Vanessa Joy Minnillo was born on November 9, 1980, at Clark Air Force Base in Pampanga, Philippines. Her father, Vince Minnillo, was an Air Force Aircrew Member (now retired) of Irish and Italian extraction, and her mother, Helen Berecero, a Filipina he met while based in the Philippines. She and her family, which includes a two-years older brother, Vincent, lived in California, Nevada, Florida, Germany, and Japan before settling down in Charleston, South Carolina.
Vanessa attended seven different schools during this time, and participated in cheerleading and volunteer work for numerous different local charities. After her parents' divorce in 1986, Helen was awarded custody of both children and Vanessa only saw her father on weekends. When her mother remarried, the family moved to Turkey, where her new step-father, a U.S. Airforce Serviceman, was assigned. They were forced to evacuate when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, leading to the Gulf War of 1991, and Helen brought the kids back to the United States, leaving them with their father until she could get back on her feet.
That would be the last Vanessa Minnillo would see of her mother, who never returned. Instead, she began a new life, along with her brother, living with father Vince and his new wife, Donna, whom she now calls her "best friend." With her life more settled, Vanessa began to turn her attention to the Miss South Carolina beauty pageant in 1996. She had loved cheerleading since a young child, and was very keen on performing in front of an audience. With her unaffected style and natural ebullience, she easily won over the judges, sweeping all the categories before winning the crown.