Fire department lieutenant Skip Panettiere and wife Lesley, a former soap actress, start their 8-month-old daughter Hayden in modeling. Three months later, she lands her first acting gig in a Playskool toy train commercial. Panettiere appears in dozens of commercials, pitching everything from McDonald's to Hershey's to Nix Lice Shampoo.
Led by her manager-mom Lesley, a 4-year-old Panettiere gets her feet wet in soaps. She appears in ABC's One Life to Live until 1997 (pictured with costar Tyler Noyes), then plays Lizzie Spaulding on Guiding Light until 2000. During that time, she also voices the characters of Dot in the animated film A Bug's Life and Suri in Dinosaur.
Panettiere plays the enthusiastic daughter of a football coach in Disney's Remember the Titans, starring Denzel Washington and she takes home the Young Artist Award for Best Performance by a Supporting Young Actress. The following year, she plays Tim Allen's daughter in Joe Somebody and Calista Flockhart's daughter in Fox's Ally McBeal.
After completing the eighth grade, Panettiere opts for home-schooling and spends five months in South Africa shooting – and riding zebras – for her latest role as a young jockey in the Babe-esque Racing Stripes. After shooting, Panettiere decides to spend the rest of her freshman year in Africa. "It was definitely eye-opening, seeing shantytowns," she tells USA Today. "It makes you thankful for what you have, but at the same time you admire how simple life is in other places."
Panettiere, 14, nabs her first teen role as Kate Hudson's rebellious niece, Audrey, in Raising Helen. Panettiere's character smokes, drinks and dates a "bad boy" after her parents' death. That same year, she plays a figure skater opposite Michelle Trachtenberg in Disney's Ice Princess. "My mom used to be an actress; she's my coach," she tells the L.A. Times. "She didn't think it would go this far. Now I am at the point where nobody is making me do what I am doing. And I couldn't imagine doing something else."
After signing on as the latest face of cosmetics and skin care brand Neutrogena, Panettiere, 16, is photographed partying and dancing with celebutante Paris Hilton, 24. She rebuffs predictions that she'll become the next hard-partying Hollywood ingénue. "Paparazzi will take pictures of me coming out of a club, and they'll say I'm partying, that I'm drinking underage at a place I'm not supposed to be," she tells USA Today in 2007. "But they have absolutely no idea what they're talking about."
Panettiere, 17, begins dating Laguna Beach alum and MTV VJ Stephen Colletti, 20, but refuses to comment on their relationship. "We try to keep our personal lives separate because when you put something like that out there, it allows people to form their own opinions about it or rip it apart," she tells teen magazine Girls' Life.
Panettiere is cast as an indestructible high school cheerleader in the new NBC sci-fi series, Heroes. "[The show] just sort of plopped in my lap," Panettiere tells Vanity Fair. "I was walking out of a general meeting with NBC, and they were like, 'Oh, hey, by the way, read this [script]'...And I read it, and it was amazing." In 2007, her performance as the all-American, self-healing Claire Bennet earns her a Young Artist Award for Best Performance in a TV Series by a Supporting Young Actress.
After the mega success of Heroes' first season (the show averages more than 14 million viewers each week), Panettiere becomes TV's latest "It" girl. The young star is also named one of PEOPLE's 100 Most Beautiful, listed as Entertainment Weekly's No.1 "Stars We Love," and makes her debut on Forbes' Celebrity 100 power list at No. 98.
A video captures Panettiere and six other activists from the anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd paddling on surfboards out into a cove in the town of Taiji in southwestern Japan, in an attempt to interfere with a dolphin hunt. "I feel the need to be a voice of worthy and important causes whose efforts impact the lives of every person on Earth," the 18-year-old actress says. Despite the fact that an arrest warrant is issued in Japan for Panettiere, she continues her activism in January when she speaks out at a Washington, D.C., demonstration that called for a stop to whale hunting.
BIOGRAPHY (top to bottom): ABC; Everett Collection; Touchtone Beacon; Chris Wolf/Flynet; Ramey; NBC; Splash News Online