05/08/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
To Heather Headley's relatives in Trinidad, Broadway is nothing to write home about. Sitting in the foyer of the Palace Theater, where she wows all comers in Disney's Aida (set to Elton John's music), the actress mimics her aunts and uncles: " 'I hear you work on Broadway. Why you-working the streets?' It takes too long to explain," she says with a laugh. "So I'm like, 'Don't worry. I'm a lawyer.' "
The truth: At 25, Headley is the New York theater's new superstar, bringing a regal bearing to her role as Aida, the Nubian princess who falls for her Egyptian captor. ("Simply splendid," wrote the New York Times critic.) But she hasn't let the raves go to her head. "I always remember this is not Heather," she says. "This is through God."
She learned that piety from her mother, Hannah, 51, and father, Iric, 51, a former pastor. Growing up in Trinidad, Headley sang in the church choir, and she landed leads in high school plays when the family moved to Fort Wayne, Ind., in 1989. As a junior at Northwestern, she nabbed a spot in the Toronto production of Ragtime and then, in a Ragtime-to-riches tale, won the part of lioness Nala in Broadway's The Lion King. Auditioning for Aida in '98, "she just blew me away," says Disney CEO Michael Eisner. Has success changed her life? "I have no life now," says Headley, who lives in Manhattan and is working on a pop album. "Aida is my boyfriend."