From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Every Hollywood actor has early roles they'd rather forget (heard Jennifer Aniston reminisce about Leprechaun lately?). But not Jaime Pressly—she has no regrets about chalking up acting credits in the late '90s with lowbrow, even nobrow, fare like Poison Ivy: The New Seduction and the Jerry Springer film Ringmaster.

"I'm not apologizing for some of the jobs I took because it kept me employed," says the actress, who now has a hit sitcom on her résumé, My Name Is Earl, in which she plays a trailer-park-residing loudmouth named Joy. "I've lived well and been able to buy a lot of very nice homes to live in because of my work. I've been working toward this day when I would play a role with vulnerability, but still with spunk and spirit. And that day is here, isn't it?"

For fans, that day is Thursday, when Pressly, 28, brings Joy to the world as star Jason Lee's brassy ex-wife. Now, with her hit NBC show and a thriving fashion line (see box), Jaime Pressly's name is becoming as famous as Earl' s, something the actress is grateful for after years of playing mean-spirited bimbos. "She's been typecast a lot," says Earl costar Lee, who nevertheless knew the minute he saw Pressly audition that she'd be perfect for her comedic Earl role. "There is this level of professionalism," he says. "Plus, she's pretty kick-ass."

Dovetailing nicely with her career success, Pressly has also settled into a relationship with longtime pal Eric Calvo, an L.A. radio deejay also known as Cubiche. "I've dated a lot, and I'm ready to settle down," says Pressly, whose exes include former MTV veejay Simon Rex and Kid Rock. She's even ready for kids—"We're working on it," she says—but not necessarily for marriage. "I do want to be a princess for a day," says the never-married Pressly, "but it's not necessary to do that before you have kids. A lot of women do it later."

It wouldn't be the first time she's done things her own way. The Kinston, N.C.-born Pressly followed the lead of her dance instructor mom (Dad was a car salesman) and began dancing at 3. When she was 13, Pressly sent her photo to modeling agencies with ads in Teen magazine. Within months, she signed with an agent and appeared on Teen's cover. At 15, she headed off on her own to pursue modeling gigs in Italy and Japan. Eventually Pressly moved on to movies, often playing the "bitchy bad girl" in films like 2001's Not Another Teen Movie and 2004's Torque. When she heard about My Name Is Earl, Pressly leaped at the chance to audition for Joy. "It was a woman I felt like I knew," she says. "Joy is who women wish they could be—outspoken, strong."

On the other hand, Pressly also has a thing for ... Martha Stewart? "She is my idol," says Pressly, who lives near L.A. with Calvo and her dogs (two boxers appropriately named Ali and Joe Louis). "I'm like Martha Stewart Jr. I love cooking and I love buying houses and redoing them. I'm on my fifth house now—it's got hardwood floors and terra cotta tiles, and I've hung antique paintings around and decorated it beautifully."

Happy at home, giddy at work? Pressly chalks it up to the yin and yang of the universe. "I believed in karma long before I was on this show," says Pressly, who will next be seen in the action film DOA: Dead or Alive, due this August. "I paid a lot of dues, but now I think it's my karma to be here."

  • Contributors:
  • Pamela Warrick/Los Angeles.