World Leaders with Incredible (and Unexpected) Backstories

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A lot of career politicians seem to have fairly boring backstories, at least as far as most of us can recall off the tops of our heads. Problem is, if someone’s been in politics for the last 40 years it seems like there’s not much else you can know about them. But not every world leader followed the same path. Donald Trump is best known as a real estate magnate and TV personality, for instance. And there’s been a lot of other world leaders who have some amazing backstories for their rise to power. Let’s take a look at 10 of the most interesting. 

10. Queen Elizabeth II is a Trained Truck Mechanic

Back in 1945, Queen Elizabeth II was an 18-year-old woman who felt like she needed to serve her country. She joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service as a subaltern, which is an officer in the British army. As a subaltern she trained as a truck mechanic and driver.

Obviously, her progress was well documented because she was still a princess, so there are photos around of the young woman changing out spark plugs. In part, the Queen Mother was responsible for all of this.

In 1939, as the war began, the Queen Mother refused to flee despite urging from others. She stayed at the palace with her daughters to wait out the war, even despite the bombings. When Elizabeth turned 18, she wanted to live up to her mother’s stalwart example and signed up for military service. By the end of her service she had earned the rank of junior commander.

9. President Xi Jinping of China Lived in a Cave for 7 years

Xi Jinping runs one of the world’s most powerful nations, but his beginnings were inauspicious at best. In his early life, Jinping’s father was a well-off government official, and the family was well known. During the cultural revolution of Mao Zedong, Xi’s sister was killed during a raid of their home, and his father was literally paraded through town as an enemy of the state. Xi himself, only 15 at the time, was sent to a place called Liangjiahe. 

In this rural community Xi had to work the fields and took up residence in what’s been described as a flea-infested cave. For seven years he lived there, a punishment of sorts for being an affluent, educated youth of the ruling class. Once, when he escaped and went back home, his mother turned him in and had him sent back to finish out his time after experiencing six months of “re-education.”

Xi credits a lot of his political leanings to ideas he formed during his time there. The entire story is part of the government’s efforts to present Xi as a relatable everyman, so some details may be suspect, but the general facts of what transpired do seem legit.

8. Lula da Silva Found a Bag of Money

Former President of Brazil Lula da Silva was one of the most popular politicians in Brazil’s history and also one of the most popular in the world, having made it on to People’s 100 Most Influential People in the World list. 

As a child, Lula was extremely poor. The seventh of eight children, it’s said he lived in a dirt floor hut for the first few years of his life. By the age of seven he was selling peanuts on the streets of Sao Paulo to help make ends meet for his family. 

After leaving his alcoholic father, who apparently had a second family, Lula’s mother took the family to a single room behind a bar, and that’s where things got weird. According to at least one biography it was while living in this home that one of Lula’s brothers found a bag of cash.

The sack of mystery cash was apparently more than what the average laborer would have made in three years. The money allowed his mother to move the family to an industrial suburb where he was able to learn to read and write and actually get a job that led him on his path to political office. 

7. Aussie PM Bob Hawke Was a World Champion Beer Drinker

Having a world leader that is also a world record holder has to be cool and something to be proud of. What’s more impressive is when your leader holds a world record for beer drinking. Former Australian prime minister Bob Hawke claimed the world record for downing a yard of beer. If you don’t drink beer by length, a yard of beer is about 1.4 liters. Hawke drank it in 11 seconds, claiming a pretty impressive world record. 

Hawke took the record in 1954, back when he was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. Rhodes Scholars tend to have the reputation of being bookish and nerdy intellectuals, so it’s nice to see that Hawke was balancing his education with having fun at the time. 

6. Napoleon Wrote a Romance Novel 

For those of us in the modern era Napoleon is known as the short-statured French general who went on to become emperor and lost at Waterloo. While his actual height may not have been as goofy as history has made it out to be, and he was a skilled military tactician, he was also apparently quite the romantic. So much so that he literally wrote a romance novel.

If you study the history of Napoleon you know that he was very much in love with a woman named Josephine. Some of his love letters were published in modern times and they reveal this side of Napoleon that was a mix of romantic and stunningly vulgar. We like to think of history as being rather sanitary when it comes to such things, but Napoleon was a straight up freak.


That said, he was into traditional romance as well. He wrote a novella entitled “Clisson and Eugénie.” It was 17 pages of text and some versions include an additional 60 pages of commentary.

5. Pope Francis was a Nightclub Bouncer

In Catholic belief the task of shepherding the Catholic faith was in the hands of the Apostles under the leadership of Saint Peter. The successor to these spiritual shepherds were the Bishops of Rome, which we call popes. So the pope is the leader of the Catholic Church and generally embodies what we’ve come to expect of the Catholic faith, being someone who follows the teachings of Christ.

In a stark contrast to what you might expect, the current pope, Francis, was once a bouncer at a nightclub. In all fairness, people come to their faith at different times and in different ways, and even the pope is human so he has a very human past. It’s just kind of funny to think that this man who is the leader of the world’s largest religion probably had to punch out a few drunks back in the day. 

4. Indian Prime Minister Modi was Secretly Married

Every once in a while you will come across a story about a man who has a secret family other people don’t know about. He lives an entire double life, somehow, with one half never really figuring out what the other half is doing. It sounds extremely complicated and also hard to believe sometimes because of the effort that has to go into something like this. Now imagine the complication of being a world leader and pulling this off at the same time.

India’s prime minister Narendra Modi had kept a wife in secret for 50 years. Modi made the admission of having a secret wife when he was running for prime minister back in 2014. He’d been married since he was 18, and no one knew about it. In fact, it only came to light when he was filling out the paperwork to run for office and had to declare assets.

This was certainly no oversight on Modi’s part. He had actively denied being married and even used the fact that he was single as a point to support the idea that he was an ideal politician. By way of explaining this it seemed that Modi had gone to travel the Himalayas after being married for about three years, and simply never gone back home again. So it wasn’t like he was living with his wife and enjoying family life, but he also never officially separated or got divorced either. 

3. Vladimir Putin has Black Belts in Judo and Karate 

If any world leader were to have a black belt in both Judo and karate it seems that Vladimir Putin would be the likeliest choice. This is the man who is well known for taking photos with tigers and riding horses around the countryside without a shirt on. There’s a reason he clicked so well with Steven Seagal.

Putin has even released an instructional DVD that teaches other people how to do Judo, which is called “Let’s Learn Judo with Vladimir Putin.” The video features Putin beating off a variety of opponents intercut with sequences in which the president explains the history of Judo and some of its philosophy. 

Reviews of the DVD are not as bad as you might think, with some praise being given to the fact that Putin clearly is a fan of the discipline. On the other hand there’s actually very little Judo instruction on the DVD, which does make the name kind of a letdown. 

2. Liberia’s George Weah is a World Class Soccer Player

Before George Weah became the president of Liberia he had spent some years playing for their soccer team. Weah made his debut on the Liberian national team back in 1987, and over his career he played in 53 games and scored 13 goals. He was FIFA player of the year in 1995 and has been called the best soccer player in the world. (Interestingly, his son Timothy plays for the US national team.)

In 1996, Weah was banned for six games after punching a Portuguese player in the nose. According to Weah, Jorge Costa had been slinging racist insults at him all day. His frustration got the better of him and Weah punched the man in the face. The Portuguese team denied the allegations and there were no witnesses to corroborate Weah’s side of the story so he was banned for six games. Despite that, he still won the FIFA Fair Play Award in 1996. As for Costa, he ended up missing three weeks of play because he needed facial reconstruction surgery. That must have been a heck of a punch. 

1. Prince Philip is a God 

Prince Philip was born into the Greek and Danish royal families back in 1921. As the Duke of Edinburgh he’s married to the Queen of England, and you’d think that’d be about as high a profile as any human could ever hope to achieve in life. You would be mistaken. Not only is Prince Philip one of the most high profile leaders in the world, he’s also achieved godhood.

On the tiny island of Tanna, near Vanuatu, the people there worship Prince Philip as the son of a mountain god. They had the belief that a light skinned being had sailed away from their islands long ago to marry a woman of great power. He would later return to them and bring lots of good times with him. When people on the island saw how Queen Elizabeth commanded respect and deference from others back in the ‘50s or so, they concluded that her husband must be the man that their beliefs foretold. From then on they started constructing mythology around Prince Philip which attributed pretty much every good thing in the world to his influence.

According to their beliefs even Barack Obama becoming President of the United States was influenced by the greatness of Prince Philip. Philip has never actually been to Tanna, but they believe when he does show up that sickness and death will vanish and that rules against adultery will be abolished and you’ll be free to love whoever you want.


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