Movie stardom wasn’t something Adams gave much thought to growing up in the Denver exurb of Castle Rock, Colorado, the middle child in a brood of three girls and four boys. More interested in dancing than in acting—“All the people in high school who were like, ‘I want to be an actress,’ sort of drove me crazy,” she says—she performed with local companies as well as in family talent shows. When she was 12, her parents divorced, leaving behind not only their marriage but also the Mormon church in which the family had been active. A few years later, her mother, a massage therapist and former amateur bodybuilder whom Adams describes as “sort of nomadic,” relocated to Atlanta, and Adams, after graduating from high school, joined her there, moving into the basement with vague plans to continue her dance training while working a day job to pay the bills.
She knew she didn’t want to go to college because “I’d hated school,” she says. “The people were indifferent toward me, and that’s the worst thing in my mind.” In a place where, she says, “we were defined by the clothes we bought at the mall,” her family didn’t have much money for sprees at the Limited. “If I didn’t get things on clearance, I wasn’t getting them,” she says. “I would make fake Guess jeans by buying a cheaper brand with a triangle label and then cutting it off so you could still see the triangle outline. It’s so sad that I did that! But I really wanted to be one of those girls.”
It was at the Gap, where she landed at 18, after a brief stint at an Atlanta Hooters, that she started to come into her own. Scoring the job was, she says, “a huge deal, because with the 40-percent-off discount I could finally buy things that weren’t on sale!” More important, many of her fellow employees were trying to make it in the arts, which opened her mind to the idea that a career on the stage might be possible. One of her coworkers, a guy named Melvyn, turned out to be a veritable fairy godmother in khakis and a pocket tee. “He said to me, ‘I think you’re going to be an actress,’” Adams remembers. “I had taken an acting class, but I was so dorky, with hair down to there, looking like Little House on the Prairie. I was painfully insecure. But he made me audition for something. I’m sure I was awful, but he planted that idea in me.”
Soon after, a friend from home called to say that she was leaving her unpaid role in a Denver production of Annie, and Adams, though unsure about quitting the Gap, returned to Colorado to take the part. The choice, of course, turned out to be fortuitous, leading to roles at a dinner theater near Minneapolis, where the 1999 beauty pageant spoof Drop Dead Gorgeous happened to be filming. Adams showed up for an open call and was tapped to play one of the contestants. She found another unlikely fairy godmother in castmate Kirstie Alley, who urged Adams to head to Hollywood. There, she promptly landed the lead in Manchester Prep, a television spin-off of the film Cruel Intentions, about the manipulative sexcapades of rich teens. The thrill was short-lived; Fox deemed the show too racy and canceled it.