SURE, LAUREN VELEZ, ONE OF THE stars of Fox's hit TV series New York Undercover, may be big now. But back when she was a grade-schooler at Public School 42 in Queens, N.Y., she endured an actor's nightmare. "I was in a Groundhog Day play," says Velez, 30ish, "and all I had to say was, 'I'm the groundhog. Go away. Please come back another day!' " Her classmates burst out laughing. "It was," she says, "the worst experience of my life."
Good thing she got over it. First earning kudos in the '94 Latino coming-of-age film I Like It like That, then in last year's City Hall, Velez is so convincing as Det. Nina Moreno on Undercover—last season's top-rated show among black and Hispanic viewers—that real-life female cops congratulate her on the street. "One day I waved to one, and two blocks later—boom!—she was right in my face," says Velez. "She flashed her badge and said, 'I just wanted to say I'm proud of what you're doing.' " Costar Malik Yoba is equally impressed: "There are scenes she's in that make me say, 'Damn, I'm so happy she's on the show.' "
There's a reason that Velez, one of eight children, comes off as a natural. Her father, José, a native of Puerto Rico who died of a heart attack in '93, had served 13 years with the NYPD. "It's funny to see her in the precinct, doing all these familiar things," says Velez's mother, Socorro. "It's like someone following in José's shoes."
Now with her years of working "starving-actress jobs" as a receptionist and restaurant hostess behind her, Velez—who'll appear this spring in the comedy I Think I Do—has precious little time to spend with husband Mark Gordon, 32, a personal trainer, in their one-bedroom Manhattan apartment. But those 15-hour days on the set, she says, are worth it: "I get a lot of young Latino girls who say to me, 'It's so nice to finally see a person on TV who looks like me.' "
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