Vanessa Minnillo's father, Vince, is an American of
Italian and Irish descent. Her mother, Helen Berecero,
is a Filipina from the province of Pampanga on Luzon,
whom Vince met while based in the Philippines, though
Minnillo referred to her mother as Polynesian on at
least one occasion. Vanessa has an adopted brother,
Vincent, who is two years older than her.
As a child, Vanessa Minnillo's family moved numerous times due to her father's work in the United States Air Force, including living in Washington, California, Nevada, Florida, Germany and Japan and placing Minillo in eight different schools within nine years. Minillo's parents separated in 1983, divorced in 1986.
Subsequent to Helen's remarriage to a United States Air Force serviceman, Minnillo and her brother moved to Turkey with their mother and stepfather. By 1990, as a result of Desert Shield, Minnillo and her brother returned to their father's home, eventually settling in Charleston, South Carolina where she attended Bishop England High School and was a cheerleader.
Vanessa Minnillo is fluent in English and has passing knowledge of two languages spoken in the Philippines: Kapampangan and Tagalog. She has a close relationship with her stepmother Donna Minnillo and brother Vincent, but is estranged from her mother.
Vanessa Minnillo entered the public eye as Miss South Carolina Teen USA 1998, and went on to be crowned as the winner of the 1998 Miss Teen USA pageant. She was the first delegate from South Carolina to capture the title and the first winner of the pageant to be chosen as Miss Congeniality.
Vanessa Minnillo later co-hosted the Miss Teen USA 2004 pageant with Tony Potts and Miss Universe 2007 with Mario López.