Tyler Perry, aka Emmitt Perry Jr., was born September 13, 1969, in New Orleans, Louisiana. He is one of four children and had a difficult childhood, suffering years of abuse from his father. He also had problems outside the home, as he later admitted he was sexually abused by four different adults.
At one point, Perry attempted suicide in an effort to escape his difficult situation. At 16, he changed his first name to Tyler to separate himself from his father. Perry dropped out of high school, but he eventually earned his GED. Trying to find his way professionally, he held a series of unfulfilling jobs before discovering his true passion.
Watching an episode of Oprah Winfrey’s talk show, Perry was inspired by a comment on the program about how writing about difficult experiences could lead to personal breakthroughs. He started a series of letters to himself, which became the basis for the musical I Know I’ve Been Changed. While the show tackled such tough subjects as child abuse, it also touched on forgiveness, a theme which has remained central in many of his works and reflects his deep connection to his Christian faith.
After saving up $12,000, Perry debuted the show—which he directed, produced, and starred in—at an Atlanta theater in 1992. The musical’s run lasted only one weekend and drew a measly 30 people to see the show. Disappointed yet determined, Perry continued to work odd jobs while reworking the show. He staged the show in several other cities, but success still eluded him. Broke, Perry was living out of his car for a time. “Can you imagine a six-foot-five man sleeping in a Geo Metro?” he once told Essence magazine. In 1998, Perry tried one more time to win over theater audiences. He rented out the House of Blues in Atlanta for another production of I Know I’ve Been Changed. Soon Perry was performing to sellout crowds and the musical was moved to a larger theater.
For his next project, Perry worked on an adaptation of evangelist T. D. Jakes’s book Woman, Thou Art Loosed, which proved to be quite popular. His next effort, however, brought to life his most famous character, Madea. The gun-toting, sharp-tongued grandma first appeared in his 2000 play, I Can Do Bad All by Myself. Basing Madea on his mother and several other mature women in his life, Perry played the eccentric character himself wearing drag. She next appeared in Diary of a Mad Black Woman (2001). Madea was featured in a number of plays, including Madea’s Family Reunion (2002) and Madea’s Class Reunion (2003).
In October 2019 the entertainment mogul announced the grand opening of the $250 million Tyler Perry Studios on the site of a former 330-acre Confederate military base in Atlanta. There were no outside backers. Tyler is the first African-American to independently own his own studio, on land he purchased in 2015. Tyler Perry Studios welcomes more than 400 job opportunities to the Atlanta community across Tyler’s productions, as well as major feature films and television shows.
Tyler Perry wrote the 2006 best-selling book, Don’t Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings: Madea’s Uninhibited Commentaries on Love and Life. The book went on to win two Quill Awards—Book of the Year and Best in Humor. His second book, Higher Is Waiting (2017), touched more on spiritual issues and the importance of family.