The youngest of the nine Jackson offspring – Rebbie, Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, LaToya, Marlon, Michael, and Randy – Janet makes her show business debut at age 7 with her famous family in their Vegas live show, a routine attraction at the old MGM (now Bally's) casino.
Jackson joins the cast of Good Times in its fifth season, making her acting debut as abused neighbor Penny Gordon. She goes on to play Willis' girlfriend Charlene for 11 episodes of Diff'rent Strokes from 1982-84 and appears in the dance-school drama Fame for one season in 1984.
Urged by her manager/father, Joe, to give up acting and start singing again, Jackson signs with A&M Records and releases her first album, Janet Jackson, an eight-song collection of sugary dance tracks. While the album produces three Billboard Top 20 R&B singles, it's mostly forgettable, especially when compared to her late brother Michael's bestselling album Thriller.
After briefly dating James DeBarge of the R&B group DeBarge, Jackson elopes with the singer. Under pressure from her family, her marriage is annulled less than a year later. In 2005 DeBarge's brother, Young, claims that the couple were parents of an 18-year-old girl they sent to live with Jackson's sister Rebbie. Jackson responds to PEOPLE: "I do not have a child, and all allegations saying so are false."
With the release of her third album, Control, Jackson steps out of her family's shadow, creating her own identity with five Top 5 hits including the No. 1 "When I Think of You." Control, which receives a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year, marks her first collaboration with Minneapolis producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who were specifically told beforehand by Joe Jackson that "I don't want my daughter sounding like Prince."
With a more socially conscious tone, Jackson releases Rhythm Nation 1814, which spawns four No. 1 singles. With a combined 12 Top 5 singles from her past two albums, Jackson surpasses her late brother Michael's record of 10 from his Thriller and Bad recordings.
With several labels courting her, Jackson signs the biggest contract in recording history, agreeing to a reported $50 million for three to five albums with Virgin Records. Her late brother Michael dwarfs that figure nine days later when he inks a $65-million-plus deal with Sony.
Jackson quietly marries dancer/songwriter Rene Elizondo, Jr., 28, a fact that doesn't become public until Elizondo files for divorce in May 2000. "They were one of the greatest teams in pop music," says Jackson family biographer J. Randy Taraborelli, "and we didn't even know they were married." The two share songwriting credits on virtually all of her albums since Rhythm Nation 1814. "People in this industry don't get a fair chance with some things, especially marriage," Jackson tells USA Today. "I wanted to have as normal a marriage as possible." After a long legal battle, their divorce is finalized in Oct. 2003.
Seductive song themes and lyrics on Jackson's janet. album reveal a new side of the singer. It becomes her most commercially successful album yet and sells nearly seven million copies. EW says, "janet. wants the world to see Jackson as not just a cherubic pop star but a confident, self-sufficient, and sexy grown-up."
Cast as an inner-city poetry-writing hairdresser, Jackson appears alongside rapper Tupac Shakur in Poetic Justice. While she receives mixed reviews, there is controversy on the set when Shakur says that Jackson asked him to take an AIDS test before shooting a kissing scene, a charge she denies. It will be another seven years before she returns to the big screen in 2000's Nutty Professor II: The Klumps.
BIOGRAPHY (top to bottom): Allen Fredrickson/Reuters/Corbis; CBS/Landov; Robert Matheu/Retna; BEImages; amazon.com; KWAME BRATHWAITE/GLOBE; Eli Reed/Magnum