A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

10 Iconic Characters You Never Knew Were Based on Real People

Truth is stranger than fiction. It's usually better too! You won't believe which famous icons actually had real-life counterparts.

1 / 10
'Mary Had A Little Lamb Its Fleece Was White As Snow and Everywhere That Mary Went the Lamb Was Sure to Go '

Mary (the schoolgirl with the lamb)

Mary had a little lamb (whose fleece was white as snow, as you know) and it followed her to school one day. That actually happened! Real-life youngster Mary Sawyer tried to hide the lamb in a basket at her feet during class, but the teacher discovered the ruse when the animal bleated. That lamb was kicked out of the classroom. The famous nursery rhyme was first written by a kid who witnessed the whole event. Years later, another poet revised the rhyme and it became the famous refrain known by kids everywhere.

2 / 10
Snow White 1937

Snow White

The real-life Snow White didn’t get her prince or her happy ending. The iconic fairy tale is said to be based on a 16th-century noblewoman, Margarete von Waldeck, who lived in Bad Wildungen in Bavaria. Apparently, there was a mine there that used child labor. The conditions were so harsh that the child workers were disfigured and called “dwarfs” as insults. They were also offered “tainted fruits” for bad behavior. Margarete was sent to Spain, where she fell for a prince. But his family didn’t approve so she was poisoned. It makes sense why the Disney version went in another direction. Check out these 15 surprising facts about Disney’s most famous characters.

3 / 10
Mary Poppins, Julie Andrews

Mary Poppins

P. L. Travers wrote the beloved Mary Poppins novels about a no-nonsense but magical nanny. The iconic character was actually modeled on her own “Aunt Sass,” whom she described as a bulldog with a tender heart. The character in the famous Disney film was much more sentimental and sugar-coated than Travers intended. Here are ten more books with fierce female characters.

4 / 10
Hector Boiardi, founder of Chef-Boy-Ar-Dee Foods, died at a nursing home in Parma, Ohio on . Boiardi was 87

Chef Boyardee

Chef Boyardee was just boy, a teenager to be exact, when he started creating his signature Italian dishes. His face and name eventually became the icon for the famous canned pasta brand. He was born Hector Boiardi, but his brand used the phonetic spelling. Restaurant customers loved his Italian dishes so much that he created take-out options they could prepare at home. The demand was high. His meals were even included in soldier’s rations during WWII. The early cook-at-home meals came with grated Parmesan. Buon appetito!

5 / 10
Psycho - 1960

Norman Bates

Norman Bates is the total psycho in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic suspense movie. Played with chilling calm by Anthony Perkins, the murderous motel proprietor was inspired by a real criminal. Robert Bloch, who wrote the novel Psycho, based the character on murderer Ed Gein. The Wisconsin serial killer possessed many of Norman Bates’ strange obsessions, including a morbid shrine to a dead mother who was reportedly overbearing. Gein also reportedly came across as polite and almost normal—just like Norman.

6 / 10
Peggy Lee

Miss Piggy

The famous Muppet diva Miss Piggy was inspired by jazz singer Peggy Lee. In fact, the Muppeteer Bonnie Erickson, who designed the famous character, intended Miss Piggy as an homage. Peggy Lee was known as a strong and independent artist. Miss Piggy was originally called Miss Piggy Lee. However, they dropped the “Lee” to avoid offending the real-life singer. Though no offense was meant, there are unfortunate negative associations with pigs. Nevertheless, Miss Piggy is known for her glamour and spunk—at least, that was the original intention.

7 / 10


Elzie Segar created the iconic sailor Popeye for a comic strip series that debuted in 1929. The muscle-y sailor man was reportedly based on Frank Fiegel, a man from Segar’s hometown. Fiegal was famous for his corncob pipe and eye patch. He was known as a brawler who made friends with the local kids. Popeye’s friend Wimpy and “goil” Olive Oyl were also based on hometown locals.

8 / 10
Dr. No - 1962

James Bond

The famous Agent 007 was modeled on a real-life secret agent. Author Ian Fleming likely based his famous fictional spy on British agent Forest Leo-Thomas, who was known for his death-defying escapes, unmatched endurance, and heroic bravery. The handsome man was also popular with the ladies. Daniel Craig’s most harrowing scenes in Casino Royale are reportedly based on Leo-Thomas’ capture by the Gestapo.

9 / 10
Christopher Robin
via amazon.com

Christopher Robin

A.A. Milne’s beloved stories about Winnie-the-Pooh and the whimsical Hundred Acre Woods had a real-life inspiration. Christopher Robin, the sweet boy who accompanies Pooh, Tigger, and the rest of the gang on their adventures, was based on Milne’s own son. In fact, the real boy and the character shared the same name. The animal characters were based on the stuffed toys young Christopher played with. Despite the enduring popularity of the enchanting stories, Christopher didn’t like being associated with the kid’s books as an adult.

10 / 10
Betty Boop

Betty Boop

The animated bombshell Betty Boop was inspired by an actress named Helen Kane. She was so outraged by the cartoon caricature that she sued the creator. Kane was known for scatting “boop-boop-a-doop” in songs during her Broadway performances. The judge in her lawsuit eventually ruled that she herself had appropriated the scatting phrase and so the cartoon creators could not have stolen it from her. But she did have dark ringlet curls and a strong resemblance to the cartoon.

Molly Pennington, PhD
Molly is a writer and collage artist with a PhD in film and cultural studies from the University of Pittsburgh. Her professional astrology services and artwork are available at Baroque Moon Astrology. She covers the zodiac, books, movies, TV and culture for Reader’s Digest, and loves to talk about all the ways we make meaning.