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The Transformation Of Kirsten Vangsness From Childhood To Criminal Minds

It's been a little more than a year since the hit CBS crime drama Criminal Minds wrapped its 15-season run with the aptly titled finale episode, "And in the End." All this time later, the show still lingers heavily in the pop culture lexicon, and the characters will likely long be revered.

Among these fan-favorite heroes is Penelope Garcia, the technical analyst expert of the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU), a team of elite profilers based in Quantico. She's flirty, sassy, funny, and fierce — a survivor, who endures losing her parents at the age of 18, getting caught by the FBI as an elite hacker known as "The Black Queen," to say nothing of the countless traumatic incidents she experiences as an agent.

Garcia is played by Kirsten Vangsness, who undoubtedly was central to Garcia's popularity as a character. In fact, as Vangsness told Parade in a 2016 interview, Garcia was only supposed to be in one episode, but Vangsness's chemistry with hunky costar Shemar Moore (who plays Derek Morgan) flipped the plans of the writers. She went on to star in the second-most episodes of any other cast member — 321 of the show's 323 total episodes, behind only Matthew Gray Gubler, who's the only cast member to appear in every episode. Vangsness also starred in the show's first spin-off, the short-lived 2011 venture Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior, and appeared in the second spin-off, Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders, which ran from 2016-17.

The actress's road to the Criminal Minds franchise from her days as a young girl, simply pondering her future, was both a long and quick journey. Here's her transformation.

Kirsten Vangsness chose acting instead of shop class

A young Kirsten Vangsness began acting in grade school, partly to overcome shyness. As she told reporter Matt Pomroy, her weight and "strange" appearance made it difficult for her to fit in when she moved to a new school. Her grades slipped, and when her parents made her choose between shop class and acting class, she chose acting — "because," she said, "I hated the idea of shop even more" — and wound up getting her best grade in a long time, reinvigorating her outlook, overall.

"I was good at it," said Vangsness. "So, it was like, 'I'm going to keep doing that thing.'"

She initially stuck to theater, in part because she felt that people on television didn't look like her, so she thought theater was a better fit. She struggled for a while, joking that she thought she'd be living on "cat food" forever. At one point, she had a day job as a substitute teacher. Her first formal roles were in two short films, in 1988 and 2003. Then, in 2012, she appeared in a TV movie, Annie Unleashed, an episode of the Disney Channel show Phil of the Future, and in three episodes of the short-lived airport drama LAX

Then came Criminal Minds, and her life forever changed.

Criminal Minds expanded Kirsten Vangsness' career

When she got the part in Criminal Minds, Vangsness was about 33 years old. She'd been working as an actor for a while, but hadn't yet done many notable projects. Criminal Minds changed everything. She landed the part of Garcia despite it being originally written for a Latino man (via The Advocate), and she earned the promotion from one-off character to series regular. Through her first five years working on Criminal Minds, she also appeared in a few films, including the 2006 comedy A-List and the 2010 drama In My Sleep. From 2010 through 2012, she starred in the web comedy Pretty the Series, for which she was nominated for two Indie Series Awards. In 2013, she appeared in six episodes of a web series called Shelf Life. In 2015, she appeared in an episode of the Marvel show Agent Carter and starred in the ode-to-black-and-white-film mystery comedy film Kill Me, Deadly, which picked up a couple of independent film festival awards.

So even though Criminal Minds remains her biggest role, she has stayed plenty busy. While not on camera, Vangsness has gotten into behind-the-scenes work, especially writing. She wrote five episodes of Criminal Minds through the show's last five seasons, including co-authoring the series finale. Additionally, she wrote a 2020 animated short, Curtains, which she also directed.

The actress does not appear to have major projects on her docket just yet, but she told Parade in early 2020 that she was, at the time, finishing up writing a play. COVID-19 likely threw a loop in her plans, but perhaps there will be something new from Vangsness when more regular life resumes.

Kirsten Vangsness helped represent a new kind of female TV character

Vangsness has come a long way since her days as a shy, bullied middle-schooler. She helped foster the popularity of the geek chic concept, which established that smart, nerdy women who didn't look like models could be just as cool and sexy as any other female character.

"The fact that I can be on television and I get to flirt with one of the hottest guys ever seen on a television or screen [Shemar Moore] or anywhere, and I'm the one that he's crazy for," she told Matt Pomroy. "The fact that I can have all these brains and be a size 12 and do this is fantastic. That makes me feel so good."

Vangsness is also a proudly out queer actor, first coming out publicly by bringing a woman as her date to the 2006 People's Choice Awards, and then eventually declaring herself to The Advocate as "queer as a purple unicorn singing Madonna." She got engaged to a woman in 2009, though the relationship fizzled before marriage.

It's not clear when we'll next see her, but in the meantime, you can continue watching Vangsness on Criminal Minds on Netflix.