From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Gabourey Sidibe would like to make one thing perfectly clear: She is not Precious. After disappearing so completely into the role of Claireece "Precious" Jones, an abused, pregnant teen in the Oscar-nominated film Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, the 26-year-old actress says fans constantly mistake her for her onscreen alter ego. "I've seriously got people saying to me, 'Are your children okay?' and some people want to hug me and save me," says Sidibe. "I'm like, 'I have parents who love me—go away!' It's the funniest thing ever."

Bubbly, confident and outspoken, Sidibe couldn't be more different from the role that has landed her a Best Actress Oscar nomination. "I feel like Cinderella," says the actress, whose name is pronounced GA-bor-ay SID-ih-bay. "It's certainly a life that I didn't see coming and that nobody saw coming for me."

Her fairy-tale twist nearly passed her by. In 2007 Sidibe—then an undergrad at Mercy College in Manhattan—made a last-second decision to skip a psychology class to audition for Precious at a friend's urging. With only a few school plays to her credit, she beat out 400 other young women for the part. "I cut school for one day and I ended up being an Oscar nominee," she says with a laugh, "which is now my status update on Facebook!"

The second of five children raised in Harlem by a cabdriver father and a singer mother who performs in New York City subways, Sidibe says she endured years of teasing for her weight and dark skin. "People told me my whole life that I'll never really be anything," she says. But at around age 15, she says, she found an inner confidence: "I decided for myself that whatever people said, and no matter what I look like, I was going to be happy with myself. It's like a force of will I gained inside, and ever since it's worked for me."

Now the former tomboy is giddily relishing the perks of stardom, from meeting her "personal actress hero" Helen Mirren to scoring designer gowns and glamorous new looks. "The first photo shoot I did, they gave me a thousand-dollar wig," she says. "I nicknamed it Beyoncé!" Of breaking the mold among thin young actresses, she says, "I know that I'm different and I get it. But I like to be celebrated for being different. I kind of dig being the weird alien in the room."

Away from the red carpet, she's happy to indulge her "obsession" with MTV's Jersey Shore and hang out with her roommates in New York City and her "civilian" boyfriend. She's also set to start shooting a Showtime dark comedy series, The Big C—but first she's preparing to slip on her glass slippers for the Academy Awards. "I'm not nervous at all, because I'm allowed to make mistakes," she says. "Everybody will be like, 'Oh, Gabby, she's new. She's so cute.' I don't know how long I can ride the adorableness—but I plan to ride it as far as I can."