We asked some of America's biggest celebrities to tell us about the moments that defined who they are today. Their memories kick off our anniversary issue

"I was 17 and had just graduated from high school in Smyrna, Ga. I didn't at that point have a fully formulated dream to move to New York City and become an actor or anything like that. But I'd grown up in a very small town, so I felt the tug toward exploration and seeing other places. My sister lived in New York and was going to acting school, and she was nice enough to let me move in with her in her apartment in Greenwich Village. We returned to our sisterhood—we transplanted that relationship to New York. I certainly wouldn't have done it if she hadn't been there. It was the best, scariest thing I ever did. Imagine being this 17-year-old girl from Smyrna, Ga., with no skill or wits or focus.

The city itself scared me. My sister went out of town shortly after I got there and I was left alone in the apartment. I wouldn't go to sleep until the sun came up. There was no creek that ran by my bedroom window to comfort me. But I think if I hadn't left home then, I probably never would've left home. If I had thought about it and really been methodical about it, it would've seemed just too crazy.

I was in New York a year before I met a manager for young actors who sent me out on meetings and got the ball rolling for me. In the meantime, I had a series of jobs. I worked at an athletic shoe store at 72nd and Broadway. I would have a hot dog for lunch every day at Gray's Papaya because that was lunch for 50 cents, and you can't beat that with a stick. I also tried to work in little snack stores down in the Village, because that's what I had done in the mall in Smyrna. But I still, to this day, do not understand egg creams. There's no egg and no cream. It has seltzer and chocolate syrup. I just don't understand that. It's too high a concept. But after all these years, I still think of myself as a New Yorker. It's my favorite city."
—Julia ROBERTS

"My Wife, Tracy Pollan, and I have four children—Sam, 14, our twins, Aquinnah and Schuyler, 9, and Esme, 2—and fatherhood tops everything in my life, including the television shows, the movies and even my experience with Parkinson's. In terms of importance, good and bad, I haven't done anything as big as becoming a parent. It's the thing that's changed me most.

In the 1970s I was this goofy high school kid. In the '80s I won the lottery and kind of was the kid who got lost in the candy store. The '90s, they were like the crucible, the time when I had to pay The Man in a sense, the time when I had to grow up, and I realized that growing up was painful but really worth it.

Tracy tells me that I wanted to have kids right away. We were married in July 1988 and Sam was born the following May. I was driving back from work when Tracy called on my cell phone, which at the time was this big clunky thing, and said, 'You're going to be a father.' I think I slammed into a wall on the Cahuenga Pass.

Sam looked like my father. My dad was in the military and then the police department. He was tickled by my success. But it also baffled him. He and my mom would come to tapings of Family Ties. After, my dad would go up to [executive producer] Gary David Goldberg and ask, 'How's he doing? Is he a problem?'

They never understood the whole fame thing and paparazzi. At our wedding, which was shrouded in security, they said, 'Why don't you just go out and take a picture?' I had to explain it wasn't as simple as taking a picture. If I took one, they'd want more. When we heard someone on the inside had accepted a bribe to take pictures, my dad was like, 'Bastards.'

My dad passed away six months after Sam was born. He loved Sam, who was just a lump at that point. But you know, my dad was proud.

As for us, the new baby was hard for Tracy. She was the young career ascendant who had to suddenly stop everything to take care of a baby, while I was making Back to the Future Part II and III at the same time.

By the time my daughters were born, I was very different. I was more philosophical, more settled. I'd been all over the place, reckless and wild. Tracy had been ready to take me down to the woodshed. But then things got good. I'd been through the diagnosis and dealt with other issues in my life—alcohol and things like that. I had perspective. I was like a freshly washed person on the banks of the Jordan.

I looked at the twins as a kind of wink from God. We'd known we were having identical twins, but we didn't find out the sex. Tracy had been on bed rest, and I thought if she found out she was having two boys she'd be on the roof ready to jump. So I was relieved to have girls.

Esme arrived in November 2001, just after 9/11, and the whole city was subdued, recovering from the shock, or trying to. About 6 a.m. Tracy realized it was time. We got up and quietly packed a bag. We didn't call anyone else. We took the elevator down, went out the front door of our building and walked to the hospital. She had the baby. The next day was the New York City marathon. We stood at the window and watched thousands of people running by and realized the city was going to be okay. Our family—our new family—was going to be okay.

By then I was well into my Parkinson's. I was diagnosed in 1991. Like parenting, it's only made me stronger. It's made me a better person. It's made me more equipped in a way to have the patience and understanding of what it takes to be a father.

Parkinson's isn't a big thing in my house. It hasn't impacted the kids. Our family is very normal. Tracy makes fun of me. The kids are all smart-asses. They all have a sense of humor. Someone will ask if their daddy is okay, and they'll say, 'Yeah, but he's a pain in the ass today.' Sam and I like nothing better than to get in a car when we're on vacation, put in Van Halen's Ice Cream Man and crank it up. Tracy will ask me to check on him doing his homework and an hour later she'll find us jamming on guitars.

When I was a kid, my dad was the first and the last person I'd want to see if I was in trouble. Mostly the first person. And I want to be that person for my kids. In spite of being diminished in any way by my illness, or affected by the ways it saddens me at times, or whatever, my kids don't sense it at all. Their lives aren't compromised in any way.

If they sense you don't feel threatened, they're just fine. That doesn't mean I hide my struggles. I can't. And they need to know everyone has pain and struggles. But they know I'm secure about it. I'm okay. We can deal with it. That's what adults do. When my kids see that I'm all right with things, they can be that way too.

You know what's cool? My kids think I'm ordinary. Years ago, Sam had an aversion to cameras from all the paparazzi jumping out at us or all the people coming up and asking to take a picture. Then he got interested in the excitement people sometimes had meeting me. He asked why I was always signing my name. I explained that people knew me from TV, that I was in their house. But then I'd explain that the me he knew was the real me, and that those people weren't in our house. I'd just say, 'What do you think those people would have thought if they saw me running around looking for my socks in the morning like you did?' "
—Michael J. FOX

"If you wanted a personal computer back in 1975, you had to build it yourself. For under $500 ($1,700 in today's money) you could mail-order a bag of parts that, after a few days' frustrating construction, became the Altair 8800. Named after a star in a Star Trek episode, the Altair was a large blue box with no keyboard or screen. To program it, you flipped switches on the front and then read off the results on two rows of tiny red lights.

That doesn't sound like a very big deal today, and it wasn't that useful even back in 1975. But for me, the Altair was a revolution waiting to happen. Before then, computers often took up an entire room, and only trained technicians were allowed to use them. The idea of a small computer you could have all to yourself was enough to convince me to drop out of Harvard and start a company with my friend Paul Allen. We called it Micro-Soft.

Our vision was to put a computer on every desk and in every home. We'd eat pizza, drink Coke and stay up all night writing programs that would make computers more useful. When we weren't writing code, we were daydreaming about all the exciting things the computer might someday be able to do. People probably thought we were crazy.

Today, our visions seem tame. Computers have disappeared into the fabric of our lives—into our living rooms, our cars, our pockets, even our wristwatches. It's a long way from flipping switches and soldering parts together, but it's only the beginning. Computers will change our world more in the next 10 years than they have in the previous 30.I don't eat as much pizza anymore and I don't stay up all night that often, but I'm just as inspired as I was back in 1975.
—Bill GATES

"There are many things that have transformed all of us over the course of our lives. The most life-changing experience I've ever had would be marrying my husband and giving birth to our three girls. Nothing compares to that.

However, since I was little I'd always known I wanted to be a singer, so for me, perhaps the single most influential moment that helped to define my professional path came in 1975. Elvis Presley was performing in Mississippi and, needless to say, I had to go. But my mother wouldn't allow me to go to a rock and roll concert. I did everything. I pleaded with her. I begged her. It wasn't until a neighbor of ours convinced her that it would be all right that I was allowed to go.

I sat in the top row of the arena and I remember everyone going wild. But it was as if there was nobody there—except for me and Elvis. When he walked out onstage he looked like a pea, but to me he was larger than life.

To this day I'm not sure of what it was—his presence, the reaction of the people, I don't know—but what I did know was that after that concert, I had to be a performer, pure and simple."
—Faith HILL

"What's the most significant moment in my life over the past 30 years? Well, meeting Sonny Bono is the thing that shaped my whole life in some sort of way, but since it happened 40 years ago, I'd have to say the next most important moment was splitting from him. We divorced in 1975, and it forced me to go out on my own.

The truth is, I didn't want to go out on my own. I was comfortable being half of Sonny and Cher. I wanted to keep working with him and go on as a team. Growing up, I had all these ideas coming out of my ears. But I couldn't make them come together. Then I met Sonny and everything coalesced. From the first time I saw him, I thought he was the most interesting man I'd ever seen. He had a Beatles haircut and hippie boots and he was dressed so strangely. I was just mesmerized by him.

But in 1975 we came to a point where we had to sign new contracts and I wanted a 50-50 split. Sonny didn't want that, so he wouldn't sign. Then I wouldn't sign. In reality, our disagreement wasn't only about money. It was about us. Our marriage [after six years] had fallen apart about eight months before then.

We had two components to our relationship: personal and business. When we worked together, it was fabulous. Except for the money part of it, we were equal partners. We had a great time. Both of us were really funny. We enjoyed each other. But our home life was harsh. We didn't communicate well. We worked so hard and long and spent so many hours onstage that when we were together at home it was strange. We worked so often it took me a long time to realize I wasn't happy.

Finally, I woke up one morning in Las Vegas, where we were performing, and knew it was over. I went to San Francisco and then I flew back to Vegas. Everybody was crazed because Sonny and I had this huge hit television show. I apologized to everyone, but that afternoon I told Sonny that I couldn't do it. I said, 'I love you, but I don't want to be with you.'

We still did a TV show that week, which was really weird. Both Sonny and I reacted to the situation by cracking jokes. It was strange between us; it was a strange time. We continued living together in the same house with our daughter [Chastity]—though granted it was a 28,000-sq.-ft. home. Sonny lived on one side and I lived on the other, and we were just friends.

Then he did his own TV show and I did my own show, and then the network brought us together again. By then a year had gone by. I was pregnant with my son [Elijah, by Gregg Allman]. I was pregnant by a person who was also divorcing me. And I was divorced from Sonny but working with him. It was completely bizarre.

By the mid-1980s I was pretty much on my own, yet Sonny and I talked the whole time. Through girlfriends and boyfriends, through ups and downs, we always talked. That's the way it was. You know, on the day of our divorce, he grabbed me and kissed me and stuck his tongue down my throat. I was really furious with him. Then we just started to laugh. It was hard for me to be angry with him. I could never do it very well.

But I never got used to the fact that Sonny became a Republican. He had always been such a staunch Democrat. I remember one time being at his house in Palm Springs and seeing a picture of him with Dan Quayle. I said, 'Sonny, this is ridiculous. What's going on? How could you bear to have a picture taken with Dan Quayle?' He laughed at me.

I was in London [in 1998] when I heard that Sonny had died. Chastity called and told me, and it was too weird to comprehend. I said, 'Oh my God. Honey, are you okay?' But then after those words left my lips, I got completely hysterical. It was terrible. I fell down on the floor. Everything was awful. I got on a plane and flew straight to Palm Springs, and everybody in his life was there.

Strangely enough, I don't think of Sonny that often. Probably because I don't think of him as gone. I think of him as someplace else. Not here, but not gone. And every so often something will happen or I'll see something and I'll think, Oh God, Sonny would think this is so funny."
—CHER

"In 1996 I lit the flame that opened the Centennial Olympic Games in Atlanta. I was honored to be the final carrier of the torch that had traveled across America, to be such an important part of the opening ceremonies. It brought back a lot of memories of my early boxing days, and I count it among the most memorable moments of my life.

It had been a long time since I had heard the roar of a stadium crowd. On the evening of the opening ceremonies, I hid behind the scenes as the events unfolded. Evander Holyfield carried the Olympic torch into the stadium, and he passed it on to the great swimmer Janet Evans. I had flown to Atlanta secretly a week before to do a practice run and work out the details, but I was still nervous. Who wouldn't have been? Three billion people were watching around the world. Three billion!

When Janet carried the torch up the ramp inside the stadium, the whole world thought she would light the cauldron. Only a select few knew I would be the one. When I stepped out of the shadows on the platform and into the bright lights, the crowd erupted in applause, gasps, shouts and screams of joy. Janet lit my torch, and in turn I carried it to a wick that sent the flame high above the stadium, into the cauldron. I could feel the waves of emotion running through the crowd as the flame took hold and grew. Later, people watching at home told me they were also extremely moved.

Lighting the Olympic flame was a major turning point in my life. Even today, people still come up and talk about their experiences of watching the opening ceremonies. The love and emotion I get from these people gives me the inspiration and energy to continue my mission of spreading peace and respect throughout the world. Since 1996 I have been able to truly realize this mission, to build a center that focuses on the principles that made me what I am today. The Muhammad Ali Center will open in Louisville, Ky., in 2005. I am so excited because the center will allow me to touch a lot of lives, to share again the experience everyone felt when they saw me at the Olympics eight years ago.

The Centennial Olympics gave me a renewed visibility; a whole new generation became interested in my life story. I had finally come full circle: In 1960 I shocked the world by winning the gold medal in boxing at the Rome Olympics. In 1996 I showed the world that Parkinson's disease hadn't defeated me. I showed them that I was still The Greatest of All Time."
—Muhammad Ali

"I was 24 years old and I knew I was going to be a father by the time I was 25, and I just sat there in disbelief, thinking about how little I knew and saying to myself, 'Someone's going to call me Dad, the poor little creature.' I just felt totally unprepared and ill-equipped. I didn't have the first idea about that kind of stuff. But you know, once you're on that road, you start pulling your socks up. Unfortunately, with the first one you're kinda learning.

When Hannah [the first of his seven children, who was born in 1980] was almost 2 years old, we had a set of twins. We were living in Coogee Beach near Sydney, and I took her along to the store to buy some soy milk. I'm asking which brand is better and all this kind of stuff, and I took my eye off her for a minute. I looked up, and she was gone.

I looked outside the store and she wife on a footpath with traffic flying by. She was waving to a girl in a bus shed across the street. The girl worked for us part-time, helping take care of the children, so Hannah recognized her. She was going to meet her in the bus shed.

I'm looking at all this through the glass door. There were about 20 yards I had to cover. I dropped everything. It was like slow motion. I knocked old ladies out of the way, I ran through sunglass cabinets. I jumped over everything in creation and I got to her, and grabbed her by the back of the shirt just as she was stepping off the curb into the street. I think I pissed my pants on the spot. I remember every single instant of it, and it seemed to take about four hours to get to her. It was the longest run I ever had."
—Mel GIBSON

"One of the most significant things that's happened in the last 30 years was the tragedy of Sept. 11. I was on my way overseas on that sad day and I couldn't get back to the U.S.A. right away, and I was very worried about my brother who was in New York. During this time when the whole world was grieving I just wanted to go home and be with my family and appreciate life even more."
—Britney SPEARS

"I've had quite an adventurous life from the moment of birth—a lot of schools, a lot of travel. And many challenges even before I became an actor. Back in the '80s, after I finished shooting Top Gun, I remember going, 'How can I be better? How can I learn more?' As an artist, there's a tremendous amount of pressure and tension and other factors that can bar the way to a happy life. And wrong solutions. I was looking at how certain things in business were being handled, how people were being treated. And I didn't agree with it. I wasn't happy. A friend mentioned Scientology to me and gave me a book. I went, 'Okay, this makes sense.' I looked at it and started applying some of the things to my life. I suddenly realized that there were solutions, that there was hope. It gave me the ability to find out for myself how I can have a happier life. I was able to pursue the things I was interested in and help people in a way that was effective. It took all the confusion away."
—Tom CRUISE

"The pivotal moment for me over the past 30 years was realizing I had a bigger responsibility than I was originally aware of and that I'd been thinking small picture. It was a gradual process of awakening that began seven years ago. My life couldn't have been more perfect—in the way it is in that 1 percent way when everything is surface. I was pregnant. I'd finished making a film [Evita]. I'd won a Golden Globe. And I was recording Ray of Light.

But despite all the success and fame, I still felt like something was missing. I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. I didn't know if I wanted to get married. I didn't know where I wanted to live. I thought I knew a lot, but in reality I didn't know anything. I was used to being self-indulgent. But when you're about to have a kid, you realize you have to think beyond that.

Suddenly I was concerned about the bigger picture. Why am I me? Why am I here? Why did my soul choose this body? Why am I a role model? Is this fame the be-all and end-all? What's the point of all this? Is it downhill from here? It can't all be a happy accident. I wanted to know why it was happening to me.

Then I went to a dinner party at my friend's house and sat next to a lady who talked to me about this class that she'd started going to. The teacher was a rabbi, she said, and he told amazing stories. I asked, 'What do you mean? What class are you going to? Is it at a temple? Is it at a school?'

Though the teacher was a rabbi, she said it didn't matter that I wasn't Jewish because the teachings were just culturally interesting stories that made a lot of sense. She invited me to go to class with her the next week, and I said sure, why not? It's an hour and an half out of my life, and if I don't like it I'll never go back.

A couple days later, I went for the first time to the Kabbalah Centre in Beverly Hills. I brought my little notebook to take notes in, and I loved it. I loved what I heard. First of all, I love going to class. I loved school as a kid, and I still love learning. I loved the idea of sitting in a classroom as an anonymous student. Whether it's dance class, English lit or studying a foreign language, I get a big charge out of learning.

And I loved the idea that I was in the back of this class and nobody was making a big deal out of me being there. In a way, everyone ignored me, which suited me fine. I could sit back, relax and listen to a very spiritual person who spoke about the point of life.

When I was starting out in life, I thought the goal was to be popular, though in actuality I didn't know what I was doing. I went to New York with the dream of becoming a professional dancer. Somehow I fell into music. I started writing songs and I wanted to get them played on the radio. I didn't have a dream bigger than that.

Then it BRACKET "her career"] happened, and it was just incredible. And everything that happened after that was like, oh my God. I got caught up in that. It's almost impossible not to. But through studying Kabbalah, I've learned that if your happiness is based on people approving of everything you do and getting accolades, you're doomed to failure. It can't ever be enough.

Kabbalah has taught me the goal isn't about myself; it's about bringing unity. The core of Kabbalah is the same as Christianity, and that's to love your neighbor as you love yourself. In Kabbalah, I've found the tools to apply that to my life.

The very first lesson I got was on restriction—the idea of reactive behavior. That everything we do is reactive to something else, and that's how we get into trouble. It's why we get upset, why we get angry, why we show jealousy, why we show hurt. But the teacher explained how we as humans have the ability to restrict our behavior, to go against our reactive nature, and then by doing so avoid pain and let the light come in.

To me, it was such a simple concept and not a bunch of spiritual mumbo jumbo. I liked the practicality of it and thought, Hmm, I'm going to try that.

Every day now I try to do three things. 1) I ask God to help me to restrict my reactions (and not let my ego control me); 2) I pray to receive for the sake of sharing (which means to ask for everything in life but only so you can share it); and 3) I try to go outside my comfort zone in some way, shape or form to help someone.

Kabbalah has made me a better human being. I have a successful marriage. That doesn't mean I don't have my ups and downs, but I have an open and honest relationship, and we work things out. Guy [Ritchie] and I understand that we've embarked on a journey together. There's no way our relationship would work if we didn't both think the same way. I can't just write a silly pop song anymore. I feel the need to share what I've learned. I don't want to be boring and preachy. I still want to have fun. But I know there's a way to inspire and entertain people at the same time. I'm writing children's books that contain spiritual messages. I never would have done that before.

My studies have also allowed me to feel compassion for people in a way that I never could before. When you can feel other people's pain, you're in a constant state of wanting to help make things better."
MADONNA