Williams costars with Arnold Schwarzenegger (left) in the action film Eraser. It grosses $101 million at the box office. "Arnold said to me, 'Your career is very similar to mine because people didn't take us seriously at first. They knew us for our bodies, Mr. Universe and Miss America," Williams tells Ebony. "'So they wrote us off. You showed them that you have guts.'"
William plays Teri, an uptight sister in the family drama Soul Food (pictured with costar Michael Beach), with Vivica A. Fox and Nia Long. "Vanessa has the most beautiful eyes I've ever seen," Fox tells Jet of her co-star. "Her eyes also reflect the beauty that is within." Critics agree, awarding Williams an NAACP Image Award for her work.
Los Angeles Lakers' star Rick Fox invites Williams, through friends, to his 29th birthday party. A year later, Williams, 36, marries Fox, 30 (left). They maintain a long-distance relationship on two separate coasts, but establish strict rules to make their marriage work: frequent phone calls, visits and plenty of gifts. In May 2000, she gives birth to their daughter Sasha, but four years later, Fox files for divorce.
Williams earns a Tony nomination for her role as the witch in the Broadway revival of Into the Woods, the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine fairy-tale musical. "Into the Woods is a great showcase because I get a chance to be scary and funny and wicked and glamorous," she tells Ebony.
Williams plays the beautiful, brash and Botox-obsessed Wilhelmina Slater in the pilot for ABC's Ugly Betty, starring America Ferrera. But when the show is picked up for a full season and production moves from New York to L.A., the mother of four is prepared to walk away. She reaches a compromise with producers (including Salma Hayek), and in 2007 earns her first Emmy nomination for Best Supporting Actress. "She's our fame teacher," her on-screen assistant Michael Urie (right) tells PEOPLE.
Although her very big hair at the 64th Annual Golden Globes causes much talk, it's co-presenter Tim Allen (left) who ignites scrutiny on the blogosphere. While presenting the nominees for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy Series, Allen ditches the script and takes a few moments to admire Williams, telling her, "If looks were a minute, this would be a long day right here." His ogling earns him Netscape's "Skeeviest Unscripted Moment" award for the evening, while Ugly Betty takes home the Golden Globe for Best Television Series - Musical or Comedy.
After appearing alongside Miley Cyrus in Disney's Hannah Montana: The Movie as the title character's high-strung publicist, Williams returns to music with her new album in The Real Thing. A fusion of R&B and jazz standards, the disc is her first album in more than four years.
Following the cancellation of Ugly Betty, Williams joins the cast of Desperate Housewives as Renee Perry, former college roommate of Lynette (Felicity Huffman). "It's another opportunity for me to put on the clothing of somebody new," she tells PEOPLE. "It's a character worth watching so I'm excited to bring it to life."
Despite just a two-year residency on WisteriaLane, Williams says goodbye to Desperate Housewives, which ends its eight-season run on ABC. "It really revolutionized television," she told Parade in 2010. But the actress doesn't go far, signing up to headline ABC's new drama 666 Park Avenue.
BIOGRAPHY (top to bottom): Everett Collection; Everett Collection; SIPA; Walter McBride/Retna; ABC; Paul Drinkwater/Wireimage; amazon.com; Ron Tom/ABC; Courtesy Entertainment Weekly