Judd was born Ashley Tyler Ciminella in Granada Hills, California, the daughter of Naomi Judd, a well-known country music singer and motivational speaker, and Michael Ciminella, Jr., a marketing analyst for the horseracing industry. Judd has a half-sister, Wynonna Judd, who is also a country music singer. At the time of her birth, her mother was working as a nurse, and did not become well-known as a singer, along with her daughter Wynonna, until the early 1980s. Judd's parents divorced in 1972, and in 1974, her mother took her back to her own native Kentucky, where Judd grew up.
Judd's mother raised her as a Baptist, and she attended twelve schools before college, including the Sayre School in Lexington, Kentucky and Franklin High School in Tennessee. She briefly tried modeling in Japan during school breaks. 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, a move that mirrored her role as Reed in the television series Sisters. She was in the UK Honors Program and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, but did not graduate with her class, leaving the university early to drive cross-country in pursuit of an acting career in Hollywood, where she studied with well-respected acting teacher, Robert Carnegie, at Playhouse West. During this time, she worked as a waitress at "The Ivy" restaurant and lived in a Malibu, California house her sister bought her, which burned down during the great Malibu fires. On May 9, 2007, it was announced that Judd had completed her bachelor's degree in French from the University of Kentucky. In a May 2007 appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Judd explained that she had completed her degree requirements in 1990, but had mistakenly thought she was one class short. She only needed to "sign a piece of paper" in order to graduate. DeGeneres then surprised Judd by presenting her with her diploma, which DeGeneres had acquired from the university.
Judd began acting on television and appeared as Ensign Robin Lefler, a Starfleet officer, in two 1991 episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. 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 in 1992's Kuffs, and had the starring role in 1993's independent film, Ruby in Paradise, for which she received good reviews. She also had a role in the 1994 Oliver Stone film Natural Born Killers, but her scenes were cut from the version of the film released theatrically. She gained further critical acclaim for her roles in 1995's Smoke and Heat. She also played the role of Callie in Philip Ridley's dark, adult fairy tale, The Passion of Darkly Noon.
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.
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 June 2007, Goody's Family Clothing announced that they were going to be releasing three fashion clothing lines with Judd in the Fall to be called - "AJ", "Love Ashley" and "Ashley Judd." Regarding the clothing line, Judd said, "I'm thrilled to be involved in a clothing line that provides simple, lovely solutions for women's wardrobes. I've always loved items that you can throw on easily and know that you'll feel and look good. This line does just that, while keeping with the best of current styles and trends."
During the 1990s, Judd dated baseball player Brady Anderson, singers Lyle Lovett and Michael Bolton, and actors Matthew McConaughey and Robert De Niro. In December 1999, she became engaged to Scottish auto racer Dario Franchitti, who was at the time driving in Champ Car World Series (he has since raced in IndyCars and NASCAR). The two were married at Skibo Castle, near Dornoch, Scotland, on December 12, 2001. She and her husband divide their time between a home in Scotland and their farm outside Franklin, Tennessee. Judd can be recognized in Gasoline Alley wearing a white hat, and was present at the 2007 Indianapolis 500 when her husband won.
When in Manhattan, Judd attends services at a charismatic missionary Baptist church. She also regularly attends University of Kentucky basketball games, frequently sitting next to Donna Smith (wife of former Kentucky Coach Tubby Smith), or in the student section. Last year, Judd was a guest columnist for a local Kentucky newspaper, writing about the NCAA championships. She is frequently sought out for celebrity camera shots during televised games. Judd posed for a poster wearing only a hockey jersey for fundraising purposes for their alma mater's hockey team. She is also an avid practitioner of yoga, cooking and gardening.
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 because of personal issues, including depression and isolation.
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, and speaks and demonstrates at pro-choice events. On October 29, 2006, Judd appeared at a "Women for Ford" event for Democratic Tennessee Senate candidate Harold Ford, Jr.
A long-running feud between Judd and Indy race car driver Milka Duno took place throughout the 2007 Indy Racing League season. After the final race of the 2007 season, the actress stated to the assembled news media that, "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."