And that was then, before the roles alongside such Hollywood stars as Ben Affleck (1999's Dogma) and Will Smith (1999's Wild Wild West), before the big-bucks contract with Revlon, before her romance with actor Edward Norton, 33. Today Hayek,36, boasts her biggest accomplishment yet: producing and starring in Frida, about the life of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. To get it made, the 5'2" powerhouse Rodriguez calls "feisty and headstrong" had more trouble getting people to say yes than usual. She spent eight years lining up financing (the film cost about $12 million), handpicking the cast and fighting for the rights—at one point against Jennifer Lopez—to reproduce Kahlo's works. "That is not an easy task for anyone, let alone a Latin American woman who has an accent," says her longtime pal and Frida costar Mia Maestro. "But she doesn't see those things as an excuse to give up or fail; she uses them to empower her."
Call her a wolf in a fox's tight, low-cut clothing. "[People see] this dark, sexy woman and think that she is some hot little tamale," says Alfred Molina, who plays Kahlo's artist husband, Diego Rivera. "Her secret weapon is she's got more smarts than.... Let me put it this way: If she was white and male, she'd be [Miramax Films honcho] Harvey Weinstein by now."
Minus the cricket appetizers, of course. Fiercely proud of her Mexican heritage—so much that she refuses to get lessons to cover her accent—Hayek was born in Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz, an oil town on the Gulf of Mexico, to Sami Hayek Dominguez, a wealthy hardware-store owner of Lebanese descent, and Diana Jimenez Hayek, an opera singer. Along with her younger brother Sami, a writer and furniture designer, "mi princesa," as her father called her, was given everything her heart desired, from a princess's pink bedroom ("She can be very girly," says Maestro) to a tiger and a monkey as pets. When she went to Mexico City—where she attended classes at an acting school sponsored by the TV network Televisa—she sometimes traveled in a chauffeur-driven Mercedes-Benz.
But privilege had its downside too. Shortly after Hayek arrived in the early '80s at the Iberoamericana University in Mexico City to study international relations, she went out on a date with a similarly well-off fellow student. The two were kidnapped by former police officers and held for ransom for nine hours until the boy's parents paid. She dropped out of school before graduating to pursue less nerve-racking drama: acting. In 1988 she got a small part in a soap called Nuevo Amanecer (New Dawn), and the next year she approached Televisa producer Lucy Orozco asking for something bigger. According to Orozco, she dismissed the girl until about two years later when, looking for a confident beauty to star in the soap opera Teresa, she spotted—but did not remember—Hayek. "I asked her what her name was, she looked at me, lifted one eyebrow, and she said, 'Salma Hayek,'" recalls Orozco, now a friend. "She was so sure of herself that she really did not get my sympathy at first."
Hayek did get the job but quickly found that stardom wasn't enough. "I learned in Mexico that the lens likes me," she told Movieline in 1997. "But I kept thinking, 'I'm famous, but am I good?'" She moved to L.A. in 1991 to find out. After taking time off to study English, she landed small parts in such sitcoms as Dream On and The Sinbad Show before Desperado paved the way for movies like 1996's From Dusk Till Dawn and 1997's Fool's Rush In. Although her films were not always hits, Hayek proved bigger than her box office. "She has the most spirit of anyone I've ever seen," says Jeanne Tripplehorn, who played her lesbian lover in the 2000 drama Timecode. "She's this little thing with all this determination and drive. She's shoot-from-the-hip honest." Plus, "she is very fun," says Rodriguez, whose three young kids are regular sleepover guests at godmother Salma's bright blue modern-style L.A. house. "She loves to tell jokes and stories. She is more than the life of the party. She is the party. When she walks in a room, everyone stops. And when she gets angry," he adds with a laugh, "everyone tries to make her happy again."
Fortunately, any yelling she does these days is likely to come ringside at the boxing matches and L.A. Lakers games she attends with Norton, whom she began dating in 1999 after their chiropractor set them up. "He's charming and a great companion for Salma because he doesn't try to compete with her," says Orozco of Norton. Still, friends have no idea when or how she'll start the family that Rodriguez says "she's been talking about having forever." Just that whatever she chooses to do, as her pal Maestro puts it, "Salma will conquer, no doubt."
Karen S. Schneider
Rachel Biermann and Carrie Bell in L.A. and Adrienne Bard in Mexico City
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