Losing Cause

updated 11/15/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/15/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

Although she got up on a stage most every night as a child, Maria Menounos wasn't exactly destined for showbiz. From the time she was born, her Greek immigrant family cleaned one of Boston's biggest nightclubs after hours throughout the '80s. "Vomit, needles and rats is all I remember, and wading through garbage up to my knees," says Menounos. Still, "I would sing every day on that stage and thought I was a star." It was back to reality when the family piled into their beat-up station wagon surrounded by smelly bags of beer cans to redeem for grocery money.

But growing up poor wasn't all she overcame to make it in Hollywood. Though the 26-year-old Entertainment Tonight correspondent, who has interviewed everyone from Jim Carrey to Madonna at red-carpet events, is model -trim now (120 lbs. at 5'8"), she wasn't always so. "I went to college determined not to gain the freshman 15," says Menounos, who memorably filled out a $2.5 million gown as ABC's Oscar preshow cohost last February. "And I ended up gaining the freshman 40."

Being around so much junk food at Boston's Emerson College (near her family's home in Medford, Mass.), where she studied film and broadcast journalism, was a vast change from the Mediterranean diet she was raised on. "Nia Vardalos and I recently chatted about how badly we wanted a bologna sandwich in school and how we had to go in with grape leaves. It was a tortured life!" she says. In college, "I would outeat football players, and then be like, 'Let's go for ice cream now!' "

Interested in a career in television as well as a return to beauty pageants (she was Miss Massachusetts Teen USA in 1996), Menounos knew she had to trim the fat. "I was happy about myself. 'Whatever, I'm chubby, who cares?' " she says. "But [having to be thin] is a reality of this business I wanted to get into." She lost the bulk of it through portion control, still eating what she wanted, just less of it. "I was taking in like six slices of pizza for lunch and dinner too, so I cut back to five, and when that wasn't awful, I went to four. And then I started replacing them with salad—like two slices of pizza and a salad." Within a few months, she lost 20 lbs. Four workouts a week on an elliptical trainer took the rest of the weight off, and in 1999 she came in second at the Miss Massachusetts contest.

Shortly thereafter, Menounos, who put college on hold for financial reasons, was offered a job at Channel One in L.A., a satellite news service for teens. This time, her hunger was better placed. "I was the girl who chased the fire truck and the ambulance," she jokes. In almost two years as an on-air reporter, she went to El Salvador to cover earthquakes and volunteered at a soup kitchen to get an interview with then presidential candidate Al Gore's daughters. Producers at E.T. soon took notice of her easy interview style and hired her away in 2002. She's even getting acting roles now, playing Craig Sheffer's recurring love interest on One Tree Hill and shooting a role in next year's sci-fi film Fantastic Four. "The camera loves her," says One Tree Hill creator Mark Schwahn. "Maria's only flaw is she has a truly horrible laugh. It's equal parts farm animal and tommy gun."

But her biggest accomplishment is being able to take care of her parents. "Forget the fact that I get to do neat stuff and meet stars," she says. "My parents never lived a day where they didn't have to stress and cry over bills. It's a wonderful feeling to know I can provide for them now." With their mortgage paid off, dad Constantinos, 59, and mom Stavroula, 50, no longer have to work. Menounos also recently treated her dad to some cosmetic surgery to fix the bothersome bags under his eyes and her mom to LASIK surgery. "It's their turn now," she says.

Living in a three-bedroom home in L.A. with the five dogs she adopted after volunteering at an animal shelter, the happily single Menounos says that dating "isn't my priority right now." What is? "I have this superhero complex," she says. "I want to build an Omega Girl empire, and I want to be in a position like Oprah, where I can really make a difference in people's lives. Then I'll be the happiest."
Jennifer Wulff. Mark Dagostino in New York

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