Cruz's parents, hairdresser Encarna and retailer Eduardo, give their rambunctious daughter an outlet for her nonstop energy: ballet classes. "When I was small, I used to give others small nervous breakdowns," she tells Chicago Sun-Times in 2000. "I'd throw myself on the floor and start kicking and breaking things when I didn't get my way." Cruz eventually studies at Spain's National Conservatory in Madrid.
Cruz, 15, competes in a talent agency audition and beats more than 300 girls to win. "She was absolutely magic. It was obvious there was something very impressive about this kid," Katrina Bayonas, the agent who signed Cruz, says in 1999. "She was very green, but there was a presence. There was just something coming from within." In the next two years, Cruz hosts the Spanish TV talk show La Quinta Marcha and lands her feature film debut in El labertinto Griego (The Greek Labyrinth).
Cruz, 17, snags her first leading role as the lusty Sylvia in Bigas Lunas' art-house hit Jamón, Jamón (Ham Ham). After appearing topless in the film, Cruz becomes a major sex symbol. "It was a great part, but...I wasn't really ready for the nudity," Cruz tells L.A.'s Daily News in 1999. "But I have no regrets because I wanted to start working and it changed my life." She shows her versatility as the virginal Luz in Fernando Trueba's Oscar-winning Belle Epoque.
Cruz teams with writer-director Pedro Almodóvar as a prostitute who gives birth on a bus in the opening scene of Live Flesh. Two years later, Cruz works with Almodóvar again in All About My Mother. "I play a pregnant nun with AIDS, and the father is a transvestite," she tells the Los Angeles Times. "And it's not a comedy!" Cruz presents Almodóvar with the Academy Award for Best Foreign Picture in 2000 with fellow countryman Antonio Banderas, and tells Maclean's that she'll never stop working with Almodóvar "even if I have to go to a psychiatrist or a witch to find out why he always makes me pregnant then kills me."
Cruz, 24, lands her first American film as Billy Crudup's consolation-prize Mexican girlfriend in Stephen Frears' little-seen western The Hi-Lo Country. "A tape appeared on my desk. I went and looked at it, and there was Venus," Frears tells the New York Times. "She's absolutely gorgeous. And very, very good, too." Cruz, whose English is shaky during filming, tells Entertainment Weekly, "Going to a reading and not being able to understand what everyone was saying I would hide in the bathroom and cry."
Cruz's largest role to date in director Fernando Trueba's La Niña de tus Ojos (The Girl of your Dreams) earns her a Goya for Best Actress at the 1999 Spanish Academy Awards. Her portrayal of an actress-singer, who becomes a reluctant plaything of Hitler's minister of propaganda, catches Hollywood's attention.
Cruz, 26, makes her first appearance in PEOPLE's Most Beautiful issue and the following year becomes the face of designer Ralph Lauren's brand. In 2006, she also represents L'Oreal for reportedly $2 million a year.
Cruz lands her first American lead role in the lackluster romantic comedy Woman on Top (right). But the rising star has no intention of abandoning her Spanish cinematic roots. "In Spain, I think they are doing beautiful things," she says. "Maybe they are movies that cost less, but that does not mean they are not good."
Cruz plays Matt Damon's love interest in Billy Bob Thornton's big-screen adaptation of the western bestseller All the Pretty Horses. "The studio wanted to cast Natalie Portman and I was like, 'Yeah, like she looks real Spanish,'" Thornton tells the Chicago Sun-Times. "She [Cruz] was exactly what I had envisioned for the part. There are very few actresses like her – she was head and shoulders above everybody else."
Cruz reprises her Abre los ojos (1997) role in Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky with Tom Cruise. "You look at her and go, 'How can we ever turn the camera off?'" Crowe tells PEOPLE. "She can turn a little silent moment into a one-act play." In 2001, Cruz begins dating Cruise – who is in the midst of his divorce from Nicole Kidman. They break up in 2004.
BIOGRAPHY (top to bottom): Kobal Collection/Wireimage; Kevork Djansezian/AP; Kobal Collection/Wireimage; Zeca Guimaraes/The Kobal Collection/WireImage; Everett Collection; Chris Polk/Filmmagic