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FromTheIssue

Women of the Year 2003

Salma Hayek
by Anne Stockwell

Clout: Having big ideas and knowing the heavy hitters who can bankroll them. Calling the unlisted numbers. Coming out on top.

In Hollywood, women work long, bitter years hoping for a bit of clout. Not Salma Hayek. She had clout when she got there.

The 5-foot-2-inch dynamo (“I act tall,” she says) has piloted her career with dazzling audacity. Since 1988, when she was discovered in Mexico City as a university student, Hayek has rocketed from Mexican soap star to struggling Hollywood actor to producer to Oscar nominee to film director. And she’s climbed not on her sensational looks, but on grit, brains, talent and a deep regard for other women.

“Salma is a real woman’s woman,” says Julie Taymor, who directed Hayek in her breakthrough picture, “Frida.” “She has great female friends, and she’s very supportive of them.”

If there’s an afterlife, one such friend would certainly be Frida Kahlo. Despite interest by such heavyweights as Madonna, plans for a movie based on Kahlo’s life never materialized until Hayek decided she was meant to play her fellow Mexican artist. It took seven years, but Hayek made the movie happen, conveying not only the vivid colors of the painter’s imagination but also a credible portrait of her politically charged times.

Hayek trusted women to carry out her dream, including the visionary Taymor and the legendary 82-year-old Mexican singer Chavela Vargas. Although “Frida” opened to mixed reviews, female audiences “got” the film, and so did the Academy: The film won two 2003 Oscars, and sent Hayek down the red carpet as a best actress nominee.

Other actors have tried to conceal their Mexican roots, but Hayek continues to celebrate hers. In a recent Coke commercial, she keeps a tableful of Hollywood suits waiting in a fancy restaurant while she eats tacos and whoops it up in Spanish with the cooks back in the kitchen. Hayek also relished doing the commercial because it poked fun at the notion of constant dieting. Her still-pronounced accent, she says, “has been such a wonderful blessing, because it has made me push myself to learn how to produce, how to find interesting stories, how to direct.”

This past fall, Hayek sat in the director’s chair for the first time, shooting “The Maldonado Miracle” for Showtime. “The woman is a born director,” says veteran actor Mare Winningham, who plays a kind-hearted café owner in the film, “because that’s the one job that encompasses everything, where you are the answer to every question. She’s passionately creative, and she’s very commanding and funny. She really was one of the best directors I’ve ever worked for.”

Born in 1966 in the port town of Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz, Salma Hayek-Jimenez is the eldest child of a Lebanese-Jordanian businessman and a former opera singer from Mexico. Amusingly, considering her enormous energy, her Arabic first name means “calm.” By age 23, she was the leading lady in “Teresa,” a syndicated telenovela that made her a national idol, but true to form, she abandoned all that to roll the dice in Hollywood.

She arrived in L.A. with a single suitcase and a knack for friendship with men as well as women. Hayek has showed up on camera for indie pals such as Robert Rodriguez (“Desperado,” “Once Upon a Time in Mexico”), Kevin Smith (“Dogma”) and Mike Figgis (“Timecode,” “Hotel”), and along the way soaked up a wealth of filmmaking know-how. She’s currently filming a role as an FBI agent pursuing Pierce Brosnan in director Brett Ratner’s “After the Sunset,” and is lined up for a Robert Altman project.

As she’s vaulted into the big time, Hayek hasn’t kicked up the undercurrent of spite that sometimes dogs female movie stars. Which doesn’t surprise Julie Taymor. “Salma is one of the most phenomenal women I know,” says Taymor. “I adore her, I love her, and I hope she gets to do whatever she wants.”

Mowing down obstacles; having an appetite for food and life; making friends, not enemies; and proving that sisterhood is powerful—now that’s clout.

Photo by Glen Wilson/Showtime

 
           
     

Copyright Ms. Magazine 2009