Paula White has gone from a self-proclaimed "messed up Mississippi girl" to the immaculately dressed and French-manicured host of a Christian television show aired throughout the world.
White spent her first six years of life in Tupelo and her first 18 years without ever hearing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But now she is making sure people as diverse as an inner-city child to Margaret Thatcher can hear about the love that transformed her life.
Despite antithetical beginnings, White has found success in the world of religion - especially within the hearts of professional athletes and other high-profile types. Even though the televangelist spends a great deal of time mentoring society's upper crust, she also allocates many resources to the poor throughout the world.
In 1991, Paula and husband Randy White co-founded the Tampa, Fla., Without Walls International Church, which Church Growth Today, a Missouri-based independent research firm, tagged the fastest-growing and second-largest church in the United States.
The path to Tampa from her birthplace in Tupelo - where her grandmother, aunt and two nieces still live - was a rough one. When she was 5, White's father committed suicide. A year later, she moved for the first of 12 times during her childhood. That first relocation began a seven-year period of physical and sexual abuse.
"I joke that my husband is from five generations of preachers, but I'm from five generations of heathen," she said.
It wasn't until she was 18 that she came to know Jesus, an event that transformed her life.
"I represent a lot of people," White said. "I had heard the name Jesus, just like I had heard about Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, but I had never heard the Gospel. People assume you know things, yet there was never a presentation. There wasn't television evangelism back then."
A friend's uncle presented White with the Gospel after she had spent a night partying.
"For every question that had loomed over my head, all of a sudden there were solutions," she said. "At that moment I knew love. The sky was blue; the grass was green. I know that seems corny, but there was a wholeness in me where there had been emptiness."
White knows there are many people who are in similar situations, and that's a driving force in her life.
"That's why I'm so passionate about what I do," she said. "I spend a significant amount of time with kids in the inner city. The Bible says true religion takes care of widows and orphans, so that's what I'm about."
That's not all Paula White is about. White heads a conglomerate of ministries that range from motivational speaker and celebrity life coach to host of a daily TV show and liaison to a number of worldwide humanitarian efforts.
Her television program, "Paula White Today," is broadcast on Trinity Broadcast and Black Entertainment networks, among others, and airs in 66 countries. White points to the time she dedicated herself to God as the impetus for the television ministry.
"It goes back when I was 18 years old," she said. "I virtually consecrated myself to figure out who God is. In the next two years the Lord impressed on my spirit that as I yielded myself to him, he would use me to touch nations."
After asking for God's heart to love people, White says she had a vision that as she opened her mouth, her words drew people to God. But when she closed her mouth, there was darkness. She didn't know exactly what the vision meant, but she continued working behind the scenes in church, accepting new responsibilities as they came.
"They handed me a broom, and I was so excited I had the responsibility of cleaning the church," White said. "Then they asked me to work in the nursery, and I was so excited that people were entrusting me to take care of their children."
White says she kept working faithfully, not knowing how her vision would come to reality.
"But I did know God would maximize my voice," she said.
The television ministry started five years ago with a single camera and $19,000 from the Whites' savings account.
"At that time I didn't know it took millions of dollars to" start a television ministry, White said. "But from day one the favor of God has been upon it. If God can talk through the donkey of Balaam, it's humbling that he can talk through me," she said referring to the biblical account in Numbers 22.
White's television ministry has not only increased her own visibility, but it has also helped establish relationships between her and other highly visible people - from Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and wrestling's Hulk Hogan to singer Mariah Carey and professional baseball's Barry Bonds.
White says her ministry to influential people wasn't something she consciously pursued.
"I think it came about because the media has tagged me as real and relevant," she said.
White's also been tagged as one of the most well-manicured people. When asked how she keeps her fingernails so perfect, she said, "They are looking pretty shabby right now. I get them done when I can and where I can, usually about every two weeks" at a walk-in shop in a mall or shopping area.
Nails included, life has given her a broad range of experiences that have enabled her to reach out to people from different backgrounds, she said.
"At our core as human beings we're not that far apart from each other," White said, "whether a man's a CEO or scraping for his next meal on a park bench in the inner city."
"The Church Report" lists White in the top 16 women in ministry, which, she said, astounds her.
"I have to chalk it up to God's goodness," she said. "I'm the poster child for 1 Corinthians 1:27: But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.'"
White says if a person does all she can and lets God do all he's supposed to do, it's a winning team. Currently, Paula White Ministries is starting a third branch of Without Walls International Church in New York City - the second branch is in Lakeland, Fla., about 35 miles away from the mother church in Tampa.
"Three years ago I came up to New York to do a Bible study," she said. "It's always been a great place of support. I heard God whisper to me that I'd see nations touched from here. I tucked that away in my heart."
The new arm of Without Walls "chose me rather than I chose it," she said. "We believe in taking care of our own backyard then community, state, nation and the outermost parts of the earth."