"I was overweight and very, very shy," the Fences star tells PEOPLE in this week's cover story

By Mike Miller
March 02, 2017 08:00 AM

Viola Davis is one of the brightest stars in Hollywood after picking up first Oscar win, but it took her years to become the strong, confident woman who just became the most nominated black actress of all time.

“I was one of those people that everyone knew, but I didn’t have a lot of friends. I didn’t date or do any of that stuff. I was overweight and very, very shy,” the Fences star tells PEOPLE in this week’s cover story.

Davis, who grew up in extreme poverty, adds that she was “definitely not a snazzy dresser” and “definitely didn’t wear makeup.” A self-described “geek,” Davis says she was “always looking for a way to express what was in me, my thoughts, and I found it through theater, so that was where I thrived.” If she did not have that outlet, Davis says, “I probably would have imploded.”

Viola Davis was voted Most Talented in her senior year at Central Falls Junior-Senior High School, 1983
Seth Poppel/Yearbook Library

Watch the full episode of People Cover Story: Viola Davis streaming now on People/Entertainment Weekly Network (PEN). Go to PEOPLE.com/PEN, or download the app on your favorite device. 

But expressing herself through theater did not improve her confidence overnight. “My confidence took time. It really did, to come into myself,” she says. “It took many years of getting knocked down and getting back up to finally say, ‘Okay, I think I’m pretty tough. I’ve got this.’􏰀 ”

With support from federal programs including Upward Bound, which helps prepare low-income students for higher education, and teachers like her principal, Davis won a full scholarship to Rhode Island College. She earned a B.A. in theater in 1988 before being accepted into the Juilliard School in New York and got her first Tony Award nomination for Seven Guitars three years after graduating.

RELATED: Oscar Winner Viola Davis on Her Acting Strategy: ‘It’s Our Job as Artists to Unmask’

For much more from Viola Davis, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

Despite all her success, it wasn’t until Davis reached Hollywood around 1999-2000 that she began to become “mindful” of her appearance — or as she puts it, “Just wanting to look like a better me.” That was “the first time I realized I had two teeth that were crooked,” she remembers. “No one ever mentioned it until I got here.”

With each stage of her career, Davis has found “another barrier and another dragon to slay” in the pursuit of being confident with herself. “At first, I just wanted to try really hard to make people see that I was pretty, that I wasn’t just the drug addict from Antoine Fisher, so it was about proving something to someone,” she explains.

“It wasn’t until the last year that I was like, ‘Okay, I’m done with that,’ ” she adds. “I just want to look like me, good me. I just want to be satisfied with how I look. With every year that passes, it’s another dragon.”

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