Born in New York in 1989, Hayden Panettiere is the young American actress who became famous for her role as the cheerleader on the television show Heroes. Her career began before she was a year old, with parts in television commercials. In addition to her popularity as an actress, Panettiere is an animal rights activist, particularly focusing on dolphins.
Hayden Leslie Panettiere was born on August 21, 1989, in Palisades, New York. Her father, Skip Panettiere, was a lieutenant in the local fire department, and her mother, Lesley Panettiere, was a soap opera actress. Before her first birthday, Panettiere had already begun modeling and acting. She started her career by modeling baby clothes at 8 months old, and appeared in her first TV commercial, for Playskool toy trains, just three months later. Panettiere went on to appear in dozens of commercials as an infant and toddler, including spots for McDonalds, Hershey’s and Nix Lice Shampoo.
In 1994, at the tender age of 4, Panettiere graduated from commercials to soap operas, landing a recurring role on ABC’s One Life to Live. After three years on One Life to Live, Panettiere joined the cast of another soap opera, CBS’s Guiding Light, playing the part of Lizzie Spaulding until 2000. While appearing regularly in soap operas, Panettiere also embarked on a budding film career. She did voice acting for a pair of Disney films, A Bug’s Life (1998) and Dinosaur (2000), and played small roles in the live-action films The Object of my Affection (1998) and Message in a Bottle (1999).
TV and Movies
In 2000, Hayden Panettiere gained a higher profile when she landed a role opposite Denzel Washington in the sentimental favorite Remember the Titans. The 11-year-old Panettiere received rave reviews for her portrayal of Sheryl Yoach, a coach’s daughter with an extraordinary passion for football, winning the Young Artist’s Award for Best Supporting Young Actress for her performance. After Remember the Titans, Panettiere carved out a niche as Hollywood’s go-to onscreen daughter. She played Tim Allen’s daughter in the 2001 comedy Joe Somebody and appeared regularly as Calista Flockhart’s daugter on the Fox series Ally McBeal (2002).
Despite her extraordinarily busy young acting career, Panettiere attempted to live a somewhat normal childhood. She attended South Orangetown Middle School, a public school in Blauvelt, New York. But Panettiere says that she faced considerable abuse as a Hollywood starlet trying to fit in with the rest of the kids at her public school. “I had a rough time—a really rough time—in school,” she recalls. “It’s almost as if you can’t be human because they think that by you being in a bad mood or getting upset about anything that you are just trying to be a diva … you can never just have a bad day like everyone else.”
Panettiere rocketed to a new level of fame in 2006, however, when she landed a leading role on the NBC sci-fi series Heroes. The show follows a group of ordinary people who possess extraordinary powers, and Panettiere plays Claire Bennet, a high school cheerleader who heals instantly from any injury but must keep her ability secret. Heroes quickly proved enormously popular, reintroducing Panettiere to the media limelight, no longer as an adorable child but as a stunningly beautiful young woman. She appeared on the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine and was featured on People magazine’s 100 Most Beautiful list, Entertainment Weekly‘s Stars We Love list and Forbes magazine’s Celebrity 100 Power list. Heroes ran for four seasons, from 2006-2010, and Panettiere won three consecutive Teen Choice Awards for Best TV Actress for her role. She has then starred in the 2009 romantic comedy I Love You, Beth Cooper and returned to voice acting with the 2010 animated film Alpha & Omega.
In 2012, Panettiere returned to series television with the popular country music drama Nashville. She played an ambitious young singer, Juliette Barnes, who challenges an established country star, played by Connie Britton. The show aired on ABC until 2016 when it was cancelled and then picked up by CMT.
However, along with Panettiere’s sudden celebrity came intense media scrutiny of her personal life. At age 16, Panettiere was photographed at a dance club with celebrity heiress Paris Hilton, causing some to speculate that she would become the latest in a long list of child stars turned troubled teens. In 2008, shortly after her 18th birthday, Panettiere began dating 30-year-old Heroes co-star Milo Ventimiglia, and their relationship provoked public concern over their 12-year age gap. However, Panettiere insists that criticisms of her personal life are unfounded. “They have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about,” she says of her critics. “I have the occasional glass of champagne when I’m celebrating something, but, generally, I don’t drink. I’m a pizza-and-a-movie girl.” Panettiere and Ventimiglia split ways in 2009. She dated boxer Wladimir Klitschko from 2010 to 2011. Panettiere was then linked with New York Jets player Scotty McKnight, but the couple split in 2012. More recently, she and Wladimir Klitschko have reunited and in December 2014, the couple welcomed a daughter, Kaya Klitschko.
Apart from the world of acting, Panettiere is also an animal rights activist. In 2007, she participated in a dramatic protest against Japanese dolphin hunters, joining a group of activists who swam out into the ocean, placing themselves between the dolphins and fishermen in an attempt to stop a hunt. However, when the fishermen managed to evade the protest, Panettiere was forced to flee the country in advance of Japanese police with a warrant for her arrest—a brush with the law strikingly different from those usually associated with young Hollywood stars.
Since the failed 2007 dolphin rescue mission, Panettiere has been very active in promoting marine wildlife preservation campaigns. She has met with both Chelsea Clinton and President Barack Obama to discuss their stances on marine wildlife protection, and she operates a fundraiser called Panettiere’s Closest, where she regularly auctions off her old outfits to raise money for wildlife preservation campaigns.