Jerome J. Berry, an alcoholic who abused Berry's mother Judith Ann Hawkins and sister Heidi, leaves his family. Hawkins works as a psychiatric nurse and raises Berry and her sister. Growing up biracial – their father is black, their mother white – the girls encounter racism and are called names. All the while, Berry relies on her mother for strength. "She never wanted me to focus on my physical self," Berry later says to PEOPLE. "My mom always said, 'Beauty is what you do.'"
Berry edits the school newspaper, becomes class president, and captain of her cheerleading squad at Bedford High School, located in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio. "[Doing] all those things helped to make me feel a sense of empowerment," she tells Ebony of her experience attending an all-White school.
After Berry is voted prom queen, beating out "a blue-eyed blonde," she says, students accuse her and her friends of stuffing the ballot box. A coin toss makes Berry the winner. "I felt like I was accepted [at school] until it came to being prom queen," she tells PEOPLE. "It took me a long time to get over it."
A boyfriend enters her into her first beauty contest, and Berry storms onto the pageant scene, winning Miss Teen All-American. "We didn't have a lot, so initially I saw dollar signs," she tells PEOPLE. "But then I felt really empowered after winning." In 1986, after being crowned Miss Ohio USA, Berry comes in second place in the Miss USA contest and sixth in Miss World. But "I wasn't the consummate pageant girl," Berry later says to PEOPLE of her tiara days.
Berry takes on her first acting role. She plays a model on the short-lived Who's the Boss? spinoff Living Dolls, a Facts of Life-like story of four models with disparate personalities living together. Berry collapses during filming, and is later diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.
Berry's breakthrough role comes in Spike Lee's Jungle Fever. Despite her role as a down-and-out drug addict, scoring such a meaty part wasn't easy. The "'too pretty' thing got to be old," she says to PEOPLE.
While Berry is watching an MTV celebrity baseball game, Atlanta Braves right fielder David Justice catches her eye. Later that year, during an interview with Berry, a reporter mentions that his pal Justice is a fan and would like a photo. She sends him one with her number written on it.
While her last few roles weren't pretty, Berry finds herself included in PEOPLE's 50 Most Beautiful People list for the first time. It won't be the last. She'll be recognized a total of 11 times as of 2007, plus pick up honorable mentions for her cleavage and eyebrows.
Berry and Justice tie the knot in Atlanta just a few months after they begin dating. "As I tell Halle," Justice says to PEOPLE shortly after the wedding, "'I thank God every day for giving you to me.'" In April 1996, after three years of marriage, Berry and Justice file for divorce (it's finalized in 1997). "This is a painful, painful chapter in my life," Berry tells PEOPLE. "For four years David was part of my life, every day, every hour. I do keep telling myself that this is one of life's lessons, and as long as I can learn something from it, then all the pain will be worth it."
After a series of supporting roles in big movies, Berry displays her acting chops. She wins an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her portrayal of pioneering African-American actress Dorothy Dandridge in the HBO film Introducing Dorothy Dandridge.
BIOGRAPHY (top to bottom): Classmates Yearbook Archives; Miss Teen All American Pageant; David Lee/Foto Fantasies; Ian White/Corbis Outline; Globe