UNTIL A TRIP TO A LOCAL BEAUTY SALON WITH HER GIRL Scout troop, Nia Long didn't realize that she was different from the other students at her all-white Iowa City elementary school. "Everyone's hair came out so pretty except for mine, and I cried," she says. "My mom told me, 'They're beautiful, but you're beautiful too.' " Long, 29, has since attracted plenty of admirers, among them actor Will Smith—who chose her to play his fiancee on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
—and director Malcolm Lee, who cast her as an alluring TV producer in last year's surprise hit The Best Man
. "She's the color of caramel," he says, "and she's got these almost Asian-like eyes that give her an exotic quality." When Long was a baby, her mother, Talita, 51, an artist (who was divorced in 1973 from Long's dad, Doughtry, 58, a high school teacher), remembers comparing her daughter to "a little china doll. She always had an Eastern look about her. It's hard to know where that came from." By 1991, when the actress appeared in Boyz N the Hood
, ft was obvious where her unusual features were taking her. "I got a lot of attention from the press and producers, and I started to build a fan base consisting of a lot of young men," says Long. "I was like, 'Oh, my God, people think I'm pretty!' " Sexy roles in 1997's Soul Food
and this year's Boiler Boom
have bolstered her ego. "Some days I think, 'You really have it together,' " says Long, who lives in L.A with her entrepreneur boyfriend. "I think I have great eyes and great teeth. Lately everyone's been saying, 'You have the greatest smile.' " One of her best features, she says, just suddenly appeared on her left cheek. "I wasn't born with it," says Long, "but now I have a dimple!" Another change the 5'2" actress is looking forward to is her next birthday. On Oct. 30 she'll reach a milestone. "I think 30 will be just great," she says. "I don't ever want to be between 21 and 25 again. Those are years of hard knocks. There's a lot of pressure in this business about age, but if you take care of yourself, I don't think it's something to worry about."