11/05/2007 at 01:00 AM EST
Sitting in the audience at her friend and Why Did I Get Married? costar Jill Scott's concert not long ago, Tasha Smith noticed fans waving in her direction. "I'm looking around and I'm like, 'Who just walked in? Who are they waving to?'" says Smith. "And they're like, 'You! You were great in the movie.' So I'm like, 'Oh my God—I'm in the movies!'"
Talk to Smith, 36, even briefly and it becomes obvious why she feels like pinching herself. It's not just that Tyler Perry's Married, her second movie with the filmmaker, opened as the country's No. 1 movie—it's how far she came to get here. The daughter of a single mother who gave birth at 15 to Smith and her twin sister Sidra, the actress grew up amid gangsters, drugs and poverty in Camden, N.J., a city with one of the highest murder rates in the nation. "I've been to the worst place I could ever be," she says, "but I always had a dream—I knew I was going to go to Hollywood and be legit." She's telling her story now, she explains, to help encourage others. "Your dream," she says, "is the best thing you've got."
There wasn't much else for her in 1970s Camden. Smith's mother was addicted to drugs throughout much of Tasha's childhood ("I cried for her," Smith says); while braiding neighbors' hair for pocket money, young Tasha would imagine she was Chaka Khan. By 14 she was "going to the bar with my boyfriend, smoking cigarettes and ordering Hennessy. But I knew I wasn't going to sell drugs and have five kids with five different men."
She escaped with the help of some grifter friends who'd gone west and sent her a plane ticket. The high school dropout stayed with friends, an uncle, anyone who would take her in. She hadn't been in L.A. a year when she saw Martin Lawrence at the Comedy Act Theater. Hooked, she developed her own "angry, X-rated" routine and started landing gigs, eventually appearing with comics like Dave Chappelle. "I loved the performing," she says. But it wasn't a living, so she started secretly stripping to make ends meet. Then one morning in 1997 she faced the truth.
"I was sick of myself. I was doing weed every day and drinking. I hated the way cocaine made me feel, trying to go to sleep after being up for days." Frightened and depressed, she found help in religion, becoming a Christian. Quitting stripping and the club scene got her head clear; classes with drama teacher Ivana Chubbuck helped convince her "I wasn't as ugly as I thought inside," says Smith, who now teaches classes for her mentor. Acting jobs followed in Boston Common and HBO's The Corner. Filmmaker Tyler Perry, who met Smith through mutual friend Tyra Banks
, cast her in his comedy Daddy's Little Girls, released earlier this year. "Tasha brings all her pain to her roles," says Perry. "She has taken her rough past and made it her art."
Divorced in 2007 after a brief marriage to a youth counselor, Smith, who lives in L.A., isn't finished fulfilling her dreams. "I want at least one kid," she says. For now she counts her blessings: "My family has come so far. My sister Sidra is a producer about to get married, my little sister is studying drama, my mom has 20 years of sobriety. This is the American Dream. It's all possible."