Skip to main content

The Top 20 Pop Culture Icons of the 1980s

I love discussing pop culture and debating which celebrities made the biggest impact.

Who were the most influential figures of the 1980s?

Who were the most influential figures of the 1980s?

The 1980s was a great decade. It was the last decade before the massive boom in technology that the 1990s would bring. In an era where there was no internet or social media, we seemed to get along just fine. These icons stayed on our television screens, and we even paid to go see some of these celebrities on the big screen. With so many great people to choose from, I've narrowed it down to 20. This list will not be in any kind of ranking. We'll go in alphabetical order by first name. I hope you enjoy this tribute to the 20 most iconic entertainers and athletes from the '80s. Let's go!

Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan the Barbarian.

Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan the Barbarian.

1. Arnold Schwarzenegger

You must've been living under a rock if you never saw any of Ah-nold's '80s films. He became a famous figure in the 1970s. Originally from Austria, he came to the United States and became arguably the greatest bodybuilder ever. From that fame, he transitioned into an action film star. Only Sylvester Stallone could match him in that genre. He starred in classic movies such as Conan the Barbarian, Conan the Destroyer, Commando, and Predator. In 1984, he starred in The Terminator as a cyborg killing machine. This film solidified Schwarzenegger as a major box office attraction. Arnold went on to be the governor of California, but it was his 1980s run that made him an icon for all ages.

Bill Cosby is best known as the creator of Fat Albert and for his role as Cliff Huxtable.

Bill Cosby is best known as the creator of Fat Albert and for his role as Cliff Huxtable.

2. Bill Cosby

William "Bill" Cosby was an icon long before the '80s. In the 1960s, with his clean and non-threatening style of humor, he was able to break through the racial barriers of that time. In the '70s, he starred in movies, commercials, and his own Saturday morning cartoon, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. In 1984, he became America's favorite dad with his sitcom The Cosby Show. Centering on his life as a doctor, he was a married father of five. The show was an instant smash. It had an impressive run of being the number one show in the ratings for five straight years. The show displayed a loving family environment with two educated and intelligent parents in full control of their children and home. Cosby also wrote some best-selling books and performed in comedy concert films in the '80s. He was the top television star of the decade.

In recent years, Cosby faced a number of accusations of sexual assault. In 2018, he was convicted of three counts of aggravated indecent assault. While his conviction was eventually overturned, it is unlikely Cosby will see any future projects.

Brooke Shields was one of the most popular models in the 1980s.

Brooke Shields was one of the most popular models in the 1980s.

3. Brooke Shields

Brooke Shields started her career as a child model. At the tender age of 14, she was the youngest fashion model to appear on the cover of Vogue magazine. In 1980, she starred in Blue Lagoon, which was a very controversial film at the time. There were several nude scenes in the film that had teenagers as its stars. In 1981, she starred in Endless Love. Though Shields was still a teenager, these films made her a sex symbol. She was also featured in those classic Calvin Klein jeans commercials. Towards the mid part of the decade, she took time away from her career and attended Princeton University. She also attended several award shows with Michael Jackson. Though she was not a constant presence in the entire decade, her beauty, influence, and star power gets her on this list of 1980s icons.

Eddie Murphy was the top comedy star of the decade.

Eddie Murphy was the top comedy star of the decade.

4. Eddie Murphy

Eddie Murphy was the biggest and most successful comedic actor of the 1980s. Period. He rivaled other stars such as Arnold, Stallone, Tom Cruise, and Harrison Ford at the box office. He was the first comedian to reach rock star status. Murphy was introduced to us on Saturday Night Live. He'd go on to star in Trading Places, 48 Hours, Coming to America, and Beverly Hills Cop. Beverly Hills Cop was the movie that took him from a rising star to mega star. It was the highest-grossing R-rated film until the release of The Matrix Reloaded in 2003. Riding his success high, he even had a top 10 pop song! Murphy is a gifted impressionist and comedian. Though his material was vulgar, his star power was undeniable. He was able to crossover in ways that his mentor, Richard Pryor, couldn't. He influenced every young Black comic after him. Murphy did have a few flops in the decade (Golden Child anyone?), but he delivered many unforgettable laughs. This makes Murphy an all-time great.

Harrison Ford is best known for his roles as Han Solo and Indiana Jones.

Harrison Ford is best known for his roles as Han Solo and Indiana Jones.

5. Harrison Ford

Harrison Ford was the man in the 1980s. His relationship with George Lucas led him to be cast in the original Star Wars trilogy. He became a star playing Hans Solo. Ford also starred in one of the greatest sci-fi movies of all time, Blade Runner, in 1982. His role as Indiana Jones skyrocketed him into a cultural icon. The first installment, The Raiders of the Lost Ark, was a massive success when it was released in 1981; it was the biggest box office hit of the year. The next release, Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom, premiered in 1984. It would go on to gross over $300 million dollars. In 1989, the third installment was released, and it was widely popular as well. Between the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises, Ford would generate over a billion dollars in the box office in the 1980s. He was arguably the most popular leading man of the '80s.

Hulk Hogan was the biggest pro wrestling star of the 1980s.

Hulk Hogan was the biggest pro wrestling star of the 1980s.

6. Hulk Hogan

No matter if you loved, hated, or couldn't have cared less about professional wrestling, you knew who Hulk Hogan was. During his run in the '80s, he took pro wrestling from being a niche and regionalized form of sports entertainment and made it mainstream. The Hulkster was everywhere. His character became a hero to children. Always dressed in his trademark red and yellow, he became a worldwide attraction. Hogan's charisma played well with fans of all ages, and his matches sold out arenas and even stadiums. His match at WrestleMania lll against Andre the Giant set an indoor record for a sporting event. It was performed before an audience of over 90,000 people at the Pontiac Silverdome in Detroit, Michigan. In the '80s, pro wrestling reached its peak in popularity thanks to Hulk Hogan.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Reelrundown

Larry Bird is famous for his rivalry with Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers.

Larry Bird is famous for his rivalry with Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers.

7. Larry Bird

Nicknamed the "Hick from French Lick," Larry Bird rivaled Magic Johnson as the best basketball player of the 1980s. The rivalry helped renew interest in the NBA. Before that point, it was never wildly popular. A superb shooter and passer, Bird had the ability to make his teammates better. During the '80s, Bird led the Boston Celtics to championships in 1981, 1984, and 1986. He also won the league's MVP award for three years straight in 1984-1986. He also defeated Johnson head-to-head in 1984. You can't think of basketball or sports in general in the decade without thinking about Larry Bird.

Madonna was the top female recording artist of the 1980s.

Madonna was the top female recording artist of the 1980s.

8. Madonna

Madonna was the most popular and influential female artist of the '80s. If not for Michael Jackson, she would've been the most popular. Her music fit the era so perfectly. It was upbeat, colorful, and danceable. She performed well on the pop and R&B charts. Her landmark album, Like a Virgin, was released in 1984, and it would go on to sell over 13 million copies worldwide. It's one of the greatest albums of the decade. Having a great pop sense for her market, she released hit after hit. Madonna was always evolving. The way she dressed and wore her hair influenced women and girls. However, with her fearlessness and success, there were very few who could compete with the Material Girl.

Magic Johnson was one of the top NBA stars in the 1980s.

Magic Johnson was one of the top NBA stars in the 1980s.

9. Magic Johnson

Earvin "Magic" Johnson was the best basketball player of the '80s. He was arguably the best athlete in any sport during that 10-year span. He lived up to his nickname. A highly skilled player, he would dazzle fans and frustrate opponents with his skill. Magic was known for his no look passes to teammates and his clutch performances. He led the Lakers to five NBA championships, and he won two league MVP awards. He beat his rival Larry Bird twice to win the NBA Finals. There simply was no other player like him. With his charisma, big smile, and flashy showmanship, he personified Los Angeles and the 1980s.

Mel Gibson rose to prominence with roles in the Mad Max and Lethal Weapon films.

Mel Gibson rose to prominence with roles in the Mad Max and Lethal Weapon films.

10. Mel Gibson

Mel Gibson, along with Harrison Ford, brought good looks along with the tough guy characters that they portrayed. Starring in Mad Max in 1979, he would go on to make two highly successful sequels, The Road Warrior (1981) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985). These films established him as a leading man in America. Later in the decade, he would team with Danny Glover for the buddy cop franchise Lethal Weapon. The first one was released in 1987, and it became a huge hit. The success of this classic would result in a sequel in 1989. Gibson would have continued success as an actor and director. He was consistent and bankable throughout the decade.

Michael J Fox became an icon with the Back to the Future films.

Michael J Fox became an icon with the Back to the Future films.

11. Michael J. Fox

Michael J. Fox was a television and movie star in the 1980s. His breakout role was on the sitcom Family Ties. He played Alex Keaton, who was the oldest of three children. During the show's run from 1982-89, Fox won three Emmy Awards. In 1985, Fox instantly became a movie star with the release of Back to the Future. The movie was a big hit as it grossed over $300 million dollars. The sequel followed in 1989. Fox also starred in Teen Wolf, The Secret of My Success, and Bright Lights, Big City. He finished the decade with Casualties of War in 1989. To say the '80s were big for Michael J. Fox would be an understatement.

Michael Jackson dominated the music industry in the 1980s.

Michael Jackson dominated the music industry in the 1980s.

12. Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson was arguably the biggest star of the 1980s. He became a worldwide superstar following the release of the best-selling album of all time, Thriller, in 1982. The album would go on to sell over 35 million copies! Jackson revolutionized the music video. His "Thriller" video was an 11-minute short film. In 1987, Jackson released the follow up album Bad. The album had five number one singles on the Billboard Top 100 chart. It would sell over 20 million copies, solidifying Jackson as the top-selling artist of the decade. In terms of overall popularity, Michael Jackson was the king of the '80s.

13. Mike Tyson

Mike Tyson became the youngest world heavyweight boxing champion in 1986 at the age of 20. With his ferocious fighting style, he instantly became a fan favorite and the biggest draw in sports in the mid to late '80s. Tyson would come to the ring in black trunks, black boots, no socks, and a cut out towel over his head. Most of his fights lasted less than four rounds. He had some bouts that only lasted one round! He brought an excitement to the heavyweight division that had been missing since the retirement of Muhammad Ali. His crowning achievement was in 1988 when he knocked out the then undefeated Michael Spinks in 91 seconds! In the late '80s, no athlete was as popular as Iron Mike.

14. Mr. T

Mr. T was one of the most interesting characters of the '80s. Sporting his trademark mohawk and gold chains, he burst on the scene in 1982, and his impact was felt immediately. He became a star when he played James "Clubber" Lang in Rocky lll. He almost stole the show from Stallone. The success of the film led Mr. T to star in his own television series, The A-Team. The show was instant hit, and it made Mr. T a household name. Mr. T merchandise began to fly off the shelves. With his charisma and signature catchphrases, "Hey Fool!" and "I pity the fool!", there is no debate that Mr. T is an unforgettable 1980s icon.

15. Oprah Winfrey

Who knew that this Mississippi native wold take the country by storm with her daytime talk show? Before her talk show became a national hit, Winfrey was a local anchorwoman in Nashville, Tennessee. An aspiring actress, Oprah was nominated for an Academy Award for her role in The Color Purple. After relocating to Chicago and taking her show national, her profile rose dramatically. The show rose in popularity quickly, eventually surpassing Phil Donahue's show. Viewers fell in love with Winfrey's personality, interviews, and supported her weight loss efforts. Before the decade was done, she was by far the most popular daytime talk show host of the '80s. She will probably go down as the most popular host of all time.

Ronald Reagan's two terms as president covered most of the 1980s.

Ronald Reagan's two terms as president covered most of the 1980s.

16. Ronald Reagan

Ronald Wilson Reagan was the 40th President of the United States. The former governor of California defeated the incumbent president, Jimmy Carter, in 1980. As a conservative, Reagan believed in less government and more on self-reliance and independence. A popular president, even among Democrats, he easily won his bid for a second term in 1984 against Democratic nominee Walter Mondale in a landslide. He won 49 states over Mondale! During his two terms, he was able to reduce inflation and unemployment. His wife, First Lady Nancy Reagan, was instrumental in the "Just Say No" to drugs campaign. Leading the United States from 1981-1989 makes President Regan as iconic to the decade as anyone else.

17. Sylvester Stallone

Sylvester Stallone was arguably the greatest action film star of the '80s. Though his Rocky franchise began in the 1970s, the two releases in the '80s, Rocky lll and Rocky IV, were very successful at the box office. He began another iconic franchise in the decade as well. In 1982, Rambo: First Blood was released to critical and commercial success. He would star in two more Rambo sequels during the decade. His other '80s films included Nighthawks, Rhinestone, Cobra, and Over the Top. Stallone closed out the decade with Tango & Cash in 1989. No matter the role, The Italian Stallion was as consistent as any star in the '80s.

18. Tom Cruise

Equipped with good looks and star power to match, Tom Cruise began his iconic rise to stardom with Risky Business in 1983. Who hasn't seen or even imitated that classic scene of Cruise dancing in his underwear and socks? He also had a major role that same year in The Outsiders. Cruise became a huge star and major box office draw with Top Gun in 1986. The film would eventually gross well over $300 million dollars. That same year, he was paired with the legendary Paul Newman in The Color of Money. Cocktail would follow in 1988. His last two films of the decade, Rain Man and Born on the Fourth of July, would further cement his status as a 1980s icon.

19. Wayne Gretzky

Wayne Gretzky was easily the greatest ice hockey player of the 1980s. While playing for the Edmonton Oilers from 1979-1988, he virtually rewrote the record books. In his rookie season, he took home the MVP award. He led the league in assists and goals scored for several straight seasons. In 1982, Gretzky was the first hockey player to win the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year award. That same year, he was also named Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated. With the Oilers, he won five championships in seven years. In 1988, he was traded to the Los Angeles Kings where his legend continued. With his popularity only being rivaled by Magic Johnson, Wayne Gretzky was arguably one of the greatest athletes of the '80s.

20. Whitney Houston

Whitney Houston was easily the greatest R&B and pop vocalist of the 1980s. She was second only to Madonna in terms of overall popularity. Her 1985 debut album Whitney Houston was a smash, and it had a remarkable 14-week run atop the Billboard 200 chart. The album was fueled by a then-record of three number one singles. This allowed the album to stay on the charts through the following year. It would become the top-selling album in 1986! Houston won several accolades at the Grammys and American Music Awards. This would only set the stage for an amazing run well into the 1990s. Her version of "The Greatest Love of All" is an American standard. In an era dominated mostly by male acts, Whitney Houston made a lasting impression in the '80s.

Honorable Mentions

Here are some other major names and acts from this memorable decade.

  • Bill Murray
  • Kirk Cameron
  • Janet Jackson
  • Prince
  • Carl Lewis
  • Joe Montana
  • The Police
  • Van Halen
  • Cyndi Lauper
  • Larry Hagman
  • Tina Turner
  • Tom Hanks
  • Bon Jovi
  • Guns N Roses
  • Sugar Ray Leonard
  • Run DMC
  • Bruce Springsteen
  • Bruce Willis
  • Michael Jordan
  • Teddy Ruxpin

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


matthew on December 13, 2019:

i love bill cosby he did nothing wromg like me

Noah on July 28, 2019:

Michael Jackson?

He’s only the king of pop and most other genres

Why would he be here?

Skrrrrrrrrrt on July 11, 2019:


Sagar on February 27, 2019:

Pop icons of 80s and no Michael Jackson

mdigiddy on October 24, 2017:

hi m.o.s,

I'm going to an 80's party and I didn't know what to dress up as. I looked, and looked, and looked, and I found you and all my problems are solved. you are the coolest :). thanks a lot.


Man of Strength (author) from Orlando, Fl on June 25, 2013:

Hi Vibe,

Thanks for stopping by. I glad you enjoyed it. Be sure to check out part 2 as well. Thanks.

vibesites from United States on June 25, 2013:

Nice article, friend! I was born pretty late in the 80s, so I was too young to remember. Though it makes me feel I'm nostalgic about this hub. Good work. :)

Man of Strength (author) from Orlando, Fl on June 25, 2013:

Oh yeah, I just finished part 2.

Man of Strength (author) from Orlando, Fl on June 25, 2013:

Thanks Cat,

Yes, those were the good ol days. An a kid, I was a big wrestling fan. My dad would take me to the matches. We saw Hulk Hogan and all the greats from that era. I can't even stomach it now. It was always fake, but it's pure nonsense now. I like the pic I chose for Madonna, in her natural hair color. I loved Arnold as well and Bill Cosby at age 75 is still doing standup comedy. It's amazing that 30 years have gone by so quickly.

Cat from New York on June 25, 2013:

How could I not love this? I think most of the people you talked about are still around today, doing well and still producing, but gosh, they look so different; talk about taking me back!

Ah-nold! lol That's too funny, yes... I grew up with him, the movies you listed and 'Twins' with him and Danny DeVito, which we owned on tape... that was definitely a different role, but it was quite funny.

Hulk Hogan! Remember the days when WWF was real, or at least we thought it was? They've just turned into soap operas now! I remember taking Sunday baths and getting out to watch wrestling with my brothers and all the iconic wrestles of the 80's.... remember all the action figures?

This is great... I'm pinning it with my 'Remember the 80's and 90's' collection!

Up and a bunch of other stuff :D


Related Articles