Nia Vardalos bounces into a Los Angeles spa wearing a jean skirt she picked up in the Valley for 12 bucks and her Target pedicure sandals. A Tigger bandage covers a curling-iron burn on her left wrist, and she's carrying a mean Ferragamo bag. ''My motto in life is you're never too fat for a new purse!'' she chirps. (For the record, girl looks good.) Dunking hands in paraffin and feet in copper tubs, she marvels about the rogue wave her little movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding caught and rode into the record books. She tells fun stories about her mother's tut-tutting over the low-cut dress she wore to last year's Oscars and the kind treatment shown to her by her fellow screenplay nominees. ''Charlie Kaufman was like, 'So Nia, what's your process?' And I'm like, Process? I write a page and then I eat something!'' Her new movie, Connie and Carla -- which, like Wedding, she also executive-produced -- is a light cocktail costarring Toni Collette about a couple of cabaret singers
on the run from the Mob who hide out in a drag queen bar, disguised in wigs and boas and false baritones. The script was inspired by Vardalos' leaner years, when she hoofed it through cramped Canadian dinner theaters, belting out every cheesy chestnut from A Chorus Line to Cats. She dashed off a rough first draft of the script back in 1999, and when Wedding hit $80 million -- it would go on to gross $241 million -- Universal swooped in with a bid. ''Honestly, I just wrote the same movie twice,'' she says, ''which is 'Hey, everybody's a little bit different, and in the end we're all fruit!'''
While Vardalos, 41, indulges in an afternoon of pampering, her husband of 10 years, Felicity's Ian Gomez, is getting his allergy shots so the couple can finally get a dog. Post-Wedding, they live in the same house and hang out with the same group of friends from their Second City days. She swears the only way fame changed her is that on the set of her first movie she had to wear most of her own clothes and change in a closet. With Connie and Carla (see review on page 59), she got a sweet trailer. ''It's not like my movie broke records and I became a size 4 and my skin cleared up! I'm still the same girl.'' So how did Cinderella get stuck with such a witchy reputation?
Vardalos says that the negative press, stemming from her short-lived CBS TV spin-off My Big Fat Greek Life, started breaking when she was on the Connie and Carla set last April. ''It was getting bad, and I was on the phone with my manager saying 'I don't understand -- why would they print these lies?' No, I didn't make out with Colin Farrell! No, I didn't make out with Joey Fatone! No, I did not misbehave once on the TV show! No, I did not have a face-lift, a boob job -- um, what else have you heard -- no, I don't have a gambling problem!'' ''People get jealous and try to challenge you,'' soothes the pedicurist, Lisa, Nia's foot in hand. ''As long as you know you have integrity...''
Her critics, who frustratingly insist on anonymity, whisper that on the sitcom's set she ripped off her good little Greek girl mask. Vardalos had signed the TV deal months before Wedding came out. Numerous parties forcefully allege that once the movie hit, she no longer had any desire to make the series work and sabotaged the fledgling show, leading to its collapse after seven lousy episodes last spring. She supposedly banned the head writer from meetings, had people fired at whim, and stomped off the set, locking herself in her trailer at the wrap of the final episode because costar Andrea Martin -- Aunt Voula to Greek fans -- had gotten the biggest laughs. (That one really burns, says Vardalos. She and her husband have waged an eight-year battle with infertility, and she says the only reason she retreated to her trailer was because Gomez was in there waiting to administer her a treatment.)