yas! | By Fred Foster | July 14, 2021
To say that Tyler Perry is one of the most important people in the entertainment industry is an understatement. He is practically his own industry, worth around a billion dollars, and showing no signs of slowing down as he writes, acts, directs, and produces for film and television. He did not get there overnight, though, and it took decades of hard work for Perry, who started with his iconic Madea character on stage, to get where he is today.
The road to success was full of speed bumps, and there were hard times for Perry who, at one point, was sleeping in his car. He faced repeated rejection, but he never gave up, and his success today is the product of his perseverance. Let’s take an in-depth look at the life and career of Tyler Perry, with all of its ups, downs, twists, and turns that ultimately led him to glory.
Emmitt Perry Jr.
On September 13, 1969, Tyler Perry, born Emmitt Perry Jr. came into this world. He was born in New Orleans to parents Willie Maxine Perry and Emmitt Perry Sr. His father was a carpenter, and in addition to Tyler, there were two girls and another boy in the family.
His home life was not always a happy one. While his mother brought him to church every week, giving him a place where he was safe and away from the troubles of the world, his father was abusive. He described his dad, who was a carpenter, as a person “whose answer to everything was to beat it out of you.”
Emmitt Perry Sr. made life so hard for Emmitt Perry Jr. that Willie Maxine’s sister Mayola intervened in a dramatic fashion worthy of one of Tyler Perry’s films. She pointed her gun at her brother-in-law and told her sister that whenever she left the house, she should take her little boy with her.ADVERTISEMENT
Perry told Oprah, “That’s when I started going to Lane Bryant and beauty salons and everywhere else with my mother.” These experiences were formative for him and paid off in his sensitive approach to writing strong female characters, but they could not take away from the pain he endured from his father.Tax FactsPauseNext video0:19 / 3:29SettingsFull-screen
From Emmitt to Tyler
Emmitt Perry Jr. saw so much abuse from his father that he tried to kill himself when he was only 12 years old. He decided to change his name as a teenager so that he did not have to share the same name with his cruel father. At the age of 16, Emmitt Perry Jr. became legally known as Tyler Perry. ADVERTISEMENT
It was not just his name that he did not share with his father. In 2009, after his mother passed away, Perry decided to get a DNA test, and the results told him something he believed throughout his life, that the man he lived with all of those years was not his biological father. “I love my mother to death but she lied to me,” Perry said. This explained in part why his father felt the way he did. As he said to Oprah, “From a child, I’d always known that this man despised me, and I could not figure it out for the longest. I could not figure out why he hated me so. And every action was about his hatred or his disdain for me.”ADVERTISEMENTADVERTISEMENTSPONSORED BY CROWN ROYAL
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Tyler’s father was not the only person who abused him. At the age of ten years old, he had already been molested by four different people, including three men and a friend’s mother. This added to his troubles, and he said that he “didn’t tell a soul” and that he “felt completely guilty about it. Felt betrayed.”ADVERTISEMENT
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He got through these tragedies by simply focusing on the future and putting on the appearance of being tough. “I just moved through it,” he said. “Go onto the next thing. ‘Boys don’t cry, shut up and move on.’” He always carried this burden, though. “Holding on to all of that, not knowing what to do with it, there was a lot of anger in my teenage years, in my 20s. A lot of anger, a lot of confusion, a lot of frustration trying to just be okay,” he said. This may be why he attempted suicide again when he was 22.ADVERTISEMENTSPONSORED BY KARMANOS CANCER INSTITUTE
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Going to Work
Perry was always smart, and he did well as a student. However, a tiff with a counselor led him to being booted from his high school. He got his GED but did not continue with his education after that. Instead, he got to work and supported himself with a series of odd jobs. He worked as a used-car salesman, bill collector, waiter, bartender, and more, just to pay the bills.
The money was not always enough to really support himself, though. Things were very desperate at times, and he even had to sleep in his car, which was undoubtedly not very comfortable. He once asked half-jokingly, “Can you imagine a 6-foot-5 man sleeping in a Geo Metro?
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I Know I’ve Been Changed
Tyler moved to Atlanta when he was around 20 years old, and in that period of his life, a great change occurred when he watched an episode of Oprah that encouraged writing as a way of working out your issues. ADVERTISEMENT
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Those letters morphed into his first theatrical production, I Know I’ve Been Changed. It was a musical comedy about different aspects of his difficult childhood and his religion. In many ways, this served as a prototype for his next work which incorporated similar themes. He won $ 12,000, which he immediately saved. He worked as a writer, director, producer and star of the show, a combination he will continue to do. The show only lasted for a weekend and although its audience only gathered a total of 30 people, this is when he finally found his true calling.
Finding His Audience
When Perry, at the age of only 22, failed to succeed in his theatrical production, he did not just accept defeat and rejection. Instead, he decided to refine the show, rewriting and continuing to put it on, eventually even touring with it. When he got around to putting on the performance at the House of Blues in Atlanta, in what was the seventh staging of the show in 1998, Perry’s fortune had turned around. Enthusiasm for it was huge, with large lines forming of people excited to watch the show. It was such a hit that it moved to the larger Fox Theatre.
Was it that the audience warmed up to Perry, or that the changes in his life lent positive energy to the show that was not there before? Perry revealed, “Spiritually, I’d gotten to a better place in my life. It was about adult survivors of child abuse who have forgiven their abusers and I hadn’t forgiven my father. Once I forgave him, the show took off. My hand to God. It went from being nobody in the audience to selling out. So when people asked what changed? I became in truth about it.”ADVERTISEMENTSPONSORED BY CAPTAIN MORGAN
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Tyler Perry has created such a huge range of works, but if there is one thing everyone will always remember him for, it is the character of Madea. Mabel “Madea” Simmons was based on both his mother and his aunt, and the character, played by Tyler himself, made her debut in “I Can Do Bad All by Myself” in 2000. While the cross-dressing performance was a breakthrough for Perry, it was actually an accident. It was only when an actress did not turn up to perform in Chicago that Perry stepped into the wig and dress. ADVERTISEMENT
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This ended up being the most fortunate happening of his life. Though the character initially had little time on stage, Perry expanded it and gave Madea far more lines so that he became the dominant figure in the show, much to the delight of audiences. Acting in drag may not have been something every actor was comfortable doing, but Perry had the confidence thanks to Eddie Murphy’s role as Mama Anna Klump and Grandma Ida Jenson, along with the rest of the family, in “Nutty Professor II: The Klumps.”ADVERTISEMENT
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The Tyler Perry Brand
It was not long before Tyler Perry had built up quite a reputation for himself, traveling around the country with his many shows and putting them on in theaters for predominantly African American audiences. In 2005, before he had made a single film, he had already racked up over $100 million in ticket sales from his shows, as well as another $30 million from home video sales of the show’s recordings. There was even another $20 million of merchandise sold.
The Long Road to the Big Screen
Despite the massive success of Perry’s shows, it was not a no-brainer for studios to make his movies. He was in talks to turn “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” into a film all the way back in 2001. However, Perry was met with resistance. “Hollywood wanted nothing to do with me,” he said. ADVERTISEMENT
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The studios just did not understand the potential for Perry’s massive audience. “This is the one that got me: a white man at one of the big studios sat behind his desk and said to me, ‘Black people who go to church don’t go to movies, so this will never work.’ That was a moment for me. Because I’m seeing thousands of people all over the country come out for these shows.”ADVERTISEMENT
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Madea’s Hollywood Debut
In 2005, after more than a decade of hard work with his stage shows, Tyler Perry debuted on the big screen as his iconic Madea character in “Diary of a Mad Black Woman.” Like Eddie Murphy before him, though, Perry was not satisfied with just playing the matriarch, and he also played two other characters.ADVERTISEMENT
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Perry did not direct the film, but he wrote and produced it, and was able to raise a $5.5 million budget from his ticket sales. The film was met with largely negative reviews, but that did not deter audiences who brought the film to make over $50 million at the box office, launching Perry’s film career and setting him up for a slew of sequels and other projects.
Tyler Perry Studios
It was not enough for Tyler Perry to write, direct, produce, and star as multiple characters in his many works. He wanted to be his own boss, so he set up the Tyler Perry Studios in 2006. Based in Atlanta, he could create his works outside of the traditional film industry power centers, remaining independent. In an unorthodox setup, most of Perry’s movies are only distributed by major studios, while the rights to the films themselves remain in his hands.
The studio has expanded significantly over the years, and with the new $250 million studio space on a 330-acre former military base that opened in 2019, Tyler Perry Studios became the largest film production studio in America. The studios contain soundstages with a vast range of sets, giving Perry and others who film there an assortment of choices for all of their production needs. It is the country’s first completely African-American owned major film production studio, and as Perry said, “no other African American has had something of this size, of this degree, without a partnership or conglomerate or some major company behind it.” Among the outside productions to film, there was “Black Panther.”ADVERTISEMENThttps://5e2219b80c4de5425745cc48f6f79f43.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.htmlADVERTISEMENTSPONSORED BY WWW.AZAZIE.COM/BRIDESMAIDDRESS
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TP on TV
After making it in films and setting up his studio, Tyler Perry had to expand his empire to the small screen. “House of Payne” debuted in 2006, and it has been running for nine seasons, starting on TBS before moving to BET for a revival years after the initial run ended. It was a massive success, and it broke the record for having the most episodes for a show with a cast of mostly African Americans.
The $200 million deal Perry made with TBS also led to the shows “Meet the Browns” and “For Better or Worse.” Perry’s big development deals were just getting started, and his future would be even brighter yet.ADVERTISEMENTSPONSORED BY SMIRNOFF
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The Hardest Working Man in Show Business
One of the most impressive aspects of Tyler Perry’s career is how incredibly prolific he has been. He averages as more than a film a year, has juggled over a dozen shows, and has even continued to make plays. It seems impossible for one man to do so much, but his tireless work ethic was clear ever since his Hollywood breakthrough. ADVERTISEMENT
In 2006, the same year he founded his studio and put out his first TV show, we saw the release of his second film “Madea’s Family Reunion,” and it was his first film as director. He played Madea on stage that same year in “Madea Goes to Jail,” and he also published his first book, “Don’t Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings: Madea’s Uninhibited Commentaries on Love and Life,” which became a number-one New York Times Best Seller. This would be the most productive year in the entire lives of most people, but for Tyler Perry, it was just another year, and to this day Perry remains as productive as ever.
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When the movie “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” became a surprise hit in 2009, part of the success was owed to the film’s two public ambassadors: Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry. Perry helped promote the film and he became the executive producer, and the trailer for it was shown before Perry’s own films.
“Precious” was different from the kinds of films Perry made, and it saw critical acclaim and received six Oscar nominations. Perry was able to be a bridge for his audience who usually does not see arthouse cinema. The film also had a special significance for Perry. It was after he saw the film that he was able to come out as having been molested as a child.
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Perry made a name for himself with films he wrote and directed, but he also has a number of roles in outside productions as well. His first was a brief appearance in the 2009 “Star Trek,” when J.J. Abrams personally asked him to appear as Admiral Barnett, who was the head of the Starfleet Academy. He got a starring role as Alex Cross in “Alex Cross,” based on the bestselling novels by James Patterson.
Many cinema fans got their introduction to Perry by his brief but excellent performance in “Gone Girl,” where he played an attorney that provided comic relief. The roles in outside productions continued with “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows,” and “Brain on Fire.
One of Perry’s most prestigious roles was playing Secretary of State Colin Powell in “Vice,” the film by Adam McKay about Vice President Dick Cheney. To prepare for the role, Perry spoke with Powell, and he received his blessing for the performance. Perry says they have a good relationship. “He sent me his book, I sent him mine, he texts me now and then,” he said.ADVERTISEMENT
With a Little Help From His Friends
One of Tyler Perry’s biggest hits was “Boo! A Madea Halloween,” and it even got a sequel a year later. The idea of a Halloween movie for Madea did not require a huge stretch of the imagination, especially as it was just a few years after “A Madea Christmas,” but Perry does owe a debt to one of his contemporaries for coming up with the idea.ADVERTISEMENT
The origins of this film actually come from Chris Rock, whose film “Top Five” contained a joke about a Halloween themed Madea movie, and the idea took off from there. Lionsgate thought it would be a great idea, so they asked Perry about it. Perry recalled, “When I got the call from Lionsgate saying, ‘Tyler, have you ever thought about a Halloween movie?’ I was like, ‘There’s no way.’ I don’t do Halloween — witches, demons… I don’t do that kind of thing. But one day I was watching YouTube videos of people getting pranked, and I thought, ‘Oh, I found a way to do it.’ And that’s how it all evolved for me.”
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Perry’s star power just kept growing bigger and bigger, and he was able to set up lucrative development deals with more networks. When Oprah was looking for scripted content for the Oprah Winfrey Network, she reached out to her friend Perry. On OWN, he set up the shows “The Haves and the Have Nots,” “Love Thy Neighbor,” “If Loving You Is Wrong,” and “The Paynes.
Perry has since set up a deal with VIacomCBS, bringing his shows “The Oval,” “Sistas,” and “Assisted Living” to BET, “Ruthless” and “Bruh” to BET+, and “Young Dylan” to Nickelodeon.
End of an Era
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“I’ll be 50 this year and I’m just at a place in my life where this next 50 I want to do things differently. This character has been amazing. So many people have loved her. It’s been a great franchise,” he said. He suggested that he might have already gotten all there was out of the character. “She’s also run out of things to say in my point of view. So if there’s something else for her to say maybe one day she’ll return but for right now, no, I think I’m done,” he said. Major characters never stay away for too long, and a comeback is always around the corner. Fingers crossed that this is true for Madea as well.
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He has also tried to find empathy for his father, as his dad had a very rough childhood. Perry said it “was way more horrific than mine. So it kind of formed the person that he was.” His connection to his past has also made it into his writing, as he has explored his childhood more in his creative work. “That’s what I do when I need freedom from something. Because it’s hard to keep smiling,” he said. ADVERTISEMENT
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Returning the Favor
It can be hard for some to understand how Perry can support a man who was so horrible to him. After all, his father “got the vacuum cleaner extension cord and trapped me in a room and beat me until the skin was coming off my back.
“As terrible as he was, and as horrible as he was, he never once left us. We were never hungry. And every time he’d go to work all week, he’d bring the money home. In return, I’m giving him what he gave to me. I had shelter. I had food. He has shelter — pretty nice shelter — and any food that he wants to eat… What I missed from him — being in a relationship — is also what he’s missing from me now. So he doesn’t have everything. He has what’s easy,” Perry said. His father made the news in 2017 when his home in Louisiana burnt down in a fire.
Moving the Family Forward
Tyler Perry’s family life was never easy, but he always sought to make things right, and he has done that with the family that he started alongside his partner Gelila Bekele. The two had a son named Aman who was born in 2014. Aman’s godmothers are Oprah Winfrey and Cicely Tyson.
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Perry and Bekele had been together since 2009, unfortunately breaking up in December 2020, but they kept a low profile during their relationship. Perry shared with Oprah in 2010 the time he was in love “with the wrong woman,” saying the experience was “really bad for me and hurtful.” He added that “Maybe I’m still dealing with that. ‘Cause I never cried in a relationship before.” This explains his hesitancy to put his love life fully out in the open. Rather, he puts his emotions into his work.
Gelila Bekele kept a low profile compared to her partner, but she obviously must be a special woman. Her story begins in Ethiopia, where she was born. She described her childhood as giving her a range of life experiences. “It was a mix of both rural village and also the city. It really shaped, strangely, my adulthood as well. Like the way I connect to places, what makes me feel at home and myself. Very free, climbing trees, drinking goat milk straight from the goat. It was very rural until I was about four and then moved to the city,” she said.
She moved to Europe when she was nine, and her multicultural background has shaped who she is today. She later moved to the U.S. to study at UC Berkeley and she became a model. In 2007 she met Perry at a Prince concert. The two hit it off, but Perry’s busy work life made it hard for him to find time for her. However, their love was strong, and they stuck together despite the difficulties. She has accomplished a lot as a humanitarian, activist, and even author, having published a book called “Guzo” about Ethiopian culture.
Being a father is one of the greatest joys in Perry’s life. His son Aman is the apple of his eye, and he said, “He’s so beautiful and strong and amazing.” For everyone, having children holds great meaning, but for Perry, there is an angle that few people have.
His own child gave him the opportunity to be the father that he wished he had, and to right the wrongs of his own childhood. “He’s a healer for me ’cause I look at him and see myself as a little boy. And I’m able to give him all the love and all the things that I never had.
Passing the Torch
Though Perry’s son is still just a little boy, Perry imagines that Aman will one day inherit everything. However, he is open to letting Aman do whatever he wants to do, and be whoever he wants to be. He says he will do whatever he can for his son to “be the best that he can be.
“All that he wants to be, no matter what that is. In my mind what I would love to say is, ‘Here are the keys to the studio. I’ll be somewhere smoking a joint on an island, you go do this. I’m 80-years-old now, go do your thing. ‘But, if that’s not his dream I just want whatever it is that he does to be special and amazing,” Perry said. ADVERTISEMENTSPONSORED BY RAKUTEN
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Back when Perry was struggling to scrape money together in his early 20s to make a stage musical, not in his wildest dreams could he have imagined being the top earner in the entertainment industry. When he was named the highest-paid male in entertainment by Forbes in 2011, having made $130 million that year, Perry could say he had truly made it. ADVERTISEMENT
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Perry was driven by his art more than money, but he is able to appreciate the pleasures that money can buy. In 2007, he already had four homes in Atlanta, including one then under construction which was 30,000 square feet, along with a Manhattan apartment, a Hollywood Hills home, and a Rolls Royce to drive around in. He sold the massive Atlanta home in 2016 for $17.5 million
The Elite Club
There are only three filmmakers ever to have at least nine movies that made more than $20 million. One is Steven Spielberg, whose hits include “Jaws,” “Jurassic Park,” “E.T.,” and countless other classics. Another is Robert Zemeckis, whose films such as “Cast Away” and “Back to the Future” are much loved.
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The third filmmaker in that elite club is Tyler Perry. His persistence and consistency have paid off, and while money is not necessarily a sign of artistic success, the fact that he has a devoted audience that shows up year after year to see his new films is a testament to the connection that he has with them.
Tyler Perry was never the critical darling, and most of his films were widely panned. Nor was Perry the sort to get major Awards such as Oscars. However, Perry did receive some meaningful awards throughout his career. One of them was in 2010 when he got the Chairman’s Award at the NAACP Image Awards.ADVERTISEMENT
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NAACP honored him again with Outstanding Directing in a Motion Picture a year later for the film “For Colored Girls.” He was also honored with the Governor Award from the Primetime Emmy Awards. BET and MTV have given him nominations and wins as well. ADVERTISEMENTADVERTISEMENTSPONSORED BY RAKUTEN
Love to Hate
The award show that has honored him the most was the Razzie Awards, which awards the worst works of the year. This is by no means an accurate judgment, and these awards don’t really reflect the worst works, but rather the works that people most enjoy piling on. As people who aren’t fans of Tyler Perry love to hate him, it makes sense that he would have the dubious honor of numerous Razzies, even though many consider them to be a badge of honor.
It is not just that people call Perry’s films bad works. The criticisms he gets often cut deeper, saying that he spreads stereotypes about black people and makes money off of it. Perry tries not to let these criticisms get to his head, but they undoubtedly impact him.
Tyler Perry has a great degree of self-awareness, and he knows what kinds of films he makes and what their strengths and weaknesses are, which helps him stay grounded. “To be honest, I try not to see as much of the criticism as I can. But, of course, some of it gets through. Of course it’s hurtful. I’m thinking, ‘They’re right to some degree. But I’m always looking for truth in that criticism. And I know the answers to why I made those choices… If you look at everything I do—even in Boo, there’s a message, and it’s always ‘faith, family, forgiveness,’” he said.
Perry continued to contemplate the meaning of his work, adding, “That’s the greatest gift that I’ve been given. I can get a message to the very people I grew up with, the millions who love what I do. I can get a message to them when others can’t.
Keep It Simple
It is those values that drive his work, and that is what drives us all. “We all want to know how to forgive. We all want to know how to love. We all want to know how to laugh. And that simplicity, I think, is what has resonated with so many people with me around the world,” he said. This belief in the innate qualities of the human spirit is summed up in the motto of Tyler Perry Studios, which is “the place where even dreams
Another answer to explain his success is that you need to keep planting seeds and have faith that they will grow. When asked about success in 2013, he said, “truth be told, it was nothing but the grace of God.” He recognizes how much of it is out of our hands, but he stresses that you have to keep trying out of hope that one day your dreams will come true.ADVERTISEMENT
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“You can plant seeds all day long, you can go around giving your business card to people, you can go around knocking on doors and auditioning. You can do that every day of your life and nothing, for most people, happens. When a seed is planted in the ground, all you can do is water it…and believe. That is what allowed me to be in the position I am in now. I planted my seed, I worked really hard. I had one idea, and that was to do a play,” he said.ADVERTISEMENThttps://5e2219b80c4de5425745cc48f6f79f43.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.htmlADVERTISEMENTSPONSORED BY 1800FLOWERS
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One of Perry’s good friends was none other than the legendary Whitney Houston. He was close to her family, and would always be there for them when Whitney dealt with her addiction to drugs. He said, “I felt a huge responsibility to do all I could to help her.” After she tragically passed away, Perry was one of the speakers at her funeral. ADVERTISEMENT
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Whitney’s daughter Bobbi Kristina Brown came on Perry’s show “For Better or Worse.” She had expressed interest in acting, and as Perry told Oprah, “I wanted to keep an eye on her.” Perry related to the girl, saying, “I know what it’s like to lose a mother, and that child has had a lot of pain in her life—a lot of pain.” At the time of the interview, he mentioned that they spoke often and even texted that same day, but Bobbi Kristina saw a tragic death in 2015, under eerily similar circumstances as her mom. ADVERTISEMENThttps://5e2219b80c4de5425745cc48f6f79f43.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.htmlADVERTISEMENThttps://5e2219b80c4de5425745cc48f6f79f43.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
It is not just in people’s personal lives that Perry tries to make a difference. When the Bahamas was hit with a horribly destructive hurricane, Perry was determined to help people in need. He had his personal plane fly there twice, carrying supplies such as water and items for personal hygiene.ADVERTISEMENT
He helped out after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010 as well. He gave $1 million for people to rebuild after over 100,000 people died and billions of dollars of damage were done to the area. While it is nice to see him give back after his great success, it should come as no surprise. His work has always been centered around people, about understanding, helping, and forgiving others, so it is only natural that, when he has the opportunity to help someone, he just takes it.