When Kaley Cuoco commits to something, she goes all in.
“I am black or white,” admits the “Big Bang Theory” actress, 31. “There is no gray area.” Everything she likes, she’s obsessed with; everything she wants, she wants it now. Like, for instance, her cocktail.
After sliding into a banquette in the lobby bar of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, the server takes her order (a bourbon-based Sazerac), then races off, apparently in response to one of Cuoco’s delightfully deadpan comments. “I said, ‘I always start drinking at 4, and it’s already, like, 4:30, so I’m getting jittery.’ I think she thought I was serious!”
But then, Cuoco — dressed in a “casual” black St. Laurent T-shirt, vintage army pants and pink spike-studded Valentino slides — has a pretty commanding presence. How else would she have ended up on one of the highest-rated shows ever on TV?
Her irresistible mix of sunniness and sass was apparent from her childhood in Camarillo, Calif. Her father (a longtime firefighter who now works in real estate) and stay-at-home mom supported her interests early and often. Cuoco started playing tennis at age 3 (“I was basically born on a tennis court,” she says) and nailing acting auditions by 5. On TV, she ate Kentucky Fried Chicken, sang the Oscar Mayer song (“with a fake hot dog dancing next to me”) and starred in roughly 20 Barbie commercials.
“There was no lightbulb moment where I moved to California and wanted to be an actress,” she says. “It happened as if I was born to do it. Which is so funny, because to this day, that’s how I feel.”
By high school, Cuoco had to decide whether she’d devote herself to acting or tennis full time. By her teens she was crisscrossing the country for tournaments; college tryouts loomed. “I was like, ‘I’m not just gonna play tennis for f – – king fun,’” she says, and then it turned into, “I need to demolish you and travel the world, or I’m not doing it!”
She eventually opted to retire her racket, and within a year she’d landed a starring role on the ABC sitcom “8 Simple Rules,” which ran for three seasons, until 2005. “The Big Bang Theory” debuted two years later.
Her role as Penny, a Cheesecake Factory waitress-turned-pharmaceutical rep who hangs out with a gang of geeky physicists, made her a household name. The show has touted 20 million viewers a week and now earns her the staggering, “Friends”-esque salary of $900,000 an episode — making her one of TV’s highest-paid actresses (only Sofia Vergara outearns her).
Having hit that mind-blowing benchmark, Cuoco decided it was time to step up her style game. Enter stylist Brad Goreski of “Fashion Police” fame.
Cuoco joined his roster of A-list clients (including Jessica Alba and Demi Moore) by wooing him with her trademark wit. She texted him a perfectly polite introductory video suggesting they meet — in which she just happened to be topless.
“He writes back, ‘I am on the floor, like, dead,’” she laughs. “And it’s been exactly that way from the first moment we started working together.”
Goreski, she says, brought out her “wilder side” on the red carpet. See: backless silhouettes, belly cutouts and plunging necklines, like the one on the silver, floor-sweeping Tommy Hilfiger sparkler she wore to this year’s Golden Globes.
But no matter how formal the occasion, Cuoco refuses to conform. She lives for pants, like the white, wide-leg Naeem Khan jumpsuit she wore to last year’s Grammys and the envelope-pushing, petal-pink cape-and-trouser outfit she wore to December’s Critics’ Choice Awards. “It’s completely boss but feminine at the same time,” she says of that Noon by Noor look.
She has a closet full of high-end heels that are too uncomfortable to wear. “But I like knowing they’re there,” she says. “Just in case.” Instead, she prefers classic Adidas sneakers with avant-garde Vetements sports socks: “I’m obsessed.”
And don’t even get her started on suits: “I love pantsuits. I don’t think there’s anything hotter than a cool, completely tailored suit on a chick. I swear to God, I have Diane Keaton deep inside of me.”
‘I love pantsuits. I swear to God, I have Diane Keaton deep inside of me.’
And we can’t forget Cuoco’s other closet: her equestrian one, full of second-skin riding pants and laser-cut blazers that she wears when competing around the country with one of her seven jumper horses.
“When this little world of ‘Big Bang’ is over, that’s all I want to do for the rest of my life,” she says. Her ultimate ambition? “Grand Prix rider.”
The rarefied equestrian world — where pros vie for prizes of up to $1,000,000 — doesn’t easily open its arms to amateur outsiders. “There are some actresses that ride, but no one at the level I’m talking about,” she says of her struggle to prove herself. “All the money in the world does not make you a great rider. I’m trying to earn respect in the equestrian world, and not as someone who came in and just gets what I want. I work my ass off.”
Following this passion led her to another. On Valentine’s Day 2016, at a horse show in Palm Springs, Calif., she literally bumped into her now-boyfriend, Karl Cook, 26, a pro horse jumper, breeder and the son of billionaire Intuit founder Scott Cook.
That evening, after their initial “very awkward” encounter, her Prince Charming rode up to her barn on, well, a little motorized bike. He was holding Champagne “and my friends and I are like, ‘Oh, my God, it’s Karl Cook’ — ’cause in the riding world, this guy’s a big deal.” Cook invited her to dinner that night, “and we have been completely inseparable ever since. So weird. Literally, boom.”
Their head-over-heels love story is reminiscent of how quickly she fell for her ex-husband, former professional tennis player Ryan Sweeting. They wed in December 2013 after dating for only six months. But, says Cuoco, “A little bit after we got married, I started feeling like something was off.”
Rumors swirled that their breakup was caused by Sweeting’s alleged addiction to painkillers. “You just have to want to help yourself,” Cuoco says, looking back. “You can love someone so much, but if you don’t love yourself, it doesn’t matter, because you can’t accept love.”
She filed for divorce three months before their second wedding anniversary and has no plans to repeat her mistakes.
‘I’m not a slow person. I’m just not! I can’t help but want everything right then.’
“I’m trying to slow this one down,” she says of her new relationship. “And I’m not a slow person. I’m just not! I can’t help but want everything right then.” But, doing the math, she proudly concludes: “This relationship has lasted longer than my entire courtship and marriage to my ex.”
She’s clearly dazzled by Cook, and with good reason. “I’ve never been in a relationship like this,” she says. “He couldn’t be kinder.” Need proof? Check out his Instagram feed, which is composed almost entirely of photos featuring “beautiful” Cuoco and their pets.
A shared obsession helps. With Cook, she says, “It’s horses 24/7. Most guys don’t understand why you’d rather spend 10 hours in your barn with your horse, in s – – t up to your knees, than come visit them,” she says, laughing. “But when you’re a horse girl, that’s it!”
Even when they’re 400 miles apart at their respective California barns (hers in LA’s Simi Valley, his north in San Gregorio) they’re in touch constantly. “I’m one of those crazies where I want to talk to my guy a hundred times a day, and he wants to, too!” she says.
So, any plans to officially merge their barns and lives? “Yes, someday, but not yet,” Cuoco says. “We’re very hopeful that it ends up the way I think it will.” In the meantime, they’re savoring the here and now — wherever they may be.
When visting NYC, they may hit Bergdorf Goodman, the Baccarat Hotel lounge and — since Cuoco is a diehard Bobby Flay devotee — Bar Americain. “The second I sit down, I’m like, ‘I want the blue-cheese dip and the chips right now,’ and it’s like, ‘Hello, New York!’ ”
Cuoco predicts “Big Bang” will go dark after two more seasons. As for acting, “I will keep my toe in it, for sure,” she says, adding that she’s eyeing darker, more dramatic material. “But I would love to travel the world with my boyfriend and show horses.”
Will her second act feature a second marriage? “That’s the fun of life — you literally don’t know what’s around the corner,” she says. “I for sure don’t have a clue. I’m excited. But I have no clue.”