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Musicians Who Were Actors First

It’s always interesting to see how professions in the entertainment industry overlap. This is especially true these days when many celebrities are multi-talented singers/actors/influencers/entrepreneurs. Some of the actors to musician pipeline feel obvious, especially when looking at networks such as Disney Channel or Nickelodeon which often feature shows with music involved in some way. Still, it’s always intriguing to see someone in the limelight who carries many talents or once dabbled in other professions outside of being a musician. The musician-to-actor transition is a bit more common, but there aren’t as many who went into music after being an actor first. This will highlight those who took this path. A couple of them may surprise you.


Before he was a Grammy award-winning rapper, Drake was an actor. He was on the popular 2000s TV show, Degrassi. Before he poured his heart out in music, he was tugging on our heartstrings as the character Jimmy Brooks. Drake dropped out of high school to pursue his acting career when he was 15 after being introduced to a high school friend's father, an acting agent who got him the role on Degrassi. He later got his diploma in 2012. When Drake talks about his early acting career, he’s said, "My mother was very sick. We were very poor, like broke. The only money I had coming in was [from] Canadian TV" (Source). He starred in Degrassi for seven years (2001-2009) appearing in about 100 episodes. His role earn him a Young Artist Award in 2002 for best ensemble in a TV series. Drake also played a leading role in the short film 'Us and Them'. Shot in and around his hometown of Toronto, the film features many iconic places Drake sings about in his recent music including his childhood home. Beyond that, he was in smaller roles in the 2000s before quitting acting to focus on his music career.

Drake self-released his debut mixtape, Room for Improvement, in 2006. The mixtape featured Trey Songz and Lupe Fiasco. According to Degrassi series creators Stephen Stohn and Linda Schuyler, Drake regularly arrived late on set after spending nights recording music. To prevent this, Schuyler claimed Drake struck an agreement with the set's security guards to gain entry to the set after recording to be allowed to sleep in a dressing room. In 2009, Drake released his third mixtape So Far Gone which had "Best I Ever Had" and "Successful.” The tracks found mainstream commercial success from the singles and gained gold certification by the RIAA. Drake was the subject of a bidding war between various labels eventually going with Young Money Entertainment. On March 9, 2010, Drake released the debut single "Over", which peaked at number fourteen on the Billboard Hot 100 as well as topping the Rap Songs chart. It also received a nomination for Best Rap Solo Performance at the 53rd Grammy Awards. His second single, "Find Your Love", became an even bigger success. It peaked at number five on the Hot 100, and was certified platinum.

From there, Drake continued to move up in his music career, and now he’s one of the most popular rappers in the industry. Drake placed fourth on Forbes's ranking of highest-paid rappers of 2021, with an estimated pre-tax income of $50 million. On April 16, it was calculated Drake generated more streams in 2021 than every song released prior to 1980 combined; his music accumulated 7.91 billion streams, while songs pre-1980 had generated 6.32 billion. Needless to say, the transition to music was a good move on his part. I always think about the lyrics from his song “0 to 100/The Catch Up” where he says, “All up on TV, I thought it'd make me richer/ Wasn't payin' me enough, I needed somethin' quicker.” And quicker, did he find.

Jared Leto

Source: England.Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios and Universal Pictures

Jared Leto is someone I’ve always been intrigued by. For a lot of people, they might have known Leto as an actor first, and listing him may be too obvious. But perhaps there are others like me out there, who first knew Jared Leto as the singer for the alternative rock band Thirty Seconds to Mars. When word began spreading that he was going to play The Joker in Suicide Squad, I thought “oh cool, he’s going into acting.” How wrong I was.

In his early twenties, Leto moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in directing, intending to take acting roles on the side. To keep money coming in, he found minor roles on television shows but his first break came in 1994 when he was cast opposite Claire Danes as Jordan Catalano, her love interest, in the short-lived but well-reviewed ABC teen drama My So-Called Life. The same year, Leto made his television film debut starring alongside Alicia Silverstone in Cool and the Crazy, and landed his first film role in the 1995 drama How to Make an American Quilt. In 1997, Leto starred in the biopic Prefontaine as Olympic hopeful Steve Prefontaine. To prepare for the role, Leto immersed himself in the runner's life, training for six weeks and meeting with members of his family and friends to give an accurate performance. This paid off as critics praised his portrayal and this is believed to be his breakout role.

Source: Photofest

In between taking roles, Jared and Shannon Leto formed their band Thirty Seconds to Mars in 1998 after playing music together for years. Over the course of their career, the band has released 5 studio albums, 3 EPs, and a video album with their last album release coming out in 2018. While their debut album put them out there, their second 2005 album A Beautiful Lie really put them on the map. Their song “The Kill” has over 360 million streams on Spotify and the album itself sold 21,000 copies in its first week of release in the US and has gone on to sell more than 1.2 million copies in the US alone. This album was everywhere from 2005-2008. In between getting the band off the ground, Leto continued acting, featuring in movies such as Panic Room, Fight Club, Requiem for a Dream, and American Psycho. The combination of Leto’s acting fame and an album with amazing songs like “The Kill” helped propel the band into the mainstream.

They were the “it” band for a spell. While their music isn’t topping the charts like it used to, they still have millions of fans, some of whom willingly spend thousands of dollars to hang out with the band on a private island for cult-like retreats (yes, it’s a real thing, see here). It has now been several years since the band released its last album, and at this time, the group does not have anything going on in the studio. Perhaps this is because Leto has been focusing on acting much more these days, but it doesn’t seem the band is broken up, rather just taking a long break. In the last 10 years, Leto has starred in films such as The Suicide Squad as The Joker, and Dr. Morbius in the 2022 film Morbius. Since Jared Leto continues to keep his hand in both honeypots, it’s not a clean change from actor turned musician, but I wanted to include him anyway because I find his career so fascinating.

Lady Gaga

This one may come as a bit of a surprise to some. When A Star is Born came out in 2018, millions were baffled by Gaga’s acting chops. But truly, Gaga has had her hand in acting for years. She began performing as a teenager, singing at open mic nights, and acting in school plays. Gaga played the lead role of Adelaide in the play Guys and Dolls and Philia in the play A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Her interest in acting continued, studying method acting at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute at the New York University's Tisch School of the Arts at the age of 17. Gaga also unsuccessfully auditioned for New York shows, though she did appear in a small role as a high-school student in a 2001 episode of The Sopranos titled "The Telltale Moozadell."

While there, she also studied music, and improved her songwriting skills by writing essays on art, religion, social issues, and politics, including a thesis on pop artists Spencer Tunick and Damien Hirst. However, she ultimately dropped out in her second year to pursue a career in music.

In 2005, Gaga formed a band called the SGBand with some friends from NYU. After playing gigs all over the city, the band became known throughout the downtown Lower East Side club scene. Having served as an apprentice songwriter during an internship at Famous Music Publishing, Gaga struck a music publishing deal with Sony/ATV. As a result, she was hired to write songs for Britney Spears, New Kids on the Block, Fergie, and the Pussycat Dolls.

Then, in November 2007, Vincent Herbert signed Gaga to his label Streamline Records, a newly established offshoot of Interscope Records. Gaga later credited Herbert as the man who discovered her. Through this connection, the musician Akon was impressed with her singing abilities when she sang a reference vocal for one of his tracks while in the studio recording. Akon wanted to get her a deal with his label in 2007. From there, the rest is history. With the release of The Fame in 2008, Lady Gaga took the pop world by storm. And she’s kept the attention of the world ever since.

After becoming massively successful as a singer-songwriter, Lady Gaga has returned to acting a few times including on the TV horror series American Horror Story, 2018 film A Star is Born, and 2021 movie House of Gucci. She won a Golden Globe for her portrayal of the Countess in American Horror Story: Hotel.

Miley Cyrus

Source: Creator: Amy Sussman, Copyright: 2020 Getty Images

Everyone likely knows about the trajectory of Miley Cyrus’ career, especially kids who grew up watching Miley Cyrus (or Stewart in the show) live a double life on the hit Disney show Hannah Montana. Cyrus is a bit of a special case because even when she was acting, she was also singing. Her breakout role as Miley Stewart/Hannah Montana had her acting as a down-to-earth “average” girl by day and singing as a pop star by night. Still, there are some bits about the start of her desire to act and sing that aren’t as well known.

Since her father Billy Ray Cyrus was already a well-known country singer, Miley was already around the entertainment business before going into it herself. When she was eight, the family moved to Toronto, Canada while her father worked on the TV series, Doc. That same year, Billy Ray took Miley to see a 2001 Mirvish production of Mamma Mia! at the Royal Alexandra Theatre. In awe, Miley Cyrus grabbed his arm and told him, "This is what I want to do, daddy. I want to be an actress." From that point on, she began to take singing and acting lessons at the Armstrong Acting Studio in Toronto.

Billy Ray Cyrus and Miley Cyrus in 1994 | Rick Diamond/Getty Images

Cyrus's first acting role was as Kylie in her father's television series Doc. In 2003, she received credit under her birth name for her role as "Young Ruthie" in Tim Burton's Big Fish. Around this time, she auditioned with Taylor Lautner for the feature film The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl. She wound up being one of the two finalists for the role but chose Hannah Montana instead. Cyrus was only 13 when she auditioned and was ultimately chosen for the role because of her acting and singing abilities. The show was such a huge hit that her music as Hannah Montana was released, and as time went on, under her own name too. Aside from Hannah Montana, Miley Cyrus also acted in movies such as The Last Song, Bolt, and LOL with some guest stars appearances in other TV shows.

Side by side of Miley as Hannah Montana with a more recent photo. Image Credit: Everett Collection/Shutterstock

By the time Hannah Montana had come to an end, Miley Cyrus pivoted to her music career, determined to reinvent herself to the industry away from the persona she’d played on Disney for years. To help with this, she released the studio album, Can't Be Tamed in 2010. Society wasn’t too keen on the changes she made, and people began to shame her for trying to mature as an artist and person. It can’t be easy to grow up in the public eye, and as I remember, the media blew it all out of proportion like she was the devil incarnate. But a lot of that animosity has passed over time. And Cyrus is still selling well and landing on the Billboard charts.

Her latest studio album Plastic Hearts (released in November 2020) received positive reviews from critics and debuted at number two on the Billboard 200, her 12th top ten entry on the chart. With this latest album, Cyrus broke the record for attaining the most US Billboard 200 top-five albums in the 21st century by a female artist. It seems that Cyrus is right where she’s supposed to be in the entertainment industry. Music has always been a part of her life, and it seems it will continue to be.

Kylie Minogue

Source: Creator: Antony Jones - Copyright: ANTONY-JONES(C)Copyright 2016 Mar

Before Kylie Minogue was an award-winning singer, she was like so many others, trying to break into the acting industry. Growing up, Kylie and her sister Dannii took singing and dancing lessons. It was really her sister who was interested in acting first. A 10-year-old Minogue accompanied her sister to a hearing for a role and while producers found Dannii too young, Alan Hardy gave Minogue a minor role in the soap opera The Sullivans. She also appeared in another small role in Skyways in 1980. In 1985, she was cast in one of the lead roles in The Henderson Kids, a role which Minogue took time off school to film. Her parents weren’t thrilled with the idea, but Minogue felt that she needed independence to make it into the entertainment industry. Despite her dedication, she was dropped from the second season after not taking criticism or instruction well and forgetting her lines.

Source: Kylie Minogue in The Henderson Kids, 1985. Crawford Productions Pty Ltd- Australian Children’s Television Foundation

After being written off, Minogue pursued a career in music alongside her acting. She made a demo tape for the producers of weekly music program Young Talent Time, which featured her sister Dannii as a regular performer. Kylie Minogue gave her first television singing performance on the show in 1985 but was not invited to join the cast. In the meantime, Minogue was cast in the soap opera Neighbours in 1986, as Charlene Mitchell. Neighbours achieved popularity in the UK. Minogue became the first person to win four Logie Awards in one year and was the youngest recipient of the "Gold Logie" as the country's "Most Popular Television Performer", with the result determined by public vote.

Still pursuing music, Minogue had her demo sent to the head of Mushroom Records Michael Gudinski. Gudinski decided to sign Minogue in early 1987 based on her popularity from Neighbours. Her debut single "The Locomotion" was released in Australia in July 1987, three weeks after a high-performing episode of the Neighbours featuring Minogue premiered. The single became the best-selling single of the decade in Australia according to the Kent Music Report.

Minogue's self-titled debut album, Kylie, was released in July 1988, a collection of dance-oriented pop songs. The album spent several weeks at number one on the UK Albums Chart, eventually becoming the best-selling album of the 1980s by a female artist. It went gold in the United States, while the single "The Locomotion" reached number three on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart.

Not long after the success of her album, she left Neighbours to focus on her music career. In September 2001, Minogue released "Can't Get You Out of My Head", the lead single from her eighth studio album, Fever. It reached number one in over 40 countries and sold 5 million copies, becoming Minogue's most successful single to date.

Kylie Minogue in the “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” music video. Credit: Planet Photos

Looking at her career, it seems that while she found success as an actress, music is where Minogue was always meant to land. Through the years, she’s continued to perform and release new music. Her latest album Disco was released on November 6, 2020, reaching number one in her native Australia and in the UK, where Minogue became the first female solo artist to achieve a number one album in five consecutive decades from the 1980s to the 2020s. What an achievement! And it seems Minogue isn’t planning to retire anytime soon.

Taylor Momsen

For anyone who’s on social media a lot, this may come as no surprise given that the internet exploded when people made this connection. Before Taylor Momsen was the singer for the post-grunge rock band The Pretty Reckless, she was a child actress. For millennials, particularly kids growing up in the 2000s, we knew Taylor Momsen as little Cindy Lou Who from the 2000 movie How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Momsen was only six years old when she played the adorable Cindy Lou. After that, she continued child acting. In 2007 she starred in the Walt Disney Pictures film Underdog, as Molly and as Jennifer in the movie Paranoid Park. In that same year, she also began to play the character of Jenny Humphrey in The TV series Gossip Girl. She stayed on the show until the fourth season in 2011 when Momsen told Elle magazine that she had quit acting to focus on her music career.

Taylor Momsen in Gossip Girl alongside Penn Badgley. Source:

Despite having connections to acting, Momsen has gone on record saying she didn’t really love acting. It was just something she was put into at a young age. Still, she has said she’s had some good moments through acting. One of her favorites was getting the chance to go into a recording studio for the first time, to sing “Where Are You Christmas?” for How the Grinch Stole Christmas at the age of 6.

One interesting fact I discovered looking into her career was that she auditioned for the title role in Hannah Montana, and was in the top three, but the role was instead awarded to Miley Cyrus. Given that Momsen didn’t love acting, it’s probably better she didn’t get that role. But could you imagine how different that show would have been if Taylor Momsen was the face of Hannah Montana? I’d like to see that in an alternate universe.

An actress at age 14 learning more about herself, Momsen realized her heart was less in acting and more into music. This change might have come as a shock to some people back then but given her singing talent and the fact that when she was still just a baby, her father- a former Aerosmith roadie and Beatles nut- and mother took her to see Chuck Berry, it makes sense. Music was always a part of her life too.

As a teen, Momsen began writing songs outside of her acting gigs. By 2009, she was working to get a band together with producer Kato Khandwala. By 2010, The Pretty Reckless was signed to Interscope Records and released their debut studio album. Since then, the band has released four albums and toured with huge artists in the rock/grunge scene including Soundgarden (on their final tour in 2017 before Chris Cornell’s passing), Evanescence, and most recently, Halestorm.

The Pretty Reckless | Source: Loudwire

Going from the sweet little Cindy Lou to the grunge rock badass that she is now, Taylor Momsen is in my opinion, a legend. Rather than stay in a career she wasn’t passionate about just for money, she is someone who found her place in another facet of the entertainment industry, one she’s much happier in. “I turn to music and it’s almost like meditation,” she says. “Playing music for a living? That is not a job, that is a joy and a pleasure.” (Source)

So, there you have it. I personally love Taylor Momsen’s transition to music, because unlike some of the others who have enjoyed being a part of both industries, she seems to be the only one who has made a total break from one industry to the next. Music seems to be her true passion, and I love that for her. Plus, her music is great!

It would have been far too easy to make a list of actors who’ve decided to dabble in the music industry, so I really wanted to make this list (even though it was hard to find some, and some blurred the lines between the industries). In making this, I could have included people such as Zooey Deschanel, Jamie Foxx, and Scarlet Johanssen, but I really wanted this to focus on artists whose acting careers don’t outshine their musical endeavors. Jared Leto is that special blurred line addition, but just because I didn’t include them doesn’t mean I don’t know of their awesome music side projects 😊 Still, I always like to learn more about this actor-to-musician pipeline. Are there any musicians you know of that had a lesser-known acting career before they hit it in the music business? Let me know in the comments!

Special thanks to the following sources for helping me gather info for this blog post.

Written by Kristen Petronio


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