The second of four daughters born to a steel-company foreman and a hairdresser, McCarthy, 19, drops out of nursing school in Chicago's South Side. While pursuing modeling, she's rejected by several agencies, but perseveres. "Mom always said, 'Be like Vanna White,'" she recalls to PEOPLE in 1995. And so, in Vanna's footsteps, she approaches Playboy's Chicago headquarters in August 1993.
McCarthy takes it off for the pages of Playboy, and, is later named 1994's Playmate of the Year. "It was the only way, maybe my only chance to get to Hollywood and in front of a camera," McCarthy wrote in her 1997 memoir JEN-X: Jenny McCarthy's Open Book. "It had to be a stepping stone."
McCarthy, 22, gets her big break as co-host of the MTV Gen-X dating game show, Singled Out. "If you smack them around a little bit, there's never a problem," she tells PEOPLE of controlling the mosh-pit of male contestants. Co-host Chris Hardwick adds, "Some guys stand in the front row just to be hit by Jenny." In 1997, she leaves the show, passing the torch to fellow centerfold Carmen Electra.
After nabbing her own MTV variety show, an NBC sitcom (the short-lived Jenny) and a spot on PEOPLE's Most Beautiful list, McCarthy lands the June cover of Rolling Stone. "When I look at myself, I don't see an abundance of talent," she says. "But you look at me and you can tell I'm having the time of my life."
McCarthy meets director John Asher on the set of the Kirk Douglas drama Diamonds, and the pair marry that September. In 2002, they welcome their first child, a boy named Evan Joseph Asher. "Life isn't about you as much anymore," she tells PEOPLE of motherhood, before calling it quits with Asher in 2005.
From hormonal rage to hemorrhoids and stretch marks, McCarthy lets it all hang out for her first book on pregnancy and motherhood, Belly Laughs. In 2006, she follows up her best-selling memoir with two other books, Baby Laughs and Life Laughs. "The most fulfilling thing in my career, though, has been my books," she tells Redbook. "I go on Amazon.com to read the reviews, and it's so fun to know that I made someone preggers feel good!"
In her best-selling memoir, Louder Than Words, McCarthy documents life with her 5-year-old son Evan – who was first diagnosed at age 3 with having autism. "I don't want to come across like a preacher," she says. "All I'm doing is showing there are things you can do to ease autism."
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