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Tyler Perry: the story of a humble young man who became a multimillionaire close to Oprah Winfrey and Prince Harry

The entertainment mogul has built his empire thanks to movies and series starring Black characters and aimed at African-American audiences. Some reproach him for perpetuating stereotypes, but millions of fans in the United States love his productions

Tyler Perry at the Annual Wearable Art Gala on October 22, 2022 in Santa Monica, California.
Tyler Perry at the Annual Wearable Art Gala on October 22, 2022 in Santa Monica, California.Kay Blake (ZUMAPRESS.com / Cordon Press)
Elena Muñoz

The concept of the self-made multimillionaire entrepreneur is often more idealization than reality. However, in the case of screenwriter, producer and director Tyler Perry (New Orleans, 53 years old) social mobility has proved to be real. Last February, he made the Forbes list of the year’s highest paid entertainers for the second year in a row, with a fortune estimated at more than $1 billion. He has emerged as one of the most influential personalities in the entertainment industry and holds a privileged position light years away from his humble origins.

Perry has an empire within the U.S. television industry thanks to his films and series starring Black characters and aimed at the African-American public. But getting to the top has not been easy. He shares with Oprah Winfrey — one of his great friends and another industry heavyweight — a childhood full of traumas. Tyler Perry was born in New Orleans into a family of three brothers with an abusive father. As a teenager, he changed his original name, Emmitt (the same as his father’s), to Tyler to disassociate himself from his father. Like Winfrey, he has said on several occasions that he was sexually abused as a child by several adults around him. Those episodes marked his life and led him to try to take his own life on two occasions, as he himself revealed in social media to alert about the importance of mental health. “I had endured so much pain, so much abuse, sexual abuse. It was all so hard to just move through that I thought the only way to make this better was to end my life. If any of those [suicide] attempts had happened, I would have missed the best part of my life,” he expressed in a video posted on his Instagram profile (with more than seven million followers) in December 2022.

The church — he is a fervent Catholic — and writing were his refuge. In 1992, he left his hometown and moved to Atlanta, where he worked in all kinds of professions and staged several plays without much success. “I had worked selling used cars, in hotels.... I had saved $12,000 which I invested in a play. I thought 1,200 people would see it and only 30 showed up,” he told Oprah Winfrey in an interview years ago. He finally found success thanks to the character of Madea, a strong-willed African-American grandmother he created after seeing Eddie Murphy in the second part of the movie The Nutty Professor. Madea first appeared in a stage play in the early 2000s, but Perry’s big break came when Madea made the leap to the big screen in Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2005), written by and starring Perry. The general critics were not positive, but the box office responded, and the following year came the first sequel: Madea’s Family Reunion. It was then when Perry took the reins of his projects by creating the production studio Tyler Perry Studios, becoming the absolute owner of his series and films.

The character of Madea, who has gone on to star in 13 films (the last in 2022, released on Netflix), helped put Perry on the map as one of the Black creators of the moment, although some voices within the community did not welcome his projects with enthusiasm, considering that they perpetuated stereotypes. Director Spike Lee went so far as to call his films and series “slapstick.” But Oprah Winfrey showed interest in his work and from the beginning a friendship arose between them, perhaps also because of the vital similarities they shared. The prolific entrepreneur signed in 2012 an exclusive contract with OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network), Oprah’s television network. In those years he created, directed, wrote and produced one of the network’s most successful shows: The Haves and the Haves Nots, a mystery-tinged soap opera that aired for seven years. Their professional relationship ended in 2017, but the friendship between the two moguls continued to the point that the presenter is godmother to Perry’s only child, Aman Tyler, born in December 2014, from his relationship with his now ex-partner, model and activist Gelila Bekele, whom he met at a Prince concert in 2007.

A particular work ethic

Perry’s incursions into cinema have been anecdotal — beyond his projects, he has had supporting roles in films such as Gone Girl (2014), Vice (2015) or Don’t Look Up (2021) — and his great ambition has always been to follow his own path. Starting in 2017, he began a new stage by signing with Viacom, owner of his distributor Paramount and BET. The business reached new heights in 2019, with the opening of Tyler Perry Studios, a massive film set in Atlanta. The space was a former military base that he acquired in 2015 for $30 million. After several years of works, it was transformed into a complete studio of more than 121 hectares, where you can find a replica of the White House, a mansion of 1,400 square meters and all kinds of sets, from an airport to the interior of a church. The Walking Dead series or Black Panther, for example, have made use of these facilities for their filming.

It’s hard to figure out how he plans his time, because in 2022 alone he was involved as creator, writer and producer on 10 television projects. In a 2019 article, The New York Times went as far as to say that Perry was responsible for the boom of Black theater across the U.S. Nothing escapes his control; he is involved in every key aspect of every project. In fact, Perry’s image of an all-powerful tycoon immersed in a frenetic pace of work was parodied in the latest season of Atlanta, the award-winning series created by the multifaceted Donald Glover, who also plays the role of director, screenwriter and actor in the fiction. The episode in question is set in a colossal studio, where an omnipresent voice, like a Big Brother, directs all the crew members, who jump from set to set to record without a break.

Tyler Perry collecting the Ultimate Icon Award at the BET Awards July 2019 gala in Los Angeles, California.
Tyler Perry collecting the Ultimate Icon Award at the BET Awards July 2019 gala in Los Angeles, California.Mike Blake (Reuters)

The episode, titled Work Ethic, is a direct allusion to a video posted by Perry on Instagram in December 2020, where he alluded to his “work ethic.” In that clip, eight scripts belonging to Tyler Perry’s various studio series, all written by him, could be seen on a table. “I don’t know if you know this, but every TV series has a writers’ room and there are almost always 10 or 12 people writing those series,” he explained during the clip. He continued, “I don’t have a writers’ room, nobody writes any of my work. I write everything,” he said before alluding to his personal “work ethic.” Not only does he write fiction, he is also the creator, producer and director of many of them. All of this in addition to being at the head of a thriving company.

His series, as extensive as they are repetitive, are not conceived to be Emmy Awards contenders, but they are designed to entertain millions of people. Aware of the criticism his work receives, he reaffirms his vision and assures that his “experiences” and his “culture” are not relevant to some of the critics and the people who don’t understand it and don’t like his work, as he told The New York Times. In 2021, he received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Oscar Award, an award that recognized his contribution to humanitarian causes after several years collaborating with different organizations that promote the end of racism and support people with low resources.

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, some of Perry’s powerful friends

His consolidated position as one of the key figures in the entertainment industry is reflected in his powerful circle of friends. In addition to Oprah Winfrey, he maintains a great relationship with Michelle Obama, Janet Jackson and Will Smith. In recent years, he has also become close friends with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. The friendship between the three became so strong that Perry is the godfather of their daughter, Lilibet Diana (born in June 2021), as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex announced in a statement in early March. In fact, Perry is one of the people featured in the couple’s controversial Netflix documentary released last December, where the couple says that he lent them his California mansion when they left Canada at the start of the pandemic.

In 2023, Perry has several premieres pending. Among them, two films with Netflix: the World War II-set drama Six Triple Eight, with actresses Kerry Washington and Susan Sarandon; and Mea Culpa, a series starring the former member of Destiny’s Child Kelly Rowland. Clearly, Perry’s “work ethic” doesn’t waver.

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