Judd was born in Granada Hills, Los Angeles. She is the daughter of Naomi Judd, a country music singer and motivational speaker, and Michael Charles Ciminella, a marketing analyst for the horseracing industry. Ashley's elder sister, Wynonna, is also a country music singer. Her paternal grandfather was of Sicilian descent, and her paternal grandmother was a descendant of Mayflower pilgrim William Brewster. At the time of her birth, her mother was unemployed; she did not become well known as a singer until the early 1980s. Judd's parents divorced in 1972. The following year, her mother took Ashley back to Naomi's native Kentucky, where Judd spent the majority of her childhood. She also went to school in Marin County, California, as a child.
Judd attended 13 schools before college, including the Sayre School (Lexington, Kentucky), Paul G. Blazer High School (Ashland, Kentucky) and Franklin High School in Tennessee. She briefly tried modeling in Japan during a school break. An alumna of the sorority Kappa Kappa Gamma at the University of Kentucky, she majored in French and minored in anthropology, art history, theater, and women's studies. She spent a semester studying in France as part of her major. She graduated from the UK Honors Program and was nominated to Phi Beta Kappa but did not graduate with her class. Forgoing her commitment to join the Peace Corps, after college she drove to Hollywood, where she studied with acting teacher Robert Carnegie at Playhouse West. During this time, she worked as a hostess at The Ivy restaurant and lived in a Malibu rental house, which burned down in 1993. Around that time, her half-sister Wynonna Judd leased her a historic farmhouse and 10 acres of land in Williamson County, Tennessee. She moved to Tennessee and lived near her mother Naomi and sister Wynonna.
Judd appeared as Ensign Robin Lefler, a Starfleet officer, in two 1991 episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, "Darmok" and "The Game". From 1991 to 1994, she had a recurring role as Reed, the daughter of Alex (Swoosie Kurtz), on the NBC drama Sisters. She made her feature film debut with a small role in 1992's Kuffs. In 1993, Judd fought for and was cast in her first starring role playing the title character in Victor Nuñez's Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize dramatic winner Ruby in Paradise. On her way to the audition, she was so nervous about getting a role that she felt defined her life, she nearly wrecked her car. "From the first three sentences, I knew it was written for me", she told the San Jose Mercury News. She received rave reviews playing Ruby Lee Gissing, a young woman trying to make a new life for herself, and it was this performance that would launch her career as an actress. Nuñez told author James L. Dickerson that the resonance of the character was Judd's creation: "The resonance, those moments, was not contrived. It was just a matter of creating the scene and trusting that it was worth telling."
Oliver Stone, who had seen her in Nuñez's film, cast Judd in Natural Born Killers, but her scenes were later cut from the version of the film released theatrically. The following year, she gained further critical acclaim for her role as Harvey Keitel's estranged daughter in Wayne Wang's Smoke and also as Val Kilmer's wife in Michael Mann's Heat. That same year she also played the role of Callie in Philip Ridley's dark, adult fairy tale, The Passion of Darkly Noon. In 1996, she co-starred with Mira Sorvino as Marilyn Monroe in Norma Jean and Marilyn, where she recreated the photo shoot for the centerfold for the first issue of Playboy. By the end of the 1990s, Judd had managed to achieve significant fame and success as a leading actress, after leading roles in several thrillers that performed well at the box office, including Kiss the Girls in 1997 and 1999's Double Jeopardy.
Several of her early 2000s films, including 2001's Someone Like You and 2002's High Crimes, received only mixed reviews and moderate box office success; although she did receive positive recognition, and a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress, for her performance in the 2004 biography of Cole Porter, De-Lovely, opposite Kevin Kline. In the same year, however, she starred in Twisted, the worst-reviewed movie of 2004 with 131 of 133 critics panning it. To date, Twisted is the last major Hollywood film in which she received top billing.
In June 2007, Goody's Family Clothing announced they were going to be releasing three fashion clothing lines with Judd in the fall to be called "AJ", "Love Ashley" and "Ashley Judd". Goody's declared bankruptcy a year later due to slow sales and its last store closed in February 2009.
Judd is currently the magazine advertising "face" of American Beauty, an Estée Lauder cosmetic brand sold exclusively at Kohl's department stores, and H. Stern jewelers. In early 2012, however, her image suddenly disappeared from American Beauty's web site.
In 2011, Judd co-starred with Patrick Dempsey in the film Flypaper. It grossed only $1,100 total in its very limited theatrical release and received a 17% Rotten Tomatoes rating (15 of 18 critics panned it). That April, Judd released her memoir All That is Bitter and Sweet, where she talks about her trials and tribulations from adolescence to adulthood. In 2012, Judd starred as Rebecca Winstone on the ABC series Missing. The series was not renewed for a second season.
In 2014, Judd appeared as Natalie Prior in Divergent, which she reprised in the 2015 sequel Insurgent.
In 2014, Judd was the narrator of the documentary film about Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen, Love is a Verb, directed by Terry Spencer Hesser.
In 2015, Judd became the first woman to narrate the opening for the telecast of the Kentucky Derby.
In December 1999, Judd became engaged to Scottish racing driver Dario Franchitti, who was driving in the Champ Car World Series. Since the demise of the Champ Car World Series, Franchitti has raced in IndyCar and NASCAR. They married in December 2001 at Skibo Castle. They had no children together, with Judd telling the Sunday Mail that "it's unconscionable to breed with the number of children who are starving to death in impoverished countries". They divorced in 2013.
Judd is known to attend University of Kentucky basketball games regularly (frequently sitting in the student section), and has also attended several Kentucky football games.
In February 2006, Judd entered a program at Shades of Hope Treatment Center in Buffalo Gap, Texas, and stayed for 47 days. She was there for treatment of depression, insomnia, and codependency.
A disagreement between Judd and Indy race car driver Milka Duno took place during the 2007 IndyCar season. After the final race, she stated to the media: "I know this is not very sportsmanlike, but they've got to get the 23 car (Duno) off the track. It's very dangerous. I'm tired of holding my tongue. She shouldn't be out there. When a car is 10 miles (an hour) off the pace, it's not appropriate to be racing. People's lives are at stake."
On May 9, 2007, the media announced that Judd had completed her bachelor's degree in French at the University of Kentucky. In a May 2007 appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, she explained that she had completed her degree requirements in 1990 with 27 more credit hours taken than the required 120 hours, but had mistakenly thought she was one class short of the necessary requirements. At this time, she realized that she only needed to "sign a piece of paper" to graduate and receive her diploma. DeGeneres then surprised Judd by presenting her with her diploma, which DeGeneres had acquired from the university.
Judd was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Union College in Barbourville, Kentucky, on May 9, 2009. She subsequently earned a Mid-Career Master of Public Administration degree (MC/MPA) from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in 2010 through the Mid-Career Master of Public Administration program.
Judd is Christian and says this is the reason why she must fight for social justice.
Judd's humanitarian work has revolved around AIDS. Judd has travelled with YouthAIDS to places affected by illness and poverty such as Cambodia, Kenya, and Rwanda. She has since become an advocate for preventing poverty and promoting awareness internationally. She has met with political and religious leaders on behalf of the deprived about political and social change. Judd has also narrated three documentaries for YouthAIDS that aired on the Discovery Channel, in National Geographic, and on VH1.
In 2011, she joined the Leadership Council of the International Center for Research on Women. Other organizations Judd has been involved with include Women for Women International and Equality Now.
Judd is active on the speakers' circuit, giving speeches about humanitarian topics.
Judd has supported the following charities and foundations:Children's Medical Research Institute
Defenders of Wildlife
Five & Alive
Jeans for Genes
International Center for Research on Women (ICRW)
Malaria No More
Population Services International
Women for Women International
San Francisco Child Abuse Prevention Center
In 2008, Judd supported Barack Obama's presidential campaign. In 2009, she appeared in a one-minute video advertisement for the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund, in which Judd condemned Alaska governor Sarah Palin for supporting aerial wolf hunting. In response, Palin stated the reason these wolves are killed is to protect the caribou population in Alaska. Palin called the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund an "extreme fringe group". In 2010, Judd signed the Animal Legal Defense Fund's petition to urge Governor Steve Beshear to protect Kentucky's homeless animals through tough enforcement of the state's Humane Shelter Law.
Judd is active in humanitarian and political causes. She was appointed Global Ambassador for YouthAIDS, an education and prevention program of the international NGO Population Services International (PSI), promoting AIDS prevention and treatment. Judd was honored November 10, 2009, as the recipient of the fourth annual USA Today Hollywood Hero, awarded for her work with PSI. On October 29, 2006, Judd appeared at a "Women for Ford" event for Democratic Tennessee Senate candidate Harold Ford, Jr. She has also campaigned extensively locally and nationally for a variety of Democratic candidates, including President Barack Obama in critical swing states.
On September 8, 2010, CNN interviewed Judd about her second humanitarian mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Judd traveled with the Enough Project, a project to end genocide and crimes against humanity. In the interview, Judd discussed her efforts to raise awareness about how conflict minerals fuel sexual violence in Congo. During her trip, Judd visited hospitals for victims of sexual violence, camps for displaced persons, mines, and civil society organizations. On September 30, 2010, cnn.com published an op-ed titled "Ashley Judd: Electronics fuel unspeakable violence" by Judd and Enough Project co-founder John Prendergast regarding the continued violence in Congo. Her op-ed discussed the recent provision in the Dodd-Frank Reform bill that requires companies to prove where their minerals originated. On November 26, 2010, The Huffington Post published an op-ed by Judd, "Costs of Convenience". The op-ed is excerpted from Ashley Judd's trip diary from her trip to eastern Congo. Judd describes the link between her cell phone, laptop, MP3 player and e-reader and the continued rape and sexual violence in Congo. Judd also explains the immediate need for electronics companies to commit to tracing, auditing, and certifying the minerals in their products to guarantee a clean supply chain.
Judd again supported Democrats in the 2012 elections, endorsing President Barack Obama for re-election although she did not contribute financially to his campaign. She represented Tennessee as a delegate to the 2012 Democratic National Convention. She also considered returning to Kentucky and challenging U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell in 2014. In response, the Conservative Super PAC "American Crossroads" released an attack ad against Judd in Kentucky.
In February 2013, she invited her Twitter followers to join a mailing list, hinting that she might ultimately announce a run for the Senate to those on the list. However, she announced on her Twitter feed on March 27, 2013, that she would not run, citing her "need to be focused on my family". Judd endorsed Alison Lundergan Grimes, Secretary of State of Kentucky after she announced her candidacy.
Judd took part in the 2017 Women's March. She performed a poem written by Nashville-area poet Nina Donovan, "Nasty Woman", to applause from the crowd.Kentucky Colonel
Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters, Union College, Barbourville, Kentucky