In Memoriam 2021: The stars and icons who passed away this year

These celebs all passed away in 2021, what were they known for? What are their legacies?
These celebs all passed away in 2021, what were they known for? What are their legacies? Copyright AP Photo/Canva
Copyright AP Photo/Canva
By Tim Gallagher
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Sadly many talented actors, authors and writers passed away this year; let's take a look at some of the great names who bowed out in 2021.

SOPHIE (1986 – 2021)


Electronic music producer and queer icon Sophie Xeon (known mononymously as SOPHIE) died in January this year after an accidental fall from a third-storey balcony.

Sophie was known for her use of synths and an elektron monomachine layered with vocals and wave sounds, which, paired with her emotive lyrics, created her unique and mystical sound.

A recluse when her early work was released, Sophie eventually revealed her image and voice on the release of her single “It’s OK to cry”. Her status as a trans woman and songs which touched on topics transformation made her a leading voice for many in the queer community.

Virgil Abloh (1980 - 2021)

Vianney Le Caer/2018 Invision
At the time of Abloh's death he was a leading taste-makers in the fashion industry and beyondVianney Le Caer/2018 Invision

Virgil Abloh passed away in November this year after a private struggle with cancer. The creative powerhouse was best known for his label Off-White and being the first Black artistic director of menswear at Louis Vuitton.

Abloh was always closely associated with US rap-culture after beginning as a collaborator with Kanye West, now known as Ye. The designer became widely known for his marrying of high and low culture in design and was celebrated in the industry as a taste-maker. I other partnerships ranged from Nike to McDonald’s.

Named one of Time magazine's most influential people in 2018, Abloh’s work was exhibited at the Louvre, the Gagosian and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

bell hooks (1952 - 2021)

Poetry Foundation
bell hooks was one of the leading intersectional feminist thinkers in the 20th and 21st centuryPoetry Foundation

Celebrated author, professor and activist bell hooks died towards the end of 2021 at her home in Kentucky, US.

Born Gloria Jean Watkins in humble circumstances, hooks went through the segregated education system of the American south in the 1950s and 1960s. Going to achieve academic success, hooks penned 40 books including "Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism" and "Teaching to Transgress".

Taking her name bell hooks - always spelled with a lower case - from her great-grandmother, hooks became a seminal figure in feminist theory, noted for her intersectional lens of race, class and gender.

Jean-Paul Belmondo (1933 - 2021)

AP Photo/Ian Langsdon
French Republican Guard music band stand in front of a portrait Jean-Paul Belmondo during a tribute ceremony for the late French actor at the Hotel des InavlidesAP Photo/Ian Langsdon

Jean-Paul Belmondo, star of the classic French New Wave film "Breathless," died this year aged 88.

Known for his craggy looks, Belmondo worked through the 1960s and 1970s starring in Moderato Cantabile and Two Women, where he played Sophia Loren’s love interest.

Maintaining popularity in French cinema into the late 1980s, Belmondo specialised in playing gangsters and crooks, his rugged looks making him the perfect choice for lowlife casting.

Stephen Sondheim (1930 - 2021)

Evan Vucci/AP
Sondheim was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barrack Obama in 2015Evan Vucci/AP

At the time of his death in 2021, musical theatre grandee Stephen Sondheim has won six Tony Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, an Academy Award, five Olivier Awards and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Sondheim was renowned for his musical scores and was credited with reshaping American musical theatre in the second half of the 20th century. His intelligent lyrics, evocative melodies and willingness to tackle unusual subjects made his shows a mainstay of Broadway and beyond.

“Company,” “Follies” and “Sweeney Todd,” are considered among Sondheim’s best work but his most well-known song is “Send in the Clowns,” which has been recorded hundreds of times to date.

Helen McCrory (1968 - 2021)

Joel Ryan/Invision/AP
McCrory died this year after enjoying a lengthy career that spanned theatre, TV and filmJoel Ryan/Invision/AP

Star of “Peaky Blinders,” “Harry Potter” and “the Queen,” Helen McCrory died earlier this year after a battle with cancer.

Prior to a successful TV career McCrory was a well-known stage actress, portraying iconic characters such as Lady Macbeth and Euripides’ Medea with her instantly recognisable and passionate stage presence.

McCrory and her husband, Damien Lewis, were something of an acting power couple and raised £1 million for an NHS charity during the pandemic. He survives her with their two children.


Almudena Grandes (1960 - 2021)

Almudena Grandes was a passionate anti-fascist who penned six novels which highlighted the suffering and struggles of anti-Francoists in Spain.

Grandes was a radical who challenge the right-wing revisionism of 2000s Spain, determined to expose the atrocities of the Franco-era. The author was also a passionate feminist and wrote erotica which portrayed the struggles and freedoms of women in post-fascist Spain.

DMX (1970 - 2021)

David Goldman/AP
DMX was in the top echelons of rap-artists during his career, coming up at the same time as Tupac and Notorious BIGDavid Goldman/AP

Alongside Tupac and Notorious BIG in the rap hall of fame, DMX died of a heart attack this year aged 50.

The rapper was committed to making music for his peers and after an early life of street-crime, DMX seemed embodied the edgy lifestyle of his music. However, his penchant for adopting stray dogs and assertions he was a devout Christian created a more nuanced image of this talented musician.

He was phenomenally successful and had five albums that topped the US charts, crossing over into acting he was also known for his films including "Exit Wounds" and "Cradle 2 the Grave".


Jessica Walter (1941 - 2021)

Kevork Djansezian/AP
Walter is famed for her tried and tested comedic timing in iconic rolesKevork Djansezian/AP

Known for portraying the sharp-tongued, heavy drinking matriarchs Lucille Bluth in “Arrested Development”, and Mallory Archer in "Archer" Jessica Walter enjoyed a career that spanned three decades.

Starting off in the 1960s in shows like “Naked City” and “Route 66”, Walter won herself an Emmy in 1975 for her role as a San Francisco police detective suddenly thrust into the chief’s job in “Amy Prentiss”.

Walter was associated with high-profile accusations of bullying against actor Jeffrey Tambor on the set of Arrested Development in 2018, when the entire cast of “Arrested Development” reunited for a New York Times interview. Despite this she was triumphant until the end, with a voice and face many youngsters will recognise thanks to her hit TV shows.

Sylvère Lotringer (1938 - 2021)

Despite launching postmodern French theory in the US, philosophy professor Lotringer is perhaps better known for his starring role in his wife’s memoir about her infatuation with another man.

"I Love Dick", which was later made into a series by Amazon, depicts Lotringer’s cuckolding by his wife, Chris Kraus, whilst the pair are on sabbatical in California.


Despite this dubious honour, Lotringer is known for founding theoretical journal "Semiotext(e)," and organising the conference "Schizo-culture", which boasted appearances by Michel Foucault, John Cage and the Black panthers.

Charlie Watts (1958 - 2021)

Watts drummed for the Rolling Stones since 1963 but always shunned the limelightAP/AP

Charlie Watts, legendary drummer for the Rolling Stones, died aged-80 this year after speculation about his health due to his pulling out of the band's US tour dates.

Watts joined the band back in 1963 and was always known as the more reserved member of the group both on and off stage. Throughout his life Watts shunned the limelight and brought an element of understated jazz to the Stones’ music, as a counterpart to the glamour and eccentricity of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

"I don't know what showbiz is and I've never watched MTV,” Watts told the San Diego Tribune in 1991.

“There are people who just play instruments, and I'm pleased to know that I'm one of them."


Lee 'Scratch' Perry (1936 - 2021)

Manfred Werner
Lee perry was a reggae icon who developed both roots and dub reggaeManfred Werner

The reggae visionary who worked with Bob Marley died in Jamaica this year.

After shunning menial work in 1950s Jamaica, Scratch was scouted by a reggae studio and worked his way up to being a recording artist. Scratch was key in developing both dub and roots reggae styles which have influenced genres from hip-hop, post-punk and dance music.

As well as shaping the contemporary music landscape, Scratch worked with big hitters like Marley, although this collaboration ended in discord. His studio Black Ark was so famed that even non-reggae artists like Paul and Lynda McCartney recorded there.

Steve Bronski (1960 - 2021)

Steve Bronski, one of the co-founders of the pop trio Bronski Beat died this year after a fatal fire at his home.

Bronski was born Steven William Forest on a London council estate in 1960, working as a labourer before starting in music, going on to form Bronski Beat with Jimmy Somerville and Larry Steinbachek in 1983.


The keyboardist was part of what some described as “the first real gay group n the history of pop”, and played in some of Bronski Beat’s most iconic singles like “Smalltown Boy” and “Why?”

The group were known for their lyrics highlighting the queer experience, and made powerful statements in their career. Their debut album, “Age of Consent,” had the age of consent for gay sex in 30 countries listed on the inside sleeve of the LP, at the time this was generally older than for heterosexuals.

Kelli ‘L-Hand’ Hand (1965 - 2021)

A producer and DJ whose style spanned techno and house, Hand was named “First Lady of Detroit” in 2017 by the Detroit City Council.

Inspired by her trips to legendary New York club Paradise Garage in the 1980s, Hand began DJing and went on to found her own record label, eventually called Acacia Records.

In her 25-year career the producer and DJ covered genres from jackin’ house to ghettotech, and she spent the 1990s touring Europe.


Lina Wertmuller (1928 - 2021)

Mark Von Holden/2019 Invision
Wertmuller was a trailblazer whose political work easily crossed into the anglo-speaking worldMark Von Holden/2019 Invision

The woman who could claim to be the subversive mother of Italian cinema was also the first woman to ever be nominated for a Best Director Academy Award.

A rebel by nature, the film-maker was born to an aristocratic family in Rome, and started in theatre before moving into motion pictures.

Wertmuller hit popularity in the 1970s, the director - whose work covered themes such as gender disparities, political injustice, and sexual violence - seemed to tap into a revolutionary spirit in US political and social life.

Her film “Seven Beauties”, about an Italian rapist who ends up in a Nazi concentration camp, earned her two Oscar nominations for best director and best screenplay.

Sarah Harding (1981 - 2021)

MJ Kim/AP2009
Harding was a talented vocalist whose role in Girls Aloud saw her touring the globe after their success on "Popstars: the Rivals"MJ Kim/AP2009

Musician and girl band member Sarah Harding passed away with year after a battle with breast cancer.


Rising to prominence in early noughties reality contest “Popstars: the Rivals” Harding was part of girl group Girls Aloud who won the competition and went on to have 20 consecutive top ten hits, four number ones and six top ten albums in the 11 years they performed together.

Harding was a powerful vocalist in the group which is one of the UK's most successful pop-ensembles. Aged 39 at the time of her death, Harding had public battles with both alcohol and sleeping-pill addiction as she struggled to find a voice after the band split. Her personality and wit however proved assets when she came to have stints on reality TV shows Celebrity Big Brother and Celebrity Master Chef.

Nikki Grahame (1982 - 2021)

Possibly the most iconic Big Brother contestant after Jade Goody, Nikki Grahame enjoyed catch-phrases and viral moments which long outlasted her appearance on the show.

Grahame earned a reputation as a brat on TV due to her frequent tantrums, but came off as sweet and vulnerable in the years since. Grahame competed in spin-offs such as Ultimate Big Brother and Big Brother Canada, but also had her own reality show “Princess Nikki”.

The star authored two books “Fragile” and “Dying to be Thin” which documented her experiences with anorexia and mental illness. Tragically this struggle would eventually claim her life, with fans raising money for eating disorder charities after her death.


Renée Dorléac (1911 - 2021)

Renée Dorléac, professionally known as Renée-Jeanne Simonot, is mother of French actress Catherine Deneuve but also forged a career in her own right.

After three decades working in the Paris theatre scene the actress forged a career dubbing Hollywood films into French, voicing stars like Judy Garland and Olivia de Havilland.

Living to 109, Dorléac retained a positive attitude in her old age, telling Le Point in 2013, “My old age is not sad. I am lucky to be very surrounded. There is not a day where I don’t get a phone call or a visit from my children and grandchildren.”

Siegfried Fischbacher (1939 - 2021)

Neil Jacobs/AP
Siegfried Fischbacher (left) pictured with his partner Roy Horn in 1999, Horn died last year from COVID-19 related complicationsNeil Jacobs/AP

One half of the German magic act Seigfried and Roy, Siegfried Fischbacher was renowned for his work with tigers and lions.

After meeting his partner, Roy Horn, in the Germany in the 1950s the pair eventually made the move to Las Vegas where they wowed magic fans with their glamorous acts and made waves in industry circles.


Fischbacher was partially paralysed in 2003 after a 400lb white Bengal tiger named Montecore attacked him, an attack which ended the double act’s long-running Vegas show. Despite his condition improving the pair never resumed touring and retired from showbusiness in 2010.

Sally Ann Howes (1930-2021)

Richard Drew/AP
Sally Ann Howes, who plays Mrs. Higgins in the touring company of "My Fair Lady," watches rehearsals in New York, on Aug. 22, 2007Richard Drew/AP

Coming from an acting lineage that includes her parents, Bobby Howes and Patricia Malone, Sally Ann Howes made appearances in more than 140 films, musicals, plays and television projects including the screen adaption of Charles Dickens’ “Nicholas Nickleby”.

But she left her biggest mark as the character Truly Scrumptious in festive favourite “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” with Dick van Dyke.

She earned a Tony Award nomination for her performance in “Brigadoon” at the New York City Opera in 1962 and also attracted plaudits playing opposite the spectacular Peter Wyngarde in the 1973 UK tour of The King and I.

Howes made her last appearance on screen in the limited series “Secrets” in 1992.


Joan Didion (1934 - 2021)

Kathy Willens/AP
Didion was known for her searing commentary and aloof mannerKathy Willens/AP

A journalist, playwright, author and essayist, Didion's unique voice was as instantly recognisable as her frail frame and protruding eyes. During her career Didion's commentary made her well-known for her acerbic and astute dissections of American culture and politics. 

Didion's books "The White Album" and "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" have become essential reading for many, while her work on grief after the death of her husband in "The Year of Magical Thinking" was widely acclaimed.

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