Ferrera, 7, the sixth and youngest child of Honduran immigrants, lands a small role in her school's production of Hamlet and realizes that she wants to be a performer. The young thespian begins acting in community theater in L.A and is only allowed to take acting lessons if she pays for them by waiting tables. "Acting was not something that [my parents] came to this country to have me do," Ferrera tells W in 2007.
While a student at El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills, Calif., Ferrera, 16, films Disney Channel's Gotta Kick It Up! She plays one of a handful of Latina girls transformed into a championship dance team. "I love to dance, so I couldn't believe I was getting paid to just dance all day," she tells W in 2007. "And there were four other girls in the cast, so that was fun. And you know the way you think when you're a teenager: Disney Channel today, Oscars tomorrow!"
In HBO's Real Women Have Curves, Ferrera plays Ana Garcia, a first-generation Mexican American who wants to go to college instead of work at her family's sewing business. She earns a Sundance Jury Award for Best Actress in the cross-cultural drama/comedy that deals with, among other issues, body image. "There are not many Latin-American role models in the entertainment business," Ferrera tells USA Today. "All I had was Jennifer Lopez and Salma Hayek as role models, but I don't look anything like them."
While studying international relations at the University of Southern California, Ferrera meets aspiring director Ryan Piers Williams. The two begin dating and eventually move in together with their golden retriever, Buddy.
Ferrera scores a starring role in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, with Alexis Bledel, Blake Lively and Amber Tamblyn (left). The film based on Ann Brashares' best-selling teen novel centers around lifelong friends who spend their first summer apart, but connect by shipping a pair of jeans to each other. In 2007, Ferrera reprises her role as the intelligent Carmen for the 2008 Traveling Pants sequel.
Ferrara, 22, dons bushy eyebrows, snap-on braces and frumpy frocks to play Betty Suarez, a less-than-attractive fashion magazine assistant with a heart of gold, in ABC's Ugly Betty. The show is based of the popular Columbian telenovela, Yo Soy Betty Le Fea, brought to the states by executive producer and former Mexican telenovela star, Salma Hayek. "For me, it's fine if Betty never morphs into the beautiful swan," Ferrera tells New York Magazine, "I think she's lovable as is. She is the most beautiful character on the show."
Ferrera's performance as Betty earns her a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy Series and a Screen Actors Guild award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Comedy Series. To add to her accolades, Ferrera is saluted by Congress for raising the profile of Latinos in popular culture and providing a role model for young Latinas. Time magazine also names her one of its Most Influential People in The World.
High-fashion magazine W reveals the gorgeous woman underneath the Ugly Betty costume on its May cover, calling Ferrera, "Hot Betty." Of her newfound success, she says, "Everything that's happened to me in the last year has only made me feel more like a normal person, more human, but in the most beautiful way." That same month, she lands a spot on PEOPLE's 100 Most Beautiful list. "I am more comfortable being Betty than being on a red carpet all glammed up," Ferrera admits to PEOPLE.
Ferrera wins the Emmy for Best Actress in a Comedy Series at the 2007 Emmy Awards. "It is truly an amazing and wonderful thing that happens when your dreams come true, and I just wish that for everybody, that they get to do what inspires them," Ferrera says during her acceptance speech. After thanking her cast and crew, she adds, "The award is to be able to wake up and go to work tomorrow and see all of your faces."
Ferrera, Bledel, Lively and Tamblyn appear in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2, which makes $10.8 million in its first week. An AP review says, "America Ferrera pretty much steals the whole movie out from under her co-stars...Ferrera is an actress with a likable, accessible presence who always makes her performances look effortless...her charms only seem to strengthen as she grows older and more seasoned."
BIOGRAPHY (top to bottom): HBO; Soren McCarty/Wireimage; Warner Bros.; Eric Liebowitz/ABC/AP; Mark J. Terrill/AP; John Shearer/WireImage; Warner Bros.