Sarah Jessica Parker(carrie)

updated 06/01/2001 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/01/2001 AT 01:00 AM EDT

SHE IS BILLED AS THE SHOW'S STAR AND co-executive producer, but Sarah Jessica Parker might as well have another credit after her name: cheerleader. Note the way she welcomed actress Valerie Harper in 1999 when the former Rhoda star arrived to film a role as the mother of one of Parker's boyfriends. "I was about half a block from the studio, and I saw this strange little person jumping up and down like a 10-year-old," Harper recalls. "Then I got closer and saw little blonde curls going, and it was Sarah Jessica. She was saying, 'I'm so excited you're here! I'm so excited you're here!' "

An act of irrational exuberance? Not at all. It took Parker, 36, more than two decades to find her career-defining role in Sex and the City's Carrie Bradshaw, a lovably neurotic relationship columnist whom the actress has managed to make "heartbreaking and funny at the same time," says the show's creator Darren Star. And Parker is treating her newfound success as tenderly as Carrie would a Fendi handbag. "She strikes me as being very grateful for this great show," says Kyle MacLachlan, 42, who plays Dr. Trey McDougal, the husband of Carrie's friend Charlotte. "She's very humble."

Parker almost passed on the part that has catapulted her onto magazine covers and fashion designers' speed dials—not to mention Hollywood's A list. "She wasn't that excited at the thought of doing a TV show," explains Parker's longtime friend Willie Garson, 37, who plays her loyal buddy Stanford Blatch. But the character of Carrie—who comes with a list of flaws longer than any of her hemlines—proved too tempting to turn down, especially for a performer who has admitted to being a bit of a prude in her personal life. "That's the great part of being an actress," Parker told Harper's Bazaar in February. "It's like having illegal behavior sanctioned—I have to sleep with men on the show, and I have to smoke cigarettes on the show, and I have to wear revealing clothes. I'm so lucky."

She couldn't always say that. Born in the coal-mining town of Nelsonville, Ohio, the youngest of four children, Parker saw her parents—Barbara, then an elementary school teacher, and Stephen Parker, an aspiring writer—divorce when she was a toddler. After her mother married truck driver Paul Forste in 1969, the family grew to include four more children—and occasionally spent time on welfare when Forste (now 56 and in the transportation business) was out of work.

All the while, however, Barbara (now 62 and the co-founder of a New Jersey nursery school) insisted that her children take advantage of dance and music scholarships. In 1976, Sarah Jessica landed a role in a Broadway play, The Innocents. Other parts in theater (the lead in the musical Annie), television (the 1982 sitcom Square Pegs) and movies (1984's Footloose) quickly followed.

But Parker's personal life did not proceed nearly as smoothly. In 1984 she moved in with then-boyfriend Robert Downey Jr., who was already battling the drug addiction that continues to draw headlines today. Her repeated efforts to help him kick his habit failed, and she finally checked out of the relationship in early 1991. Subsequent liaisons with Nicolas Cage (her costar in Honeymoon in Vegas) and John F. Kennedy Jr. proved short-lived.

Then, in 1992, Parker began dating Matthew Broderick, who also found success at a young age (winning a Tony Award for Brighton Beach Memoirs at 21) and had romanced actresses Helen Hunt and Jennifer Grey. "They both have had very bizarre, similar lives," says series executive producer Michael Patrick King.

Right now, the couple—who married in 1997 and live in a Greenwich Village brownstone with their mixed-breed dog Sally—seem to be walking the same path of professional triumph. After appearing in last year's critically acclaimed movie You Can Count on Me, Broderick, 39, is bringing down the house in the Broadway musical The Producers (for which he earned a Tony nomination). Parker, meanwhile, has juggled her Sex role with film projects including last winter's State and Main and the upcoming dark comedy Life Without Dick.

Now if only Parker could get around to doing something she's been thinking about for a long time: starting a family. "They have both talked about kids, but don't know when," Parker's brother Timothy, 39, an actor, told PEOPLE last year. "I know Sarah would like to have kids sooner rather than later."

In the meantime, Parker is acquiring plenty of valuable juggling skills during her 16-hour days on the Sex set. "Sarah is like the ultimate modern multitasker," says costar Cynthia Nixon, 35, who plays Miranda. "She hits her marks every time, she knows where the lights are—and then personally, she knows if your mother is sick." Indeed, Parker can seem almost too competent at times, her pals point out. "You sometimes don't feel like a woman in her presence," says writer and co-executive producer Cindy Chupack, "because she's so completely feminine and lovely and glowing."

But even Parker would agree that some tasks are more daunting than others. When hosting MTV's Movie Awards last year, for example, she admitted to PEOPLE that she felt terrified much of the night, trying to manage some 15 costume changes. "It was like this crazy obstacle course," she said. Fortunately, Parker has proven to be an expert navigator—especially when wearing high heels.

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