suspected. Perry always felt they weren’t related because his father was so brutal to him for no reason. He was also upset because his mother lied to him for many years by insisting Emmitt Sr. was his biological father.

A Friendship of Mutual Respect

When Perry publicly opened up about his tragic past, he shared the details in an exclusive interview with Oprah. Perry felt comfortable sharing his story with her because they had formed a close friendship over the years. He credits Oprah for pushing him to work harder.

Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey
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After being invited to the Legends Ball in 2005, Perry and Oprah formed a close friendship. Over the years, they have been there for one another in many ways. They also teamed up for a powerful partnership but ensured it wouldn’t affect their friendship.

A Huge Deal

Thanks to his close friendship with Oprah, Perry and the media mogul struck up a deal for the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). The partnership was to bring scripted shows to OWN because Perry had previous success in television. His show, Tyler Perry’s For Better or Worse, was revived on OWN.

Actor Tyler Perry (L) and TV personality Oprah Winfrey
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Perry had two other series on the network, The Haves and the Have Nots and Love Thy Neighbor. The partnership solidified their friendship and helped bring a new phase to OWN. However, after a few years, Perry left (with Oprah’s blessing) to start his own streaming service.

Private Relationship

While Perry is one of the top names in Hollywood, he has kept most of his personal life out of the spotlight. One of his only confirmed relationships was with model Gelila Bekele. The two began dating in 2007 after meeting at a Prince concert.

Gelila Bekele and Tyler Perry
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Perry had previously gushed about Bekele, saying, “There’s no other person on this planet that I would want to be involved with or have a child with because she’s amazing.” In 2014, the couple revealed they were expecting their first child.

They Had a Son

In November 2014, Perry and Bekele welcomed their son, Aman, and they were overjoyed to be parents. Perry later revealed that Bekele had told him she was pregnant over facetime and held up the pregnancy test. The couple also decided to keep their son out of the public eye.

Comedian Steve Harvey, Marjorie Harvey, model Gelila Bekele and director Tyler Perry
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Although the two never married, Perry always said Bekele would get her share of his wealth. However, the couple split in 2020 but planned to remain friends to co-parent their son. A friend close to them said they were focused on being the best parents for Aman.

Tyler Perry Studios

In 2015, Perry purchased a 330-acre former military base in Atlanta as the location of Tyler Perry Studios. The studios were used to film The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. It is one of the largest film studios in the nation and established Perry as the second African American to own a major film studio.

Tyler Perry and Taraji P. Henson
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Perry’s studio had a grand opening in 2019, featuring 12 sound stages named after accomplished African Americans in Hollywood. One of the first major films filmed on the new stages was Black Panther.

Facing Legal Action

Perry has had an incredibly successful career, but he has faced some challenges in his career. The Writers Guild of America, West filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board against Perry’s production company, Tyler Perry Studios.

Tyler Perry and guest
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The charges alleged that Perry’s company unlawfully fired four writers in 2008 because they wanted to get a union contract. The dispute was settled when Tyler Perry Studios agreed to be a WGA signatory. However, that wasn’t Perry’s only legal issue. He previously had some tax issues.

Mo’ Money Taxes

Aside from his issue with the WGA, Perry had legal problems in 2009. He threatened legal action against Mo’ Money Taxes, a tax preparation company in Memphis, Tennessee, because they ran a commercial that offensively parodied his film Madea Goes to Jail.

Tyler Perry takes a selfie with fans
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The offensive ad featured a large white male in drag named Ma’Madea. The ad was later pulled off the air because of Perry’s legal threat. Although Perry’s films are comedic, he didn’t appreciate the way his film ideas were being used to promote the company.

A Royal Friendship

Perry has shown that he has friends in high places, which aren’t one-way friendships. Besides his friendship with Oprah, Perry is also friends with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry. He first connected with the famous couple in 2018 after seeing Markle’s father sharing staged photos.

Ozzie Area, Rebecca Romijn, actor Tyler Perry
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Perry felt bad for Markle and what she was going through with her family and in the media. Before the couple’s royal wedding Perry wrote Markle a note sympathizing with her. He added that they could call on Perry if they ever needed anything.

He Supported Them

Perry offered Markle and Harry a place to stay before he formally met them. Their first in-person meeting was when the couple arrived at his home in California, where they stayed for six weeks until the press discovered their location. Perry commended them for leaving their royal duties.

Actress Gabrielle Union (L) and actor Tyler Perry
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He felt the couple was brave to leave everything behind when they stepped away from their family. Perry also said Markle was classy during the Oprah interview because she could have said much more about the royals but held back.

He Is the Godfather

Perry is so close to Markle and Harry that the couple named him their daughter’s godfather. The couple called him to ask if he would be Lilibet’s godfather, and Perry was so honored to accept the title. However, he declined to attend her christening if it took place in England.

Presenter Tyler Perry
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He didn’t attend Lilibet’s christening because he didn’t want to do the big ceremony in the church with the royal family. Instead, Perry asked if they could do a private ceremony in California. He empathized with the couple and helped them whenever he could.

He Helps Everyone

Perry is one of those people who will drop everything to help the people he cares about. He was a close friend of Whitney Houston, and during her toughest days of battling drug addiction, Perry was there to help her and her family. He regularly spoke to them, lent his plane, and did anything to get her help.

Tyler Perry
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When Oprah had difficulties with her network, OWN, Perry hopped on a plane to California to ensure she was okay. He even helped his abusive father financially because his mother asked him to before she died.

A Charitable Man

With his massive net worth, Perry tries to give back in whatever way he can. In 2009, he sponsored 65 children from a Philadelphia day camp to visit Disney World after reading that the local swim club had shunned the campers.

Tyler Perry and Lisa Arrindell
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Perry said, “I want them to know that for every act of evil that a few people will throw at you, there are millions more who will do something kind for them.” Perry didn’t have many people helping him as a kid, so he feels for those in need.

His Feud With Spike Lee

For many years, Perry had long-running animosity toward Spike Lee. The director called Perry’s work “coonery buffoonery,” which angered Perry. In October 2009, Perry heard the comments during his 60 Minutes interview and had some harsh words to say.

Tyler Perry's Madea's Big Happy Family
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Perry responded, “I would love to read that criticism to my fan base. That pisses me off. It’s attitudes like that that make Hollywood think that these people do not exist.” He spoke about his characters like Madea, who he uses to talk about serious topics in a funny way.

He’s an Author

Perry released his first book, Don’t Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings: Madea’s Uninhibited Commentaries, in 2006. The book sold 30,000 copies, reached number one on the New York Times Best Seller list, and stayed there for 12 weeks. It was also voted Book of the Year.

Tichina Arnold, Tyler Perry and Kimberly Elise
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The book was a collection of advice, stories, and wisdom written from Madea’s viewpoint. Perry wrote about marriage, family, finances, religion, and gun care in Madea’s voice, and critics said the book was “a surprisingly fresh compilation of homespun advice.”

He Has Harsh Critics

While Perry has been praised for creating jobs for black people in front of and behind the camera, critics have also complained about his perpetuation of old stereotypes. Jamilah Lemieux from National Public Radio had tough criticisms for Perry about his character choices.

Tyler Perry, Janet Jackson, baseball player Barry Bonds
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Lemieux said, “both your shows are marked by old stereotypes of buffoonish, emasculated black men and crass, sassy black women.” She said Perry’s work has positive messages, but he was feeding the same images to black people that they had seen over and over in the media.

How Much Is Tyler Perry Worth?

As of 2022, Perry is worth between $800 million and $1 billion. Every year, he earns between $200 and $250 million from his entertainment empire. His production company earns about $150 million per year from his deal with VicacomCBS. He is truly a self-made tycoon.

Tyler Perry with Aunt Mayola and Mother Maxine
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Perry owns 100 percent of his costs, revenues, and profits from his multi-media empire. Perry went from having nothing to becoming one of the highest-earning people in the entertainment industry. He has a lavish life with vacation homes in Montana and the Bahamas.

It Brought Up Old Memories

In recent weeks, Perry made headlines after the death of Ellen DeGeneres’ former DJ, Stephen “Twitch” Boss. The late dancer and DJ took his life in December 2022, and it brought up many feelings for Perry. He posted an Instagram video about his shock over Boss’ death.

Tichina Arnold and Tyler Perry
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Perry said, “I only met him a couple of times. He was always full of life. He seemed like such a light.” He shared how he tried to take his own life a few times when he was young. Perry revealed, “It was so dark I didn’t think it would get any better.”

Advice for Others

As Perry reopened the conversation about his past suicide attempts, he touched on something important he learned from those events. He said, “Had any of those attempts happened, I would’ve missed the best part of my life.” Perry shared his story in hopes of helping others.

Gabourey Sidibe, Tyley Perry and Robin Coleman
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Perry encouraged anyone struggling to ask for help. He said, “I know it may seem like there’s no hope, but please reach out to someone. Call, and ask for help if you are dealing with anything.” Perry’s own attempts made him appreciate the better part of his life more.

He’s Still Healing

After everything Perry has been through, he is still healing from his past. He has spoken about undoing the damage people caused in his life. He said, “What I started to do is untie the strings and chase them down to where they came from. I was unable to free myself and understand.”

Tyler Perry
Photo by Derek White/Getty Images for ABA

Perry had to work hard to face the things he suffered and work through his problems. The abuse from his father and others left him with many scars that affected him in every aspect of his life. However, Perry revealed that he is the happiest he has ever been at 53.