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Cameron Diaz, the most promising blue-eyed blonde of 1994, confounded Hollywood. After scoring a career-launching babe role of a lifetime opposite rising superstar Jim Carrey in The Mask, the budding actress did… nothing. Or at least not as much as might have been expected.

Her promising comic debut opposite the hyperactive, plexi-faced comedian awarded her the chance to immortalize an ass-kicking video-game character in the live-action celluloid version of Mortal Kombat, but a cruel twist of fate snatched the opportunity away: Diaz injured her wrist karate-chopping her trainer's head in preparation for the role and had to back out of the martial-arts extravaganza. She bided her time, taking the occasional high-paying modeling job, and hand-picking juicy, if low-paying, independent-film roles. "I think that definitely your chances of coming across material in independent films — material that is more interesting and more challenging — is more likely than in big-studio films," the shrewd and savvy actress has commented of the appeal of indie projects. "You always have to leave your doors open to independent films so you have that opportunity."

Such impressive professional awareness may seem odd for someone so young and relatively inexperienced, but Diaz got an early jump on her career and has kept up the pace ever since. At the age of 16, she made the acquaintance of a photographer who wasn't just another sleazeball at a Hollywood party, and within a week of their meeting she had succeeded in landing a contract with the Elite Modeling Agency. Soon after, the smooth-talking teen convinced her parents to let her spread her wings in Japan ("Oh, Mom, Dad — it's super-safe!"), accompanied only by a 15-year-old fellow model. "Believe me, you can get into a lot of trouble being 16 years old in a foreign country with no adult telling you when to come home," Diaz recalls. She spent the next five years continent-hopping — "Australia, Morocco, Paris, Mexico, here, there, everywhere" — and eventually settled into a Hollywood apartment with video producer Carlos de La Torre; their relationship held strong for five years. Though Diaz's modeling career proved quite lucrative — she posed for such magazines as Mademoiselle and Seventeen, and appeared in ads for Calvin Klein, Levi's, and Coca-Cola — she felt a void in her life.

Her agent suggested she fill it by starting to make that painful and oft-tried transition from modeling to acting. Diaz went out on some auditions, finally getting a callback — her first of 12 — for a small role in Carrey's The Mask. "Anything the filmmakers wanted, I would do," Diaz says. "But it got to the point where I said, 'You know what? I'm not doing it anymore. I'm not gonna go practice with the choreographer so that he knows the steps he's gonna teach the real girl who gets the job.'" But in the end, her perseverance paid off, and she walked away with the female lead after director Charles Russell went to bat for her with the producers at New Line. The Mask being her first acting experience, Diaz didn't fully grasp the scope of what she was involved in: "About a month into the movie, I said, 'This is kind of a big film, isn't it?' And they all said, 'Yes, Cameron. Yes it is.'"

The dawning awareness of her responsibility to the film contributed to her getting her first ulcer. The ulcer and her subsequent pre-production Mortal Kombat injury soured Diaz on big-studio films, so she patiently auditioned for a bevy of independent films. And a bevy of roles she won: Diaz ran off with her brother-in-law, played by Keanu Reeves, in Feeling Minnesota; she slept with brothers Edward Burns and Mike McGlone in She's the One; and perhaps most difficult of all to believe, she played Harvey Keitel's wife in Head Above Water. The National Association of Theater Owners acknowledged her string of indie triumphs by naming her the N.A.T.O./ShoWest Female Star of Tomorrow. Diaz made a bold return to the commercial side of filmmaking for the summer romantic comedy My Best Friend's Wedding, in which she shouldered the unenviable task of trying to out-cute Julia Roberts. Most critics agreed that she pulled off the role admirably: Diaz had finally earned the honorable title of model-turned-actress.

She next stepped into A Life Less Ordinary, an offering by the Trainspotting team of Danny Boyle, John Hodge, and Ewan McGregor. Diaz, who broke her longstanding relationship with de La Torre in 1995, ended a three-year romance with fellow thespian Matt Dillon, with whom she co-starred in the hilariously crude romantic comedy There's Something About Mary, in 1998. (She has since taken up with dreamy actor Jared Leto.) Less romantic by far was the coal-black comedy Very Bad Things, in which she starred with Christian Slater and Jon Favreau. 1999 delivered a brace of interesting outings for Diaz: she starred in one of the most talked-about films of the year, Being John Malkovich, director Spike Jonze's off-the-wall comedy about a luckless puppeteer (played by John Cusack) who discovers a hidden doorway into the consciousness of actor John Malkovich; and co-starred alongside Al Pacino, Dennis Quaid, and James Woods in Oliver Stone's gridiron drama Any Given Sunday.