The Stunning Transformation Of Nia Vardalos

It seems like just yesterday we met Toula Portokalos and her big, loud, loving family. In reality, we were invited to "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" all the way back in 2002 — and the RSVPs were staggering. The little indie movie with the $5 million budget grossed more than $350 million worldwide, making it the most financially successful rom-com ever. And while the wedding of Toula and Ian Miller may be over, the marriage is still going strong with "My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3" hitting theatres on September 8. For director, executive producer, writer, and star Nia Vardalos, it's the stuff that happily ever afters are made of. However, it wasn't always that way. 

Vardalos' transformation from unknown to Hollywood heavy hitter was even more impressive than her character's movie glow-up. Hers is a story of perseverance with a subplot of creativity and an overarching theme of "if you want it done right, do it yourself." When she couldn't land a movie role, she wrote her own. When she struggled with infertility, she pivoted. When health issues arose, Vardalos made significant life changes. In other words, once she makes up her mind to do something, nothing gets in the way of this Greek goddess. Well, except for the occasional bout of imposter syndrome. As she admitted in Parade in 2023, "I still feel like an outsider in Hollywood. I'll never feel like I fit in." Outsider or not, Vardalos sure paved her own way. Here's how she got to where she is today.

The Greek life of Nia Vardalos

It is said that to be a successful writer, you must write what you know, and that's exactly what Antonia Eugenia "Nia" Vardalos did when she penned the story that would become "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." The daughter of Greek immigrants, Vardalos was born on September 24, 1962, in the Canadian province of Manitoba. She and her three siblings were raised in Canada, but kept with the traditions of their Greek heritage. Just like the Portokalos clan, the Vardalos family was huge but close-knit, with everyone gathering on Sundays for dinners filled with plenty of traditional Greek food and lots of laughs. "In our family, everyone is funny," she told Parade. "That's the way you got attention."  And while good-natured jabs were welcome at the table, cruelty was not. "It was genial; nobody was mean," she said. "We poked fun at each other, but we were never rude. If you ever hurt anyone's feelings, you'd gone too far."

Vardalos told the outlet that, as a kid, she didn't really feel like she fit in with her classmates. This stuck with her as she got older, but she eventually learned to embrace what makes her who she is and pursue her dreams — thanks in large part to her family. "We were all very, very supportive of each other. And growing up in that comfort zone, that 'bubble,' gave me an inordinate amount of confidence later," she said. 

Nia Vardalos fell in love with the stage

With humor as the centerpiece at the Sunday family dinner table, Nia Vardalos developed a love of comedy. Inspired by some of her favorite comedic actors, including Bette Midler and Gilda Radner, Vardalos decided to give the stage a shot. After graduating from high school, she moved to Toronto to study acting at Ryerson University. Armed with her sharp wit and big dreams, she soon discovered that the road to stardom would not be easy. She told Parade, "The reality of life really blasts you in the face when you leave your bubble." Repeatedly rejected for her "look," it became clear that Vardalos didn't fit the stereotypical "ingenue" type of the era. 

Bruised but not broken, Vardalos followed in the footsteps of one of her comedy idols and enrolled at Toronto's Second City, an improv workshop where Radner got her start. "I watched improv theater after being trained in Shakespeare and the classics," Vardalos told the outlet. "I saw people become anyone or anything they wanted to be, not held down by physicality. That's when I realized I was home."  She eventually headed to the United States and joined Second City Chicago, where she learned the ins and outs of her craft, built her skills, beefed up her resume, and formed connections. Her hard work and talent earned Vardalos a Best Actress improv award, but a taste of success wasn't the only thing she found at Second City. She also found love in the form of fellow actor Ian Gomez. 

Nia Vardalos' real-life Greek wedding

In the wedding that would inspire a movie franchise, Nia Vardalos married Ian Gomez in 1993, after meeting him at Chicago's Second City. The two eventually moved to Los Angeles, hoping to make it big in show business. Professionally, they found success both individually and as a couple. The dynamic duo co-starred in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," with John Corbett playing the character inspired by Gomez, and Gomez playing his best man. They also appeared together as co-presenters on "The Great American Baking Show," the U.S. version of the U.K. smash "The Great British Bake-Off." Per his Second City biography, Gomez once said about working with his wife, "We come from Second City, where you're taught if you make your fellow stage partner look good, that makes you look good."

As is often the case, life doesn't always imitate art, and the marriage was not as successful as the "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" franchise. Apparently, the couple had problems not even Windex could solve: Vardalos filed for divorce in 2018 after almost 25 years of marriage, citing "irreconcilable differences." Per People, In a joint statement, they said the split was "mutual and amicable" and asked for privacy as they navigated the dissolution of the relationship. The couple shares a daughter named Ilaria.

Nia Vardalos ran into a lot of roadblocks in Hollywood

When Nia Vardalos moved to Los Angeles in 1993, she was full of optimism. What she soon discovered was that there was a Hollywood "type," and she wasn't it. She told Parade that she got rejection after rejection based largely on her appearance. "I went to Los Angeles thinking I'd get a part in a sitcom," she says. "I was shocked. People are mean." As reported by the Greek City Times, the actor opened up at Marie Claire's Power Trip conference about one particularly humiliating experience. She shared that the first agent she tried to work with not only wasn't interested, but offered multiple offensive reasons why. As she told the audience, the agent said, "1. Because you're not pretty enough to be the star. 2. Because you're not fat enough to be a character artist. But mainly 3. because you are Greek. So, you don't belong to one of the big minorities like Puerto Ricans, Hispanics, etc. Therefore, you are fired."

Vardalos did manage to snag some voiceover work and the occasional movie or sitcom role, but it wasn't enough. Taking matters into her own hands, she began writing a screenplay based on the antics of her boisterous Greek family. Years later, what one agent saw as a strike against the bubbly brunette became a Hollywood home run, earning Vardalos an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

When Nia Vardalos met Rita Wilson

Once her screenplay was complete, Nia Vardalos told Parade that she decided she'd shop it around. Alas, yet again, she faced multiple rejections. "I didn't have an agent, so I would mail it to studios, and it would be returned unopened," she said. Rather than let the script stay on ice, Vardalos decided to take her story to the stage in 1997. Little did she know that one decision would change the trajectory of her career and her life. 

As luck would have it, Rita Wilson, actor and wife of Hollywood heavy-hitter Tom Hanks, attended a performance. The show resonated with Wilson, who, as the daughter of a Greek mother, understood many of the scenarios on a personal level, and she immediately encouraged her husband to go see it. "The next thing I know, Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman, who had just formed Playtone, came to the show," Vardalos recalled on "20/20." "And Tom called me and said, 'I'm gonna make your movie.'" It seemed too good to be true, which may explain why, in a funny misunderstanding, Vardalos reportedly hung up on Hanks when he first called, thinking that it was a prank. Luckily, she realized she'd made a mistake and got back in touch. Hanks and Wilson went on to produce the film version of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," which hit theaters in 2002.

Many scenes from Nia Vardalos' breakout hit borrow from real life

"My Big Fat Greek Wedding" hit theaters in 2002, and it wasted no time in charming audiences and critics alike. As Roger Ebert wrote in his review, "The movie is warm-hearted in the way a movie can be when it knows its people inside out."

While the Portokalos family may be fictional, they are certainly rooted in reality. We know that "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" was inspired by Vardalos' own experiences, but just how much artistic license did the actor take with her story? There are indisputable, obvious parallels, including the fact that Vardalos, like her character, married a non-Greek man. But what about the rest? Did her aunt really have a tumor that turned out to be her twin? Did her father really think blue glass cleaner could solve any problem? 

In an interview with Glamour, Vardalos said that her father did strongly believe in the power of the cleaning solution. "My dad actually put Windex on everything," she said. And while Vardalos' own aunt did not tell her actual fiancé that she'd prepare a lamb dish to accommodate his vegetarian diet, the "It's okay, I'll make lamb" scene was inspired by a real experience. "I was a vegetarian for 12 years and people would always try to get me to eat meat and so I just made the husband character a vegetarian because I thought it would be good conflict," Vardalos shared. 

Nia Vardalos' struggle with infertility

Her professional life may have looked great in 2002, but personally, Nia Vardalos was in the midst of an infertility journey. "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" ends with Vardalos' character realizing she is pregnant, but in real life, the actor wasn't so fortunate. Vardalos underwent over a dozen rounds of IVF and went through multiple surrogacy attempts, but none were successful. The trauma of the experience made her hit pause on penning the movie's highly anticipated sequel. She told People that without having a child herself, she found it impossible to write a screenplay that would depict her character in the role of mom. "I wouldn't know the emotions of what to write," she said. "I just said, 'I can't do it.'" 

Things changed in 2008 when, while on location for the film "Driving Aphrodite" in Athens, Vardalos learned that she had been matched with a 3-year-old little girl for adoption. After that life-changing phone call, Ilaria joined the family. "I am so grateful and can't imagine my life without her," Vardalos gushed to People.

In 2013, Vardalos released "Instant Mom," a book that chronicles her own journey toward becoming a motherhood. She told the Daily Mail, "You know, I'd really built up being a mother after ten years of trying – and it's ten times better than I ever expected." 

Nia Vardalos lost 40 pounds for health reasons

While Hollywood has long championed being thin and having a certain "look," Nia Vardalos embraced her curves when she moved to the City of Angels. "I did feel beautiful. I felt 'everywoman beautiful.' My family never put a value on being thin," she told the Daily Mail in 2009. Sadly, she also felt "invisible" during her early days in Tinseltown. 

Years later, Vardalos' doctor recommended she lose weight for the sake of her health. "Am I beautiful now because I am thin? I am the same person," she said. "I had a blood-sugar problem — it wasn't about losing weight, it was about getting healthy." The screenwriter echoed this sentiment in a separate interview with People. "It was never about that Hollywood pressure to lose weight, I laugh at that. It was always just an issue of health," she said. To reach her goals, Vardalos didn't rely on an army of personal trainers and chefs. True to form, she did it herself the good old-fashioned way by cutting calories and moving her body. "I did break up with cheese during the process," she admitted to the Daily Mail. 

The actor lost 40 pounds, but the number on the scale isn't what matters to Vardalos. Rather, it's all about feeling good. "Some people have been calling it a comeback, I actually call it a resurfacing," she told People.

Nia Vardalos is back for round three

Nia Vardalos' life has taken a lot of twists and turns over the years, but her tenaciousness always seems to win out. And decades into her career, she's still putting on new hats: In addition to writing and starring in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3," Vardalos is also the director — a first for the franchise. 

What's more, Vardalos relishes the title of mom to Ilaria, now a teen, and she enjoys a good relationship with her ex, Ian Gomez. She has starred in numerous movies, television shows, and plays. She's at the top of her game, both professionally and personally, and she doesn't take any of it for granted. What's more, she hasn't let up off the grindstone. As she told Glamour, she rises as early as 3:45 a.m. daily just to write scenes before getting her daughter to school and dealing with whatever else the day brings. 

"People seem to think I've had this charmed life, that I was plucked from obscurity by Tom Hanks. But it's not like I just knocked on his door," Vardalos said in the Daily Mail in 2009. "I wrote that script out of necessity because I couldn't get a job, and the message I was trying to send out there and am trying to send still is, "Don't take no for an answer." If women come to Hollywood and they are told they don't fit in, I am here to whisper in their ears – guess what, that's a good thing."