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Forget the fawning critics, the smitten costars, the adoring directors, the crate-load of awards. For Nicole Kidman, the accolade that mattered most arrived with a meal. "I was in a restaurant the other night, and the waitress came up to me and said, 'Ah, you finally look happy,' " Kidman, 34, explains. "I said, 'Really?' and she said, 'Yeah, you looked really sad all last year. And it's just so nice to see you looking happy.' That was the biggest compliment I've received in a long time."

And that's saying something, since these days Kidman is up to her curls in compliments. Hollywood loves a good comeback story, and hers is a doozy. In the difficult months since she was blind-sided by Tom Cruise's bombshell decision to file for divorce in February 2001, she has enjoyed the most rewarding stretch of her movie career—even as her broken heart has yet to fully heal. "I feel like I went through something, and I really went through it," says Kidman, who shares custody of Isabella, 9, and Connor, 7, with Cruise. "I didn't try to hide from it or run away from the grief, which I think is important. There are times when I still get sad, but I'm much happier now."

And why not? The one-two punch of Moulin Rouge, which earned her a Golden Globe award and a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her whimsical turn as a Parisian courtesan, and The Others, a surprise hit thriller that raked in more than $96 million at the box office, proved Kidman is an A-list talent in her own right. She "always did good work, but half the world thought of her as Mrs. Tom Cruise," says producer-director Sydney Pollack, a close friend of both Tom and Nicole. "Now she has finally come into her own."

Once considered icy and aloof, Kidman has become a movie star to root for. "The big shock when I met her was that she was the complete opposite of all the things you imagine from pictures of her and Tom in magazines," says Moulin Rouge director Baz Luhrmann. "She's this really Aussie girl who's full of life and has this loud, honking laugh." A laugh, says Kidman's close friend, The Guardian's Simon Baker, which "is definitely more mule than human."

The actress welcomes the change in the way audiences perceive her. "People didn't know me before and I had no idea," she says. "I must have really been cut off. I was quiet, really quiet. But in the last 18 months, that has just kind of evaporated." Kidman gracefully handled the probing questions about her heartache from Oprah and Letterman and everyone else as she tirelessly promoted Moulin Rouge and The Others. "So many women come up to me now, and a lot of them have gone through the same thing," she says. "Whether it's divorce or a breakup, there's a kind of camaraderie that's very poignant."

Kidman would be the first to admit how weird it feels to suddenly be eligible for a part on The Bachelor 2. "My children say, 'Mom, get a boyfriend,' but I'm in no rush," she says. "I've had so few relationships in my life. I've been with the same man since I was 22! I'm a novice, and I can sort of chatter away and then get extremely shy. It's a little bit overwhelming." While Cruise, 39, quickly rebounded into the arms of his Vanilla Sky costar Penélope Cruz, Kidman has been seeing only one man: a big green guy named Shrek. "Watching videos and eating Chinese food with a 7-year-old and a 9-year-old—I'm very comfortable with that," she says. "There is something to be said for hibernating with your children and then going, 'Okay, I can kind of enter life again and look at it as something I can be excited about, instead of something that I'm frightened of.' "

During her first few months without Cruise in her corner, Kidman relied on the support of her closest friends—actresses Naomi Watts and Rebecca Rigg and actor Russell Crowe—members of Hollywood's so-called Aussie Posse. Watts, 33, best known for last year's Mulholland Drive, even briefly moved into Kidman's Pacific Palisades home after the split. "They were these really, really strong, extraordinary people who just said, 'We're going to hold your hand and help you through this,' " says Kidman. "That makes you feel so protected. It's lovely."

Just as important was the support of her parents, Janelle and Antony, and her sister Antonia—particularly after Kidman suffered a miscarriage in March of last year. Kidman spent as much free time as she could in her native Sydney, where she and Cruise had a waterfront home that she got to keep in the divorce settlement, and where her family still lives. One silver lining to the end of her marriage, says Kidman, is the time she got to spend with Antony, a psychologist (Janelle is a nurse educator). "I'd always been much closer to my mother," she says, "and suddenly my father stepped forward and said, 'Lean on me.' "

As comfortable as things are for Kidman in Australia today, she felt like a fish out of water growing up on Sydney's suburban north shore. "Everyone in Sydney looks like a California beach girl, but Nicole didn't," says Watts, Kidman's friend since they were teens. "She looked like someone who belonged in another time." Between Kidman and younger sister Antonia, 31, "I was the plain one," says Nicole. "She has brown skin and beautiful brown hair, and I was always sort of the one who needed to have a personality. We'd walk down the street and people would go, 'Oh, Nicole, isn't your sister gorgeous?' "

Flirting for Nicole meant "spitting water in a boy's face," she says, but she still always managed to find somebody special. "I was a one-boy girl," she says. "I had a steady boyfriend from an early age, so I wasn't off flirting around." Her friends, though, remember that Kidman has never had a problem attracting attention. Says Watts: "People would definitely fall in love with Nicole all over the place."

For one thing, she always had a keen sense of style, favoring vintage dresses and leather jackets. "She did have some great stuff," says Antonia, a television journalist who lives in Sydney with husband Angus Hawley, a businessman, and their children Lucia, 3, and Hamish, 18 months. "She kept her room a bit off-limits to me, but she'd be away and I used to sneak her clothes." As Kidman remembers it, "she'd get changed in the bushes and then put it all back in the morning. That's a younger sister for you."

One thing the siblings couldn't share was hairstyles. Kidman's red mop made her feel "awkward and repulsive," she says. "When I was little I had curls down to my bum, and people would always pull at my hair and say, 'Ohhhh, she's got currrrls!' And I hated that." At the elite North Sydney Girls' High School, Kidman rebelled by "wearing my hair real wild on top of my head. The principal would say, 'You can't wear your hair like that to school!' " She would also defiantly dye her tresses a rainbow of colors. "I'd go from magenta to a lighter red to about four different colors at once," she recalls. "I was pretty naughty, but I always got great grades, so I could get away with a lot." Even today, Kidman likes to wear her hair blown out straight. "The thing you hate about yourself tends to be the thing that everyone likes about you," she says. "Russell [Crowe] always says, 'Nic, just wear your hair curly and leave your glasses on. That's how you look best.' "

Another hindrance to young Nicole was her 5'10" height. "You're head and shoulders above everyone else, and you feel strange," she says. "My mum described me as a colt because I had these really long legs and I didn't know quite what to do with them." There was also her milky complexion, which today is a prized asset. "You can do a lot with makeup, but you can't create that luminosity," says Baz Luhrmann. Though Kidman "hated being so pale as a kid," she says, today she knows she must pamper her delicate skin. "Nicole won't even cross the road without a hat," says Watts. "She's really disciplined about that and it pays off. Her skin is like a perfect china cup."

In the end, Kidman's distinctive features helped shape the person she became. "There's something you hate about looking different and then there's something that it gives you," she says. "It makes you develop your personality. Because you don't conform, you have to find different ways of expressing yourself."

For Kidman, one way to do that was acting, which she first tried in school. "I started a drama club," she recalls, "but that sort of fell apart because we became more interested in parties and motorbikes." Her big break came with 1989's Dead Calm, a high-seas yarn in which Kidman, with barely any dialogue, made an indelible impression. That summer, screenwriter Robert Towne arranged to have the film screened for a certain star he was working with. They were casting the part of Tom Cruise's love interest in the race-car epic Days of Thunder and together met with Kidman at Toscana, a cozy Italian restaurant in west Los Angeles. "I remember him saying over and over what a knockout she was," says Towne. "I mean, Tom is an enthusiastic guy, but that day his exuberance level was at full tide." Kidman, at 22, won the part and the leading man. "She went from my living room floor—actually, I think we gave her a bed—to being married to Tom Cruise and being a big star," says her friend Deborra-lee Furness, an actress and the wife of Hugh Jackman. "The transition was just so normal. It was like she knew where she was going."

Since her divorce, Kidman is less certain where life is taking her. She has, however, found solace in work, immersing herself in complex roles. Last summer she donned a prosthetic nose to portray Virginia Woolf in The Hours, due this fall. "She went into character and stayed there for most of the shoot," says the film's director, Stephen Daldry. "Once, a journalist came into her trailer, and after a while Nicole said, 'Who are you looking for?' And the journalist said, 'I'm waiting to interview Nicole Kidman.' "

During the winter Kidman spent eight weeks in Trollhättan, in southern Sweden, filming Lars von Trier's Dogville, an intimate character study. "We did not see the sun for days, it was so dark and rainy," says producer Vibeke Windelov. "But Nicole poured her heart into this."

The biggest drawback to her success (she's now filming a thriller, The Human Stain, with Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris in Canada) is that she has to leave her children for long stretches. "With divorce you have to adjust, and it's horrible," she says. "But I talk to my kids every night. I fax, send letters, e-mail them. Thank God for the computer." Her children, says Baz Luhrmann, "put it all in perspective. When they're around she strikes me as extremely ordinary. Children are a greater force than being a superstar." Clearly, Connor and Isabella have helped lift Kidman's spirits. After an Easter egg hunt this March, "I was the one raiding their eggs," she says. "I said to my son, 'I ate four of your eggs last night.' He was cool about it. He's not a chocoholic. My daughter and I are chocoholics."

Kidman does not believe in depriving herself. "I love bread with olive oil and parmesan cheese," she says. "Put me on a desert island with that and I'll be fine." A casual exerciser, she admits, "I never go to gyms. I'll go six months where I don't exercise and then six months where I swim." She doesn't log hours in front of the mirror either. "I've been with her where we've gotten ready and out the door in 15 minutes," says Watts. "It's more about getting there and enjoying it than primping for hours."

That seems clearer every day, as Kidman continues to put her divorce behind her and revel in what lies ahead. Giggling softly, she says that she is "open" to romance but wants to take things one step at a time. "I just want to be true to my kids, true to myself, true to my work and good to the people around me, and out of that something will come." And when it does, Kidman will be ready. Not the icy femme fatale or the regal Hollywood wife but the earthy Aussie gal with the loud, honking laugh. "I don't feel comfortable saying, 'Okay, now I'm going to be beautiful,' " she says. "That leaves me feeling shy and embarrassed. I can do it as a character, but I would never do it as Nicole. I'm not really into the full-on seduction stuff. I much prefer just being who I am."

Alex Tresniowski
Elizabeth Leonard, Pamela Warrick and Rachel Biermann in Los Angeles, Pete Norman in London and Liz Corcoran in Trollhättan



  • Contributors:
  • Elizabeth Leonard,
  • Pamela Warrick,
  • Rachel Biermann,
  • Pete Norman,
  • Liz Corcoran.