From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Walking the red carpet at the 2003 Golden Globes, Nia Vardalos felt like a Greek goddess. The best-actress nominee's comedy My Big Fat Greek Wedding was shattering box office records, its spinoff sitcom was set to debut on CBS, and she was prepping her next film, Connie and Carla. Still, Vardalos was torn: While she was waving to the crowd before entering the Beverly Hilton Hotel, "my dress ripped," she recalls. "They were starting the show and saying, If you don't come in now, you can't go to the show.' I just laughed. There's nothing else you can do."

It's taken lots of laughs to propel Vardalos through the past year's highs and lows. While the $241 million-grossing Wedding became the most successful independent film ever (it was dethroned last month by The Passion of the Christ), her critically panned CBS sitcom My Big Fat Greek Life quickly sank in the ratings after a splashy debut. Vardalos, 41, who had just been the toast of Hollywood, suddenly experienced a big fat Greek backlash. Now she's bouncing back. "She got the crap kicked out of her because of that TV show, and she's moved on," says Carla director Michael Lembeck. "She holds her head up high. The great news is she's not a one-hit wonder."

Vardalos is proving that notion with Connie and Carla, her Wedding film follow-up, in which she and Toni Collette play airport lounge singers who witness their boss's murder and hide out as drag queens in an L.A. club. "Instead of trying to be cast in a musical, I just thought I'd write it," says Vardalos, who wrote the screenplay, coproduced the film and performs tunes from Broadway musicals like Oklahoma!, Funny Girl and Cabaret. Donning oversize, multicolored wigs, a corset, tight pants and platform shoes for the gender-bending role, "I felt like Superwoman. All I was missing was the cape," says Vardalos. "I'm not that comfortable being sexy—I would rather be called funny than pretty—but when I got into the outfit, there was no stopping me."

All superheroes, however, have their kryptonite. For Vardalos, it was My Big Fat Greek Life, which had a blockbuster premiere in February 2003, attracting an audience of nearly 23 million. But the show quickly imploded as viewers tuned out and rumors swirled about Vardalos's clashes with the show's producers and the network. "So much was written that didn't happen. I was stunned," says Vardalos, adding that Life was "rushed" onto the air. "The show wasn't good, it got canceled, end of story. That happens a lot." Life's demise—CBS finally pulled the plug last May-"was difficult for her," says castmate Lainie Kazan, who played her mom in both the film and the series. "Nia was a little overwhelmed by the success she had. It was so intense. But she wasn't sad about it, because it wasn't something she really, really wanted to do; she wanted to move on."

Vardalos was also facing struggles at home, which she shares with her husband of 11 years, Ian Gomez, 39, a fellow alum of the Chicago improvisational troupe Second City. (Gomez played John Corbett's best friend in Greek Wedding and also appears in Connie and Carla as drag-club owner Stanley.) For the past eight years, Vardalos has struggled with infertility, which she says runs in the family. "It's frustrating and disappointing, but I refuse to call it a tragedy," she says. "There are many ways to be parents, and I'm going to see this one through until they tell me to move on."

Until then, she hangs with Gomez in their 1927 Spanish-style three-bedroom L.A. home, where she cooks a mean vegetarian moussaka. "I have her make two batches, so one is all mine," says Gomez. Even if a little one isn't yet on the way, she has plenty of other family close by. Her large clan—who popped up in Greek Wedding—are honing their craft again with a cameo appearance in Connie and Carla, playing audience members as Vardalos sings, "Don't Rain on" My Parade." "There's even a closeup of my parents," says Vardalos. "Of course, now my dad knows what his good side is."

Jason Lynch. Julie Jordan in Los Angeles and Molly Lopez in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Julie Jordan,
  • Molly Lopez.