Leap of Fey

updated 05/03/2004 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/03/2004 01:00AM

Heady stuff, starring on Saturday Night Live's centerpiece, "Weekend Update." The first time Tina Fey did it, in 2000, she says she was ready for instant fame. Fame told her to call back later. "I was like, 'Oh God, people are totally recognizing me. I was on TV for five minutes last night at 12:15 a.m., so I'm pretty famous.' I'd be on the subway thinking, 'Oh boy, is anyone checking me out?' " Alas, she says, "No one ever recognized me." Even when she received a nomination at last year's Emmys (she and the SNL staff had already won in 2002 for writing), she says, "I stood there, and all the photographers looked for a second, and I think they were probably like, 'Hmm, Lee Thompson? Polly Draper?' "

Anonymity aside, Fey, 33, is now slinging some of Saturday Night Live's most sublime wit: Besides co-anchoring "Update," she's the first female head writer in the show's history. And now she's ready for the multiplex as screenwriter of Mean Girls, a biting high school comedy due April 30 in which she also appears as the math teacher who advises Lindsay Lohan that being popular isn't all that. Fey, who based her script on the non-fiction dissection of teen cruelty Queen Bees & Wannabes, describes the book as "serious and scary" but also "very funny, because I remembered the kind of behaviors that were depicted in the book. There's something funny and ingenious about the way girls just know how to mess with each other." She cops to doing a little backstabbing of her own while in school: "If I liked a boy and he liked some other girl, I would obsessively talk about that girl. If there was anything bad to be said about her I would want to hear it and record it. I was a jealous girl."

But also a brainy one. She and older brother Peter, 42, now also a screenwriter, grew up in Upper Darby, Pa., a Philadelphia suburb where her father, Don, 70, was a grant writer (he has since retired to write mysteries and paint) and her mother, Jeanne, 73, was mostly a stay-at-home mom. Lately Jeanne has enjoyed the slots at Atlantic City casinos, where she once encountered Jennifer Lopez's mom, Guadalupe, before the latter won $2.4 million at the slots (according to Tina, Mrs. Fey later told her, "I didn't tell her I was your mom. I didn't want to brag").

It was an eighth-grade teacher who encouraged her to "be a writer for your life," Fey says. "I thought, 'I don't want to be a writer, 'cause then you're just by yourself in a room all the time. I want to be a star!' "

Stop one on her star trek was the University of Virginia, where she majored in drama. Then it was on to Chicago's legendary comedy troupe The Second City, where she became friends with current SNL stars Rachel Dratch, Amy Poehler and Horatio Sanz. "It was like a cult," she says, laughing. Even better, she met Jeff Richmond, currently SNL's creator of special music, who at the time worked for a children's theater company and asked her for help with his projects. "He didn't need any help," Fey says. Richmond agrees he was just angling to get to know her. "I fell in love with her very quickly. She has this caustic, biting wit that pops out occasionally, but she really does have a little-girl-from-the-suburbs kind of ambience. She's a shy person." The pair dated for seven years before their 2001 Greek Orthodox wedding. Richmond popped the question on vacation on Lake Michigan, where he put some champagne on ice and got down on one knee. Notes Fey: "My husband always said, 'If I'd known so many people would ask me how I proposed, I would have done it in some more theatrical way.' "

Joining SNL as a writer in 1997, she found the job demanding and put on weight. "I was a size 12 when I came to the show, and then I was really dealing with my stress with Krispy Kremes." After that she rose quickly, becoming head writer in 1999 ("in the beginning I took it really seriously. Now that I have more experience, a sort of laissez-faire attitude works better") and losing 30 lbs. by the time she joined Jimmy Fallon on "Weekend Update" four years ago. (She has always declined to discuss the facial scar that is sometimes visible on-camera.) "She's smart, she's funny, and she has an enormous amount of integrity," says the show's creator, Lorne Michaels. Now she has a deal to develop a sitcom for NBC.

That's bound to increase her subway recognition factor, especially if she sticks with her trademark glasses, which she needs to read cue cards but seldom wears away from the set. Without them, lots of people don't notice her. "Whenever we go to restaurants, I beg her, 'Please, put the glasses on,' " says Richmond, 43, "because you get treated great when they know you're on TV. A free appetizer and they're going to bring over a bottle of wine. I tell her, 'Please, just do it for your husband.' "

Kyle Smith. Brenda Rodriguez in Los Angeles

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