At 11, Kristen Bell, the daughter of Lorelei, a registered nurse, and Tom, a TV news director, auditions for a local production of Raggedy Ann and Andy at Stagecrafter's Youth Theatre outside Detroit. She is cast in a dual role as tree and a banana. "I think she was disappointed getting the part of the banana, but that role really helped her on creating a character on stage," the play's director tells the Detroit Free Press in 2004. Bell goes on to appear in an ad for K-Mart and TV commercials for OfficeMax and United Way.
Bell attends New York University and appears on Broadway in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Crucible with Liam Neeson and Laura Linney. She also stars in an off-Broadway production of Reefer Madness – a role she reprises for Showtime in 2005 (left). She eventually drops out and moves to L.A., landing roles on The Shield and Deadwood.
Bell meets 28-year-old writer-producer Kevin Mann (right) at a TV industry event. "Sparks were flying," she tells New York's Daily News. The pair eventually moves into a Cape Cod-style retreat in Studio City, Calif. that Bell buys in October 2004. "Kevin is great," she adds. "He makes me laugh and he is very optimistic, which helps in a business with so much rejection." After four years together, they call it quits in 2007.
Bell plays the kidnapped daughter of the President in David Mamet's Spartan with Val Kilmer (left) and William H. Macy. "I just feel very lucky to be where I am right now. My whole career has been blind luck," she tells the Hollywood Reporter. "I feel as though I'm actually being taken seriously in the acting community. And it's all just because I've gotten so lucky." While the film bombs at the box office (it opens at No. 10), it does generate buzz for the unknown.
Bell, 24, headlines the teen detective drama Veronica Mars (pictured with costar Percy Daggs III). "I'm always the girl next door – the nothing ingenue – and it's totally boring to play," she tells the New York Times. "To have someone like Veronica, who's deep and witty and sarcastic, is wonderful." The series ranks 122nd out of 133 in Nielsen ratings, but critics and fans adore Bell's combination of wit, spunk and vulnerability.
Bell's performance on Mars helps her land roles in Wes Craven's psychological thriller Pulse (left), the campus comedy Fifty Pills, and Fanboys, about a group of Star Wars fans on the road. "I think I'm put into the category of more of a short list, which I'm very happy to be on," she tells Chicago Tribune. "But, yeah, it is what it is. I'm Veronica Mars on Veronica Mars."
Despite the support of fans, who hired a plane to carry a banner over The CW, Veronica Mars is cancelled. "There was about a month when I was taking meetings every day and going on audition after audition," Bell, 27, tells the New York Post. "I thought, maybe I won't have a job this fall." But Bell heads to NBC's Heroes (pictured with costars, right) and narrates Gossip Girl.
Although the newly single hero said dating is scary, she seems to have overcome her fears when she steps out with Dax Shepard (left). Bell, who recently announced her breakup with boyfriend of four years, Kevin Mann, is seen around town with her new man, who was linked to actress Kate Hudson last summer.
Bell, 27, appears on the cover of Cosmopolitan. "It’s funny. The feedback I’ve always gotten is that I was not nearly pretty enough to play the pretty girl and not homely enough to play the ugly girl," she tells the magazine. "So I’ve always been like 'I’ve got to be able to fit in somewhere!'" After her new comedy, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, opens at No. 2, Bell finds a place among the 'pretty,' as she lands on PEOPLE's Most Beautiful list.
BIOGRAPHY (top to bottom): James Dittiger/Showtime; Andrew Shawaf/Pacific Coast News; Kobal Collection/Wireimage; UPN; Kobal Collection/Wireimage; Eric Charbonneau/WireImage; Bauer Griffin; Lester Cohen/WireImage