Nia Vardalos of My Big Fat Greek Wedding fame has crisscrossed the country and dodged stalkers and propositions from airplane pilots to promote her new memoir about adopting her daughter. She banters with Lloyd Grove about her book-tour hijinks and why she’s doing this.
Nia Vardalos—of My Big Fat Greek Wedding fame—has reason to be glad she learned her parents’ ancestral tongue as a kid in Winnipeg, Manitoba. It has come in handy during her endless, far-flung book tour for Instant Mom, her rollicking, poignant account of how she and her husband, actor Ian Gomez, adopted their now 8-year-old daughter, Ilaria, after an emotionally draining bout of unsuccessful fertility treatments.
“I have had the same person show up in a few cities with flowers,” Vardalos tells me about a man she’s too polite to call a creepy stalker. “A lovely gentleman who gave me a picture of himself. I came home, gave it to Ian, and said, ‘If I go missing, here’s the guy.’”
During a book signing in an unnamed Southern city—and here’s where her helpful fluency in Greek comes in—Vardalos spotted him again, awaiting her attentions.
“It was a Greek event, and the organizers were, of course, Greek, and I have never been more grateful to have gone to Greek school,” she says. “Because I said in Greek, with a big smile on my face while handing a woman my pen—with a gesture that looked like I was saying, ‘My pen has run out, may I have another one?’—‘This gentleman on my left, this is the second signing he’s come to today. Can you please make sure that security knows this is happening?’ And she smiled back, handing me the new pen as if nothing was going on, and said, ‘Absolutely. Just so you know, he was here one hour early.’ And I was like ‘Oh, great.’ So my parents were right to send me to Greek school.”
It is impossible to resist—so why bother?—thinking of the author’s adventures as My Big Fat Greek Book Tour. Beyond the countless television, radio, and print interviews, the Los Angeles–based Vardalos has headlined nearly 30 book-related events, trekking to such dissimilar locales as Princeton, New Jersey, and Corpus Christi, Texas, since the April 2 publication of Instant Mom. The 50-year-old Vardalos—a quintuple threat as an actress, singer, writer, director, and producer—has lately added “adoption advocate” to her résumé, so a lot of her appearances are sponsored by adoption support groups, among others.
“These adoption communities, Greek communities, and women communities reached out and adopted the book,” she says. “It has made me feel useful. I can’t stop while they’re still inviting me. If they want to bring me there and tell me they can sell 300 books, I’ve got to go.”
She adds: “It’s so funny—the women who are really responding to it are in their 20s and see it as a career memoir. I decided I don’t even want them to introduce me as an adoption advocate anymore, because people have told me what the book is: it is a how-to guide to personal happiness and being a fearless idiot.”
Vardalos’s publicist, Arnold Robinson of Rogers & Cowan, has essentially become her tour manager. “He has the groups cover the airfare and a one-night hotel room,” she says. “I’m usually picked up by a professor from the university or somebody’s cousin named Nick. We should say ‘somebody’s smoking-hot cousin named Nick,’ who hits on me no matter how old he is.
“When you get off a plane, there’s nothing wrong with someone looking you over and saying, ‘So what are you doing tonight?’ What it’s usually followed by—which I find so funny—is, ‘Hey, you know, there’s a jazz festival in town!’ As I say in the book, there’s nothing that makes me cringe more than smooth jazz.”
Vardalos has also been wearing various trinkets for sale in magazine ads and other public venues in order to raise money for a group called Help Us Adopt. “They give grants to people to help defray the costs associated with adoption,” she says. “I have an event in Los Angeles where I am modeling jewelry for that group. In People’s StyleWatch, there is an ad where I modeled jewelry—and I just like to say ‘model’ as many times as I can.” Vardalos, who’s on the phone from L.A., can’t help adding with a declaratory flourish: “Excuse me, I just burped.”
During her travels as a literary saleswoman, she has occasionally crossed paths with other authors, meeting and befriending Canadian screenwriter Kelly Oxford (hawking Everything Is Perfect When You’re a Liar) and almost meeting her idol, Isabelle Allende (whose latest is Maya’s Notebook: A Novel), at the Texas Library Association conference in Fort Worth. “I didn’t get to meet her. I just hovered outside her door.” Meanwhile, the Cleveland Plain-Dealer put Vardalos on a suggested-reading list with Maya Angelou. “That’s a humble brag,” she says.
There was also a memorable encounter while disembarking at Corpus Christi. “The flight attendant came over and whispered, ‘Can you wait a minute and be last off the plane? The pilot wants to meet you.’ I waited and the pilot came out and it was Jake the Bachelor flying the plane. He said, ‘I wish I had a rose on this plane to give you’—which I’m sure is a standard line.”
An alumna of the Second City comedy troupe in Chicago, Vardalos has accomplished much on stage, television, and film—including co-writing the 2011 movie Larry Crowne with her friend and frequent creative partner Tom Hanks. But while hawking Instant Mom to her various audiences, she is inevitably asked to dish about the 2002 low-budget romantic comedy (produced by Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson) that grossed nearly $400 million globally and made her an instant Hollywood phenom.
“It’s usually a luncheon or an evening event,” Vardalos says. “I do a couple funny stories about how I got My Big Fat Greek Wedding made, and talk about how the same fearless-idiot attitude is what made me go ‘Yeah!’ [to deciding to adopt a 3-year-old girl and deciding she wanted to star in her breakout film] ... Against the advice of well-meaning friends and family, I just said, ‘Yeah, this feels right for me. I'm doing this.’ Both events. From the moment that I asked Tom Hanks, ‘Can I play the bride?’ to the moment I said yes to the American Foster Care workers, both led me to such joy.”
Vardalos continues: “And then I do a really fun Q&A, and these are the questions that always show up: What was it like to kiss John Corbett? How much money did I make off My Big Fat Greek Wedding? How did you get permission to shoot at the Parthenon for My Life in Ruins? What was it like writing with Tom Hanks? And is it true that David Duchovny [her co-star in the 2004 comedy Connie and Carla] is well-endowed? ... I’m really touched, actually, that people know about my other movies.”
As for Vardalos’s daughter, Ilaria, the star of the book, she’s trying to be supportive of her mom’s continual out-of-town sales trips. “She knows the focus of the book, and she knows I'm donating the proceeds to all the adoption groups that helped us become parents,” Vardalos says. “I think I said in a couple of interviews that the first morning I left, she whispered in my ear, ‘Go get some kids adopted.’ She's on board, but the reality is, she did cry the last time I left. And that broke my heart. So that's why I'm scaling back a little. We're going to try and do a couple more tours, but they're around school holidays, so Ian and Ilaria are coming with me.”