While growing up in Queens, N.Y., Liu, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, dreams of an acting career, even though she rarely sees Asian performers in movies or on TV. "When you're younger and you don't feel like you quite fit in anywhere, you think there must be a community of misfits out there that you can fall into," she tells the New York Times. "The popular girls were all blondes," she adds to PEOPLE. "I wanted to be Barbie and I was as opposite to Barbie as you could get."
Liu attends New York University before transferring to the University of Michigan where she majors in Asian studies. To her surprise, the aspiring actress is cast as the lead in a college production of Alice in Wonderland. The role, she says, changed her life. "I realized you can be anything you want in the world," she tells Newsday. "You don't have to follow what's given." Her self-expression – through performing, photography and painting – continues after college, when she is awarded a grant to make art in China.
Liu decides to pursue acting professionally and moves to L.A., where she appears in commercials and small parts on TV hits like Beverly Hills, 90210 and ER. "I fulfilled my parents' dreams by going to the University of Michigan. I always knew I wanted to act, so I went up to my father and I said, 'I am going to go to California,'" she recalls. "Now, they are my biggest fans." She eventually appears in Gridlock'd with Thandie Newton, plays a dominatrix in Payback (right) and Tom Cruise's ex-girlfriend in Jerry Maguire.
Ally McBeal show creator David E. Kelley develops a new character specifically for Liu. She plays Ling Woo, a combative client who becomes the firm's most politically incorrect lawyer, and earns an Emmy nomination and a shared SAG Award for the best ensemble. But Liu is criticized for perpetuating the Asian "dragon lady" stereotype. "This role has been liberating for me. I can bring who I am into it," Liu tells Newsweek. When she leaves the show in 2001 to pursue film, Liu thanks Kelley for giving her a role that "taught me about myself and helped me grow as a person."
PEOPLE names Liu one its 50 Most Beautiful people. Her Ally costar and onscreen love Greg Germann remembers his first impression of Liu, "I looked at her and just went, 'Whoa!' She's stunning," he tells PEOPLE. In 2004, she makes her second appearance in the annual issue. The following year, she costars with Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson as Princess Pei-Pei in Shanghai Noon.
Liu kicks butt alongside Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz in the big-screen remake Charlie's Angels, which rakes in $264 million worldwide. Liu calls the high-profile role in the original all-white TV cast "a historical step for me." Director McG adds, "Nobody ever gave her anything...It was that sort of elegant tenacity that I wanted to reflect in this movie's Alex character…There was no real agenda to cast an ethnic Angel..."
Liu makes a show-stopping appearance as a pineapple heiress-turned-killer in the movie adaptation of Chicago. The film, which stars Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere and Queen Latifah, wins the Best Picture Oscar and a SAG Award for outstanding cast.
Liu begins dating playwright Zach Helm (right), and in 2004, the pair is engaged. But they never make it to the altar, calling it quits at the end of 2004. "I don't want to settle for anything else," she tells In Style. "[Love] should be like lightning. For me it happens almost immediately." In 2005, she moves on with actor Will McCormack.
Liu re-teams with Barrymore and Diaz for Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, and this time, they lure Demi Moore out of her film hiatus to join them as a retired Angel with a tarnished halo. Although the sequel doesn't perform as well as the first installment at the box office, it still earns more than $37 million during its opening weekend.
Liu plays Queen of the Tokyo Underworld, O-Ren Ishii, who attempted to murder Uma Thurman's character in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill: Vol. 1. The film eventually earns $110 million worldwide. In one scene, Liu slices off another gang leader's head during a mob meeting. She earns the MTV Movie Award for Best Villain, but once again, Liu finds herself defending her role. "I think that because I'm Asian, people will immediately sort of label it as a 'dragon lady,'" she tells CBS. "I think if it was, you know, Renée Zellweger playing this role, nobody would say, 'Dragon lady.'"
BIOGRAPHY (top to bottom): Kobal Collection/Wireimage; Everett Collection; Darren Michaels/columbia Pictures; Evan Agostini/Getty; Columbia Pictures; Kobal Collection/Wireimage