EVER since she lit up the screen as the streetwalking Cinderella who wins the heart of millionaire Richard Gere in Pretty Woman, Julia Roberts has been hailed as one of the brightest stars in cinema today. Even when she's not making movies some might say especially when she's not making movies Roberts makes headlines, as tabloid paparazzi feverishly document the nitty-gritty details of her personal life. When she had a beer with the regulars at Manhattan's Hogs & Heifers club and in keeping with one of that hotspot's more notorious customs discreetly donated her bra to the bar's permanent collection of patron undergarments, dutiful gossip columnists rushed to inform an anxiously awaiting public that the actress wears a size 34B. While her popularity at the box office has tailed off since her star-confirming role in Pretty Woman, Roberts' numerous romantic entanglements with fellow celebrities have kept her squarely beneath the lens of the celebrity microscope with everyone from Sean Penn to Matthew Perry in her past, the rumor mill starts to grind away if she so much as shares a handshake with a male of note. No longer the fresh-faced, bubbly ingenue who became a two-time Oscar nominee before the age of 24, Roberts nonetheless remains a huge draw at the box office and still commands one of the highest salaries in Hollywood.
That girl-next-door persona that made Roberts famous has roots in reality: she was born in the small-townish Atlanta suburb of Smyrna, Georgia, the daughter of a vacuum salesman and a church secretary. Her parents divorced when she was 4, and her father, with whom Roberts shared a deep attachment, died of cancer when she was just 9 (Roberts has claimed that his passage "has altered every philosophy of life [she's] ever had"). Though both mom and dad were experienced thespians the Robertses had even conducted a workshop for actors and playwrights for several years prior to their daughter's birth Julia grew up hoping to become a veterinarian. That dream lasted until she graduated from high school, whereupon, at the tender age of 17, she joined her actress sister Lisa in New York to pursue a career in acting. Roberts signed on with the Click modeling agency to pay the bills, and enrolled in several acting classes, none of which she found enlightening enough to complete. Nepotism got Roberts her first big break in 1986, when older brother Eric convinced director Eric Masterson to cast his little sister as, well, his little sister in the sun-ripened winery drama Blood Red. The film got shelved shortly after it was finished (it was finally released in theaters in 1990), and Roberts didn't end up making her professional debut until 1988, when she appeared on an episode of television's Crime Story.
That same year, Roberts took a bow in two feature films, the forgettable Satisfaction and the whimsical Mystic Pizza, the latter of which presented the breakout opportunity of her career. Playing the role of a Portuguese waitress in a small-town pizzeria, Roberts walked away with the movie and won raves from critics across the nation. The starmaking buzz increased in volume following an Oscar-nominated turn as a doomed bride in 1989's Steel Magnolias, and hit a fever pitch the next year when Pretty Woman arrived in theaters and transformed a promising young actress into a bona fide superstar. Believe it or not, Pretty Woman was originally envisioned as a bleak character drama (think Leaving Las Vegas), and it was while the project was in its infancy that Roberts won the part of hooker Vivian Ward, a role she admits she "chased down like a dog." Shortly thereafter, the script was purchased by Disney, and those interfering busybodies decided to turn it into a sunny romantic comedy go figure. A reluctant Roberts surrendered to this new vision at the urging of director Garry Marshall, and good thing she did the film soared to record-setting heights at the box office and garnered a Best Actress Oscar nomination for its star.
Shy and plagued by insecurities about her appearance, Roberts soon found that she was living out both her public and private lives in the proverbial fishbowl. Two big hits followed Pretty Woman: the death-fetish flick Flatliners and the battered-wife thriller Sleeping With the Enemy. But her next showcase, the summer-bummer weepie Dying Young, was D.O.A. at the box office, and rumors began to filter down from the set of Steven Spielberg's Hook that Hollywood's most bankable female star was turning into every director's nightmare. This period coincided with major upheavals in Roberts' personal life: a planned wedding to her Flatliners co-star Kiefer Sutherland fell through just days before the couple was scheduled to take their June 14, 1991 vows. The groom-to-be's indiscretions with stripper Amanda Rice reportedly were the last straw in what had been a turbulent relationship from the outset, and Roberts fled to Ireland with Sutherland's buddy, actor Jason Patric. The attendant emotional strain of her aborted nuptials proved too much for the fragile, down-home Georgia gal, and she reacted by secluding herself from both the media and the public at large in the hope of renewing her creative energies. Over the next two years, Roberts would grace the screen just once, making the briefest of cameos in Robert Altman's The Player (1992).
A more mature, thicker-skinned Roberts resurfaced in 1993, celebrating her return to the spotlight with both a top-grossing hit movie, The Pelican Brief, and another celebrity romance with singer-songwriter and unlikely suitor Lyle Lovett this time, the relationship culminated in marriage. The couple parted ways a mere 21 months later many suspect that Lyle grew tired of being endlessly referred to as the Ugly Duckling, but who knows. Roberts handled the ceaseless ribbing of the media pundits with a much better display of grace than she had shown previously, and she and Lovett have remained close friends. She sandwiched four box office disappointments around 1995's modestly successful Something To Talk About , but critics were delighted with her breezy, uninhibited performance alongside Woody Allen in 1996's Everyone Says I Love You.
Roberts reclaimed a large measure of her former box-office glory in 1997: the summer release My Best Friend's Wedding opened to the highest-ever single weekend ticket sales for a romantic comedy and earned critical respect in the form of a Golden Globe nomination; and she shared top billing with Mel Gibson in the late-summer paranoia thriller Conspiracy Theory. 1998, a comparatively slow-paced year, witnessed Roberts co-starring opposite Susan Sarandon and Ed Harris in the family drama Stepmom, but she was off to a good start in 1999 with a brace of successful romantic comedies: Notting Hill, in which she gave a fetching performance as a mega-star who falls for an unassuming bookstore owner (Hugh Grant); and Runaway Bride, an altar charmer that paired her with Gere. Numerous critics judged her performance as a working single mom in Steven Soderbergh's Erin Brockovich (2000) to be her finest performance to date, and it surprised few when she was awarded the Best Actress Golden Globe Award in January 2001.
Roberts' production company, Shoelace, is thriving, and she's been courted to star in everything from a remake of Alfred Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief to the based-on-a-true-story Australian outback odyssey From Alice to Ocean. She scored $12 million to star in the remake of George Cukor's The Women, in which she is set to co-star with fellow über-cutie Meg Ryan, but the project has been slow to develop. The added muscle of Roberts and Ryan as co-producers will speed things along.