Melissa McCarthy in a yellow dress, smiling big and waving

As one of Hollywood’s top-paid actresses by 2016, Melissa McCarthy has a direct line to millions of funny bones across the world. While she’s gained notoriety on the small screen — playing Gilmore Girls‘ adorable chef, Sookie St. James, and as the eponymous lead of Mike & Molly — it’s been her larger-than-life film roles and devotion to character that’s cemented her amongst the comedy greats. McCarthy’s portrayal of the gruff and occasionally sexually deviant bridesmaid, Megan, in 2011’s Bridesmaids earned her a rare Academy Award nomination for a comedic role. It set the precedent for a string of blockbuster hits for the star, who was 41 when the Paul Feig flick hit theaters.

McCarthy’s career may have gone through a number of changes since she got her start in the Los Angeles comedy scene, but her knack for inspiring laughs has only strengthened. Aside from her robust filmography, this multi-talent has inspired a generation of women to look beyond the superficial to what really matters. "It’s still just me," McCarthy told InStyle of dealing with her Hollywood success. "I’ve fully embraced it in terms of it can all go away as fast as it came. I know that, and I’ve seen it happen. I do feel like I work 500 percent on everything … If this all goes away and I didn’t try, I’d be, like, the dumbest idiot on earth."

From childhood to superstardom, let’s dive into the transformation of Melissa McCarthy.

Melissa McCarthy was a goofball from the beginning

Split image of Melissa McCarthy's high school yearbook photos

Born in Plainfield, Ill. in 1970 to "Irish-Catholic farmers" Michael and Sandra McCarthy, per Biography, Melissa McCarthy has stayed close to her humble beginnings throughout her showbiz success. As her husband, actor-filmmaker Ben Falcone, told WSJ Magazine in 2019, she’s still "very Midwestern."

Melissa, who’s cousins with actress-model Jenny McCarthy (they’re reportedly "not very close"), was especially close with older sister Margie growing up, since the family lived in an isolated farm town. "I was bored. I had no neighbors, I had no kids to play with," she explained on The Howard Stern Show. "I’d be, like, running around the barn pretending I was a detective or something." Of her high school self, Melissa once told Anderson Cooper (via People), "I was super preppy, and by the end [of high school, I had] blue black hair that I’d shave in patches."

Her mother, who used to work at World Book Encyclopedia and First Midwest Bank, was "really solid in her shoes" as a matriarch, Melissa told People in 2018. Noting that Sandra’s example was "one of the greatest gifts [she] got from her," it seems Melissa inherited her comedic sensibilities from overhearing Comedy Central and The Carol Burnett Show in the living room, as well as watching her "really funny" dad in action. A Belt Railway Company of Chicago arbitrator, Melissa recalled Michael popping out of corners in pranks that were "really elaborate and probably semi-dangerous" during a Gilmore Girls press interview.

Melissa McCarthy really found her funny with the Groundlings

Melissa McCarthy performing in We Met At The Groundlings

Melissa McCarthy may be a natural on screen and stage, but she actually didn’t consider a career in comedy at first. During a 2016 appearance on The Howard Stern Show, she revealed that "tennis was [her] main thing" growing up. The actress’ "super [competitive]" sportsmanship, however, sounded unhinged at best, as McCarthy described her technique as playing like she had "the need to try and kill someone."

McCarthy studied fashion for a while at the Southern Illinois University, according to WSJ Magazine, before dropping out and moving to New York City with childhood pal Brian Atwood. The now-famous shoe designer had an eye for her talent and booked her for stand-up gigs within her first few nights in the Big Apple. Suddenly, McCarthy had found her calling.

Luckily, her parents were especially encouraging of this career shift. Later, McCarthy would reveal to People that their undying mantra throughout her childhood was all the support she needed to give comedy a shot: "’Why not you?’ is an unbelievably great sentiment to give to a kid." She later moved to Los Angeles, where she became a member of Groundlings comedy troupe in 1997. Working alongside future Bridesmaids co-stars Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo in sketch and character shows, McCarthy developed a "cult following" with lines of fans waiting "around the corner" on nights she was going to perform, per WSJ Magazine.

Melissa McCarthy as Sookie St. James on Gilmore Girls
Melissa McCarthy, Ben Falcone smiling while arm-in-am at the Sundance Film Festival
Melissa McCarthy smiling while holding her Emmy Award in 2011
Melissa McCarthy smiling at a CBS event
Split image of Melissa McCarthy at the Bridesmaids premiere, and as Megan Price in Bridesmaids
Melissa McCarthy in a black, sequined dress, smiling big at The Thief premiere
Melissa McCarthy with bangs, smiling at the Tammy premiere
Split image of Melissa McCarthy smiling big at the Spy premiere, and as Susan Cooper in Spy
Melissa McCarthy sitting next to her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
Melissa McCarthy posing next to a clothes rack for her Seven7 clothing line
Split image of Melissa McCarthy smiling big at The Boss premiere, and as Michelle Darnell in The Boss
Split image of Melissa McCarthy at the Ghostbusters premiere, and as Abby Yates in Ghostbusters
Split image of Melissa McCarthy on the red carpet and impersonating Sean Spicer on SNL
Split image of Melissa McCarthy at a 2018 premiere, and as Lee Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Melissa McCarthy smiling big at a 2019 event