Violet Sanford (Piper Perabo) leaves her hometown of South Amboy, New Jersey, her father Bill (John Goodman), and best friend Gloria (Melanie Lynskey) to pursue her dreams in nearby New York City. When leaving town to become a songwriter, she signs an autograph which is pinned on the wall of the pizza place where she worked. The wall has many other autographs signed by the rest of the employees in South Amboy that left town hoping to make it big.
Violet tries unsuccessfully, dozens of times, to get her demo tape noticed by the recording studios. With only a few dollars left in her pocket after her apartment is robbed, she goes to an all-night diner and notices some girls flaunting the hundreds of dollars in tips they earned. After inquiring, she finds out that they work at a trendy bar named Coyote Ugly. She finds her way to the bar and convinces the bar owner Lil (Maria Bello) to hire her. Lil hires her and explains she did so because Violet looks like a kindergarten teacher who the childish bar patrons will come to see. She is reluctantly nicknamed "Jersey". After starting her job, she quickly discovers she must learn the ropes of singing, dancing, and performing wild acts before a rowdy crowd.