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 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 was 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 kept coming. "There's a reason why there is only one Betty White," Jamie Lee Curtis told AARP in 2010. "[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 Devereauxonce said, remembering her closest "Golden Girls" pal. White's bright, rosy-cheeked face, sparkling eyes, and irresistibly warm spirit made this extraordinarily talented performer, producer, and writer a woman who had done it all and who had happily found her way into the hearts of Americans, time and time again.

When news broke that she'd died on December 31, 2021 (via People), fans were distraught. After all, she had become an indispensable national treasure, adored by generations of fans who were delighted by her flawless sense of humor. However, fans may not realize just how much White had been through over her nearly 100 years. Let's take a look at the stunning transformation of this incredible woman who will be sorely missed.


Little Betty White was born in 1922

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 during her 2010 "Saturday Night Live" monologue. 


Speaking to Parade, she remembered her parents' sense of humor fondly. She recalled her dad telling her jokes from his trips, and noted that her mother 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," White told People.

She grew up in California with a famous friend

"I don't think California was a state at the time," Betty White once joked to Cleveland Magazine. "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 2.


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 for themselves 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.

The actress landed an acting gig for radio as a kid

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 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 an orphan.


"Radio is wonderful," White remembered fondly when speaking with The New York Times' "TimesTalks." "You don't have to put your eyelashes on, and you read your lines." While she may have been dazzling the airwaves, she would set her sights on bigger things soon enough.

Betty White planned on becoming a writer

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 once shared in an "Intimate Portrait" special. "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 she wrote.


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

She landed a gig on TV

After studying to be an opera singer during high school in 1939 (via Rare), 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." She noted that the TV's signal didn't carry sound very well, but she described the whole thing as an "interesting experience." Who could have known that she was essentially embarking on what would become an acting career that spanned decades!

She 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, as she told Cleveland Magazine in 2010. 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 sent to other countries. "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 one point, she toyed with one day becoming a forest ranger (via People), but, as we all know, she fell in love with acting. And a handsome Army pilot.

Betty White married her war hero crush

After the war was over in 1945, 23-year-old Betty White married fast, and she drove to Ohio to live with her husband, pilot Dick Barker. "Oh, it was a nightmare," she remembered when speaking with People. 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, responding to a question about what she would hit "rewind" on by saying she "would not have married" Barker. She explained, "I married my first because we wanted to sleep together. It lasted six months, and we were in bed for six months." Still, she added that it "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 (via HuffPost).

Betty White tried love a second time

Betty White decided to take a stab at marriage once again. This time with talent agent and former vet Lane Allen (via CNN). They separated after less than a year of marriage, eventually divorcing because White wanted to focus on her career and Allen wanted kids. Picturing the life of a career woman versus that of a homemaker, she explained in an interview for her "Intimate Portrait" special, "I knew that I wasn't gonna be content to just stay home and I knew that a career was very much in my future ... so I decided not to have children." It was decidedly not the popular choice in the 1940s. She noted, "In those days, people didn't understand that as readily as they do now."


Despite knowing what she wanted and going after it, she still was understandably upset by her second divorce, feeling like she couldn't be the "kind of a wife" her husband desired. "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," she said. 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."

She 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 five days a week — and had no script. White and Jarvis would riff off each other, chat with guests, and crack a few jokes. "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," she told Cleveland Magazine. "It was like going to television college. You don't get that kind of experience today."


The station bosses liked it so much that 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 starred in her first live sitcom

Betty White's first live sitcom, "Life With Elizabeth," hit the small screen in 1952, when she was 30 years old. "Of course back then, we didn't wanna do it live, we just didn't know how to tape things," she joked before an audience when she hosted "Saturday Night Live" 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." She noted, "We had about $1.95 for a budget for each show." 

Notably, White humbly blazed a trail for her good comedienne friend Lucille Ball to premiere her own show, "I Love Lucy."

She 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 during an interview with The New York Times' "TimesTalks." While White, 41, was happy living the single life, she said "Password" show creator Bob Stewart alerted her of some behind-the-scenes scheming: "When I left the show that day, Allen said, 'I'm gonna marry that woman.'" After an initial rejection, it took her a whole year to say yes. She said this was her greatest regret (via "Where Are They Now?"): wasting an entire year not saying yes to the love of her life.


White and Ludden lived happily together with Ludden's three children — and White's adopted dogs.

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 started a show about pets and exotic animals

In 1971, Betty White created, wrote, hosted, and cast the animal-friendly talk show "The Pet Set." "I would have a friend come on the show with his or her pet, and I would interview them with the pet," she shared on "TimesTalks." She would then do a whole segment on the kind of pet, sharing with audiences the different ages and colors of a breed. "Then I'd bring animals from the zoo," she noted, recalling how she'd have lions and water buffalo on set with her.


White was a lifelong proponent of animal welfare. When asked how she got started in an interview with Katie Couric, she answered, "In the womb. My mother and dad were the same way." Having been 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." She added, "They can't get rid of me."

Betty White landed a role on 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," White explained to "TimesTalks" regarding her role on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." She accepted the one-episode gig 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."

She 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 as 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." She added, "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 Sue Ann Nivins off the 'The Mary Tyler Moore Show,' and they thought if I played another neighborhood nymphomaniac that people would think I was playing the same character," White told "TimesTalks." But instead of being typecast in a similar role, White got to show off her chops playing a very different character: Rose. 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 make a guest-star appearance in the pilot episode of "Hot in Cleveland" in 2009. "I have no business doing this much work, at this age, for heaven's sake," White, 87 at the time, admitted to TV Land. 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 The Hollywood Reporter.

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 earlier in my career," Betty White told "TimesTalks." "It's such a New York-oriented show, and I'm such an obvious Californian that I was afraid I'd feel like a fish out of water. ... I was scared, is what I was." White finally hosted in 2010 when she was 88 years old, and she overcame her greatest fear: cue-cards, which she had never in her career had to use. And she became the show's oldest 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-night comedy show. But no, you would never have caught 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.

How Betty White remained so youthful

Up until her death in 2021, Betty White remained as witty as ever. Did she have a secret to maintaining her youthful charm? "I'm a bit of an addict," she joked to Cleveland Magazine, talking about a giant jar of licorice she kept in her "Hot In Cleveland" dressing room. "She eats crap," former castmate Jane Leeves told Us Weekly. "Red Vines, hot dogs, French fries and Diet Coke. If that's key, maybe she's preserved because of all the preservatives." She joked to People in 2021, "I try to avoid anything green."


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."