Born in El Paso, Texas, on April 1, 1932, Reynolds relocated to California with her family in the late ’30s — and entered the Miss Burbank pageant as a teenager. “My brother came to laugh at me because he knew I’d lose,” she told PEOPLE, adding that her career goal had been to become a gym teacher. Then 16, she won — and landed a movie contract with Warner Brothers after a scout at the pageant sought her out.

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Following her surprise win at the pageant and one-year contract with Warner Bros., Reynolds took a tour of MGM, where she met the “wonderful” Spencer Tracy. “Why I have on my Girl Scout uniform, I have no idea,” she recalled to PEOPLE. “But I was very proud of that uniform and still am. I had 47 badges when I visited that day … more than anybody!”

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It wasn’t long before Reynolds found fame: two years after being crowned Miss Burbank, she starred in 1950’s Three Little Words opposite Fred Astaire, and earned a Golden Globe Award for Most Promising Newcomer.

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But it wasn’t until a 17-year-old Reynolds snagged a leading role in 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain — where she first met Gene Kelly (pictured) — that she became a household name, lauded for her acting, singing and dancing. “I was just lucky. I didn’t have to be a well trained actress … I was 17 and certainly had no training,” she told the American Film Institute, adding that she related to her character in the film. “But if the part is you, and you aren’t afraid — and I wasn’t afraid — I didn’t feel you could fail.”

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Dreams do come true — and Reynolds’s duet with Frank Sinatra in 1955’s The Tender Trap was proof of it.

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Frank Sinatra warned her that a singer would never be faithful, but in 1955, she married pop star Eddie Fisher anyway. He memorably cheated on her with her friend Elizabeth Taylor, whom she attended school with at MGM in between films. The women made amends years later. “We were friends until her death,” said Reynolds. “But we had that lapse of time when she took Eddie to live with her because she liked him too.” Reynolds went on to marry Harry Karl in 1960, divorcing the businessman in 1973, and real estate agent Richard Hamlett in 1984, divorcing him in 1996.

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Reynolds capped off the 1950s with the release of her first pop music album, entitled Debbie.

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“Aren’t they beautiful?” she told PEOPLE of kids Carrie and Todd Fisher, whom she welcomed with then-husband Eddie Fisher in 1956 and 1958, respectively. “I always loved to put little outfits together for them. They were raised on the MGM back lot.”

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While her personal life had its ups and downs, Reynolds’s career continued to skyrocket: The Hollywood heavyweight earned her first Oscar nod in 1965 for tackling the title role in The Unsinkable Molly Brown.

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TV TALK, 1969

With her charisma and pep behind her, Reynolds decided to try her hand at hosting her own television show, The Debbie Reynolds Show, which went on to receive a Golden Globe nomination.

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Reynolds most recently lived in a cozy L.A. guesthouse next to daughter Carrie — who once joined her mom to meet President Nixon in 1973. Reynolds said of the meeting: “He was charming and loved movies.”

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IRENE, 1973

Taking her talents from the big screen to the big stage, Reynolds headed to Broadway, where she starred in the musical Irene — which ultimately earned her a Tony nomination.

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Reynolds joined her pals Liberace, Joan Rivers and Sonny Bono at a surprise birthday party for Tom Jones at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. “I’ll pick you up,” Reynolds recalled Liberace telling her beforehand. “Just wear your diamonds.”

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Younger viewers are most likely acquainted with Reynolds’s work in the 1998 Disney Channel film (and its subsequent sequels), which saw the legendary actress take on the role of Aggie Cromwell — a witch who serves as mentor to her teenage granddaughter who is just discovering her powers. “I just thought she was incredibly warm and sweet,” Reynolds’s costar, Kimberly J. Brown, said in an interview. “Everybody was nervous to be meeting her and she kind of put everybody at ease right away. She’s like your best friend right away. She’s awesome.”

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For nearly a decade, Reynolds and daughter Carrie hardly spoke, creating a volatile relationship due to Fisher’s desire to seek her own identity from being known “as Debbie Reynolds’ daughter.” In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Reynolds recalled a painful memory in the pair’s shared history: “My lowest point in Carrie and my relationship was probably when we discovered that she [had bipolar disorder], or that she had this mental health problem, and that it was going to be with her forever,” she said. “That was very hard. How is she going to get along in life? How can I help her in life? All I could do is love her, and always shall.” The pair mended their relationship and remained close up until Fisher’s Dec. 27, 2016, death.

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In a recent interview, Reynolds (pictured here with second husband Harry Karl) candidly revealed her thoughts on the demise of her three marriages. “My husbands all repeatedly said the same thing — that I was not a very passionate woman,” she said, adding she was never “a sexual lady.” She continued: “I have very poor taste in men and I married all the wrong men. I’ve never found the right man and never hope to at this age. I think that it’s too late. That boat has sailed.”

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With a TV and film career spanning 60 years and a résumé boasting nominations for one Oscar, five Golden Globes and one Emmy, Reynolds received the Life Achievement Award at the 21st annual Screen Actors Guild Awards, following an introduction by daughter Carrie. “God gave us talent, so we’re very fortunate,” she said during her acceptance speech. “My favorite movie was The Unsinkable Molly Brown. In that film, I got to sing a wonderful song called ‘I Ain’t Down Yet.’ Well, I ain’t. Thank you all so much for this wonderful award.” Reynolds passed away following a stroke on Dec. 28, 2016 — just one day after Carrie died after suffering a heart attack.

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