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The Woman from Wales

Movie star. Oscar winner. Wife of Michael Douglas. Catherine Zeta-Jones is all those things as she nears 40 but at heart, she is still a small-town girl.
Marshall Fine
From the Print Edition:
Catherine Zeta-Jones, September/October 2009

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Which, she says, is why she and Douglas avoid living in the industry town of Los Angeles, instead dividing their time between homes in Bermuda and Manhattan.

"I wouldn't say I'm shy but I'm not the flamboyant showgirl," Zeta-Jones says. "I love my work. I can turn it on for the red carpet or a photo shoot. But when you live in L.A., you can't go anywhere without being critiqued—on your purse or the fact that you've gained weight or that you've got spots on your face. That's not the life I want. Deciding to live in Bermuda was the healthiest thing we ever did."

For Zeta-Jones, maintaining that distance works because she's already been to the top—a couple of times. She achieved stardom in Great Britain by the time she was 21—then started again from scratch when she came to the United States and hit it big once more in films such as The Mask of Zorro, Entrapment, Traffic and Chicago.

In the process, she survived the ravening attention of the tabloid press, first as a British TV star whose social life was fodder for the Fleet Street reporters, then as the fiancée (and wife) of American movie star Douglas, which made the couple a tabloid target on both sides of the Atlantic. She stood up to it all with uncommon grace, says husband Douglas.

"There's a lot to be said for how early she started working," Douglas observes. "She worked really hard. She's been doing this a long time; she's an old soul. She's got this inner joy, this inner energy, that strong Welsh character that says, 'Get on with it.' "

Stagestruck at an early age in the little town of Swansea, Wales, Zeta-Jones (both Catherine and Zeta were her grandmothers' names; the hyphen came later) was nine when she landed her first role onstage in London's West End. By the time she was 15, she had appeared in West End productions of "Annie," "The Pajama Game" and "Bugsy Malone"—and then found her career mirroring the plot of "42nd Street," a revival in which she'd won a job as understudy, when she replaced the show's star who was taken ill.

It turned Zeta-Jones into an overnight sensation at 15 and even made her a pop star in Great Britain briefly. After playing roles in smaller films and TV productions, she landed another breakthrough role: as the ingenue in "The Darling Buds of May," one of the most popular British TV series of the early '90s.

"I'm glad I got my start in theater, rather than film," Zeta-Jones says. "The fact that I was in theater meant I wasn't so much in the public eye. One thing I do regret is that I missed the camaraderie of the college thing. I miss not having studied the classics in drama. I was self-taught at a young age. But I'm doing the only thing I can do. As a headmaster once said to me, 'You're no brain surgeon.'

"Then the TV series made me known in Britain when I was 19. After the first episode of the TV show, I've never been on a subway again. Once the TV show started, there was that thing of people looking at you." Having achieved stardom in Great Britain, Zeta-Jones decided to tackle American show business—only to find that British fame didn't carry much weight in Hollywood.

"It was like starting over," she says. "It was weird. I was so associated with my TV character that it was hard to break away from it. Then I came here, where I'd go into meetings and they'd ask, 'What have you done?' But when I'd get off the airplane in Britain, I'd be mobbed."

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