From Miss Teen USA to Special Agent: Vanessa Lachey’s Remarkable Journey

“NCIS: Hawai’i” has introduced fans of the long-running procedural series to a new location, a new team, and a significant first for the franchise. Despite many strong women throughout the years, the “NCIS” universe has never had a woman in the lead role as Special Agent in Charge until now (via TV Line). That role is filled by Jane Tennant, portrayed by Vanessa Lachey.

CBS describes her, per Hawaii News Now, as a “diplomatic” yet “hard-charging” agent who is balancing duty and family. As the first episodes have shown, she’s a soccer mom who knows exactly how and when to take charge.

Vanessa Lachey has long been in the public eye, but her path to stardom—and the coveted role as the head of the third “NCIS” spinoff—has been unconventional.

The Filipino-American actress was born Vanessa Minnillo at Clark Air Force Base in 1980, according to the Philippine Daily Inquirer. As an Air Force brat whose mother divorced her father and later married another serviceman, she moved frequently during her childhood, living in Germany, Turkey, Florida, and Nevada, before finally settling in South Carolina with her father and stepmother for high school. There, she became Miss Teen South Carolina and went on to compete for the Miss Teen USA title, winning Miss Congeniality before taking the overall competition.

“It was the stepping stone I needed,” Minnillo told the Philippine Daily Inquirer about her pageant experience. “I gained confidence and found myself. I felt proud to be an Asian American and represent the USA as Miss Teen USA 1998. I felt that I was given an extra responsibility to do something with my title.”

After high school, Minnillo pursued a career in entertainment. In her mid-20s, she returned to the spotlight as a host. She became a backstage correspondent at the 50th annual Miss USA Pageant in 2001, and not long after, MTV took her on as one of its veejays.

She hosted “TRL” from 2003-2007 and also hosted MTV’s New Year’s and spring break specials, documentaries, awards shows, and television productions, like “The Real World.” In 2004, she co-hosted the Miss Teen USA Pageant, and in 2007, she hosted the Miss Universe pageant. Starting in 2005, she also became a long-time correspondent for “Entertainment Tonight.”

Minnillo’s hosting duties can be directly credited for landing her a husband. When Nick Lachey, of 98 Degrees, was working on a second solo album, he asked Minnillo, whom he knew from “TRL,” to be in his video for “What’s Left of Me.” He told Billboard Magazine that he thought casting her might get the song played on the show. However, she was so nervous about seeing him she called in sick. “If you go back and look at the video, when he came to premiere it, I was so nervous and so crushing him that I didn’t show up for work that day,” she said.

The two married in 2011 and now have three children (per Instagram).

While Vanessa Lachey’s hosting career was gaining traction, she also started acting. She began with an eight-episode run on “The Bold and the Beautiful” in 2001, followed by guest spots on TV shows and TV movies. After “TRL,” she made a cameo in 2007’s “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer” (via People) and started getting bigger roles.

In 2008 and beyond, she guest-starred on series like “How I Met Your Mother,” “30 Rock,” “Psych,” and “Hawaii Five-O,” and had regular or recurring roles on NBC’s “Truth Be Told” in 2015 and Fox’s “Dads.” More recently, she appeared on episodes of “BH90210” and “Call Me Kat,” which she told Heavy was the first time someone had called her about being on a show. “They liked my work! So, it was a really great feeling,” she said.

She has also done a handful of movies, including 2008’s satirical “Disaster Movie” and Lifetime holiday TV films like 2018’s “A Twist of Christmas,” 2019’s “A Doggone Christmas,” and 2020’s “Once Upon a Main Street.”

Her latest role as Jane Tennant in “NCIS: Hawai’i” feels like a natural fit, as she draws from her military roots. “There’s this layer of being in the military that I don’t think you can learn,” she told TV Insider. “I understand because I firsthand lived with sacrifices that my father made for us and for the country. It definitely runs in my blood.”

From her early days as a beauty queen to becoming a beloved TV host and now the lead of an “NCIS” spinoff, Vanessa Lachey’s journey has been remarkable and inspiring.