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04.11.10

Stay Frumpy, Tina Fey!

With the top comedy in America, and covers of Vogue and Esquire, will the 30 Rock star let success go to her bespectacled head? By Rebecca Dana. Plus, a gallery of Fey’s glamorous evolution

America’s Sweetheart is a 39-year-old comedy geek with a crippling sweet tooth.

Whoever could have imagined that Tina Fey, the formerly frumpy Second City comic best known to most Americans for her Sarah Palin impersonation, would turn out to be a bankable rom-com heroine? But Fey proved just that this weekend when her new film Date Night, about her romantic misadventures with Steve Carell, edged into first place, taking in more than $27 million nationwide and trouncing the Greek epic Clash of the Titans. Fey, whose name and image hardly suggest box-office prowess, is bigger than Zeus.

Click Image to View Our Gallery of Tina Fey's Glamorous Evolution

The triumph is a testament to Fey’s versatility, on-screen and off. In the last week alone, she’s been ubiquitous: Hopping around late-night talk-show couches, guest-hosting Saturday Night Live, and gracing the covers of half the magazines at your local newsstand, in addition to her regular duties for NBC’s 30 Rock, on which she plays Liz Lemon, a dramatically less successful, but equally unprepossessing, version of herself.

With this weekend’s box-office showing, the gulf between Tina Fey and Liz Lemon only grows wider. And so we come with admiration, and also a plea:

Please don’t go all Hollywood on us, Tina! Don’t let success make you too graceful or thin. Don’t become vegan. Don’t dabble with Kabbalah. And for heaven’s sake, please don’t let anyone inject anything into your face just because you’re turning 40 next month.

For those of us who see Tina Fey as a lifestyle brand, who dream of having a personal cubby for our pudding cups, it was a small portent of doom. What’s next? Lasik?

The brilliant Fey is frightfully close to turning fancy. She long ago shed the extra pounds, dowdy hair, and frumpy clothes. Today it’s all heavy makeup and sexy preening before the cameras on award-show red carpets. She’s even went strapless for Vanity Fair and Esquire, and allowed the photo retouching department at Vogue to obscure the scar on the side of her mouth with a beam of sunlight.

And now she has another hit film. America actually chose Fey and Carell over a shirtless Sam Worthington running around ancient Greece.

There is a redemptive, high-school kind of satisfaction to watching Fey and Carell—no Steve McQueen himself—defeat the muscled jock. But we have all seen this movie before (in fact, we saw it a bunch in the mid-'90s, including one version written by Fey herself): You take the glasses off the nerd girl or maybe you take her hair out of a ponytail, and all of a sudden she’s stunning and popular. And as fast as you can say “homecoming queen,” she’s breezing by the other misfits in the cafeteria, pretending not to recognize them.

Fey is one of those rare actresses who hasn’t had much backlash despite her enormous success over the past decade, largely because she’s so good at making fun of herself. That, and she’s never seemed to wear fame comfortably. (Pajamas with cupcakes, sure. But front row at Fashion Week? No thanks.) The pictures of her posing on the red carpet, one hand resting uneasily on her hip, some poufy creation more often than not engulfing her hindquarters—these are reassuring. It means she is still one of us, even for all the ways she’s obviously not.

During her guest-hosting gig on Saturday Night Live this weekend, she thankfully played to type. There was the lonely schoolteacher who falls in love with Justin Bieber. And the lonely career gal who bakes up a Duncan Hines Brownie Husband and then devours him—gooey caramel filling and all—while wearing a white negligee. And of course there was her more glamorous doppelganger—Sarah Palin, the “silver-medalist in the 2008 vice-presidential race.”

But as SNL came back from commercial, there were the interstitial pinup shots of Fey, in one case done up as Jane Russell, which looked pretty cheesecake-y and sincere. There was also her sizzling Esquire pictorial spread last month, in which Fey put on a little black dress and enacted a wild night out. In the accompanying interview, she does her self-mocking best: “There are certain things, I totally get them as a premise. And they're all good fun, and if I were a young single model, they would be appropriate, but, you know, I'm a mom. And my kid's going to find this someday. I don't want to be handcuffed to a bed in Esquire. What are you nuts?" But then there she is in the final photos, handcuffed—not to a bed, but to a cop.

Every once in awhile, the irony melts right off the bottom of the page. And we’re left with Tina Fey, just looking hot. And hot is great, as long as it never becomes the whole point.

This season on 30 Rock, Liz Lemon reluctantly gave up her office mini-fridge. In the charitable view, this was just a small sacrifice in service of “ behavioral placement,” by which the energy-snarfing American TV audience might, in theory, be tricked into putting our donuts down long enough to flip off a light switch. But for those of us who see Tina Fey as a lifestyle brand, who dream of having a personal cubby for our pudding cups (and also all the other good things in life), it was a small portent of doom. What’s next? Lasik?

Fey told Esquire she believes her fame will recede eventually. Whatever happens, here’s hoping she doesn’t get too comfortable in the spotlight. Liz Lemon’s forehead should not get tauter as she ages. If Tina Fey is giving the rest of us laugh lines, she should have them, too.

Update: In final tallies released Monday, Clash of the Titans eeked by Date Night in the weekend box office, taking in a little over $1 million more.

Plus: Check out more of the latest entertainment, fashion, and culture coverage on Sexy Beast—photos, videos, features, and Tweets.

Rebecca Dana is a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for The Wall Street Journal, she has also written for The New York Times, The New York Observer, Rolling Stone, and Slate, among other publications.