From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Walking into her family's five-bedroom home outside Atlanta after a day of taping her new BET late-night talk show The Mo'Nique Show is like walking "into a ball of love," Mo'Nique says. There's her 19-year-old son, Shalon, "running around," and her rambunctious 4-year-old twins, Jonathan and David, who cry out "Mommy!" as soon as she gets through the door. "And then we got to play for a minute," Mo'Nique, 41, adds, "because I've been gone all day. Tickling, laughing, all of that. It's like a playground in our house. Nothing but fun and love."

It's a sharp contrast to the world Mo'Nique inhabits in the new film Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, which has the comedian starring as a horrifyingly brutal mother who physically and sexually abuses her own daughter. The transformation is so astounding that Mo'Nique caught the eye of Oprah Winfrey, who later signed on as an executive producer of Precious. "In this role Mo'Nique was able to do the one thing that every actor hopes to be able to accomplish: to go there," Winfrey says. "You can't tell where the character ends and she begins."

Many critics now have Mo'Nique pegged as a surefire Academy Award nominee, although some have accused her of acting the diva recently for skipping a few film festivals and downplaying the significance of an Oscar. "Whenever I get an award, it's appreciated," the star insists. "But the business isn't my life. My family, my babies; that's my life."

Which explains why, at the end of 2007, Mo'Nique made a bold decision--one she knew might alienate some of the fans who have followed her since she launched her no-holds-barred stand-up act in the comedy clubs of her native Baltimore back in the early '90s. She changed her eating habits and lost 45 lbs., with her goal being to lose another 20. (For details, see box.) "I laugh when people say, 'Oh, you're trying to get skinny,'" says Mo'Nique, who is down to 217 lbs. "When has America considered a woman over 200 lbs. skinny? Am I trying to be healthy? Yes. I have beautiful children, and I want to live to meet their children."

The star also keeps her family first by making them part of her career. Not only is Shalon (her son from a previous relationship) a rookie writer for The Mo'Nique Show, but her "loving and supportive" husband, Sidney Hicks, 42, is also her business partner. "Every single night, I put my twins to bed, and if I'm traveling, then Daddy does it," says Mo'Nique, who has taken "Hicks" as her last name. "Sid will wrestle with them, or we'll all watch a movie. We keep the party going!"

Such lighthearted domestic scenes were scarce during Mo'Nique's own childhood, during which, she says, her older brother Gerald sexually abused her for four years starting when she was 7. (Despite repeated efforts to reach Gerald, he was unavailable for comment.) But it was because of her past that Mo'Nique was unafraid to play an abuser in Precious. "I knew who that monster was," she says. And she also knew she had an opportunity to help other victims. "People come up to me at the airport, the grocery store," she notes, "and say, 'Thank you--I survived it too,' and we embrace."

Mo'Nique keeps the hugs going on her talk show set, where she embraces every single audience member at the end of a taping to thank them, she explains, "for buying tickets, getting an outfit and getting their hair done." Then it's time to head home for things like what Hicks calls "pizza night with the guys." For those are the moments that make Mo'Nique feel like, "I'm in my dream right now," she says. "I've read so many biographies where people are like, 'I gave everything to this business, and when all was said and done, there was no one left for me.' I don't want to tell that story."