The Stunning Transformation Of Betty White

The world was gifted the beloved Betty White before sliced bread was even a thing. And in a lifetime spanning almost 100 years, she's spent a record-breaking number of those on television. "I don't remember the '80s... that was before my time," White joked with CNN. Modest and self-effacing, she's quick to brush off a well-deserved compliment or hard-earned accolade, as if she were gently shooing away a gift belonging to someone else. But even so, the praise just keeps coming. "There's a reason why there is only one Betty White," Jamie Lee Curtis once said, "[Betty], you've ... had good health and fantastic opportunities, and you've knocked them out of the ballpark."

"When I think of Betty White, I always see her with a big open smile," Rue McClanahan — ahem, Blanche Devereaux — said, remembering her closest Golden Girls pal. White's bright, rosy-cheeked face, sparkling eyes, and irresistibly warm spirit make this extraordinarily talented performer, producer, and writer a woman who has done it all and happily found her way into the hearts of America, time and time again. And if that GoFundMe campaign to "protect Betty White from 2016" was any indication, the 95-year-old White has become an indispensable national treasure, adored by generations of fans — still delighting us with her flawless sense of humor. Let's take a look at the stunning transformation of this incredible woman.

Little Betty White makes her big debut

Born on January 17, 1922, outside of Chicago, Illinois, Betty White moved to Los Angeles when she was just 2 years old. "My father Horace was a traveling salesman who moved our family to California during the Great Depression," White shared. "They had delicious senses of humor," White told Parade, speaking of her dad who told her jokes from his trips, and her mother, who was just as game to goof. "They would come back from a walk with a dog, saying, 'Betty, he followed us home. Can we keep him?' My parents had a cat named Toby who liked to sit on my crib. My mom always said that if Toby hadn't approved of the baby, she'd have gone straight back to the hospital."

All those adopted pets would create a foundation upon which White would build her lifelong advocacy for animals. And that love ran deep. "We wound up with 26 dogs once," said White.

Betty White slummed it in Beverly Hills

"I don't think California was a state at the time," she joked. "I think it was a territory or undiscovered land." It was 1924, and California had been official for 74 years when Betty White first set foot in the Golden State at the age of two.

She may have been an only child, but White soon made friends with none other than fellow comedic legend Lucille Ball. "Her mother and my mother were best friends," she shared with The Atlantic. "So Lucille would be the one that you'd think [I'd want to later work with], but it was like I was working with her because we were buddies." The two would remain close as they carved legendary careers as women in early television, later appearing together in a reboot of a popular gameshow Super Password in 1986, three years before Ball's death in 1989.

Betty White played a popular orphan

As the entire country was experiencing the greatest stock market crash on record, an astounding 3.2 million losing their jobs by 1930, a spunky 8-year-old Betty White had booked her debut showbiz gig on the first broadcast media platform — the radio. The show was called Empire Builders and she played the role of a crippled orphan.

"Radio is wonderful," White remembered fondly, "You don't have to put your eyelashes on, and you read your lines." White loves to joke that she "started out in 'silent television.'" But while she may have been dazzling the airwaves, she had already set her sights on bigger things.

Betty White was a Harajuku girl before it's a thing

Even though she grew up next to Hollywood's biggest studios, Betty White fostered her own unique passion. "I was never that conscious of the Hollywood stuff," she shared. "I was always gonna be a writer. I wrote the graduation play at Horace Mann Grammar School in Beverly Hills. And, of course, as any red-blooded American girl would do, I wrote myself into the lead. And the showbiz bug bit me!" Her debut script? The Land of the Rising Sun, a Japanese theater-style play White wrote in 1934, starring the 12-year-old herself.

Then, she ditched the writing thing almost before she started. "That's where the ham in me first showed. I could hardly wait to graduate and foist myself on a panting public," she recalled in the collection Women Pioneers in Television. Later, in a production of Pride and Prejudice, "That's when the bug really bit."

Betty White landed a gig on TV as it was being invented

After studying to be an opera singer during high school in 1939, Betty White was tapped to sing "Spirit Flower" at her graduation from Beverly Hills High School. There, at just 17, she would be discovered by some folks who had been experimenting with TV cameras. She jumped at the chance.

"It was a new thing that they were experimenting with in New York, but we had nothing like it out here," she told Backstage. "So they turned the fifth floor of the Packard Building downtown into a studio for that night, and the lights were so hot and so bright. We wore brown makeup and brown lipstick. We were just dripping sweat. [The TV signal] went from the fifth floor to the first floor. It carried sound, not well, but it carried. It was an interesting experience. Little dreaming that I would wind up with my livelihood being television, [from first] singing a song on TV." She was embarking on what would become an acting career spanning 78 years — and counting. 

Betty White gave up her dreams for WWII

Just as the young Betty White's promising television career was beginning, the United States entered into World War II in 1941. White put her aspirations on hold, and joined American Women's Voluntary Services. She wore a uniform, and drove a supply truck up to the troop's temporary quarters in the Hollywood Hills. In the evenings, she would put on a dress and dance the night away with soldiers, before they were shipped overseas. "It was a strange time and out of balance with everything," she said in the interview, "Which I'm sure the young people are going through now. We'll never learn. We'll never learn."

At the time, she toyed with one day becoming a forest ranger, but once again fell in love with acting. And a handsome Air Force pilot.

Betty White married her war hero crush

After the war was over in 1945, 23-year-old Betty White married fast, and drove to Ohio to live with her husband, pilot Dick Barker. "Oh, it was a nightmare," she remembered. She was a tried and true California girl at heart. And as much as she loved animals, she was a fish out of water on Barker's Midwest chicken farm. Later, in an interview with AARP, White looked back on why the relationship failed, saying, "I would not have married my first [husband]. I married my first because we wanted to sleep together. It lasted six months, and we were in bed for six months. [But the marriage] helped me to appreciate the real thing when it came along."

The couple divorced later that year. But while she seemed to be charmed in her professional endeavors, her next attempt at married life would hit a different bump almost immediately.

Betty White tried love a second time

At 27, Betty White decided to take a stab at marriage once again. This time, with talent agent, and former vet Lane Allen. They separated after less than a year of marriage, eventually divorcing because White wanted to focus on her career. Allen wanted kids. Picturing the life of a career woman, versus that of a homemaker, "I knew that I wasn't gonna be content to just stay home. I knew that a career was very much in my future, so I decided not to have children," she said in her Lifetime Intimate Portrait. It was decidedly not the popular choice in 1949. "In those days, people didn't understand that as much as they do now."

"Boy, you feel like you've really flunked the course, I mean, it's terrible, self-defeating. It's your failure, it's not anybody else's. With Lane, it was my failure to live up to the kind of wife he wanted to have." she said in the interview. Moving back in with her parents a second time, she recalled, "I was ashamed to tell anybody that I still lived at home, because by that time the years had gone by."

Betty White nailed her first big break on TV

Betty White landed a hosting job on the Hollywood on Television variety show with Al Jarvis in 1949 when she was 27 years old. The show lasted five hours a day, for five days a week — and included no script. "Al was a great one to work with. He'd throw something at me, and I'd try to be there to bat it back. It was like going to television college. You don't get that kind of experience today."

"Television was just beginning. Al Jarvis was a disc jockey on radio, and he decided to start a television show," White shared. White and Jarvis would riff off each other, chat with guests, and crack a few jokes. The station bosses liked it so much, they kicked up the shoot schedule to five-and-a-half hours per day, for six days a week — no holidays off. And everything was shot live. "Whatever happened, you had to handle it. Whoever came in that door was on, and you were interviewing them," she told NPR. Her success with the show enabled her to found Bandy Productions, crowning her as one of the first female producers in the business. With that, she would create her own show.

Betty White changed her name to Elizabeth

White's first live sitcom Life With Elizabeth hit the small screen in 1952, starring then-30-year-old Betty White. "Of course back then, we didn't wanna do it live, we just didn't know how to tape things," she told an SNL audience when she hosted in 2010.

"Nobody remembers Life With Elizabeth," she told PBS with a laugh, "They weren't born when Life With Elizabeth was on!" She continued, "George Tibbles and I produced it, and he wrote it, and he would drive me to work and we would sort of ad-lib what we were gonna put into the show for that week. We had about $1.95 for a budget for each show." White humbly blazed a trail for her good comedienne friend to premiere her own show: I Love Lucy. Even though Life With Elizabeth didn't stand the test of time, White won her first Emmy for Most Outstanding Female Personality that year.

Betty White found true love on a game show

Betty White took a turn as a guest panelist on popular game show Password in 1963, during just the third week of taping. She caught the eye of dapper show host Allen Ludden. "He was charming, he was so nice," White said. While White, 41, was happy living the single life, she says Password show creator Bob Stewart alerted her of some behind the scenes scheming, "When I left the show Allen said 'I'm gonna marry that woman.'" After an initial rejection, it took her a whole year to say yes. She now says this is her greatest regret: wasting an entire year not saying yes to the love of her life.

White and Ludden lived happily together with Ludden's three teenaged children — and White's adopted dogs. Having decided against children of her own, and having been raised as an only child, "It took a lot of adjusting on all sides," she admitted, of her instant family responsibilities. Ludden died of cancer in 1981, and for the first time in her life, White experienced devastating loss. On why she never re-married, White told Anderson Cooper with a bittersweet levity, "I had the love of my life. If you've had the best, who needs the rest?"

Betty White got frisky with exotic beasts

In 1971, Betty White created, wrote, hosted, and cast the animal-friendly talk show The Pet Set. "I wrote a show where I would pick a celebrity friend and their pet, bring them on the air... and I'd write the show according to their interest in the animals," she shared in an interview. "We had elephants, we had a water buffalo... we had five lions on one day ... a stallion, a mare, and a foal. It was the happiest I've ever been on television."

White is a lifelong proponent of animal welfare. When asked how she got started, she answers, "In the womb. My mother and dad were the same way." Intimately involved with the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association for over 50 years, White told the Los Angeles Times in 2017, "I love animals obviously, and I love good zoos. This is my other home. They can't get rid of me."

Betty White landed The Mary Tyler Moore show

"One Saturday morning I got a call from [show creator] Allan Burns, and he said 'Would you do our show next week, we've got a character of a happy homemaker who's the sickening Betty White-type, and we can't find anybody. Would you come in?'" White, 51, accepted the one-episode role in 1973 and taped the show. She delighted producers, and shortly after, became a recurring character until the series' end in 1977. Twice in a row, White won Emmys for her role on the show as Sue Ann Nivens.

Until Mary Tyler Moore's death in January of 2017, White kept in close touch with her good friend and cast-mate, even though the two lived on opposite coasts — Moore in New York City, and White in Los Angeles. She tweeted of her friend's passing, remembering the pals and their husbands at the time, "Mary Tyler Moore, Grant Tinker, Allen Ludden and I had some of the best times of my life together. She was special."

Betty White kicked it in Miami with The Golden Girls

Yeah, you know the theme song. At the tender age of 63, and the eldest member of the cast, Betty White landed her most memorable role to date: the lovable space-cadet Rose Nylund on The Golden Girls in 1985. "Rose isn't slow-witted, she just marches to a different drum, that's all. Rose believes anything anybody tells her," a beaming White shared in an interview with TODAY in 1987. "We are having so much fun, there should be a law against it. Off-camera, we adore each other. If the four of us did not get along, or support each other, I don't know how you can be funny."

But White had originally been up for the role of Blanche. "I had come off of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, playing the neighborhood nymphomaniac," White said, referencing her role as Sue Ann Nivens. But instead of being typecast in a similar role, White got to show off her chops playing a very different character: Rose. "Well, I didn't know who Rose was ... and I was thrilled." While some may say it's her greatest role, it sure wouldn't be her last.

Betty White got Hot in Cleveland

Betty White was only supposed to do a guest-star in the pilot episode in 2009. "I have no business doing this much work, at this age, for heaven's sake," White, 87 at the time, admitted. But, when Hot in Cleveland was picked up for series within three weeks, White gamely jumped on board, remaining a regular cast member through the series finale in 2015.

"Everything you can imagine about working with Betty White every day for six seasons — what you would dream that to be like — doesn't even touch what it's really like. We love her so much, and she inspired everyone, every day," series creator Suzanne Martin shared with THR.

Betty White really didn't want to host SNL

Early in her career, the comedy legend wasn't into hosting Saturday Night Live. At all. "I turned it down three times," she told TimesTalks. "It's such a New York-oriented show, and I'm such an obvious Californian, I was afraid I'd feel like a fish out of water. I was scared, is what I was." Betty White finally hosted after saying no a fourth time, and then a yes. She overcame her greatest fear: Cue-cards, which she had never in her career had to use — and hosted the show in 2010, when she was 88 years old, and the show's eldest host. "I'm glad I did because it was scary, but it was a great experience and I did have a good time."

Her reluctance to host was in part, swayed by a massive Facebook campaign to get her on the late-nite comedy show. But no, you'll never catch White wasting time scrolling through her friends' status updates. "In my day, seeing pictures of people's vacations was a punishment," she joked in her opening SNL monologue.

Betty White's got the fountain of youth on lock

Kicking off her 95th year in 2017, and witty and charming as ever, it's easy to wonder how Betty White pulls it off. "I'm a bit of an addict," she laughs. She's talking about the giant jar of licorice she kept in her Hot In Cleveland dressing room. "She eats crap," former cast-mate Jane Leeves told Us. "Red Vines, hot dogs, French fries and Diet Coke. If that's key, maybe she's preserved because of all the preservatives."

White's also gotten by on four hours of sleep for her entire life. "If I get four good hours, I mean really good hours, then I'm fine." She told the ladies of The View. Perhaps revealing the actual secret to her long life and great health, she told Katie Couric, "So many people think negatively. I know it sounds boring, but I am a positive thinker ... that's why I've stayed happy all my life. You gotta get through it ... One foot in front of the other."

Betty White's not stopping

There's something about Betty White that makes her feel like the woman you want to aspire toward, as well as the loving grandma with whom you just want to share some freshly baked cookies. She is at once a legendary pioneer of television, groundbreaking actress, record award-winner, and generous animal activist. And even considering her jaw-dropping accomplishments, she continues to graciously share with each of us, her genuine, one-of-a-kind spirit. While she'd never boast about it, she's happy to continue on as long as we'll have her. As she tells it, "I'm the luckiest broad on two feet."

Maybe if we can just hold on to her smile, her comedic brilliance, and her joy, we'll get to keep her forever.