Beals was born on December 19, 1963 in Chicago, Illinois (South Side), the daughter of Jeanne (née Anderson), an elementary school teacher, and Alfred Beals, who owned grocery stores. Beals' father was black, and her mother is Irish-American. She has two brothers, Bobby and Gregory. Her father died when Beals was 10 years old, and her mother married Edward Cohen in 1981. Beals has said her biracial heritage has affected her, as she has "always lived sort of on the outside", with an idea "of being the other in society". She got her first job at age 13 at an ice cream store, using her height at the time (she is now 5 ft 8 in (1. 73 m)) to convince her boss she was 16.