It happens all the time. Lesli Margherita and Stewie, her Jack Russell Terrier, venture out for a walk in their Hell's Kitchen neighborhood when young fans recognize not Margherita herself but Stewie.
"It's Stewie!" they yell. Then, a couple of beats later, they notice Margherita. And it's: "Oh, God, it's her!"
Never mind that she first became famous for CBS' "Fame LA," or that she's done a great many more TV shows and regional theatre. Never mind that she was awarded the prestigious Laurence Olivier Award for her work in the London production of Zorro the Musical. And never even mind that she's currently winning even more fans for her comic performance as the mean mom in Matilda the Musical. It's Stewie they see first.
"I'm not even kidding," Margherita says. "I walk around with no makeup, a hat and sweats. But Stewie's famous, and they take pictures of him. He's the one who gets recognized. Never me."
To Margherita, being able to walk around unglamorous and unrecognized is just one more of the pleasures of living in Hell's Kitchen.
And there are more advantages. "When I first moved to New York, I wanted to make sure that Matilda would run and I wouldn't get fired," she says. "So I subletted a friend's apartment for about five months that was also in Hell's Kitchen.
"I knew the area, I could walk to the theatre, and I could come home between shows to walk the dog. When I knew that I wouldn't be fired and the show would run, I decided to leap."
But it was a cautious leap. The plan was to rent a furnished studio apartment. "I needed it furnished," Margherita says, "because I still have an apartment in Los Angeles that my husband, Dan Rubin Stafford, is in. His work as a TV production manager is in Los Angeles, but he goes back and forth. I honestly didn't know how long I'd be here. So I needed an at least partially furnished place."
She knew that would be hard to find in her price range, but an apartment came up in the building she's now living in. She went to see it but got there too late. It had already been rented.
"Still," she says, "the realtor had one more apartment to show me. And it was even nicer than the other one. I walked in and loved it. It has this long hallway for the dog. I needed someplace to throw the ball to play with him. That was the most important aspect of it."
There was also room for Stewie's "apartment" (his crate) and space for his "closet" — a rack filled with enough coats, sweaters and snow booties to keep her West Coast dog cozy on Manhattan's snowy streets.
Another must: "I wanted a doorman building" Margherita says. "It's good to have someone to take packages. Besides, I feel that there's always someone watching out. But Hell's Kitchen feels very safe. There are always tons of people out."
The apartment itself — all of 413 square feet — has four separate areas—a sleep area with a double bed, a living room area with a couch and a "very important bar," the kitchen, and the long hallway for Stewie to run.
Another big plus: "It had a lot of furniture in it already," she says, "and I loved it because it felt modern. I loved the way it was set up. It didn't feel like a studio at all.
"I'm in here now a year and a half. I had a year's lease and when it was up, I begged them to let me stay. But now, because my husband comes here so often and because I pretty much live here in New York, we've added so much furniture. When we finally do get a place here we'll be set up because we've already bought so much."
Actually, what they bought was mostly storage pieces. "Dressers and cabinets and I had to bring the dog's crate," Margherita explains. "But everything else was here. Including a huge TV. Really, everything was here and that's why it was such a no-brainer. We added pillows and things like that. The more stuff my husband brings out, the more storage we buy."
There's also a very nice, compact kitchen. "I don't cook," she admits, "but my husband does. And the kitchen looks pretty; it has lots of cabinet space and a dishwasher. That, to me was the best feature, because I don't have to wash the dishes."
And her favorite decorative feature? She flips a switch and a border of bulbs — in red and green and blue suddenly light up the room. "They look like Christmas lights," she says, laughing. "They're very me."
Actually, everything in the apartment is very Margherita. "I love it here," she says. "I have a lease and I hope they'll let me stay when it's up. I think eventually we'll put down roots in New York and we'll be bi-coastal."
That's just one of the big future plans she's been hatching in that small apartment. Others include a reprise of her cabaret act, All Hail the Queen possibly in March and the 2015 release of the movie "One Shot," which co-stars Margherita with Taye Diggs and Topher Grace.
And, of course, there's still Matilda. "I love doing the show," she says. "I just lucked out. I was in London for two years and when Matilda came up, all my friends knew that this was the show. They kept saying, 'There's a role that's so right for you.' And I kept thinking, 'I just have to be in that show.' I thank God it was a British creative team because they already knew me from Zorro. I auditioned and, thankfully, got it."
But, at first, she was "terrified" about creating the role for her Broadway debut. "I was afraid no one would like me," Margherita says. "I was so nervous about opening the show that my husband went to parents' house; they had been holding the Olivier Award for me. He took it and brought it to New York and said, 'Just remember this.'"
Today the award (she calls it just Larry) sits on a cabinet surrounded by two Star Wars dolls. It's there just to remind her of what she's already achieved — and how many good things lie ahead.