Wearing no makeup and plenty of hair rollers, Kelly Ripa was not at her soap-star best when a "gorgeous" stranger walked onto the All My Children set in 1995. "I looked really gross," says Ripa, 28, who retreated to primp and then dashed back. "I wanted him to see me looking like a normal person!"

Mark Consuelos, also 28, was unfazed. He was back the next day to screen-test for the role of Mateo Santos, the only son of a Mexican-American clan in Pine Valley, the show's fictional hotbed of scandal, infidelity and lust. "She was cute," remembers Consuelos of the eight-year AMC veteran, who recently won a second daytime Emmy nomination for her role as Hayley Vaughan Santos, the rebellious daughter of tycoon Adam Chandler. "But I wasn't thinking about getting lucky," he continues. "I was worried about getting the job."

He got lucky on both counts. Soon after meeting—and even before Consuelos's Mateo bagan dating Ripa's Hayley—the actors jettisoned their existing relationships and began a real-life romance. According to castmates, their love affair never interfered with the show. "They both work hard and have lots of talent," says James Kiberd (who plays Hayley's uncle Trevor Dillon), adding that they have "real love, passion and caring." Says Ripa: "A lot of couples in this business are egomaniacs. But with Mark, we're constantly building each other up."

Not that the cast knew what was going on at first. For months the effervescent Ripa and the more reserved Consuelos hid things because "people tend to think there'll be problems when you're dating your costar," says Consuelos. They even tried to keep their 1996 elopement secret. (Consuelos's proposal: "Since we don't have to work tomorrow, why don't we fly to Vegas and get married?") But the jig was soon up for the couple, who went on to win Soap Opera Digest's Hottest Romance Award in 1998. "Someone recognized us in Vegas," says Ripa, "and called the show."

A few months later, Ripa announced she was pregnant. Since Hayley wasn't going to have a baby, the show went to ridiculous lengths to hide the 60 pounds Ripa eventually gained. "Initially, I would carry luggage with me everywhere," says Ripa. "Then I started to carry guitar cases. Then I carried trees. Trees!"

Ripa was born a ham. Raised with younger sister, Linda, 26, now a mortgage underwriter, in Berlin, N.J., by father Joe, 59, then a bus driver, and mother Esther, 57, a homemaker, she "had a flair for the dramatic," she says. "They used to call me Tiny Tears because I could turn on a waterworks display like no one else." Skipping college, she landed her AMC role after auditioning at age 20 with just a few credits, such as the title character in her high school play The Ugly Duckling.

Consuelos took a longer road to acting. The youngest of three children (his brother Michael, 31, is a pediatrician in Louisville, Ky.; sister Adriana, 29, is a lawyer in St. Petersburg, Fla.), he was born in Spain and raised in Illinois and Florida. His dad, Michael, 60, is a former diplomat, and mother, Camilla, 58, is a homemaker. He earned a bachelor's degree in marketing from the University of South Florida in 1994 before deciding to become an actor—a struggling one at first. "I bagged groceries, I dug ditches," he says.

The grocery-bagging part, at least, comes in handy now that he's a dad. Son Michael Joseph, with whom the couple live in their spacious home in suburban Franklin Lakes, N.J., is nearly 2 years old. "Mark is a wonderful father, an amazing husband. He's home to us every night," says Ripa. "When I got pregnant, I was terrified. But he said, 'You're going to be the best mother.' "

Indeed, both Ripa and Consuelos quickly grew adept at juggling their work and parenthood (they brought Michael and a nanny to the set with them for the first year). Still, Ripa hopes to become a full-time mom in the next year or two. "I'm a much better mother than I am an actress," she says. "Thank God!"

Nick Charles
Nancy Day and Natasha Stoynoff in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Nancy Day,
  • Natasha Stoynoff.