America Ferrera’s improbable story couldn’t sound more like a rags-to-riches fairy tale if it had been scripted by a Disney writer. Growing up, she was the prototypical outsider: a quixotic misfit with impossible dreams and a continent-long list of quirks. But she wasted no time waiting for a glass slipper to transform her life. Instead, even as a child, Ferrera stuck to her singular ambition of becoming an actress. And in the process, she dictated her own fish-out-of-water story, complete with a colorful family life, suburban misadventures, and, eventually, Cinderella-like success.
“I think there’s definitely a fairy-tale quality to America’s ascent to stardom,” says Silvio Horta, creator and executive producer of ABC’s Ugly Betty, the show largely responsible for making Ferrera a household name and which will end its four-season run next month. “But I think the ‘fairy tale’ take romanticizes America’s incredible dedication to her craft. I’ve gotten to see firsthand what makes her successful: her incredible talent, her tremendous work ethic, and her resolve to never [settle for] ‘good enough.’ ”
Chloe O’Gara, the director of education and child development at Save the Children, a charity where Ferrera frequently volunteers, agrees. “America’s life story — like Ugly Betty’s — is the Cinderella fairy tale, but with a twist: America isn’t waiting for a prince to make a fantastic life,” she says. “America makes her own reality with smarts, hard work, and her own special style.”
Born the sixth child of Honduran immigrants, given a grandiosely patriotic name, and raised in the Los Angeles suburb of Woodland Hills, California, by a single mother who worked as an executive director of the housekeeping department at a Hilton hotel, Ferrera says she often felt like an outsider. Yet despite her humble background — and solely because of her vaulting ambition — she has managed to catapult herself into the pop-culture stratosphere. Her résumé, which in addition to Betty includes the films Real Women Have Curves and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, is a testament to hard work and determination.
“You can’t teach what America’s got; you’re born with it,” says comedian Carlos Mencia, who costars with Ferrera in the upcoming romantic comedy Our Family Wedding. “She is the everywoman — soft and kind but capable of being fierce and hard. America is the person you want to love you and would fear if she didn’t like you.”
For her part, Ferrera, now 25, is counting her blessings. She pauses for a moment when a journalist suggests that she tends to choose roles playing outsiders who, much like her, triumph without having to compromise their own uniqueness or integrity. She insists it’s been an unintentional coincidence.
“I’ve always chosen roles that I can really relate to, that I believe in, and I’ve been truly blessed that they’ve connected so deeply with people,” Ferrera says. “You’re lucky if you get one role like that in a lifetime, so I’ve been incredibly blessed to get a couple of them.” She laughs and then adds, “I don’t really think you can say I made these acting decisions on purpose. I was so determined to become an actor when I was starting out that I would have played an Oreo cookie in a glass of milk if that were the job they offered me, and I would have done it with every ounce of my soul.”
The acting bug took hold of Ferrera at the age of eight when she was treading the boards in a youth Shakespeare production of Romeo and Juliet. Two years later, a role as the Artful Dodger in her school’s production of Oliver Twist cinched the deal; acting was the only option for the young thespian, who, at 13, took public transportation to participate in the California Youth Theatre in West Hollywood.