From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Early this year a pregnant Cynthia Watros, who plays Erin Fitzpatrick on FOX's Titus, got a Down syndrome test. "The guy at the lab said to me, 'Did your doctor tell you anything?' " she recalls. "I thought, 'Oh my God, our baby has Down syndrome.' And he goes, 'You have two babies.' I thought he was kidding." But the technician did an ultrasound and showed the picture to Watros and her husband, writer Curt Gilliland. "There were two babies, one sprawled out and the other laying above it," she says. "It was so wow!"

These days many things are coming up "wow" for Watros. On July 14 she gave birth to healthy twin girls. She and Gilliland just bought a house, the first she has ever owned. And last week Titus went into its third season, a significant success for a sitcom. It's enough to make anyone grateful, but for Watros—who grew up poor and as a teenager struggled for years with a dangerous blood disease—he satisfaction goes even deeper. "I'd be fooling myself to say [that period] wasn't difficult," says Watros, 33. "My mom had to work two jobs to support us."

Which is one reason that "it gets to me when people call someone 'trailer trash,' " says Watros, who grew up in a trailer park in Lake Orion, Mich., after her father, Bruce Watros, 57, an engineer, and mother, Nancy Salvador, 57, now a paralegal, divorced when she was 7 (her brother Steven, 35, is also an engineer). Because her parents didn't make a lot of money at the time, "we couldn't afford anything else," she says. "I always felt a little bit of shame when kids at school would ask me where I lived."

As difficult as those hardships were, Watros faced her greatest challenge when, in ninth grade, she was diagnosed with immune thrombocytopenia, an autoimmune disease of the blood. "I looked like I had freckles all over my body," she says. "But I was really bleeding through my skin. If I bumped into something, I would get huge bruises." She was in and out of hospitals for two years and underwent chemotherapy twice. "I lost my hair and got really bloated," she says. "I was this bald, huge, puffy teenage girl. When I went to football games, people would stare at my head when I was sitting in the bleachers, so I stopped going."

Watros spent the last month of her junior year in intensive care and underwent a splenectomy, but nothing seemed to help. "It was terrifying," says Nancy. "The doctors told me they couldn't do anything more for her and that she would die." Nancy decided to take her daughter home, where unexpectedly her health began to improve. Her mother believes that "a combination of her body finally being able to relax, her being home and being happy" was responsible for her recovery. The experience "changed me to become a more positive person," says Watros. "It made me stronger."

After graduating from high school in 1986, Watros attended a community college for two years. "I was flunking all my classes, and I didn't know what to do with my life," she says. Then she auditioned for the comedy classic Auntie Mame and landed the role of the hapless Agnes Gooch. "Something just clicked," she says. "I excelled, and I didn't even have to work at it."

In 1989 Watros entered Boston University and, after graduating, moved to New York City to pursue an acting career. To make ends meet she took a job at a restaurant, where she met her husband. "We got along great from the beginning," Gilliland, 40, says. They wed in 1996.

On Titus, Watros displays her quirky sense of humor as comedian Christopher Titus's girlfriend. "We did this episode where we said to her, 'We want you to drop your head into this plate of mashed potatoes,' " says Titus. "She said, 'Great' and dropped her head, and it clinked when she hit the plate. She's up for anything, which is what great comedians have."

Oddly enough, Watros got her comedic training playing a psychotic nurse on Guiding Light from 1995 to 1998. "I loved playing Annie," she says of the character. "She was just complex. She was good the first year, but then she went kind of nuts, which was great for me." In 1998 Watros won an Emmy for lead actress, beating out—as so many had before her—All My Children's Susan Lucci.

In February Watros realized another dream, when she and Gilliland bought a 1920s Spanish-style four-bedroom house in the Hollywood Hills. "I have a yard and trees," says Watros. "It's a great area to bring up kids." With the birth of Emma and Sadie, Watros admits she has her hands full. And that's fine. "I can't complain," she says. "I'm very happy. I'm very lucky."

Veronica Byrd
Ulrica Wihlborg in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Ulrica Wihlborg.