April 26, 2010 12:00 PM

What doesn’t kill Niecy Nash only makes her funnier. So despite her sore limbs, a by-product of her grueling Dancing with the Stars regimen, the comedian is all smiles as she straps on platform heels and rocks her hips to Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” during a photo shoot in L.A. “I’m hurting in places I didn’t even know I had, but I love it,” says Nash. “In the middle of my tears, I will reach down into my bones and find the joke.”

That against-all-odds approach helped Nash, 40, weather a few early career bumps along the way to becoming a Dancing queen. “I was snatched off the stage during my eighth-grade dance performance because I’d talked on the phone to a boy all night and was delirious,” she recalls. “And Rosie Perez kicked me out of the audition to be a fly girl on In Living Color. This is redemption.”

Dancing also offers the biggest spotlight yet for Nash, who was forced to hone her comic craft under the most tragic of circumstances. At 15, she watched as her mother’s boyfriend shot her mom, Margaret Ensley, 62, in the back, “like a dog in the street,” she says. Her mom survived, but eight years later Nash’s younger brother Michael, 17, was shot to death at his high school over a love triangle. “My mother said, ‘I give up,'” says Nash, who refused to let her do that. Instead, she stood at the foot of her mom’s bed every day telling jokes until she finally cheered up. “That’s when I realized comedy was a gift.”

It’s one that Nash made the most of, first on the long-running Comedy Central Cops spoof Reno 911!, which ended last year, and now as host of the style makeover show Clean House. She’s equally fearless in her love life: After her 16-year marriage to Don Nash ended in 2007 (Nash lives in L.A. with their three children Dominic, 18, Donielle, 15, and Dia, 10), Nash started to date again. Two years later she found the man she calls “Mr. Wonderful,” boyfriend Jay Tucker, 43, an electrical engineer who rubs her feet when she gets home from Dancing. Says Nash: “He makes me feel like I’m not by myself.”

Still, Nash remains her own biggest cheerleader. As Dancing‘s thickest contestant this season at size 8, she proudly celebrates her “jiggly” parts. “I love looking like a woman. In fact, I go around to some of my competitors and try to force-feed them doughnuts,” she says, flashing that smile again. “My joy is my biggest gift. If there’s something I want to do, I’m going to take a shot.”

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