Red gown, Tony Ward ($4,450). Neiman Marcus, Fashion Show. Gold earrings, Ippolita ($1,495).

  »Slideshow: Behind-the-scenes shots from our cover shoot

While Kaley Cuoco’s slim build, high cheekbones and gorgeous blonde hair make her a natural for high-fashion dressing, the sole female star of CBS’ The Big Bang Theory is quick to peg herself as a devout “jeans-and-T-shirt girl.” But she’ll have to glam up for at least one important night in her near future: the Emmys on September 18. Her show was nominated for an Outstanding Comedy Emmy for the first time, and she’s been planning her outfit for months. “We’ve all been so close through this whole thing, through these last few years,” she says. “So I’m so excited for everyone. It’s our time, and I’m thrilled that they saw that.”

Cuoco may lean toward casual attire now, but judging by her reaction to the wardrobe pull for her Vegas magazine shoot, her tastes might be on the verge of changing. “It was a dream come true, when you walk in and there are 8,000 gowns, Chopard jewelry and all these amazing shoes,” the 25-year-old actress says, with the satisfied yet still wide-eyed enthusiasm reserved for actresses who are just about to turn the corner into A-list stardom. It is one of her biggest shoots as a stand-alone star, on the cusp of her stepping-out party from the ensemble cast that has made her famous.

The show, currently in its fifth season, was a runaway hit almost from the beginning, boasting hilarious monologues on unlikely subjects like physics, and ridiculously high-brow science jokes that appeal to fans of all ages, especially the ones tired of the silly, often raunchy, comedy that seems to rule the airwaves. At the heart of the show: Cuoco’s Penny, a waitress/bartender who has learned to deftly navigate her neighbors’ awkwardness to become their blonde mascot of sorts. She handles her offbeat, brainy neighbors with a finesse that’s an interesting mix of genuine wonder at their escapades and confident, female wiles. Watching her and Jim Parsons’ character, the eccentric genius Sheldon Cooper, form an unexpected friendship has produced some of the most endearing moments—as well as the most hilarious.

“Sometimes the funniest thing you can do is not do anything, especially on Big Bang, because the guys say such outrageous things,” Cuoco says. “The more stone-faced you are, the funnier it is.”

Celebrity Smarts
As a star of the popular CBS comedy, Cuoco is starting to nab roles and gigs that could push her into the next stratosphere of stardom. But she won’t allow herself to fall into the traps that have tripped up other successful starlets. To do so, she handles her gig, and the resulting fame, as a job—one with certain responsibilities.

“If I do leave my house, I don’t go anywhere I know I’m going to have trouble,” she says. “I’m a homebody, and I like to be with my friends and my animals. I’m quiet that way. My world takes place around my home, where I feel things are a little more civilized, where I can have a great time without feeling like I’ve shown everyone what I do.”

Given her sun-kissed looks and sunny personality, one could easily envision Cuoco as being the life of any number of parties. Instead, the Oxnard, California, native, who now resides in the Valley in LA with her two dogs (a song she recorded for iTunes last year benefited The Humane Society of the United States), describes herself as “extremely private.”

While “quiet” and “private” might not seem to mesh with the entertainment mecca that is Las Vegas, Cuoco relishes the occasional visit, where her self-imposed curfew seems to, well, fall by the wayside. “My girlfriend and I were just there to see Garth Brooks at Wynn, and we had an absolute blast,” she says. “It’s weird because I’m usually in bed by 10, but in Vegas it’s just different—you’re up until four and you don’t think twice about it.”

A Comedic Turn
In a career that has already spanned 20 years, two of her biggest gigs have afforded her the chance to work with comedy icons. In 2002, Cuoco landed the coveted role of one of John Ritter’s not-so-little girls on the sitcom 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter. Although she only worked alongside the Three’s Company icon for a little more than a year (until his unexpected death at age 54), she learned plenty, including one piece of advice she carries with her today.

“During the first few weeks I worked with John, he said to me, ‘I want you to know something: All press is not good press,’” Cuoco says. “I hear so many people say the opposite, but I’m with John on this one. That advice was very real. Working with him, I grew up very fast. I remember the day I turned 17, and I was still living at home. I convinced my parents that it was time to move out on my own. From the day I moved out, my life started, and I’ve learned so much.”

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