Jennifer Lawrence is born in Louisville, Ky., to Karen (who runs a children's camp) and Gary (who owns a concrete-contracting business). As a child, she shines in a bit role as a prostitute from Nineveh in a church play about the Book of Jonah. "This little extra just took over," her mother later tells Louisville Magazine of her youngest child. "She played the best prostitute."
A high school cheerleader and local theater regular, Lawrence visits New York with her mom to interview at talent agencies. While strolling around Manhattan, "a guy asked to take my picture," Lawrence recounts in an Esquire interview. "We probably should have realized how creepy that was." Fortunately, he turns out to be a legitimate scout, and agents soon come calling.
Having finished high school early, Lawrence returns to New York and lands a smattering of gigs, including an Abercrombie & Fitch ad, a Burger King commercial, and appearances on TV's Monk and Medium. She soon relocates to L.A. for the TBS sitcom The Bill Engvall Show. "From 15 to 16 I sucked, because I had no idea what I was doing. Then I slowly stopped sucking," she says of her early acting experience.
After starring in two hard-hitting indie dramas, (The Burning Plain and The Poker House), Lawrence auditions for the lead in Winter's Bone. Wary of her good looks, producers initially reject her for the gritty role of Ree Dolly, a poor-as-dirt teen who hunts down her meth-dealing dad. "Then, like a psychopath, I followed them to New York on the red-eye and showed up the next day at the casting there," she recalls to PEOPLE. "Not brushing my hair or washing my face did the trick."
With the release of Winter's Bone, the virtual unknown receives rapturous reviews. "Winter's Bone may be a small film, but Lawrence's performance is world class," writes PEOPLE. The accolades culminate in a Best Actress Oscar nomination. "I'm going to the Oscars," she raves to EW, before making a dazzling turn at the ceremony in her figure-skimming Calvin Klein dress.
Lawrence ups her box-office appeal by appearing as scantily clad, shape-shifting mutant Mystique in the blockbuster comic-book franchise X-Men: First Class. "Nothing's sacred anymore," she jokes of her body-paint costume for the film, which debuts at No. 1 and brings in $120 million worldwide.
Lawrence's first major studio lead role arrives when she's cast as heroine Katniss Everdeen in the film adaptation of author Suzanne Collins's wildly popular trilogy The Hunger Games. Heralded as the new Harry Potter-meets-Twilight, the project raises Lawrence to leading lady status. "I knew that as soon as I said yes, my life would change," the actress tells EW of the movie, for which she dyes her blonde hair brown.
The Hunger Games rakes in more than $251 million during its first 10 days at the box office, besting the competition two weeks in a row. Of Lawrence's blockbuster performance, PEOPLE's movie critic Alynda Wheat raves that the actress "is a fan's dream. With her soulful eyes and innate grit, she gives skilled hunter Katniss equal doses of complexity and appeal. Forget Twilight's insipid Bella Swan. This is a literary heroine girls can cherish."
Lawrence returns to her indie roots with Silver Linings Playbook, starring as a young widow who helps Bradley Cooper's character get his life back on track. "I was confused by her," she tells The Hollywood Reporter of the role of Tiffany. "Somebody who is very forceful and bullheaded is normally very insecure, but she isn't. I was driven to her to kind of discover that personality a little bit more." The part lands Lawrence a best actress Golden Globe and SAG Award, as well as an Oscar nomination.
Capping off a near-perfect awards season run, Lawrence is named Best Actress at the 2013 Academy Awards for her role in Silver Linings Playbook. On her way to the podium, the actress briefly stumbles and trips over her Dior Haute Couture gown, but plays off the slipup with her trademark sense of humor. "Thank you!" she says. "You guys are just standing up 'cause you feel bad that I fell and that's really embarrassing, but thank you."
BIOGRAPHY (top to bottom): Seth Poppel/Yearbook Library; Seth Poppel/Yearbook Library; Everett; Sebastian Mlynarski; Steve Granitz/WireImage; Jason Merritt/Getty; Jojo Whilden; Steve Granitz/WireImage