Telling PEOPLE about her days as a star high school cheerleader, Zellweger admits to "using my lifetime allotment of mascara in two years" and being a "fountain-haired" '80s teen. At the University of Texas in Austin, Zellweger acts in student theater productions with future Hollywood heartthrob Matthew McConaughey. The English major said she got into acting because "the drama class just happened to fit into my schedule."
Zellweger nabs small roles in the cult favorite Dazed and Confused, the low-budget Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation and the Gen-X hit Reality Bites. "Really early on, in Texas, most of the roles I was offered were the other woman, the harlot, the one-night stand, the hot blonde in a black dress," Zellweger tells Britain's Guardian.
Her leading-lady turn opposite Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire makes Zellweger a household name. Of his decision to cast the unknown actress, director Cameron Crowe tells In Style, "She reminds you of a sister, a friend, someone you were in love with once or now." She goes on to act with screen legend Meryl Streep in the 1998 tearjerker One True Thing.
Zellweger and comedian Jim Carrey, who met on the set of the Farrelly Brothers' comedy Me, Myself & Irene, admit to being more than just coworkers. A smitten Carrey tells PEOPLE, "She's absolutely a gem of a human being." However, after a year together, Carrey and Zellweger call it quits.
Zellweger picks the wrong time to powder her nose during the Golden Globes. When named Best Actress in a Comedy for Nurse Betty, she's in the ladies' room. "I thought I had something on my teeth," she tells PEOPLE. "So I went to check."
After consuming Snickers bars, chocolate milkshakes and pizza, Zellweger gains 20 pounds for the highly anticipated Bridget Jones's Diary. For her hilarious, yet heartfelt take on the London everygirl, she receives both Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations, proving wrong those who said she was miscast.
A surprisingly slim Zellweger makes PEOPLE's 50 Most Beautiful People list. The petite star reduces her 4,000-calorie-a-day diet and resumes exercising, but her weight loss sparks speculation of an eating disorder, which the star denies. That year, she becomes a fashion maven with her stunning red-carpet choices designed by Carolina Herrera, her favorite designer.
Although she has no background in musical theater, Zellweger proves that she can sing and dance in Chicago. After slimming down to a toned 106 lbs. to play the murderous Roxie Hart, Zellweger wins her second Golden Globe and earns another Oscar nomination.
After speculation about a purported romance with George Clooney, Zellweger sets the record straight. "It is a terrible thing for all of us who are not dating George Clooney," she tells PEOPLE. "He is my friend, and I am going to keep him."
Zellweger wins the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Cold Mountain. Of her win, Zellweger tells PEOPLE, "It's not something you're thinking about when you're hauling timber and shoveling manure," as she did on set. But filming the Civil War drama wasn't all bad; it's where she met her beau, White Stripes frontman Jack White, who plays a troubadour in the film.
BIOGRAPHY (top to bottom): CLASSMATES YEARBOOK ARCHIVES; EVERETT; EVERETT; BEIMAGES; Ramey; MIRAMAX; Steve Granitz/WireImage; David James/Miramax; Frank Micelotta/Getty