On television, Charlotte Ross is often cast as tough or manipulative.
The Winnetka native got her start on "Days of Our Lives" as Eve Donovan -- a troubled teen prostitute turned sultry soap vixen. That launched her into several other hard-as-nails roles, including the feisty detective Connie McDowell on "NYPD Blue" and Quinn's uptight mother on "Glee."
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'Hit the Floor'What: Premiere of the new TV series "Hit the Floor," starring suburban native Charlotte Ross
When: 8 and 10 p.m. Monday, May 27
Cable channel: VH1
She's no pushover in her latest role, either, as Olivia Vincent, the shrewd dance squad director on "Hit the Floor." The sexy new series -- about a fictitious Los Angeles basketball team and their Beyoncé-like dancers, the Devil Girls -- debuts Monday, May 27, on VH1.
"I gravitate to strong women roles," said Ross, 45. "I've played many variations of Eve Donovan. I love to play a little darker, de-glammed roles."
Her life growing up in Glencoe and Winnetka was neither dark nor de-glammed. As a young girl, Ross developed a love of being onstage while competing in beauty pageants. She was a finalist for Miss Teen Illinois (she wore the "Miss Winnetka" sash) and won Miss Dreamgirl USA.
She wanted to try acting, so while she was a student at New Trier High School, she'd go downtown after school and study the craft. She surrounded herself with people from Second City, Piven Theatre Workshop and the Goodman Theatre. Her friends, seeing her love of acting, teasingly called her "Char the Star."
By the time Ross was a senior, she'd already tested for roles on five TV shows. She was a finalist for a show called "Married With Children," on a new network called Fox, but ultimately lost the part to Christina Applegate.
Turns out, it didn't matter. Ross' career was already on its way.
"By the time I graduated (from New Trier), I had one foot out the door," she said.
Against her parents' wishes, Ross packed up her car and moved to Los Angeles by herself after high school. Within weeks -- after just turning 19 -- she landed the part of Eve on "Days of Our Lives." The role led to two Daytime Emmy nominations.
"At the time, I felt like I'd paid my dues for so many years," Ross said. "Luck is involved. But I had this blind determination that, without anyone's help, I would prevail. When you have the survival instinct of wanting to make it, you seize everything 110 percent. I took every audition like it was my only take in a (Martin) Scorsese film opposite Meryl Streep."
It was an exciting but challenging time in her life, and Ross enrolled in UCLA so she wouldn't miss out on the college experience.
"I've spent most of my life going to work in the dark and coming home in the dark," she said. "This business can be cutthroat and cruel. But I love the art form so much, it's an energetic high when I get the scene right."
Looking ahead, Ross is interested in doing a lot of different things -- including "movies, movies, movies," possibly stage shows in Chicago, or producing films.
She's also busy off camera, as the mother of a 9-year-old son and a passionate animal rights activist. She testified before Congress in 2011 to help stop the government's treatment of chimpanzees for invasive research. It earned her the Animal Advocate Award from The Humane Society of the United States.
Ross holds fond memories of her life in the suburbs and even went to a recent New Trier High School class reunion.
Regardless of what her future holds, Ross expressed gratitude for her career path so far.
"I feel like I'm very lucky," she said. "My dreams did come true."
-- Jamie Sotonoff
• Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are always looking for people from the suburbs who are now working in showbiz. If you know of someone who would make a great feature, email them at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.