The term “America’s Sweetheart” first appeared in the early 1900s, back when motion pictures were still a novelty. Over the years, it’s been applied to a vast number of celebrities—largely young, bubbly, wholesome-seeming ladies who women want to be and men want to introduce to their mothers. (The occasional man has been dubbed America’s sweetheart, too, but the moniker has never quite defined famous men the way it has defined a certain genre of female celebrity.) Here are nine people who have been called “America’s sweetheart” in the past.
Mary Pickford—perhaps the most iconic actress of the Silent Era and a founder of Hollywood institutions like the United Artists studio and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—was the first to hold the unofficial title of “America’s Sweetheart,” a nickname reportedly given to her by influential theater owner David Grauman. The title would later be used in ad copy for her films and by magazines writing about her work. In a 1918 feature in Photoplay magazine called “Women I Have Loved,” actor Elliott Dexter, in enumerating all of the actresses who had served as his on-screen love interests, wrote that “Mary Pickford absolutely captivated me as she does everyone who goes near her. Her genius, her brilliancy, her charm, her beauty—oh, what’s the use? All of that has only been said two or three thousand times more or less and all of it is true.” Dexter played opposite Pickford in A Romance of the Redwoods, a 1917 silent Western. (To give you an idea of her comparative clout, she received top billing, while his name didn’t appear on the film’s poster at all.)
“In more than 200 films, including 52 full-length features, she was the brave little girl whose hair hung down in golden ringlets,” The Washington Post described in her obituary in 1979. “She was scarcely 5 feet tall, but she never gave up when times got bad. She was funny and sad, tough and vulnerable, innocent and ingenious, and she always won out in the end.”
Oddly enough, Pickford proved that you didn’t need to be from the U.S. to become America’s sweetheart—she was Canadian.
Several decades after Pickford pioneered the name, Shirley Temple took over as “America’s Sweetheart,” so effectively embodying the title that many have mistakenly called her America’s first sweetheart. The dimpled, ringlet-sporting Depression-era child actor was famous by the time she was 6, singing and tap-dancing her way through more than 40 films before she retired from the pictures at the ripe age of 22 and selling millions of dolls in her likeness to American children in the process. As an adult, she went on to become a U.S. delegate to the U.N. and ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia.
The title of America’s sweetheart stuck with Temple throughout her life. When Fox released box sets of her complete works on DVD in the early 2000s, the studio called them the America’s Sweetheart collection.
Debbie Reynolds became America’s latest sweetheart in the 1950s, starting with her star turn in Singin’ in the Rain, which debuted in 1952 when she was 20 years old. She went on to appear in multiple movies a year throughout the 1950s and had several hit songs on the Billboard charts. “Her girl-next-door looks, bouncy personality and energy in a string of comedies and musicals quickly earned her the title of America’s Sweetheart,” The Times of Shreveport, Louisiana explained in 1988.
Unfortunately, Reynolds’s position as America’s sweetheart was often juxtaposed with the sex-symbol status of her close friend Elizabeth Taylor. Reynolds’s husband Eddie Fisher (himself an American sweetheart) divorced her to marry Taylor in 1959, a scandal that garnered tremendous media coverage at the time and still appears in headlines today. Reynolds died in late 2016, and nearly every obituary referenced her years as America’s sweetheart.
In the 1970s, Mary Tyler Moore took over the title of America’s sweetheart—though there was often a caveat. “Just as surely as Mary Pickford was America’s sweetheart, Mary Tyler Moore is the viewers’ sweetheart,” a UPI newswire story about The Mary Tyler Moore Show declared in 1972, not quite giving her the full title. Moore became a household name in the early 1960s while playing Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show and went on to star in her own eponymous show between 1970 and 1977. In 1977, the New York Daily News called her “America’s TV sweetheart.” But in other publications, there was no descriptor required. Both Esquire and Rolling Stone labeled her “America’s sweetheart’ in cover stories in 1977 and 1980, respectively.
And yet, America can’t focus on one sweetheart for too long. Already, her title was already at risk of being passed off to someone else. In 1979, The Pittsburgh Press wrote that Donna Pescow of Saturday Night Fever, who was then starring in the ABC show Angie, “may replace Mary Tyler Moore as America’s sweetheart.” (That one didn’t quite come to fruition.)
Not all of America’s sweethearts have been actresses. Walter Cronkite bestowed the honorary on gymnast Mary Lou Retton following her wins at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Olympic runner Mary Decker occasionally donned the label in the 1980s, too, as did tennis star Chris Evert and swimmer Janet Evans. Just about every successful female athlete of the 1980s was at one point deemed to be America’s sweetheart. The trope continues today, too—more recent Olympic gymnasts like Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, and Aly Raisman have all been called America’s sweethearts, too.
Meg Ryan became America’s sweetheart thanks to roles in a string of romantic comedies, starting with When Harry Met Sally… in 1989 and continuing throughout the 1990s. In one typical article of the time, a Detroit Free Press story in 1996 called Ryan “she of the giggle in the voice and the sparkle in the eye.” Another, published by The Age in Australia, called her “cinema’s intoxicating, decent-hearted sprite.” But she fell out of Hollywood favor in the early 2000s after an affair with Russell Crowe brought about the end of her marriage to Dennis Quaid, a scandal that captivated the tabloids. If there’s one rule to being America’s sweetheart, it’s that you have to keep your image scandal free—extramarital affairs are definitely not allowed.
Though she has been out of the spotlight for several years, Ryan recently discussed her time as America’s sweetheart with Gwyneth Paltrow at a Goop conference, saying she never liked the title. “When you get labeled anything, like America’s sweetheart—I didn’t even know what that meant,” she told Paltrow. “I remember thinking, ‘Is that good?'” She went on to say, “It doesn’t necessarily imply that you’re smart or sexual or complicated or anything. It’s a label. And what can a label do but guess at you?”
Julia Roberts got her start in Hollywood with films like Mystic Pizza (1988) and Steel Magnolias (1989) and became a true international star when Pretty Woman came out in 1990. In 1993, The Boston Globe called her “the closest thing there is to America’s Sweetheart.” Throughout the ’90s, both she and fellow sweetheart Meg Ryan regularly made the top of lists like Harlequin’s Top 10 Most Desirable Women and Men’s Health’s list of the top stars to “take home to Mom.” And yet by the mid-1990s, some writers were already moving on to someone else. “Sandra Bullock emerged as the likely successor to the fading Julia Roberts as America’s Sweetheart,” the South Florida Sun-Sentinel announced in its end-of-year coverage for 1995. But she was soon back on top—after My Best Friend’s Wedding came out in 1997, the Orlando Sentinel wrote that she “hardly seems ready to relinquish her title as America’s Sweetheart.” In 2003, National Enquirer released a biography of the star called Julia Roberts: America’s Sweetheart.
Anyone with a few hit romantic comedies under their belt is sure to become America’s sweetheart, and Sandra Bullock was no exception. Bullock made her name starring as the plucky heroine in movies like While You Were Sleeping (1995), but when she tried to stretch her dramatic legs, she wasn’t quite so beloved. “Sandra Bullock and Clint Eastwood are popular because of their personalities and looks, not necessarily because we want to see them perform,” a Knight Ridder newspaper critic snarked in 1999. Bullock wasn’t particularly invested in being America’s sweetheart, however, and she certainly understood the rules of the game. “There’s a different ‘America’s Sweetheart’ every time they have to promote another romantic comedy,” she told The Orange County Register in 2005.
Even more fool-proof than romantic comedies, the quickest way to become America’s sweetheart is to link up with another all-American celebrity. While Jennifer Aniston hit sweetheart status thanks to the massive popularity of her character on Friends—one Entertainment Weekly labeled as a Top 10 greatest pop-culture characters of the last 20 years in 2010—her romance with noted Hollywood heartthrob Brad Pitt definitely sealed the deal. When that ended in 2005, she got to keep the title, except she became “America’s jilted sweetheart” (compared to the “superhumanly sensual” Angelina Jolie), as a writer from The Arizona Republic called her in 2005. (Another rule for these superfluous titles? Women must be pitted against each other, whether they like it or not.)
Even though Aniston no longer appears in our homes every Thursday night as she did during her run on Friends, she’ll always be the country’s sweetheart for many. “Look at Jennifer Aniston: she’s America’s sweetheart for a reason,” fellow actress Allison Williams observed while talking about red carpet styles in Elle‘s 2014 Women in TV issue. “You know what she’s going to look like when she shows up to something, and there’s something so comfortable in that.”
Maybe that’s the key. If America’s sweetheart is anything, it’s comforting.