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Kerry Washington had plenty to celebrate. The Scandal star had just made a triumphant appearance as host of Saturday Night Live, and now, with her husband of four months, former San Francisco 49er cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, by her side, Washington was beaming. So when she arrived at the show's afterparty at New York City restaurant Asellina in the early hours of Nov. 3, she threw caution to the wind and did something extremely out of character: She held her husband's hand in public. "They were superaffectionate," a partygoer says of the pair, who have always gone to painstaking lengths to avoid being photographed together. With her parents, Earl, a real estate agent, and Valerie, a retired educator, also there, "Nnamdi was giving her kisses on the cheek," the source adds. "He kept congratulating her and was putting his hand on her belly." It was a telltale sign of the other reason Washington's been aglow: Sources confirm to PEOPLE that she is expecting the couple's first child this spring.

But since secretly marrying Asomugha, 32, in June, Washington, 36, has been exceptionally coy. "I will say I'm really happy," the actress told PEOPLE in July, alluding to both the marriage and her Emmy nomination. "I'm blessed in all areas of my life."

While Washington enjoys a year of personal milestones, she's also reaching new heights professionally. As crisis expert Olivia Pope on the ABC hit Scandal (see page 45), Washington is the first African-American actress to lead a network drama in nearly 40 years. With more than 10 million viewers watching her each week, she's also now arguably the biggest African-American actress in Hollywood. "She's at the top of her game," says her costar Darby Stanchfield. "She's a phenomenal woman." The importance of her achievements isn't lost on Washington, who told the New York Times in September that when she read for the Pope role, she knew it "was a tremendous opportunity." It's also a fitting part for a woman friends describe as take-charge and dedicated. "Kerry's in it to win it. And she's winning," says Joe Reinstein, the former deputy social secretary for the Obama Administration, who worked with Washington during both the 2008 and 2012 elections. "She makes you feel like you're the most important person in the room. She deserves everything."

Especially since she's worked hard to get here. Raised in a middle-class neighborhood of The Bronx, Washington benefited from an elite education at Manhattan's Spence School ("For a lot of classmates, I knew the only other black women they'd known had been their domestic help," she later reflected) and George Washington University. But while in college, the actress succumbed to stress and developed a severe eating disorder. "I used food as a way to cope. It was my best friend. I'd eat anything and everything, sometimes until I passed out," she told ESSENCE in 2007. "I had this personality that was driven toward perfectionism. I would tell people I was at the library but instead go to the gym and exercise for hours and hours ... There was a lot of guilt and a lot of shame." At the urging of a dance instructor, Washington sought treatment, including therapy, meditation and work with a nutritionist. "It helped me realize it's okay for me to communicate my feelings," she continued, "instead of literally stuffing them down with food." (These days Washington "eats very clean and healthy and is the most balanced person," says her Pilates trainer Nonna Gleyzer.)

As she began to land roles in hit films such as the biopic Ray, new problems arose. In 2004 Washington's mother, whose work ethic had long served as an inspiration to the star, began battling breast cancer. The fight gave her daughter new perspective. "I thought, 'Here's an opportunity for us to move closer together, for me to support her the way she has supported me my whole life,'" Washington told ESSENCE.

But it was harder to stay optimistic in the face of other obstacles. In 2007 Washington, who was engaged to actor David Moscow, realized their five-year relationship was doomed. "When we were planning the wedding, I didn't even feel like picking out a dress," she said later that year. "Even though we love each other on a very profound level, we were doing emotional gymnastics to try to work things out."

Having once been open about her personal life, the actress began holding back. "I learned through experience that it doesn't work for me to talk about my personal life," she explained to Glamour this year. "I've had earlier times in my career when I did talk about it ... But I couldn't just turn around and say, 'I only want to talk about the good stuff but not the bad stuff.' So I just thought, 'Okay, no more.'"

In 2010 the star met her tight-lipped match in Asomugha, himself a master of discretion. (When he got drafted by the Oakland Raiders in 2003, "no one knew," says one friend. "Just one day he was driving a new Corvette.") Having first connected after he saw Washington onstage, "they're the same person," says her close pal. Homebodies who abstain from alcohol, "they have the same values and are very close to their families."

When the pair wed in what one witness calls a "simple and sweet" ceremony in Hailey, Idaho, on June 24 with only a few family members and friends in attendance, many were shocked to learn that Washington had even been dating. "At awards shows they'd stay separate and act like they didn't know each other," says an Asomugha friend. Still, after the wedding, says a Scandal source, "there was a spring in Kerry's step when she came back to set."

Now the couple, who friends describe as "goofy and silly" together, are enjoying quiet nights at Asomugha's Malibu home and planning ahead for parenthood. Recently waived by the 49ers following a knee injury, Asomugha "will be an amazing father," says his friend. And whether the baby on the way is a superstar like Mom or a superjock like Dad, one thing is already clear, say Washington's pals. "Kerry's got her values straight," says Reinstein. "This is going to be one lucky kid."

  • Contributors:
  • Reported by Janine Rayford Rubenstein,
  • Emily Strohm,
  • Aili Nahas,
  • Patrick Gomez.