While living on a military base in the Phillipines, U.S. Air Force Aircrew member Vince and his Filipina wife Helen add daughter Vanessa to the family, which includes older adopted brother Vincent. They live in California, Nevada, Florida, Germany and Japan before settling down in Charleston, S.C. In 1983, Minnillo's parents separate, followed by a divorce in 1986 that moves Minnillo, Vincent and Helen to Florida and Las Vegas.
Minnillo's mother eventually remarries and moves the kids to Turkey, where her new husband, a U.S. Air Force serviceman, is assigned. But when the Gulf War erupts in 1990, they are forced to evacuate and Minnillo moves back to Charleston to live with her father and his wife, Donna.
Although it'll be years before Minnillo sees her mother again, she finds stability with her father and a "best friend" in Donna. "My dad promised me that he would not station himself anywhere else once I got to high school," Minnillo tells American Cheerleader Magazine in 2004. She becomes an all-star cheerleader, a member of the National Honor Society at Charleston's Bishop England High School and models in the "Varsity Spirit Fashions" catalog.
As a junior in high school, Minnillo enters her first pageant. "I told her to go for it, but I didn't think she had a snowball's chance in you-know-what," father Vince tells hometown paper the Post and Courier. "She's a pretty kid, but the chances of winning those things are pretty slim." Minnillo takes her first crown as Miss South Carolina Teen USA 1997.
Minnillo, 17, beats 50 contestants when she is crowned Miss Teen USA in Shreveport, La. She receives more than $150,000 in cash and prizes, and is also named Miss Congeniality by her peers. When asked, during the competition's Q&A section, if she would take a pill that would keep her young forever, Minnillo replies: "Yes. I'm having the time of my life and I'd like to remain this age forever."
After moving to L.A. at 19, Minnillo swears that she will never work on a soap or be a host. But her first job is a recurring role on the CBS soap The Bold and the Beautiful. That same year, Minnillo cohosts the pilot Top of the Pops, based on the UK's long-running live-music series, and becomes one of three finalists in E!'s competition to host the network's travel series, Wild On.
Minnillo hosts MTV's summer-long series The Morning After, which helps her ink a deal in September with the network. As the latest VJ, Minnillo appears on the daily countdown show Total Request Live, MTV News, and other shows in development. "That show was my trial run, my test ground," Minnillo tells American Cheerleader Magazine. "At the end of August, the executive VP of programming shook my hand and said, 'Welcome to the family.' A week later, I moved to New York."
Minnillo, 23, is photographed sitting courtside at a New York Knicks game at Madison Square Garden with New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, 29. Although the pair keeps quiet about their on-and-off relationship, they stick it out for more than two years.
Hoping to draw the TRL crowd, Entertainment Tonight names Minnillo its newest correspondent. She appears in various segments on beauty, fashion and music, and also does undercover social experiments in fat suits.
BIOGRAPHY (top to bottom): Courtesy of Varsity Spirit Fashions; Miss Universe Organization/AP; Michael Loccisano/FilmMagic; William Gratz/Abaca; A. Miller/WENN; Chris Weeks/WireImage