BERLIN — A decade ago, Angela Merkel was known to Germans mainly for a famously bad haircut that made her the butt of jokes.
Today, as Germany's chancellor, she's widely considered the most powerful woman on the planet — and she's the one making the jokes.
Four years after becoming Germany's leader and all but assured of capturing a new term in weekend elections, the now carefully coiffed Merkel quips in a TV ad that among the lessons learned in office is "how important a hairstyle can be."
The leader of the Christian Democratic Union can afford to be flip about her hair.
Merkel's cautious but capable leadership has earned her consistently high popularity ratings since 2005, and after a drab campaign she appears poised to beat her center-left foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, in Sunday's election.
Merkel and Steinmeier, who leads the Social Democratic Party, have been governing together in a "grand coalition" since 2005.
Amid the financial crisis, Germans seem to take comfort in Merkel's low-key style: the 55-year-old prefers to listen and consider before making any move — and, in her TV ad, identifies one strength as "not going along with every flap."
"She has not made any major mistakes," said Ulla Bock, a sociologist at Berlin's Free University.
At home, Merkel often lets arguments within her left-right "grand coalition" play themselves out before intervening.
Globally, she was unfazed by initial criticism that her government was doing too little to stimulate the economy. Now, its two stimulus packages, worth some €80 billion ($118 billion), appear to be working well.
Forbes magazine this year declared Merkel the world's most powerful woman for the fourth year running and as the leader of the world's third largest economy few would dispute that title.
Yet she had an unlikely start. Born Angela Dorothea Kasner in Hamburg on July 17, 1954 Merkel grew up in East Germany as the oldest of three children. She entered politics only in her mid-30s as the communist system crumbled, after earning a degree in physics from the University of Leipzig.
"I really enjoyed being a physicist," Merkel said recently. "But after the wall fell, politics became my passion."
She worked the East German Academy of Sciences until the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, when she got involved in a new political group, Democratic Awakening.
Merkel became deputy spokeswoman in 1990 for East Germany's first and only democratically elected government.
Later that year, she was elected to reunified Germany's parliament for then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl's CDU. Kohl, who became her political patron, put her straight into his Cabinet as the minister for women. Four years later, he made her environment minister.
Merkel became the party's general secretary, a key post, after it lost power in 1998. Exhibiting a ruthless streak that has helped her quietly dispose of several potential rivals, she publicly broke with Kohl the following year after he became embroiled in a party financing scandal.
That helped her win the CDU leadership in 2000. She stepped aside to allow a rival campaign for the chancellorship — and lost — in Germany's 2002 election, but took on the job herself in 2005.