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By LUAINE LEE
PASADENA, Calif.--It sounds like the plot from a telenovela. Sofia Vergara's brother was assassinated in a kidnapping that went awry in her native Colombia nine years ago. Four years ago she developed thyroid cancer. Fifteen years ago she became a mother at 20. But none of that is apparent in the upbeat and sublimely unaffected woman who perches on a folding chair in a meeting room here looking like a living Rubens.
A huge star in Latin America, Vergara has yet to achieve that status here. But people who remember anything about the short-lived sitcom, "Hot Properties," can't forget the zaftig Latina who inveigled her way onto the small screen.
Those who missed out will have a second chance with the comedy "The Knights of Prosperity," premiering on ABC Jan. 3. As the only female in a gang of misfit miscreants, Vergara is, once more, unforgettable.
Dressed in a plunging black knit shirt, white pants and large gold, hoop earrings, Vergara is most proud of her near-perfect teeth. That's because she studied to be a dentist for three years. "But then things started changing, and you start getting opportunities and getting offers of money, and you start following your instinct, and here I am," she shrugs.
The trek from dental x-rays to 8- by 10s was easy because Vergara was discovered on the beach one day. "I wasn't a model or anything. I was just a girl on the beach and they said, 'Can you do this commercial?' I said, 'Yeah, of course.' And I did this Pepsi commercial and it became huge. Everybody goes, 'Who's that girl?' But I was in Catholic school, my last year of high school. I was 17. I just wanted to finish high school and go to dentist school."
After the success of her commercial, she began working on television in Colombia. When she was offered her own TV show from Univision, the big Spanish-language network in Miami, she seized the day. "It was a traveling show. We traveled around the world on prime time. It was a family show to show interesting things and facts in a way that everybody could watch."
Vergara, whose black hair spills in luminous cascades over her shoulders, says she did give modeling a try. For almost two months she worked for the Storm Agency in London. "But I didn't like it. I never took it seriously. I'm thinking, 'I'm never going to model, I'm too short, I'm too fat.' But they wanted me there, and it wasn't serious for me. I moved back to Colombia and started working in TV."
Travel had always been a part of her life, she says. "I don't really think too much about my moves. I'd been to the United States many times." Her father produces cattle for the meat industry in her native Barranquilla. Her mother was a homemaker who's now living with Vergara's siblings in Miami.
The 34-year-old recently relocated to New York, where "The Knights of Prosperity" is shot. She says her 15-year old son, Manolo, is used to relocating. But she was prepared for a battle when it meant leaving again.
"In New York I'm going to be suffering because to sell the whole move for him I said, 'Listen, now you're going to be independent.' And I sold him. Now he's excited. He picked the school he wanted because his grades are fantastic, so it was good. I thought it was going to be horrible, because at that age, your friends, your girlfriend is in L.A.--and everything's a DRAMA," she rolls her eyes.
Vergara, who has been a stunner since she was little, takes that in stride, too. "I'd be lying or a hypocrite if I said, 'Why do I have beauty?' Many doors have opened to me because I'm attractive or being pretty. And it's a reality. If I said, 'No, it's my talent. It's my personality.' That's not true. But you know what? I don't feel bad about it. You have to be able to maintain yourself in this business and obviously they've seen other things in me. It's more than the pretty, voluptuous Latin girl. I don't care. I know who I am. My family and friends know who I am."
Losing her brother marked a grave turning point for her, says Vergara. "He was kidnapped two years before and he paid the ransom and they tried to kidnap him again two years later. And by that time he was already carrying guns and had left his bodyguards in the house. They shot him when he went to reach for his gun," she sighs.
"Colombia is different now. We have a great president for the first time in 30 years. The country, for the first time, has hope which was completely lost. Now people are starting to see hope and to behave in a different way."
SpongeBob SquarePants will have Amy SquareShoulders as company next season. "Saturday Night Live's" Amy Poehler has created a new animation that will be part of the lineup on Nickelodeon. The cartoon is called "Mighty B" and features Poehler's voice as well as her creative input along with Cynthia True and Erik Wiese. "Mighty B" is about Bessie, an optimistic klutz who believes she can be anything she wants--all at the same time. "As a person who knows absolutely nothing about animation, I am thrilled to be in such great hands over at Nickelodeon. I can't wait to find out how they make those cool little people move around," says Poehler.
HBO will be bringing back its comedy series "Extras" on Jan. 14. This is the comedy written by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, who also created the original version of "The Office."
Orlando Bloom makes a hilarious self-parodying appearance on the Jan. 14 episode, in which he can't believe that the women aren't simply falling over each other in an attempt to win his affections.
Courtney Cox will be returning to television with a little help from her "friends." Well, at least her husband. David Arquette is co-executive producer with her on the show, "Dirt," premiering on FX Jan. 2. Cox plays a tabloid magazine editor who digs Hollywood's dirt like a backhoe. Even she admits it's "salacious. Well, after all it is FX."