Big in Japan: The stars who shine in unlikely places

Kevin Costner is actually big in Turkey, and he's the latest to reorient his career with a foreign revival
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It is the hollow boast of the rock star manqué: no deal, no gigs and no money but they are Big in Japan! Yet what was once a term of scorn is increasingly a seriously profitable means for celebrities to prolong their pay days. And the practice is not restricted to Japan, as the Oscar-winning actor Kevin Costner demonstrated last week when it was revealed he was the new "face" of Turkish airlines.

Costner, 55, best known for Hollywood blockbusters such as Dances with Wolves and The Untouchables, might seem a surprising choice given that he has endured a barren spell at the box office for almost a decade. Critical and financial success might have escaped him in his acting career but he has proved a hit with Turkish audiences for his musical abilities. His band, Kevin Costner and the Modern West, playing country and rock music, went down a storm in Istanbul and led to a renaissance of fame and fortune in the Aegean.

Costner is not alone. His fellow thesp Richard Gere, another to have suffered in the paying-bums-on-seats stakes of late, really is Big in Japan, where he promotes hair-care products. And the former Baywatch and Knight Rider TV star David Hasselhoff has enjoyed popularity in Germany thanks to his recording career – including two No 1 singles – long after other audiences tuned out.

The singer Chris de Burgh, of "Lady in Red" fame, enjoys undimmed support in Iran despite suffering at the hands of critics in his native Ireland. In 2007 the Iranian authorities permitted De Burgh to play a concert in Tehran – the first by a Western performer since the 1979 revolution.

The British comedian Norman Wisdom is a cult icon in Albania, where his films were the only Western ones permitted in the country during the Hoxha dictatorship. Such was his popularity he was given the keys to the city of Tirana in 1996.

The singing career of the former topless model Sam Fox took off in nearby Serbia: so much so, the town of Cacak proposed erecting a marble statue of her. The plan was later abandoned after Fox stormed offstage when the crowd requested to see her breasts.

Rochdale-born Johnny Clegg was raised in South Africa, where he became interested in Zulu street music and dancing. His multiracial band Savuka has proved enormously successful in South Africa and Europe. At his zenith, his concerts drew bigger crowds than Michael Jackson.

Chris Birchall's footballing career in the English lower leagues went largely unheeded by all but fans of Port Vale until he popped up wearing the national shirt of Trinidad and Tobago. Birchall, who qualified to play for the side via his mother, scored a crucial goal for the Soca Warriors, helping them to qualify for the World Cup in Germany in 2006 for the first time. The goal secured him instant fame in the Caribbean, and his career has been on an upward trajectory ever since. He now plays alongside David Beckham in the LA Galaxy team in the US.

A former London bus driver, Latif Nangarhari could pop out to his local shop and no one would bat an eyelid, but in his native Afghanistan his songs are lionised. The Pashtun singer fled Afghanistan after being arrested by the Taliban for singing at a private party. The musician Charlie Winston is another who can walk down a British street without fear of recognition, but in France, where he has had a series of hits, he requires full-time bodyguards.

Sean Carr's career in Yorkshire as a shoe salesman was made bearable because of his hobby as lead singer for the jobbing heavy metal band Death Valley Screamers. That was until he married the daughter of the wealthy Ukrainian former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko after meeting her on holiday in Egypt. Carr's band quickly gained a devoted following in Ukraine, where their concerts now regularly sell out; it has been described as the biggest British invasion since the Crimean War.