Pretty Woman made a star out of 22-year-old Julia Roberts in 1990, and she never stopped shining.
She famously wasn't the studio's first (or even fourth) choice to play Vivian, the sweet and brainy gal from Georgia with a megawatt smile who ended up a prostitute in Hollywood after following a bad boyfriend to La La Land but ends up being rescued by Richard Gere's commitment-phobe corporate raider, in the now classic R-rated rom-com.
But the first-time leading lady—a sweet, brainy gal from Georgia with a megawatt smile in real life too—made it work, and still manages to make that movie work 27 years later, despite its "just try and get away with that now" premise, as explained above. She does rescue him right back, after all.
And not only did Julia Roberts become an overnight sensation, earning a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her efforts and becoming the most in-demand and one of the highest-paid star of the 1990s, but that was also the start of the Julia Roberts Era, an era which—as People reiterated today by revealing Roberts on the cover of its Most Beautiful issue for a record fifth time—actually never ended.
The demand for certain stars, no matter how big they are at any given time, waxes and wanes over the years for a variety of reasons—box office trends, sociopolitical climate, consumer demand, etc.—and there is nothing about aging that makes Hollywood an easy place to be for women.
But Roberts is one of those rare birds whose popularity has never diminished in any measurable way, her decision to accept fewer roles once she became a mom (Ocean's Twelve did a rewrite to accommodate her real-life expectant status) only serving to make her more of a treasured addition to any cast when she did sign onto a project. She doesn't always get $20 million a movie, but she was still sitting pretty at No. 8 on Forbes' 2016 list of highest-paid actresses with $12 million. That's as much proof as a studio bean counter would need, but there's also just a general Hollywood royalty vibe that goes with a mere mention of Julia Roberts, whose name over time has also served as the definition of "movie star" for the better part of three decades.
So...why is that, exactly?
Sure, she's stunning, with a smile that can't help but make you smile, and an enviable radiance for a woman of any age. She's not just a pretty face, having won a well-deserved Oscar in 2001 for her title role in Erin Brockovich and amassed four nominations over all (including a supporting nod for Steel Magnolias that actually came the year before her nomination for Pretty Woman).
"You keep up with your sunblock and surround yourself with people who love you and support you and do the best you can, which is all anybody can do: Hope for the best," she casually explained her persistent youthfulness to InStyle a year ago.
But relatively similar things could be said about a lot of actresses, and few of them (Sandra Bullock is one) approach that complete-package territory: Great onscreen, likable off-screen, elusive but warm, famous but relatable, relatively scandal-proof and yet still interesting.
A teeny part of it is luck—picking the right movies, coming of age in the right environment and maturing in a time in which Hollywood is more determined than ever to do better by its female stars than at any time in the past. But one mention of Roberts, once glance at her reassuringly familiar visage to this day, and you know it's more than that.
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"She's really Miss America, isn't she?" My Best Friends Wedding co-star Rupert Everett told Vanity Fair about Roberts in 1999. "She's got all the qualities that people want an American woman to have."
Fascinatingly, years before Roberts and Hugh Grantbecame an onscreen couple for the ages in Notting Hill, she was attached to what would become Gwyneth Paltrow's Oscar-winning role in Shakespeare in Love, and Grant auditioned for the role of the bard himself.
Hugh recalled auditioning in front of Julia in 1992, telling VF, "I remember being so intimidated by the fact that she was in the room that I got myself in a sort of kerfuffle and missed the chair when I sat down. I sat on the arm of the chair, then had that very awkward inner debate about whether to say, 'Actually, I've missed the chair,' or to pretend that I was really a slightly quirky sort of character who always sits on the arm.'"
Roberts has continued to have that effect on the actors in her orbit.
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"It's actually irritating as s--t because when we started out, I had dark hair," George Clooneysaid to People last year about his close friend and co-star in several films. "Now, she looks exactly the same and people are like, 'Look at her, she looks exactly the same,' and they're like, 'Look at George. He's aging well.'"
Not that Roberts always picked the right movies (Mary Reilly, anyone?), but there was no flop or romantic scandal, no diva rumor or bad haircut that could bring her down.
Part of the relatively favorable Hollywood environment she started out in was the lack of social media and the 24/7 online news cycle ("there seems to be a frenzy" to being a celebrity now, she commented in 2014) that would have made mincemeat of her various relationships, including her broken engagement to Kiefer Sutherlandand her whirlwind marriage to Lyle Lovett.
Not that Roberts didn't have her issues with the media, which frequently made outrageous claims about her, anyway. As she unenthusiastically told Diane Sawyer in 1994, through pursed lips, "You know, everybody has a job to do...Do I have more respect for some people's jobs than others? Sure."
Her personal life, before she met eventual husband and father of her three children, Danny Moder, on the set of The Mexican in 2000, in hindsight wasn't that out of the ordinary, no matter how the tabloids treated it.
"I'm glad I had enough guts to call it off before it was too late. Getting married then would have been my biggest mistake ever," Roberts reflected to Dougie Thompson in 1997, right before My Best Friend's Wedding came out. "I wasn't ready to get married and I don't think Kiefer was either. I talked it over with my mom and some close friends and I knew I had to stop it. The hardest part was telling Kiefer. It was heartbreaking but it's best to face up to the truth before the actual marriage than to wait until it's too late and you've made a mistake. I decided I was rushing things. I knew I wasn't ready."
Even Sutherland, whom she was days away from marrying when she broke it off in 1991, later said—just months ago in fact—that Roberts was just "being realistic for herself. "I think that's much better [than going through with it]."
The Designated Survivor star added, "She was arguably the most famous woman in the world, and this wedding that was supposed to be something between the two of us became something so big...And then, in the middle of that, I think she had the courage—it wasn't what she wanted to do, in the end."
Asked then why she felt she was so ready to marry Lyle Lovett in 1993, Roberts (who while married called him one of the "all-time great men" in her Sawyer interview) said, "How can I explain it to you? I met him and fell in love with him. I can't tell it any different to that. It was the perfectly correct decision for me at the time."
They reportedly spent weeks at a time apart, Lovett on tour while Roberts was off making movies at a rapid clip, and it was all over by 1995.
"I am happy now," Roberts told Thompson. "I like things in my life to have substance and quality. There are things that pull the life out of my life and eventually you have to make some kind of choice no matter how selfish you look. I made a choice for myself: to make my life better."
Roberts insisted to Sawyer that she would not "give in to being bullied into a shadow of a life" by the press' hunt for a scoop, but her wariness remained—for herself, and then, once she became a mom to twins Hazel and Phinnaeus in 2004 (then son Henry arrived in 2007), for her family.
After marrying in 2002, she and Moder actually retreated to her ranch in New Mexico for a much-needed break from Hollywood.
In a 2003 interview for O, Oprah Winfreyasked if it bothered her that the tabloids were so into the minutiae of her life even in New Mexico, from where she went for burritos to where she bought cigarettes.
"I get aggravated, because I don't smoke," Roberts explained. "But I feel like there have been so many times when this environment has protected me. So I look at the stories and think, "These people were bamboozled." Somebody confused them or lied to them to get them to say whatever it is they said, which is all pretty harmless. Around here, I come and go like it's nothing. Los Angeles is such a town of show business, and I'm a terrible celebrity. I find it difficult—it's the beast that must be fed. There's this big wheel of pictures and articles that goes around, and you get pinned on it."
Ironically, Roberts was also someone whom the media theoretically adored! (But you always hurt the ones you love, right?)
She and Moder and the kids relocated to Malibu in 2007 and that's where their home base remains, Roberts almost just one of the bunch in such a celebrity hot spot. In recent years, she usually has her kids with her on set when they're on holiday and summer breaks from school.
"It's the little things that tell the tale," Mike Nichols, who directed Roberts in 2004's Closer and became a friend, told the Wall Street Journal in 2014. "When you visit them, there is nobody working at their house, sweeping their hall. There are toys all over, and it's just Julia and Danny and the kids. She always slips away from the center."
"Her family is a major part of what she does. Her children are always around," added Bradley Cooper, Roberts' co-star in Valentine's Day and on Broadway in Three Days of Rain.
Not that motherhood and being proven to be a flesh-and-blood human has dampened her aura in any way over the years. It's just that more people are in on the very refreshing truth now.
"My first couple days I was terrified—she is part of the royalty of Hollywood," Ryan Murphy told the WSJ about directing Roberts in The Normal Heart. "But it was like butter. She was so easy and accommodating and ego-less. You had this person who is the star of all their movies be an ensemble player in a humble, timid, reflective way."
Lest we forget, Roberts has been showing up on set and causing that reaction for decades now, which is quite a run.
Asked back in 2003 by Oprah if the label "America's Sweetheart" meant anything to her, Roberts replied, "No, because it's all a projection, and projection is very changeable. Projection comes not so much from what I'm doing but from the point of view of the person perceiving me. So it's like a joining of two things, one of which I have no control over or understanding of."
She added, "Somebody else is always going to be the next sweetheart. It's all contrivance: Label them as fast as you can so you can keep them all straight. A while ago when Sandra Bullock was first making movies, the press started this whole rivalry between us. She was supposed to be the next...["sweetheart," Oprah offered]...Around that time, this really nice and funny guy, a writer, seemed to get that he's part of the whole machine, too. He wrote an article called 'The Next Julia Roberts,' which I thought was so funny because in his story, I am the next Julia Roberts. He turned the whole thing on its head."
And she's been the one and only Julia Roberts ever since.