McPhee is born to Peisha, a vocal coach and cabaret singer, and Dan, a TV producer. She begins singing at the tender age of two, but falls in love with performing in grade school. "I loved singing ever since the second grade when we had a Christmas show," she tells L.A.'s Daily News in 2006, "and I remember being so proud and wanting my teacher to come hear me and see all the stuff she taught me.''
With acting ambitions, McPhee attends the Boston Conservatory and majors in musical theatre. After three semesters, the sophomore drops out to audition for TV pilots in her native L.A. and soon nabs the title role in the musical Annie Get Your Gun in March 2005 at the Cabrillo Music Theatre in Thousand Oaks, Calif. The following summer, she stars in the musical The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.
McPhee, 21, begins dating stage performer-turned-producer Nick Cokas, 40. Although he is nearly 19 years her senior, McPhee tells Stuff, "When I turned 21, I thought it was a good age to explore. You’re no longer a teenager, so it’s OK [to date older guys]. I gravitated toward them, and I love them. They’re just wiser, and they’re less about themselves and more about you." In February 2008, McPhee marries Cokas in Beverly Hills. "(Nick) is the love of my life," McPhee gushes to PEOPLE. "This is a once in a lifetime occasion and everything is just perfect."
On the urging of her boyfriend, McPhee auditions for the fifth season of American Idol in San Francisco, where she sings a soulful rendition of "God Bless the Child." Judges Paula Abdul, Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson give her a ticket to L.A., where she gives her devotees the ''McPheever'' with her stunning brunette looks and stellar voice. Eventually, McPhee makes it to the finals, battling gray-haired blues singer Taylor Hicks for the title.
With 63.4 million people casting their vote, McPhee loses the title of American Idol to Hicks. But McPhee doesn't leave empty-handed: she wins a Ford Mustang convertible, releases her best-selling double-A sided single "Over the Rainbow" / "My Destiny," and signs a record deal with music mogul Clive Davis.
McPhee opens up to PEOPLE about her five-year struggle with bulimia. "I'd been conscious of body image at a young age, and I went through phases of exercising compulsively and starving myself," she tells PEOPLE. "Food was my crutch; it was how I dealt with emotions and uncomfortable situations." After qualifying for American Idol in October 2005, she enrolled at L.A.'s Eating Disorder Center of California, where she spent three months undergoing therapy and healthily learned to lose a reported 30 lbs.
McPhee signs on to pitch hair products for Sexy Hair Concepts and releases her self-titled debut album. In it's first week, it sells more than 115,000 copies and reaches No. 2 on Billboard's 200. Rolling Stone says, "McPhee's debut doesn't render her halfway interesting." Although her singles "Over It" and ''Love Story'' don't make strong statements, her sexy album cover does. "People made a big deal out of that," she tells Stuff. "They said, 'She's a slut, blah, blah, blah, blah.' But I'm really not showing that much skin. It's all suggested."
After appearing in PEOPLE's Most Beautiful issue without makeup, McPhee graces the cover of men's magazine Stuff. "I want to have, like, 15 babies," she tells the magazine. "I've always wanted to be pregnant." In 2008, McPhee plays a knocked up sorority girl opposite Anna Faris and Rumer Willis in the hit comedy The House Bunny.
McPhee trades in her brunette locks for a platinum shag on the eve of the release of her sophomore album, Unbroken. "My music is a little more edgy so that inspired me to be adventurous," she tells PEOPLE. "I’ve never dyed my hair before so this was a pretty drastic change."
Nearly six years after American Idol, McPhee returns to TV starring in NBC's new musical drama Smash, which follows the staging of a Broadway musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. She plays struggling actress Karen Cartwright, a role McPhee snagged after auditioning for legendary director Steven Spielberg, who serves as the series's executive producer. "Mr. Spielberg, when you meet him, he is not intimidating at all," the singer-actress tells MTV. "He's the most lovely, wonderful, gentle man."
BIOGRAPHY (top to bottom): FOX; Courtesy of Katharine McPhee; Berliner; Ray Mickshaw/WireImage; Vinvi Bucci/Getty; Bauer Griffin; amazon.com; amazon.com; Mark Seliger/NBC