Nia Vardalos: a Dream Come True

updated 12/30/2002 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/30/2002 AT 01:00 AM EST

She may not look like America's sweetheart. But that didn't stop an unknown Greek actress from Winnipeg, Man., from breaking Julia Roberts's romantic-comedy record at the box office. Nia Vardalos, creator and star of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, is still in shock that her little $5 million movie has grossed more than $200 million, surpassing Pretty Woman as the No. 1 romantic comedy of all time. "If I heard somebody else tell the story, I would think it was made up," says Vardalos, 40. "When does it end? It's nuts!" The semi-autobiographical story about a frumpy girl from a flashy Greek family began in 1998 as a one-woman play in L.A. Thanks to backing by Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson (who is half-Greek herself), Vardalos jumped from stage to screen, where audiences fell in love with eccentric characters like her Windex-wielding dad, who in real life used the cleanser to cure warts. "Every moviegoer can root for somebody in this film, no matter what their background," observes Paul Dergarabedian of the box office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations Co. Vardalos, married to actor Ian Gomez, 38, since 1993, continues her Wedding whirlwind. A TV version is coming to CBS, she has sold a script for a new movie she'll star in, and, in the ultimate Cinderella moment, she dined with Queen Elizabeth in October. "I curtsied, said 'Your Majesty' and almost fell over and fainted," she recalls. But despite the heady hobnobbing, Vardalos remains "exactly the same in life as in the movie," says actress Lainie Kazan, who plays her strong-willed mother. "She lives the way that she writes. Sometimes good things happen to good people."

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