From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Most partygoers, famous or not, are thrilled to encounter a top-tier celebrity at an event. But not Maya Rudolph, who has to worry about running into the stars she spoofs on Saturday Night Live. At October's VH1 Fashion Awards, Rudolph, 29, met singer Nelly Furtado. "She told me she had heard about the impression I do of her and that she was really looking forward to seeing it," Rudolph says. "I felt nervous—like, I hope it doesn't offend her. But I just said, 'Oh, gosh, it's not as good as what people tell you.' "

Don't be so sure, Maya. After all, it was partly on the strength of Rudolph's point-blank parodies of Donatella Versace and the members of Destiny's Child that she was promoted from featured SNL player to regular cast member last fall. "She's breathtakingly good," says the show's executive producer Lorne Michaels, "and she's surprising." No more so than when performing a musical comedy routine, like her hip-hop version of the "Oompa Loompa" song from Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. "Maya is enormously creative at songwriting," says castmate Ana Gasteyer. "She knows when music sounds too funky—or not funky enough."

As well she should. Her father is songwriter Richard Rudolph, 55, while her mother is the late singer Minnie Riperton, whose string of '70s hits included the ballad "Lovin' You." Growing up in Santa Monica with brother Marc, now 33 and a music engineer, "I was a loud child, and if my mother sang to me, I would be quiet," Rudolph says. In fact, the "la-la" chorus from "Lovin' You" came from Riperton trying to get Rudolph to sleep. "It was Maya's lullaby," her father says. "We had been working on the melody, but there weren't any words yet."

Rudolph's own maternal memories are bittersweet. In 1976, at age 28, Riperton was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. When chemotherapy left her without hair, Rudolph recalls, "She would wear beautiful scarves. She had this way of making it okay for us." Nevertheless Riperton succumbed to the disease just two weeks before her daughter's seventh birthday. "To grow up with the loss of your mother," Rudolph says, "is a scar that never goes away."

Fortunately, Rudolph—who inherited what her father calls Riperton's "warped sense of humor"—"learned quickly to laugh so I wouldn't have to deal with pain," she says. She adds that as a child, she staged skits with "weird characters" and starred in school plays, often alongside Gwyneth Paltrow, her classmate at St. Augustine by the Sea School, to whom she remains close. When Paltrow hosted SNL in November, she laughed about their long-ago attempt to croon the theme to Flashdance: "Remember how we sang that song for our sixth-grade talent show—and we totally bombed?"

Rudolph enjoyed better success with the Rentals, a band for which she played keyboards and sang backup after graduating with a photography degree from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1994. The pop group opened for Alanis Morissette in 1994, but Rudolph felt drawn to acting and in 1996 quit the band to join the famed Los Angeles comedy troupe the Groundlings.

Small roles on TV (Chicago Hope) and film (Gattaca) followed, and in 1999 Rudolph landed a regular role on the drama City of Angels. The following year she was tapped for SNL and used her first sketch to impersonate former MTV veejay Ananda Lewis. "I had on a leather trench coat and a bikini top," she recalls, "and I was thinking, 'Great, this is how my grandma's gonna see me on national TV.' "

Offscreen, Rudolph is usually impeccably dressed. "She's the go-to girl for my fashion advice," Gasteyer says. "I have called her in a panic describing what I'm hoping to wear, and she will instruct me accordingly. " Her tips on dating may be less useful. With a six-day-a-week work schedule, Rudolph, who lives alone in a one-bedroom New York City apartment, says that "Saturday Night Live is my boyfriend."

Not that she's complaining. "I never thought I'd get a chance to do what I'm doing," she says. "It's such a dream." With only one corner of pain: "There are days," she says, "when I wonder why my mom couldn't be here to see this."

Galina Espinoza
Bob Meadows in New York City

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