When LIFE dedicated a ten-page spread to 31-year-old Ginger Rogers in 1942, she had already made nine musical films with Fred Astaire, won an Oscar for Kitty Foyle and raked in the equivalent of $14 million in today’s dollars. Born Virginia Katherine McMath near Kansas City, Mo., and christened Ginger by a cousin who couldn’t pronounce her name, Rogers had moved on from her dancing career to become one of Hollywood’s leading actresses. When she traveled with LIFE photographer Bob Landry to her old stomping grounds in Missouri and Texas, she was promoting her latest flick, Roxie Hart, an adaptation of the 1926 play Chicago.
But her lucrative career might never have come to pass had Rogers not entered and won a statewide Charleston contest when she was 17. After a family move to Texas, where her mother worked as a theater reporter for the Fort Worth Record, Rogers had been exposed to the actors and dancers from whom she picked up her craft. And after winning the contest she got her own dance troupe, Ginger Rogers and her Redheads, and made her way from vaudeville to Broadway to the silver screen.
Once Rogers won that contest, it took a lot more than luck to maintain a steady career. LIFE wrote that her work ethic involved not only a healthy stamina, but a high tolerance for physical pain. “Rehearsing sometimes for 18 hours straight,” the profile read, “Ginger often left the studio at night with her feet bleeding.”
As for the Charleston, the dance that started it all, those skills served Rogers quite well in Roxie Hart:
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.