At 8, Michele accompanies a friend to an open casting call for Broadway's Les Misérables, where she lands the role of Young Cosette. "I didn't know I could sing until I auditioned for Les Misérables," she tells Glamour. "My mother was like, 'You can't sing.' I'd never tried!" When she outgrows the role, the budding stage star follows up her debut with Ragtime in 1998 and Fiddler on the Roof in 2004.
Michele matures from child actor to stage ingénue with the role of Wendla in Spring Awakening. The coming-of-age rock musical, costarring Jonathan Groff, earns rave reviews and a Tony Award for best musical in 2007 – a year before Michele exits the show to pursue work in Hollywood.
Michele jumps from stage to TV, playing neurotic glee club diva Rachel Berry in the FOX musical hit, Glee. "It was written for her," co-creator Ryan Murphy says of the role. "We had the prototype, which was a Reese Witherspoon Election-esque Broadway baby that was a mix of Barbra Streisand and Patti LuPone. I really believed in Lea's talent because her talent was once in a lifetime."
With Glee's soundtrack racing up the charts, Michele and costars Cory Monteith and Matthew Morrison land the cover of EW. "I keep getting e-mails and phone calls and running into people at parties just telling me the show makes them feel happy," co-creator Brad Falchuck tells the mag.
Glee is a standout during its inaugural awards season, earning Michele a Golden Globe nomination for best comedic actress. "It is such an honor, something I never thought I would be lucky enough to have happen to me in my life," she says before taking home a SAG Award for best TV comedy ensemble in January.
Despite reports linking her to costar Cory Monteith, rumors of a Glee romance are put to rest when Michele steps out with Broadway star Theo Stockman at Time magazine's 100 Most Influential gala. "I'm a relationship girl. I would rather be long-distance with him than not have a relationship at all," she says of Stockman, whom she dates until 2011.
After appearing semi-topless in Marie Claire, Michele poses for a series of racy photos in GQ with Glee costars Monteith and Dianna Agron. After the Parents Television Council criticizes the sexy shoot (the group says the photos "borders on pedophilia"), Agron apologizes, while Michele says, "We were just having fun and obviously never intended to upset or offend anybody."
After splitting with Theo Stockman, Michele is caught kissing Glee costar Cory Monteith during an NHL game. Days later, the new couple continue to spread their affections for one another publicly in the Big Apple, and Michele goes as far as referring to Monteith as "really hot" on her Twitter account.
Less than a month since the pair was last spotted together, Cory Monteith is found dead in his hotel room at the Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel in Vancouver, Canada. The actor had recently completed a rehab stint in April, during which Michele stood by his side. The actress joins Monteith's family in Vancouver for his cremation ceremony, and her rep issues a statement saying she is "deeply grateful for all the love and support she's received from family, friends, and fans."
BIOGRAPHY (top to bottom): Joan Marcus; Courtesy Jeffrey Richards Associates; Carin Baer/FOX; Larry Busacca/Wireimage; Patrick McMullan/SIPA; Courtesy GQ; John Shearer/Getty; James Devaney/WireImage; Splash News Online