America Ferrera's first real showbiz experience was something of a letdown. At 16, after a decade of acting in school plays and drifting off each night to Hollywood dreams, she was cast in a Disney Channel movie about a junior high school dance team with the somewhat hilarious name of Gotta Kick It Up. At first, she was thrilled. "I love to dance, so I couldn't believe I was getting paid to just dance all day. And there were four other girls in the cast, so that was fun. And youknow the way you think when you're a teenager: Disney Channel today, Oscars tomorrow!" she says with a laugh. But a few weeks into filming, she had what she describes as "a mini nervous breakdown." "I just felt really empty," she says. "I had achieved my dream, and it wasn't totally fulfilling. I still had school problems, and I still had boy problems. My life was still my life. I guess I had been waiting to be turned into a swan."
Seven years later, chatting over a dinner of fish cakes, fried rice and chicken curry at a Thai restaurant in New York's SoHo, Ferrera is no longer waiting for her swan moment. That sort of magical transformation doesn't happen in real life, she's realizednot even in Hollywood. But about a year ago something far better occurred: She was cast as an ugly duckling, and that lovable four-eyed, brace-faced duckling has made Ferrera into a big, big star.
Betty Suarezthe lead character in television's Ugly Bettyis a style-challenged young Latina from Queens who lands a job as assistant to the editor in chief of a fashion magazine. The show is based on a Colombian telenovela called Yo Soy Betty, la Fea, which was a cultural phenomenon in Latin America and was adapted for markets around the worldeverywhere from Israel to Indiabefore being imported to the U.S. for the fall 2006 season. American audiences fell for the series almost immediately. Drawing roughly 14 million viewers a week, the show dominates its competitive Thursday night time slot and ranks as the most watched newcomer of the season. In January Ugly Betty won the Golden Globe for best TV comedy or musical series, and Ferrera herselfwho dons a wig, fake brows and snap-on faux braces for her rolewalked away with the statuette for best actress, beating out such veterans as Felicity Huffman and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Two weeks later she took home a SAG award.