Carpenter was born in Las Vegas, Nevada, the daughter of Chris, a bird sanctuary worker, and Don Carpenter, a salesman. She is of French and German descent on her father's side and Cherokee and Spanish descent on her mother's side. Her parents named her after an Avon perfume. Carpenter attended Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas; she was also a part of a song-and-dance troupe which performed in the Las Vegas area beginning when she was nine. When she was 15, her family moved to Rosarito city, Mexico and then to San Diego where she attended Bonita Vista High School and Chula Vista School of the Creative and Performing Arts. After graduation, Carpenter traveled throughout Europe. Once she returned to San Diego again, she worked as a video store clerk, an aerobics instructor, and in property management. In 1991, she worked as a San Diego Charger cheerleader. In 1992, she moved to Los Angeles.
Carpenter was discovered by a commercial agent while waiting tables in Los Angeles to save money for her college education. This led to her role on theatrical productions and more than twenty commercials. She made her first television role in 1994 by appearing in an episode of Baywatch. Shortly after that, she landed a starring role on Aaron Spelling's short-lived soap opera Malibu Shores.
In 1996, Carpenter auditioned for the title role in the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer but instead was cast as Cordelia Chase, a snobby and popular high school student. After three seasons on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Carpenter was offered an even larger role as the same character on the spin-off series Angel along with David Boreanaz. She played Cordelia Chase for four seasons on Angel. Although her character leaves the series during Angel's fourth season, Carpenter returned for the 100th episode in the fifth and final season because she felt that Cordelia's fans deserved closure after the controversy of her unexplained removal from the show.
In 2004, Carpenter had a three episode guest appearance on the TV show Charmed as a psychic demon called The Seer and played a recurring role on NBC's Miss Match, appearing in four episodes. She also had a recurring role as Kendall Casablancas in the TV series Veronica Mars for the 2005–2006 season, appearing in 11 episodes. Carpenter guest-starred in the first season finale of ABC Family's television show Greek and reprised her role in two episodes of Season 2. According to TV Guide in September 2007, she was set to join the cast of The Apprentice: Celebrity Edition, but instead chose to do a guest appearance on the show Back to You as well as a recurring role on the short-lived series Big Shots. Carpenter also had a guest appearance in an April 2009 episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.
On March 20, 2008, Paley Fest hosted a Buffy the Vampire Slayer reunion. Carpenter attended the event alongside Buffy creator Joss Whedon, producers Marti Noxon and David Greenwalt, and other Buffy alumni including Sarah Michelle Gellar, Nicholas Brendon, James Marsters, Emma Caulfield, Amber Benson, Seth Green, and Michelle Trachtenberg.
Carpenter has starred in an assortment of made-for-TV and direct-to-video movies including the sex comedy What Boys Like, the horror film Voodoo Moon, and the romantic comedies See Jane Date and Relative Chaos on ABC Family (the latter of which co-starred fellow Buffy alum Nicholas Brendon). She also appeared in the mysteries Flirting with Danger and Cheaters' Club on Lifetime Television and the Syfy movie House of Bones broadcast in 2010, around the same time as her guest spot in Legend of the Seeker.
Also in 2009, Carpenter starred in production company Red Sparrow's first film, Psychosis, which was released in early 2011. In August 2010, she had a supporting role in Sylvester Stallone's The Expendables. After the success of The Expendables, Carpenter was cast in Human Factor and in the indie thriller Crash Site.
She appeared in an episode of the seventh season of Supernatural alongside Buffy co-star James Marsters.
As of 2011, Carpenter landed a role in ABC Family's drama The Lying Game.
Carpenter was named on Askmen.com's Top 99 Most Desirable Women 2002 and on their 2005 list. Despite this, Carpenter has stated she does not view herself as a sex symbol.
In the June 2004 issue of Playboy magazine, Carpenter appeared on the cover and in a ten-page nude layout. When asked by People magazine in 2005 about her nude pictorial and whether or not she would ever pose for Playboy again, she replied, "I don't know. I did Playboy for a very specific reason. Not only was it a good financial move, but it was about the place I was at in my life. I had just had my son and I'd gained 50 lbs. during pregnancy. I wanted to get back to my old self. I wanted to feel desirable and sexy. So I thought, 'What if I went full throttle?'"
Carpenter married Damian Hardy on October 5, 2002. On March 24, 2003, Carpenter gave birth to a son named Donovan Charles Hardy. In late 2007, the couple separated and their divorce was made final in July 2008.
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