America’s Sweethearts Through the Decades

By Karen Harris

Debbie Reynolds (GettyImages)

There is something very wholesome and special about an America’s sweetheart. She is a celebrity that mingles the right formula of girl-next-door, niceness, and a dash of sexiness. In honor of Sweetest Day this weekend, let us look at some of the best-known America’s sweethearts through the years, from Debbie Reynolds to Emma Watson. 

Mary Pickford – 1920s

Actress Mary Pickford was among the first to be branded with the label, ‘America’s Sweetheart’. She set the bar for all of the other sweethearts to follow. She was a prolific actress, staring in many silent movies of the 1910s and 1920s and was a pioneer in the acting industry. Among her popular films were Coquette, Poor Little Rich Girl, Little Annie Rooney, and My Best Girl

Loretta Young – 1930s

As a teen in the 1930s, Loretta Young cemented her status as America’s sweetheart with roles in Too Young to Marry and Call of the Wild. Although she started as a child star, Young was able to make a smooth transition to young adult and adult roles. She showed off her adaptability even more in subsequent decades when she flawlessly moved from the big screen to the small screen to try her hand at the newest media, television. 

June Allyson – 1940s

After a brief stint as a Broadway dancer in the late 1930s, June Allyson turned her attention to Hollywood and, throughout the 1940s, she used her charm, sweetness, and girl-next-door persona to star in five movies alongside Van Johnson. She also won critical acclaim for her breakout role in Two Girls and a Sailor

Debbie Reynolds – 1950s

The 1950s were all about Debbie Reynolds. The adorable and talented actress appeared in numerous films, including Three Little Words, The Affairs of Dobie Gillis, The Catered Affair, and Susan Slept Here. Her breakout role, however, was in the 1952 blockbuster, Singin’ in the Rain, as well as the 1957 hit, Tammy and the Bachelor. She even released a pop album in 1959. She carried that momentum into the next decade, when she starred in The Unsinkable Molly Brown and How the West Was Won, among others. In fact, Reynolds’ career spans nearly seven decades. 

Audrey Hepburn – 1960s

It was her role in the 1961 film, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, that catapulted Audrey Hepburn to sweetheart status. With her trademark pixie hairstyle and bright, innocent eyes, Hepburn was the picture of innocence as an America’s sweetheart and won the hearts of fans for her roles in My Fair Lady and Wait Until Dark

Cathy Rigby – 1970s

Gymnast Cathy Rigby epitomized the ideals of an America’s sweetheart and her appearances at the 1968 and 1972 Olympics helped to introduce a whole new generation of young girls to the sport of gymnastics. Off the mats, Rigby was cute, spunky, and witty. It was natural for her to transition into acting upon her retirement from sports. Her first role was playing the high flying Peter Pan in the live theatre production, a role that she would later take to Broadway. She also appeared as a guest star in several television series. 

Meg Ryan – 1980s

Cute Meg Ryan started her acting career as a soap opera star in As the World Turns in the early 1980s, but moved on to film roles shortly afterwards. Perky and pretty with a sweet personality, Ryan was cast as the typical girl-next-door. She earned praised for her work in Promised Land in 1988, but her breakout role came in 1989 when she starred in the romantic comedy, directed by Rob Reiner, When Harry Met Sally. For this role, Ryan got her first Golden Globe nomination and she went on to appear in many other romantic comedies throughout the eighties and nineties, including Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail, and Addicted to Love

Julia Roberts – 1990s

It may seem odd to say that Julia Roberts’ role as a prostitute earned her the title of America’s sweetheart, but that is what happened. Prior to Roberts’ breakout role in Pretty Woman in 1990, however, she had established her girl-next-door image with roles in Mystic Pizza and Steel Magnolias. Even portraying a prostitute in Pretty Woman didn’t dampen her image. If anything, it made audiences even more attracted to her wit and winning smile. Her subsequent roles in Notting Hill, The Pelican Brief, My Best Friend’s Wedding, Runaway Bride, and more only made more and more people agree that Roberts’, the highest paid actress of the 1990s, was a true America’s sweetheart. 

Reese Witherspoon – 2000s

Reese Witherspoon shot to stardom after her iconic portrayal of Elle Wood in Legally Blonde in 2001. Her engaging personality, wholesome beauty, and overall niceness helped her to easily become the next America’s sweetheart. She went on to star in Sweet Home Alabama. She then tackled the role of June Carter in Walk the Line, for which she earned the Academy Award, Screen Actors Guild Award, Critics Choice Award, Golden Globe Award, and BAFTA Award, all for best actress. Witherspoon shows no sign of slowing down, appearing in Wild, Gone Girl, Water For Elephants, and Big Little Lies in recent years. 

Emma Watson – 2010s

This America’s sweetheart is a British import. Emma Watson, who achieved stardom for her reoccurring role as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter films, easily transitioned to grown up roles that showcase her grace, charm, and quiet strength. She appeared in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, This is the End, The Circle, and Regression. But the role that made fans fall in love with her all over again was her portrayal as Belle in the live-action musical romance, Beauty and the Beast, last year’s box office smash. 

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Karen Harris


Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.