Sofia Vergara: Life of Modern Family star and world’s highest-paid TV actress dogged by tragedy

41-year-old Colombian has earned $30m (£19m) in 2013

Which is more galling: to be a struggling small-screen performer, gazing up at the pinnacle of your profession, only to see someone who never planned to be an actress, and for whom English is a second language, earning near-annual nominations for Emmys, Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild Awards? Or to be the Kardashians, intent on maximising their brand potential, and finding that despite her full-time job as the star of ABC’s Modern Family, not to mention her increasingly regular awards-show attendance, Sofia Vergara still finds time to rake in significantly more in celebrity endorsements than Kim and Kourtney combined?

For the second year in a row, Forbes has named Vergara the highest-paid actress on television: over the past 12 months, the 41-year-old Colombian has earned $30m (£19m) – up from a mere $19m in 2012. Moreover, it’s her bilingual background that has given her the edge. Both Vergara and the Kardashians have endorsed clothing lines for Sears retailers, yet so keen was the company to corner the booming Hispanic market that Vergara was handed a $7m advance as part of her contract. That’s on top of a major deal to advertise Diet Pepsi, as well as Spanish-language commercials for home entertainment, laundry detergent and insurance brands.

Vergara has won great acclaim with her show-stealing turn as Modern Family’s Gloria Delgado-Pritchett, and to many actors, such endorsements would represent a welcome but mildly embarrassing financial bonus. To Vergara, they are an end in themselves. She began her career as the star of a Pepsi commercial, and that remained her ultimate ambition. Recently asked by Harper’s Bazaar to name the best thing about the sitcom’s success, she said, “It has allowed me to do the things I always wanted – my endorsements… I never thought I could act, or acting was for me.”

But while life may appear to have been effortless for Vergara, nothing could be further from the truth. The antics of her on-screen family make for great comedy, but her real-life family’s story has often been the opposite: a tragic narrative that takes in divorce, death, disease and crippling addiction.

Vergara was born in Barranquilla, Colombia, in 1972. Her family was well-off – her father, Julio, was a successful cattle rancher – and she attended the town’s private, bilingual school, Marymount. Her genes were a mixed blessing: on the one hand, all five of her siblings have type 1 diabetes. On the other, she was gifted with good looks and genuine, size 32F breasts. “To be a pretty girl, to be a voluptuous girl, has opened many doors for me,” she has said. “I would be ungrateful to say it’s all because of my brains and my talent… [but] I have stayed working for 20-something years.”

Remarkably, a publicist once advised her to have her breasts reduced, saying people would not take her seriously: “My mother almost had a heart attack. She said, ‘God is going to punish you! You can’t cut your boobs!’ I don’t regret not doing it, because now it has become a big part of Gloria.”

Her looks first earned her work in 1989, aged 17, when she was scouted by a photographer while strolling on a beach in Colombia. She was offered the role in that racy Pepsi ad, which her mother Margarita persuaded her to accept – despite her daughter’s anxiety about what the nuns at her school might say. The commercial became a hit throughout Latin America  but rather than pursue a screen career immediately, Vergara spent three years studying dentistry.

She almost settled down at just 18, when she married her childhood sweetheart Joe, and shortly thereafter gave birth to a son, Manolo. But the couple split up in 1993, and, with offers of modelling and TV work still rolling in, Vergara moved to the capital, Bogota. The 1990s, however, were a time of increasing violence in Colombia, courtesy of the country’s thriving drug cartels. So when the Spanish-language channel Univision offered her a television hosting job in Miami, Florida, Vergara jumped at the chance to emigrate to the US – and took her mother, son and sister with her.

As the presenter of the travel series Fuera de serie (“Out of the Ordinary”) and later the game show A que no te atreves (“I Dare You”), Vergara became a familiar face to Latino audiences. When she later moved to Los Angeles, she recalls, she found the parking valets at nightspots were consistently more attentive to her than to the likes of DiCaprio or Timberlake. “Nobody knew who I was,” she said, “but the valets knew because they were Latin.”

Yet as her career was taking off in the US, back in Bogota, tragedy struck: in 1998, her older brother Rafael was murdered during a bungled kidnapping. Two years after that, Vergara herself had cause to fear for her life when she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. She had the offending gland removed, and made a full recovery. Though she kept the illness secret for several years afterwards, she now has a contract to advertise the thyroid medication that she still takes daily.

Her first major acting role came in 2003, when she was cast as a fiery waitress in the little-seen Chasing Papi – despite never having taken a single acting class. She later appeared in a pair of films by the writer-director Tyler Perry, and had a guest role in the HBO dramedy Entourage, but fame in English arrived with the debut series of Modern Family in 2009. The character of Gloria was reportedly written for her – they share a birthplace, Barranquilla, a son called Manny, and a famously, sometimes hilariously, strong accent.

As the show’s buxom star, it is little surprise that Vergara was inundated with commercial opportunities. In 2011 she was named the face of CoverGirl cosmetics. The same year, she appeared in her second Pepsi commercial, this time opposite David Beckham. She was also contracted by the discount retailer K-Mart (which is owned by Sears) to design a clothing line aimed at so-called “Soccer Moms”.

Once again, her success was tinged was trauma. After her older sibling’s death, Vergara had brought her younger brother Julio to live with her in Miami, but he had fallen into a cycle of alcohol and drug abuse. His addiction had reportedly seen him arrested 30 times in 10 years, and in May 2011 Julio was finally deported from the US to Colombia. “To see somebody dying over 10 years, little by little, that’s the worst punishment. Now he’s like another person,” the actress told Parade magazine. “With so many bad things happening, it creates a tough skin… You just have to take a deep breath and keep on going.”

And so she did. In 2010, Vergara began dating the Florida businessman and banking scion Nick Loeb. Six months into their reportedly fiery relationship, her beau was seriously injured in a car accident, but survived. Last year Loeb – known to some as the “Onion Crunch King”, after a crispy condiment of his own invention – proposed to Vergara at a Mayan ruin in Mexico.

And as for all that cash, it seems the actress spends it liberally and generously. She and Loeb were in Mexico in 2012 to mark her 40th birthday, for which she had flown more than 100 family and friends to a beach resort for a week of celebrations. She also has a penchant for expensive handbags, such as the Hermès Birkin, which can cost as much as £100,000. She owns five of them.

“I tell [her now 21-year-old son] Manolo, ‘If I don’t have enough money for your college this month, you have to sell the Birkins’,” she says. “My business manager is a very traditional Jewish guy. Every time I buy one of those, he calls me and says, ‘Sofia, it’s Craig. Did you buy this, or is it a fraud?’ I’m like, ‘Craig, listen … what would you prefer? Me popping champagne bottles and doing drugs and wasting money or buying bags? These are valuable. These, Manolo can sell!’”

A Life In Brief

Born: Sofía Margarita Vergara Vergara, 10 July 1972, in Barranquilla, Colombia.

Family: Daughter of a housewife and a cattle owner. She has five siblings. She married Joe Gonzalez, aged 18, in 1991 but divorced two years later. They have one son, Manolo. She is engaged to businessman Nick Loeb.

Education: Marymount, a private bilingual school in Barranquilla. Studied pre-dentistry in Columbia for three years.

Career: Vergara was discovered by a photographer on a Colombian beach and at 17, had her first big break in a Pepsi advert. She has become the highest-paid actress on television with earnings of $30m (£19m), springing from her Emmy-nominated role in ABC’s sitcom Modern Family and various merchandising partnerships. She has been recognised as one of most influential Latin women in Hollywood.

She says: “I love making money. I really love it!”

They say: “The reigning queen of celebrity endorsement deals”– Forbes

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