Five famous people who successfully switched careers

It can pay to have a plan B.

Circumstance, or even personal choice, can lead to people switching career at a key moment in their life, swapping one successful role for another.

It may be a nerve-wracking step to take, and there are no guarantees it can work out as planned, but there are plenty of stories of people who made a successful switch. Here are some well-known names who did just that.

Michelle Obama, the legal world to the non-profit one

In her twenties, Michelle Obama - who would later become America’s First Lady - was fast developing a successful legal career, but as she wrote in her memoir, Becoming, it wasn’t giving her the satisfaction she thought it would.

Michelle Obama left her legal career to work for a non-profit organisation

She eventually made the decision to change her career and find a job which fulfilled her more. Patience, planning and weighing up the pros and cons of, for example, taking a drop in salary in exchange for a more rewarding role, all played their part before making the move. The corporate lawyer first moved to a job in the Chicago mayor’s office before working with a non-profit company that funded apprenticeships and training, preparing young people from underprivileged backgrounds for roles in public service. She said later that it was the greatest job she ever had.

Professor Brian Cox, pop star to physicist

You may daydream during a physics class about being in a successful band, but for Professor Brian Cox, it was arguably the other way round. He swapped a life of gigging for one packed with scientific theories about the universe.

Professor Brian Cox opted for physics over pop stardom

In the 1980s and ’90s, before he pursued a science career full time, Prof Cox was in a couple of bands, playing keyboards for Dare and D:Ream. The latter went on to have a 1994 number one hit with the anthemic Things Can Only Get Better. He later joked during a radio interview that the song is factually incorrect, as the second law of thermodynamics says the universe "always tends to disorder - so we were never right.”

While touring, he would take science books with him and after five years in music, he enrolled at the University of Manchester, to study physics. He stayed there on completion of his degree, becoming a professor of particle physics. Prof Cox is also a fellow of the The Royal Society, the distinguished science academy based in London, and occasional contributor to Bitesize.

Vera Wang, figure skater to fashion designer

A renowned fashion designer, Vera Wang designed Victoria Beckham’s wedding dress and has created gowns for many Hollywood A-listers.

Before crafting looks for the runway, Vera was turning heads in a completely different way, as a competitive figure skater.

She was so accomplished at the sport that she attempted to make the US team for the 1968 Winter Olympics held in Grenoble, France. She wasn’t successful and at the age of 20, put the ice rink behind her and looked towards the arts instead, then swapped to studying art history.

Vera went on to have a long career as an editor at the influential fashion magazine Vogue and also worked at the fashion label Ralph Lauren.

She has said that, although they seem far apart, there are some similarities between figure skating and fashion design. A competition dance only has a certain amount of time to get a concept across to the judges, just as a fashion idea has a limited period to demonstrate a designer’s point of view.

Fashion designer Vera Wang is an accomplished figure skater

Ronald Reagan, film star to President of the United States

The Duchess of Sussex is a recent example of an actor who swapped the small screen for a role on the public stage. Her marriage to Prince Harry saw her life working on TV shows like the US legal drama Suits come to an end.

It’s not the first time this has happened. Another well-known actor, Grace Kelly, left the movie world behind to become a member of the royal family of Monaco.

But one of the biggest career switches a film star has probably ever made was a move into politics which led to them becoming president of the United States.

Ronald Reagan starring in Bedtime for Bonzo in 1951. Thirty years later, he would move into the White House as the US President

Ronald Reagan first became famous before the Second World War, going on to appear in 53 films over the next two decades. One of his films, Kings Row, was nominated for Best Picture at the 1943 Academy Awards. Another of his well-known releases is Bedtime for Bonzo. Made in 1951, it involved Reagan acting alongside a chimpanzee called Peggy.

His political awakening came when he was appointed president of the Screen Actors Guild, a trade union. In the 1960s he left acting behind to pursue a political career with the Republican party. He became Governor of California in 1966 and by 1980 he was the party’s nomination for president. He won the election, beating Jimmy Carter in the electoral college by 489 votes to 49. He served two terms and was in office at the White House from 1981 to 1989.

Peter Ostrum, chocolate factory winner to vet

Shortly after the actor Gene Wilder died in 2016, the Wikipedia page of Peter Ostrum was temporarily updated to say he was now the owner of a chocolate factory.

Peter Ostrum with Gene Wilder on the set of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

While that’s not true in reality, it was an affectionate reference to Ostrum’s last film role, 45 years earlier. In his early teens, he had played Charlie Bucket, the finder of the fifth golden ticket in the 1971 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Retitled Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, with Gene Wilder playing quirky factory owner Willy Wonka, it went on to become a family favourite.

Gene Wilder made many other film and TV appearances. Peter Ostrum didn’t. Not long after the film was released, the Ostrum family acquired a pet horse and Peter became fascinated with how their vet took care of it. He said in a later interview how the vet clearly enjoyed what they did for a living. Inspired by this, in 1984 he received another kind of golden ticket altogether - a doctorate in veterinary medicine, allowing him to pursue it as a career.

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