The Dog Whisperer's secret indulgences, painful past – and the A-list celebrity who helped him learn English

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He rehabilitates dogs, trains humans – and counts some of Hollywood’s most famous pet owners among his fans. Nearly 20 years after coming to the U.S. from his native Mexico with $100 in his pocket and a dream of becoming the most famous trainer in the world, Cesar Millan (a.k.a. the Dog Whisperer) is a canine-world celebrity for his uncanny abilities with aggressive pooches and misguided owners alike.

“He has a gift,” says Jada Pinkett Smith, one of Millan’s first celeb clients and closest friends. “I’m amazed at what he’s been able to build, considering where he came from. He is, to me, the epitome of the American dream.”

With his hit National Geographic Channel show kicking off its sixth season Oct. 9 and his fourth book, How to Raise the Perfect Dog, in stores now, Millan, 40, has built an empire that also includes a product line, seminar series, a new magazine and the nonprofit Cesar and Ilusion Millan Foundation. Here are five things you might not know about the man Pinkett Smith calls an “extraordinary spirit”:

1. As a child he was teased about his love of dogs. Growing up in Mexico, Millan was bullied and called “dog boy” because of his affinity for street creatures. The eternal optimist now sees a silver lining: “Maybe those people motivated me to get closer to dogs and move to America quicker,” he says. “I’m grateful now but, at that moment, it hurt.”

2. He may be the ultimate pack leader, but that doesn’t mean he’s too manly for beauty treatments. “Cesar puts on facial masks more than I do,” reveals his wife of 15 years, Ilusion, 34, “and you can’t talk to him while he’s in ‘mask meditation!’ ” Millan says his father, Felipe, is “the original metrosexual – I’ve never seen him not looking good.”

3. His pal Smith not only turned other famous friends (like Oprah Winfrey) on to Millan’s canine skills, she paid for him to learn English more than a decade ago. “She hired a teacher for me for a year,” says Millan, who became a U.S. citizen in March. “Famous people don’t do that a lot. Special people do that. She’s like the ultimate human being.”

4. He didn’t mind being spoofed on national TV. “When the South Park guys called and said, ‘Hey, we’re doing a show about you,’ I was so nervous,” Millan recalls. “But my whole family gathered to watch it, and I laughed so hard.” Another perk? Adoration from his tough-to-impress sons, Calvin, 10, and Andre, 15: “Even though I have my own show, when I was a cartoon I was like a hero to them!”

5. He’s in demand with celebrity dog owners. Working with Kathy Griffin, Millan says that “when she gets serious, she’s really good” with her rescue dogs Pom Pom and Chance. “She has it – she just has to switch from a comedy state to a ‘normal’ state.” On Pete Wentz: “He was really down to earth and he listened. He loves the show.” On Denise Richards: “She was going through a [tough] experience in her marriage when I worked with her,” he says. “It was very obvious to me that she was thinking about something else. But she loves animals – she’s a very beautiful farm girl.”