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7 Luminaries Who Achieved Big Success After Age 40

Success came at an early age for many familiar names: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed his first piece at age 5; Venus Williams won her first professional tennis match at age 14; Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook at age 19 and became a billionaire four years later.

Almost everyone else spends the prime working years scrambling to climb the professional ladder and attain financial stability. But for a lucky handful of people, they found fame and fortune past the point when such an outcome seemed possible. Here are seven famous names who achieved their dreams later in life thanks to constant determination and hard work.

Vera Wang

Ciara and Vera Wang posing at the CFDA Fashion Awards.
Credit: Andrew Toth via Getty Images

Her name is the gold standard for the bridal wear industry, but it took her own wedding for Vera Wang to find her calling as a fashion designer. While preparing for her 1989 nuptials to businessman Arthur Becker, the then-39-year-old former competitive figure skater and Vogue editor commissioned a self-styled wedding gown for $10,000. The following year, thanks to a financial assist from her father, Wang hit the ground running with the opening of her first boutique in Manhattan's Carlyle Hotel. Wang has since branched into jewelry, cosmetics, fragrances, and housewares while retaining her status as a go-to dresser for the stars; her net worth of at least $500 million proves it’s never too late to pursue a passion.

Samuel L. Jackson

Samuel L. Jackson during at an autograph signing table in 1993.
Credit: Ron Galella/ Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Samuel L. Jackson has long possessed the smoldering intensity that's made him one of Hollywood's most quotable tough guys, but it was the combination of limited opportunities for Black actors and a crack cocaine addiction that kept him out of the public eye for so many years. “I’d been getting high since, s**t, 15, 16 years old,” he admitted before going to rehab in 1990.

Ironically, his fortunes turned after landing the part of crack addict Gator Purify in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever, for which the then-42-year-old won Best Supporting Actor honors at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival. Three years later, stardom officially came calling following his jaw-dropping turn as hitman Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction. At an age when many begin grappling with the demons of a midlife crisis, Jackson was just entering his prime as the headliner of films like A Time to Kill, The Negotiator, and the Star Wars prequels. Three decades after the role that put him on the map, Jackson’s star continues to shine as Nick Fury in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, among other blockbusters.

Momofuku Ando

Two cups of instant ramen with chopsticks on the side.
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Taiwan native turned Japanese citizen Momofuku Ando spent decades trying to build businesses of varying success, only to make his mark on history at age 48 with his invention of instant ramen noodles. Reportedly inspired by the hungry people lined up on the cold streets of postwar Japan to receive ramen, Ando set about developing a product that could be quickly prepared yet retain a satisfying texture, finding his solution with a "flash-frying" technique that dehydrated the noodles. The first "Chikin Ramen'' hit Japanese stores in 1958, and by 1971, Nissin's Cup Noodles had cracked the American market as the leader of this particular form of fast food. Instant ramen was voted the top invention of the 20th century in a 2000 poll of Japanese respondents, just seven years before Ando passed away at age 96.

Julia Child

Julia Child with a table full of fruit, vegetables, meat, and wine in her kitchen.
Credit: Hans Namuth/ Photo Researchers History via Getty Images

Born into a prominent Southern California family, Julia Child enjoyed the educational and travel opportunities that left her positioned to break down professional barriers for women — she even worked as an agent during World War II for what would become the CIA — only to wind up in the traditional setting of a kitchen. Yet she wound up breaking barriers anyway through her devotion to bringing French recipes to American households, an effort that first bore fruit with her collaboration on the 1961 publication of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Two years later, the then-50-year-old Child launched her career as a television mainstay with The French Chef, her folksy style paving the way for an empire of cookbooks and shows built on her brand, and for the wave of celebrity chefs that sprung from her formidable shadow. Child passed away in 2004 at age 91.

Colonel Sanders

Exterior of a KFC store.
Credit: jewhyte/ iStock

On the flip side, Harland "Colonel" Sanders learned to cook out of necessity when his father died at an early age, and he scrapped for a living as a farmhand, lawyer, fireman, insurance salesman, and midwife before opening a successful roadside restaurant in Corbin, Kentucky in the 1930s. Still, his savings evaporated when an interstate highway rerouted would-be diners to other venues by the 1950s, prompting the then-66-year-old to hit the road in search of restaurants willing to sell his Kentucky Fried Chicken. The Colonel had licensed his recipe to more than 600 eateries by 1963, and although he sold most of his business the following year, he continued to serve as the grandfatherly face of a "finger lickin' good" franchise that counted some 6,000 KFC outlets by the time the passed away in 1980 at 90 years old.

Grandma Moses

Grandma Moses painting a landscape scene.
Credit: Reg Innell/ Toronto Star via Getty Images

After spending the first 60-plus years of her life working on farms and in households in rural New York and Virginia, Anna Mary Robertson Moses had more time to pursue her creative interests when her husband passed away in 1927. She returned to the painting she had dabbled in as a child, and in 1938, her world forever changed when art collector Louis Caldor stumbled upon her work displayed in a drugstore in upstate New York. Her vivid, colorful renderings of pastoral settings and village communities proved more accessible to the public than other modern art movements, and by her 80s, the erstwhile farm girl now known as "Grandma" Moses was an unlikely celebrity. She continued painting until shortly before her death at age 101, an occasion marked by a tribute from President John F. Kennedy.

Harry Bernstein

Bookcover for The Invisible Wall.
Credit: Bookshop.org

Anyone who laments the lack of significant accomplishments in life can find hope in the story of Harry Bernstein. Born into a working-class Jewish family in England, he emigrated to Chicago before the onset of the Great Depression and spent much of his early career trying to make a living as a writer. Bernstein eventually found his way as a script reader and magazine editor, but it wasn't until his longtime wife died in 2002 that he began writing about his formative years. What resulted was The Invisible Wall, a memoir of early 20th-century life in an English mill town that garnered its then-96-year-old author a slew of awards and critical acclaim. Bernstein, who passed away in 2011, followed with The Dream, The Golden Willow, and the posthumous publication of What Happened to Rose.

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