Wang's World

updated 03/22/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/22/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

In the glossy fashion world, designer Vera Wang's self-deprecating candor is as refreshing as a size-12 model, Wang, 54, is as open about her failed Sex and the City cameo—"They cut me out because I was so bad"—as she is about the fact that she takes prescription meds to fight anxiety: "It isn't so much about depression for me as it is about aging and being under a tremendous amount of pressure." And then there was her recent Oscar-day oops! Just hours before her debut as Access Hollywood's red-carpet commentator, the train of her self-designed strapless satin dress was trampled so badly, "I would have been standing there with basically my sandals," she says. "I had to run back upstairs and have the skirt completely resewn."

Fortunately the quick fix did the trick, and Wang not only pulled off her TV gig with aplomb but also won raves for the gown worn by frequent muse Holly Hunter. It's all in a day's work for Wang, best known as the country's premier wedding-dress designer—she outfits more than 10,000 brides each year—whose empire is now a $150 million-a-year juggernaut that includes evening wear, perfume and a china and crystal collection that debuted in 2002. Her fine-jewelry line, which includes gold, platinum and diamond rings, hits stores this month, and an array of silver accessories—ranging from trays to martini shakers to gift boxes—will launch in October. No wonder the dynamo is feeling a mite exhausted. "It would be nice to just have a cup of Starbucks and read a magazine," she says. "That really is the time that I don't have."

Judging by the tasks on her to-do list (creating a bed-and-bath collection) and the one-off projects she's tackled (designing new outfits for the Philadelphia Eagles cheerleaders), the leisurely latte will have to wait. Even Wang's own family sees her as "a force of nature," in the words of Arthur Becker, a technology CEO whom she married in 1989. For better or worse, Becker and their daughters Cecilia, 13, and Josephine, 10, have learned to live with Wang's 17-hour days and quirky habits. A night owl and self-confessed Law and Order addict—"I have seen every episode there ever was"—who loves to sketch until 2 a.m. in their 12-room spread on Park Avenue, she admits she sometimes sleeps until 9 a.m. "I do not wake up with my kids, for which I will pay the price forever!" she jokes.

Maybe not: Wang's friends say she's also a devoted parent who loves to escape with her family to Southampton, where they have a beach house. "I marvel at her ability to handle it all," says Lisa Jackson, a close friend who met her at a wedding 15 years ago. "She likes to stay home, have dinner, have some laughs and watch TV. With family and friends, she's very steady."

In private life, as in business, Wang is an overachiever. Her latest goal? Training to run a marathon: "If Puff Daddy did it, I figure I can too," she says with a laugh. A native New Yorker and former junior ice skating champ—her father is oil and pharmaceuticals tycoon Cheng Ching Wang—Wang says she is trying to reclaim her athleticism after 20 years of avoiding exercise. "I decided to not go into old age gracefully," she says, "[but] to fight it every step of the way."

Helping to keep her young are Cecilia and Josephine, who have much in common with their mother. "They like to laugh," she says. "They have a good sense of humor—they have no choice!" And although it's too soon to start thinking about their wedding gowns, her daughters just may inspire her next fashion challenge. Says Wang: "I would love to do dresses for proms."

Michelle Tauber. Rebecca Paley in Manhattan

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