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Following a mid-'90s career slump, she took the part of a food critic out to steal another woman's fiance in My Best Friend's Wedding. "People told me it was suicide," says Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, her former agent and now a business partner. But Roberts made the man-hungry heroine lovable with her own gangly appeal, and, she says, the hit 1997 romantic comedy made her realize for the first time that "if I want to [act] for the rest of my life, I will be allowed to, probably." Since then, Roberts has nourished herself with more flawed, challenging characters while still feeding the public the Julia-personas it craves. Rendering the self-righteous crusader of Erin Brockovich human with her infectious smile, endearing cackle and irresistible cleavage, she won the Oscar and our renewed devotion. No star since Katharine Hepburn has employed her personality so effectively on screen.
Some say that off-screen Roberts has mellowed, but she stands by her reputation as both fun loving and tough. "I'm far more high-strung and outgoing and forthright and aggressive," she says. "I used to find the media terrifying. The same goes for work. Putting in my ideas, I felt kind of cautious and scared. I still possess elements of being shy, but I'm not scared of a f___ing thing." Talk to Joe Roth, producer and director of Roberts' next film, America's Sweethearts, opening July 20, and he mentions her "burning desire to succeed. If you spend time with Mel Gibson and Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, that's a common thread. They're all smart about themselves, smart about what the audience is seeing in them."
Roberts' own brain trust has its headquarters near her home in Manhattan, in the humble offices of Shoelace Productions. The name of her company evokes the boss's former life. "I worked in a shoe store when I was in high school," says Roberts. Did the experience help make her the woman she is today? She thinks for a moment: "I'm a quick lacer," she says. "Not many people know it, so I wouldn't spread that around. I don't want people coming to me, saying 'Lace my shoes.'" As if. Right now the world is too busy kneeling before her.