''Modern Family'''s Ariel Winter could have easily become a child-star train wreck: she's been working since the age of 5, and she made headlines last year by reluctantly taking her private battle with her mother public; now the 15-year-old has a new home, a new school, new friends — and a dream job on TV

Ariel Winter had her first makeover at the age of 7. A casting director said she was too blond and pretty for a small role on a TV show, so her mom figured out a way to make her little ingenue look a bit more mousy. “We dyed my hair black,” remembers Winter, now 15. “I ended up getting the part. We kept dyeing it dark, so that was my hair from then on…. It was never my decision. It seems very weird to go to a hairstylist at 7 and have foils in your hair.”

The life of a child star can be bizarre, but Winter, who plays the bookish Alex Dunphy on ABC’s Emmy-winning Modern Family, is handling it with remarkable maturity and grace — even as her home life has attracted media attention. Just last year, Winter left the custody of her mother after alleging physical and emotional abuse — a decision that spawned a tabloid frenzy and a fusillade of paparazzi. But what the cameras can’t capture is how grounded Winter has become as a result of the upheaval: The diminutive girl who was previously homeschooled is now reconnecting with a sister she barely knew, hanging with kids her own age, and attending high school — a place that once terrified her. “The only model I had to base it on was the high school in Mean Girls,” says the sophomore, who entered a Los Angeles private school in the middle of her freshman year. “I thought girls walked around in cliques with the short skirts, the blond hair, and I was going to be cast out and never talked to. I was like, ‘Do we have a school talent show where we dress up as, like, little Santas? Does that happen?'”

Luckily, no. Her worries about alienation were short-lived, too, as she quickly cultivated a pair of besties named Jessie and Bailey, who sleep over at her house and offer a constant show of support (which includes Jessie tagging along to the coffee shop while Winter sits down with EW). “We’re a trio at school,” says Winter. “Trusting people for me is very hard when you’ve had a lot of lack of trust in your past.” Adds Shanelle Gray, Winter’s 35-year-old sister, who currently has custody of her sibling, “When I see her with her girlfriends out here at my pool, Ariel is 15 and having the time of her life.”

Growing up with her divorced mom, Chrisoula Workman, in Los Angeles, Winter thought she was going to do “something educational, like cure cancer or something.” Instead her mother started taking her to modeling jobs and auditions, as she had with her older children, Jimmy Workman (who played Pugsley in the Addams Family movies) and Gray, who began acting when she was 13. “My first job was a Cool Whip commercial when I was 5,” Winter recalls. “I had to put Cool Whip on a piece of pie, and there was some Easter-egg-hunt thing. I just remember I liked Easter eggs and, oh my God, pie.” Appearances in movies like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and TV shows like ER followed, but as her career took off — she began voicing characters on Disney’s hit Phineas and Ferb at the age of 9 and landed the role of Modern Family‘s Alex at 11 — at home her relationship with her mom was crumbling. Winter prefers not to go into details about life with her mother, but the situation got bad enough that she sought out Gray — whom she rarely saw growing up — and asked for help. “I didn’t know where I was going to go,” says Winter. “I wasn’t going to go to my father or brother because I didn’t have a great relationship with them. So I thought, ‘Well, shot in the dark, let’s try my sister.'”

Finally, last October, Winter was granted a temporary restraining order against her mother, citing physical and emotional abuse. The actress knew going to court would mean her private problems would become all too public, but Winter says that was a reality she had to accept. “I had to make the choice,” she explains. “Do I stay in this situation that’s not good for me, or do I get out and face the consequences?” (Chrisoula has repeatedly denied the allegations of abuse, most recently in the Sept. 20 episode of Dr. Phil, where she claimed Winter was being “brainwashed.”) A judge awarded temporary custody to Gray, a married mom of two girls. “I didn’t spend a ton of time with Ariel and my mother and father for many different reasons,” explains Gray, who reportedly left home at the age of 15 citing similar issues. “She’s really just an amazingly smart kid — a really good multitasker and really hard worker.” As Winter’s guardian, Gray makes sure her sister has plenty of opportunities to exercise her strong work ethic: The teen’s home life now includes a curfew, rules about dressing age-appropriately, and a mandate to reserve weekends for family and friends. “She definitely has a different kind of life here,” says Gray. “She has to clean up after herself, she can’t leave her clothes on the floor, she has to be careful about what she says around people — not just for her career but for herself, so she can be a respectful woman.”

While the custody situation remains in limbo — the case is still winding its way through court — Winter’s career continues to gain momentum. Besides her role on ABC’s top-rated comedy, she’s the sugarcoated voice of the title character on Disney Junior’s Sofia the First and of Gretchen on Phineas and Ferb, and she’s set to star opposite her TV dad, Ty Burrell, next year in the DreamWorks animated movie Mr. Peabody & Sherman. And she does all of this while juggling a full workload at school; whenever Winter misses class, she compensates with supervised study time on set. “I have to get my schoolwork done on the exact due date as everybody else. I don’t get to, like, push it.” Says Modern Family executive producer Steven Levitan, “She is the consummate professional on set. She always comes prepared, nailing long, intricate speeches on the first take. The writing staff often talks about how great she is at hitting a joke while keeping it grounded and real.”

That’s probably because she’s just having so much fun. Shooting Modern Family, says Winter, has opened up an exciting world of glamorous awards shows, couture gowns, and brushes with A-list talent. “I met Angelina Jolie one year, and I flipped out,” recalls Winter. “I got my picture with her! I was like, ‘I bow at your feet.'” Now, if only Winter’s stylish real-life persona could rub off on her frumpy alter ego Alex, who dresses in baggy, unflattering shirts and rarely dates. The actress jokes that she threw the writers for a loop two years ago when she went through puberty during a hiatus and showed up looking much…curvier. “We came back the next season and the writers were like, ‘Uh-oh,'” says Winter. “I remember being like, ‘Sorry!’ I was more ample, and I don’t think they knew what to do with me.”

With three more seasons after this one on Winter’s Modern contract, there’s still plenty of time for Alex to come out of her shell. Meanwhile, Winter is diligently working to build another career — as a pop singer. She periodically posts covers of hit songs on YouTube; her acoustic performance of Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble” has more than 340,000 views, and she plans to take on Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” next. “I’ve always loved music, and I think in the future it will be my main focus,” says Winter. “I also want to go to business school. I want to go to Harvard. I want to open my own record label and have my own production company and, you know, work in the entertainment industry and produce artists and do things like that.”

But those dreams will keep. Jessie’s waiting at the next table, and they have a dance class to attend.

Ariel’s Extracurriculars
You probably know her as Alex Dunphy, but that’s not all the Modern Family star has been up to

Dora the Explorer parody 2012-13
Winter stars as a butt-kicking version of the kiddie icon in this spoof from CollegeHumor.com. “She’s like Tomb Raider Dora. We did the first one and it got millions of views — millions! So we did three more episodes of it.”

Sofia the First 2013
This show about a little girl who becomes a princess is the No. 1 show among preschoolers on Disney Junior. “I never thought I would be on Disney. Now I have my animated series that I absolutely love,” gushes Winter. “I sing a song in each episode, and there’s 35 episodes.”

Mr. Peabody & Sherman 2014
“I’ve always wanted to be in a big animated movie,” says Winter, who plays Sherman’s classmate Penny. “The character is so funny, and I get to work with [Modern Family dad] Ty Burrell!”