updated 06/16/2008 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 06/16/2008 AT 01:00 AM EDT
Six years ago Alves, 25, hardly could have envisioned her life today: With parenthood fast approaching, she and McConaughey, 38, are building their dream house in Malibu. At the same time, Alves is launching Muxo, a line of handmade bags she designed with her mom, Fatima. "It gets overwhelming sometimes," she acknowledges. "When you're pregnant, your brain works slower than usual and you're tired." Yes, "there is a lot going on," she says, "but it's all great stuff."
And a very long way from her childhood in rural Belo Horizonte, Brazil, where she grew up in a farming family. At 15, she and her mom came to the U.S. to visit her uncle Thomas and aunt Claudia in California. "The minute I got off the plane I looked at my mother and said, 'I don't think I'm going back,'" recalls Alves. "I didn't speak any English, and I didn't have any money. I left everything I knew."
For the next few years Alves slept on a friend's couch in Los Angeles. With barely enough money to eat, she went to night school, cleaned houses and worked in restaurants. "I would open a Mexican restaurant in the morning, bring clothes, change in the car and then punch in at an Italian restaurant and work all night," she says. At 19, she moved to New York City to pursue modeling. "All these agencies said no," she says. "I would think to myself, 'I left all my friends, my family, everything—and now I come here and the answer is no?'" But some months later the hard work paid off: Walking in the city one day, "I looked up and there I was—my first job [for Jockey], and I was on a billboard in Times Square."
Her Cinderella story was only beginning: In 2006 she met McConaughey at an L.A. bar. "He's a man, and the best kind of man," she says of the Texan actor. "Everyone just has to find common ground and make that work for them, and that's what we do."
With McConaughey having recently wrapped the upcoming romantic comedy Ghosts of Girlfriends Past and Alves launching her bag line, "we both have a lot going on—it keeps a sparkle in things," she says. "We just think about our lives and try to prioritize." For now, priority No. 1 is preparing to welcome the couple's "love child," as McConaughey proudly declared in announcing the news last January. "I want to take time off," says Alves, who is due in July. (The baby's gender will be a surprise.) "I want to enjoy that moment." Looking ahead, she takes a characteristically go-with-the-flow view. "Do I want to have a big family? Sure," she says. "But let the first one come, and then I'll see from there." As for marriage, "I respect marriage and I think it's beautiful that people do it. But for me, more important than anything is having a peaceful life and a peaceful home. I can only hope it gets better."