There are over 65 million stutterers worldwide, and many of them struggle to find the voice to express the huge emotional impact the speech disorder can have. It can ruin childhoods and lead to bullying, low self esteem, depression, and even complete withdrawal to the point of muteness.
However, a surprising amount of celebrities and public figures have suffered from a stutter. The little known story of King George VI’s struggle with his stutter and his success in public speaking after speech therapy was brought to the forefront in Tom Hooper’s Oscar winning The King’s Speech. The success of the film helped the public become more aware of the torment stutterers can suffer. Various celebrities have come out as former or even current stutterers, many of whom support charities that help stutterers and talk openly about their experiences.
Though Winston’s stutter is denied by some historians, journalists throughout the 20s and 30s consistently noted that Churchill had a notable stutter combined with a lisp. This would explain why Churchill was famous for practicing his speeches endlessly and obsessively. Churchill overcame his various speech problems to become one of the most admired and successful Brits of the 20th century, and his distinctive (non-stuttered) voice is the source of many affectionate impressions.
One of the most prolific and respected actors of his generation and known for his distinctive and powerful voice, it’s hard to imagine that James Earl Jones once had a stutter so bad that he was mute for eight years. Starting at the age of 5 after a traumatic childhood, teachers at his high school helped him overcome his stammer by encouraging him to take up drama lessons. His acting on and off stage has won him a Tony, Golden Globe and Oscar. Best known for his voiceover work as the voice of Darth Vader in the Star Wars films and Mufasa in The Lion King, Earl Jones has even recited Shakespeare at the White House. He remains a huge supporter of stammering charities and remains a reminder that even the worst stammers can be overcome.
After a childhood spent moving from orphanage to orphanage, Marilyn Monroe developed a stammer that carried on throughout her teens when she was just Norma Jean. In an interview she admitted her stammer was ‘painful’ and described it as being triggered by nerves and excitement. Monroe used a few techniques to overcome her stammer, including transforming her personality and her voice. Her famous sensual and breathy delivery was a good way to hide any difficulties she had. Her reputation as being ‘dumb’ because she was unable to remember her lines is almost certainly because of her stammer.
Gates’s stammer was revealed in a very public way when he appeared on the first season of Pop Idol and could barely say his name. However, he sang like an angel and got through his first audition despite his strong stammer. He ended up coming second in the show and had a successful pop and reality TV career. He has always been very open about his stammer, and even made a documentary for the BBC in 2012 about helping other young people overcome their stutters.
A contestant on American Idol called Lazaro Arbos had a similar problem where he had a stammer that disappeared when he sang. Lazaro was again not embarrassed to discuss his stammer and described his former job as an ice cream scooper as “the only job I can get where I don’t have to do ‘smart people’ stuff like talking”. Gareth Gates has expressed similar frustrations about not being able to join in with conversations.
The ancient Greek Orator and Politician gave public speeches for a living – but only after he recovered from an extreme stammer in his childhood. He cured his stammer himself by filling his mouth with pebbles – yes, pebbles – and practicing speeches. It’s a method that hasn’t caught on in modern times, but it obviously worked on old Demosthenes, since he is now known as one of history’s greatest orators and rhetoricians.
Another actor famous for his distinctive voice and his endlessly quotable monologues is also known for another vocal quirk – his love of swearing. He is particularly fond of a certain swear word – let’s call it the M-F word. However, Jackson revealed during a speech at 2013’s American Institute for Stuttering gala that he has to use the word to break up his speech and help control his stammer. The word has become so synonymous with Jackson’s performances that parts of ‘Snakes on a Plane’ were reshot to include a few more M-F bombs.
Jackson also credits pretending to be people who didn’t stutter when he was young to help overcome his own speech issues. This technique may explain why such a surprising amount of actors and actresses have struggled with stuttering. Most recently The Devil Wears Prada star Emily Blunt came out on the Ellen show as having a stutter that left her socially alienated from school friends. Many politicians have also revealed their struggles with stuttering, such as the Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, who says his stammer hampers him during debates in the commons, and vice president Joe Biden was the keynote speaker at the National Stuttering Association Convention in 2004.
Alex is a freelance writer for Integrated Treatment Services who has had an interest in speech disorders after having therapy for verbal dyspraxia as a child. Her favourite Samuel L. Jackson film is Jurassic Park.