Salma Hayek Makes Waves

As a Mexican soap star, she had to overcome a Hollywood that mocked her dreams. But Salma Hayek kept fighting and had the last laugh with film and TV success, her own cosmetics line and a late-in-life family. “I’ve worked hard,” she says, “for everything I have”   

by Johanna Schneller
salma hayek red dress underwater image
GUCCI silk georgette gown; gucci.com for stores. MARTIN KATZ diamond and 18k white-gold earrings; 310-276-7200
Photograph: Alexei Hay

Hayek looks pretty comfy sitting literally sky high, but she had to fight to get here. At 23, she was a sensation on Mexican TV, starring as the title character on the telenovela Teresa. That kind of work, however, “was not my passion,” she says. “I was smart enough to realize that was not good acting, and I wanted to be a really good actress.” She quit, moved to Los Angeles and, as she recalls, “started from the bottom all over again. I was prepared to be unknown, but I was not prepared to be rejected so many times and to be made fun of because I came from a Mexican soap opera. It was almost like, ‘How dare you think you can be an actress here?’ Like I was a stupid person for considering that possibility.” She chortles in triumph. “God, we set them straight! I was smart enough to understand that the consumer power of over 40 million Latinos in this country eventually was going to weigh on [Hollywood] and that these people would want to see themselves reflected.”

Her persistence paid off. Hayek landed films, including Desperado and From Dusk Till Dawn, that gradually increased her profile. When she wanted to produce and star in Frida, a biopic about the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, “everybody closed the door, for nearly 10 years, but I stayed on it,” she says. Frida earned six Oscar nominations (including Best Actress for Hayek) and won two. When Hayek’s production company, Ventanarosa, pitched U.S. TV networks on the idea for the series Ugly Betty, they were initially hesitant. “So instead of taking one year to get it on the air, it took us three,” she says. The show eventually ran on ABC for four seasons, netting three Emmy awards and 19 nominations, including one for Hayek as Guest Actress in a Comedy Series. Of her stick-to-it-iveness, Hayek says, “I don’t have stamina in exercise”—she grins, gives me a swat—“but I have it in life.”

She’s also unafraid to challenge herself. In 2003, as a first-time director, she won a daytime Emmy for a Showtime film called The Maldonado Miracle. “Directing is the best thing I do, and for me it’s the easiest thing I do,” she says. She directed a music video for Prince and recently did another for her friend Jada Pinkett Smith, whose song “Nada Se Compara” (Nothing Compares) has a story line about human trafficking. Hayek insisted that Pinkett Smith perform naked, “to show how vulnerable it can be to be in the body of a woman,” she says. “You’re gonna go, ‘Whoa, Jada can sing like that? She looks like that?’ All of a sudden you’ll see you’ve been looking at this person, but you’ve never really looked at this person.”

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked to take my clothes off, but Salma asked me once, and it’s done. It’s not even a question,” Pinkett Smith says. “That goes to show you how much I trust and adore her. She said, ‘I need you to be courageous! This is the power they try to steal from us—you must show it!’ Her passion is just contagious.” She laughs admiringly, then continues, “Life in general is difficult for women, the patriarchal culture that we live in and also this Hollywood game. Sometimes you can get very disconnected from your deepest sense of self. But she’s someone who can naturally connect to it and understand it. Every time I’m with her, she has something to offer me.”

Hayek won over Oliver Stone, too. When the director cast Jennifer Lopez in U Turn, Hayek chided him for not auditioning her; years later, Stone envisioned Savages’ Elena with Hayek in mind. “She was right” about the necklace, he says. “She brought the prop to life. I’d work with her again in a second. She’s a delight.” He laughs. “Well, not exactly a delight—she’s a hot chile pepper in a blue dress. She’s one of a kind.”

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