LOS ANGELES — In her bad girl days, Angelina Jolie's body was a billboard for tattoos that said such things as "Billy Bob."
Now she's sharing intimate details of her anatomy to help women at risk, going public with her preventive double mastectomy to greatly reduce her high odds of breast cancer.
It's the latest peak in Jolie's turn-around from hedonist to humanitarian, party girl to inspirational poster girl. The way she went public with her medical story on her own terms, in her own time — with a New York Times op-ed piece Tuesday that caught the media fishbowl of Hollywood completely by surprise — reveals a woman who once seemed out of control to be one of Hollywood's most forceful and compassionate stars, using her fame with surgical precision to promote matters dear to her.
"I'm in awe of her. She remains one of the most inspiring women that I've ever encountered," said former Paramount Pictures boss Sherry Lansing, who heads the Sherry Lansing Foundation for cancer research. "By letting people know about her personal issue, she is touching countless women who have the same genetic mutations, and she is showing them that they have choices and they can be empowered and can take care of their own health. And by doing so, I believe she is going to save countless lives."
Jolie's come a long way from her wild-child days of 10 or 12 years ago. She was branded a home-wrecker when she took up with Billy Bob Thornton, who broke up with Laura Dern and married Jolie. Thornton and Jolie were a tabloid writer's dream team, an odd couple who wore lockets with a drop of each other's blood.
Back in 2000, Jolie proudly showed off the newest of her 10 tattoos, the name "Billy Bob" etched across her left shoulder. The marriage ended three years later, and new home-wrecker accusations arose after Brad Pitt left Jennifer Aniston for Jolie, his co-star in the 2005 assassin adventure "Mr. and Mrs. Smith."
But since then, while paparazzi stalk them and entertainment reporters scramble to chase the latest rumor that Jolie and Pitt are finally going to wed, they have emerged as the ultimate Hollywood power couple. They switch off on film projects so one is free to mind their six children, they travel the world talking up good deeds.
"If she wasn't one of the top actresses in Hollywood, she'd be one of the top publicists," said Howard Bragman, vice chairman of Reputation.com. "It's hard to think of a couple that has a better image in this town, both for their careers, family, humanitarian work. ... They're very good at it, and one of the reasons is they have a very intimate circle that they trust, and they don't go beyond that. It's unusual in Hollywood circles, but they're very strict about their personal life, about what gets out there. When something gets out there, it's usually planned to get out there. It doesn't leak. They don't even have publicists."
A special envoy on refugee issues for the United Nations, Jolie, 37, has become as much about causes as career.
She still makes big studio entertainment such as next year's "Maleficent," a twist on "Sleeping Beauty" in which she stars as the wicked sorceress who puts a curse on the fairy-tale princess. Yet Jolie puts her humanitarian interests on screen, too, making her directing debut with 2011's "In the Land of Blood and Honey," a war drama about two lovers — a Bosnian Muslim woman and a Bosnian-Serbian man — caught up in the horrors of work and rape camps.
"There is no difference between the star Angelina Jolie and the woman Angelina Jolie. The choices she made even as a director are still strong," said Thierry Fremaux, director of the Cannes Film Festival, where Jolie has been a frequent guest with films such as "Changeling" and "A Mighty Heart."
As for Jolie's op-ed piece about her mastectomy, "we all know that she didn't do that for herself but as giving an example to all the women on this planet Earth who are suffering from the same disease," Fremaux said. "We knew she was a great star, but she's a great person, as well."
Jolie wrote about her mother's death from cancer at 56 and that she carries a gene herself that, according to doctors, left her with an 87 percent chance of breast cancer and 50 percent chance of ovarian cancer. She describes in detail the procedures she underwent from early February to late April to remove tissue and reconstruct her breasts with implants.
She was treated at the Pink Lotus Breast Center in Beverly Hills, Calif. Dr. Kristi Funk, who founded the center in 2007, read a short statement to reporters Tuesday, saying "we hope that the awareness she is raising around the world will save countless lives."
The procedures reduced her risk of breast cancer to less than 5 percent, Jolie wrote.
"I wanted to write this to tell other women that the decision to have a mastectomy was not easy. But it is one I am very happy that I made," Jolie wrote. "I can tell my children that they don't need to fear they will lose me to breast cancer."
One of the most remarkable aspects of the story is how two of the most recognizable people in the world were able to make repeated incognito trips to Pink Lotus, where Jolie writes that Pitt was there for every minute of her surgeries. Jolie and Pitt are hounded by the press, so how they kept this a secret is anyone's guess.
"It's almost unspeakably amazing. In this world there is no privacy. David Petraeus couldn't keep a secret," said Hollywood publicist Michael Levine, who once represented Jolie's father, Jon Voight. "It's hard to imagine how they did it."
Announcing it in such a personal and classy way can only enhance Jolie's stature in Hollywood. With family and philanthropic work, Jolie has eased back on film projects, with future prospects including a possible sequel to her action hit "Salt," in which she played a sexy CIA agent on the run.
Will the mastectomy have any effect on Jolie's sex-symbol image?
"I feel like she is the kind of person who will do whatever it takes to still look fantastic. I think she has a discipline that is unmatched," said Dave Karger, chief correspondent for movie-ticket seller Fandango.com. "She will make sure that she looks just as great as she has in the past.
"I don't think that's going to make much of a difference, and I think a lot of people are going to have more respect. This humanizes her in a way. She's not that perfect specimen sticking her leg out at the Oscars anymore. She's a real human being with real health issues like any other human being."
A real human being, and no less of a woman, to hear Jolie tell it.
"I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity," Jolie wrote.