Sofia Vergara on being fearless, building an empire and the importance of laughing at yourself

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How funny is Sofia Vergara? About £23.6m-a-year funny, that’s how much. The loud, leopard print-clad Modern Family star reveals how she planned her blueprint for fame and built a million-dollar empire

If someone asked you to name the most powerful businesswomen in the world, who would you say? Arianna Huffington, Oprah, Sheryl Sandberg and Angela Ahrendts would probably all get a namecheck. But I’d like to put forward someone else. Someone you may not have considered: Sofia Vergara, the hilarious star of US sitcom Modern Family. Perhaps that’s because we don’t typically associate business power with a bombshell comic actress who plays a loud, brash Colombian woman on prime-time TV. But don’t be deceived.

Last year, Vergara earned an estimated £23.6m ($37m). To put that into context, Kim Kardashian is reported to have made £17.9m ($28m) in the same period. Sure, Vergara can attribute a decent portion of that to the reported £200,000 ($325,000) she earns per episode for Modern Family, but it’s her business empire and brand endorsements that meant she topped Forbes’ list of the world’s highest-paid TV actresses in 2014 for the third year running. She beat Law And Order’s Mariska Hargitay and Kaley Cuoco of The Big Bang Theory by a few fistfuls of millions of dollars.

Vergara’s allure works on many levels. She appeals to both the English and Hispanic markets (huge in the US and previously often neglected). Men and women. She is funny and ridiculously sexy. 

When I meet Vergara at a hip West Hollywood studio, she looks immaculate in a form-fitting white dress, impressively big rings on her fingers – I find it reassuring, though, that she keeps fiddling with them – her leopard print encased iPhone lying on the sofa between us. She is one of those people who instantly makes you feel slobby, even if you’ve spent two hours picking what you’re going to wear to meet her (ahem). There is a definite touch of the Sophia Loren about her – one of her all-time heroes, alongside the more surprising choice of The Golden Girls star Betty White.

She also looks, and I’m aware how stupid this sounds, exactly like Gloria Delgado-Pritchett, her Modern Family alter ego. But her accent is slightly softer than Gloria’s – which, if you haven’t seen Modern Family, is voluble, passionate and littered with malapropisms.

She’s also more subdued than I’m expecting. I wonder if it’s because she’s hungry. She says she didn’t want anything from the catered lunch. “I want something more substantial,” she says. “But there’s only chicken and salad.” Regardless, Vergara inherently appears utterly at ease in her own skin. “To be able to be funny, you have to be,” she adds.

Modern Family is the perfect comedy vehicle for Vergara. An impeccably crafted mockumentary about three interconnected families, the show rakes in viewers – the last series (the sixth) brought in audiences of 11.9 million – while the trophy cabinet at network ABC overflows. Vergara herself is a four-time Emmy nominee and was recently awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. After just one season, the comedy was named America’s second best TV show by Time – in between Mad Men and Breaking Bad.

Her character is a Colombian mum of two, married to an older, richer American, Jay. The role was in some ways tailored to her – it’s no coincidence that her on-screen son is called Manny, like her own 23-year-old. “People are surprised when they meet me because they expect me to be Gloria,” she says. “I’m not as over the top in real life.” But she does recognise the importance of the show in helping her realize her plans. “I’ve done a lot of the things I’ve wanted to do and all mainly, thank God, thanks to Modern Family, which opened the doors of the American market to me,” she says. “It made all my dreams come true. We have excellent writers, the casting is perfect. It’ll be very hard to have another Modern Family in my career…” 

Natural Talent

For someone with no training in either acting or comedy, she never seems out of her depth. “Comedy is easy for me,” she says. “My whole family is funny so humour has always been an important part of our lives. I grew up knowing I was funny. I never thought I was going to make a living out of it, though. I never wanted to be an actress so for me all this is an adventure. It’s like a gift so I don’t stress about it. I just try to enjoy it because I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve been learning on the go.”

One of my own favourite Vergara moments was during a guest spot on talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live! in 2014, when she read out a mean tweet about herself. “Sofia Vergara sounds like she has a d*ck in her mouth.” With a comic timing that would put Jerry Seinfeld to shame, she replied, “What’s wrong with having a d*ck in my mouth?”

This ability to laugh at herself is the key to her appeal. “If you want to do comedy, you can’t be too conscious of yourself or worry what people are going to think of you,” she says. “It’s not like you’re a brain surgeon and something horrible is going to happen if you f**k up – it’s entertainment. The worst somebody could say is, ‘She sucks at that role,’ or some studio gets p***ed off because we didn’t make enough money. It is what it is, the entertainment business.”

Self Defence

At the Emmy Awards in 2014, that strategy was tested. Vergara came under fire in some camps for a skit which saw her being put on a revolving pedestal during a speech on diversity in television. The piece was accused by some of objectification and sexism. She is very quick to defend it. “It was a comedy piece,” she says, her eyes blazing. “Some people have to complain about everything. I wasn’t being tricked. It was a funny bit to say how important television is to entertain. I’m completely the opposite of a woman who is manipulated. I work, I raised my son alone. They took the wrong person to go and say, ‘You’re showing women in a bad way.’” She has a point.

Perhaps the reason she’s so fearless is because this was never the original plan. Vergara grew up in Barranquilla, Colombia, a cosmopolitan coastal city that she returns to every year. She went to a Catholic school run by nuns, married her high-school sweetheart Joe Gonzalez at 18 and had her son at 19. “I wanted to be a doctor but at that time, 20 years ago, women weren’t really  doctors,” she says. “You were supposed to get married and have your kids and medicine was very difficult and required a lot of time. So the next best thing was dentistry, because you could be a dentist and just go home. You had the nine-to-five.” 

Lucky Break

However that wasn’t to be. After being spotted on a beach at the age of 17, Vergara was cast in a Pepsi commercial and gave up her dental studies to pursue a career in show business. She moved to Miami with her son and amicably divorced Joe after two years of marriage. “To be in the entertainment industry, I had to persuade my parents,” she says. “That [career] was not regarded well 20 years ago in South America.”

In 1998 though, her life was rocked when her older brother Rafael was shot and killed in an attempted kidnapping in Colombia. Vergara brought her mother, sister and younger brother to live with her in Miami. “When I was growing up, Colombia was very dangerous,” she recalls. “We are very fortunate that all the narco traffic has been kind of eradicated now. The country has completely changed so we were lucky to survive all of that. There was a lot of kidnapping at that time. Anybody who had money was a target.” Did the family have armed guards? “Yeah, for some time,” she replies, cautiously.

I’m not surprised this is a sensitive subject. Vergara has tough skin, though; she has to. Her brother Julio battled drug problems and was deported from the States, and in 2000 she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer (she’s currently in remission). Now, aged 43, she’s engaged to actor Joe Manganiello, star of Magic Mike and True Blood, but her former partner, businessman Nick Loeb, recently filed a lawsuit against her, wanting to use the embryos they had frozen while they were together to have a child with a surrogate. If all that doesn’t make you stronger, I’m not exactly sure what would. 

And besides, strength in adversity and doing a good job were ingrained. “I’ve always been resilient and tried to keep moving forwards. I always saw my father [a cattle rancher] working. My mother never worked – she was a housewife – but I was always a very responsible person so I knew what I had to do.” Does she feel she grew up too quickly? “I’ve always been well-behaved,” she smiles. “Too responsible. But I think I’ve lived my life to the fullest. I’ve had a pretty fun time.”

Those times have taken her from a Mexican soap and Spanish language travel show, to roles in Big Trouble, Four Brothers with Mark Wahlberg and a small part in Entourage. Years ago she took speech classes to soften her accent but then decided to embrace it, which ironically was when her career really took off. She also dyed her hair darker – she’s naturally a lot blonder – to fit with the American idea of what Latin women looked like. In 2005 she moved to LA and, after appearing in a couple of sitcoms that never got past a first season, landed Modern Family in 2009.

While her career trajectory is impressive, what’s particularly notable is that everything that came with it was meticulously planned. “I always knew I wanted fame and recognition,” she reveals. “So I’d be able to do all the other things I wanted to do like endorsement deals, clothing lines, furniture lines, a perfume. I knew I had to be famous first and I ended up acting and enjoying it.” It’s an incredibly candid statement for a Hollywood actress to make. It’s also very refreshing. 

“There were lots of people, mainly young girls, asking, ‘What are you wearing? What lipstick are you wearing? Who did your hair?’ I realised that people want to do things I do, so I was like, ‘Let’s create a business around that.’ “I come up with ideas and Luis [Balaguer, her manager and business partner] executes them. You need to know your limitations and how to delegate so you can do all of that. I couldn’t be doing acting and business meetings all day long. We knew exactly from the start what we wanted to achieve.”

She hit the bullseye; brand Vergara is now gold. She is the face of Diet Pepsi, AT&T, CoverGirl and Head & Shoulders. She has a fragrance, a jewellery line, Latin World Entertainment – a management company for Hispanic talent, and this year she’ll launch reality series Vergaraland on Snapchat, which will be a tongue-in-cheek look at her life through the eyes of her son Manolo. 

Her latest gig is co-producing and co-starring in a Hollywood film with Reese Witherspoon. Hot Pursuit is, as Witherspoon calls it, a “culture clash comedy” which follows a cop (Witherspoon) trying to protect a criminal’s widow (Vergara) as they go on the run. OK, the role isn’t a million miles from Gloria Delgado-Pritchett, but it’s still a big step. “I would ask [Reese], ‘Do you think this is funny too?’” she admits. “You want to be professional, you want to be good, you don’t want to show up to the set unprepared and you try your best to learn from them.” Would she take on something grittier? “I’d love to now that I’m learning more,” she says. (I later learn she had to drop out of Nicole Kidman’s role in The Paperboy because of a scheduling conflict.) “I’d do it if I thought I could do a good job.”

Despite everything – the awards, the business empire, the ambition – work isn’t everything, Vergara insists. “I wouldn’t call myself a workaholic. I don’t like working weekends, even though I have to do it a lot,” she laughs. As she leaves I’m struck by, and perhaps even jealous of, her tenacity. Vergara identified what she wanted, worked out how to get it and went for it, no holds barred. How many of us can say the same? 

Words: Helen Bownass Photography: Emily Shur

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Stylist Team