"Back in prehistoric days, there were no models that looked like me," Meneses, 50, tells PEOPLE

By Patrick Gomez
Updated February 08, 2016 07:00 PM
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Credit: Christopher Polk/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty

She’s currently known for playing Eva Longoria‘s rival on NBC’s Telenovela, but Alex Meneses has a long – and varied – history in the entertainment industry.

“When I was 12, I started working at the dance studio I’d been taking classes at since I was 3,” the actress, 50, tells PEOPLE of growing up in Chicago “always” having a job.

After graduating high school, Meneses says she made use of her lifelong love of makeup by becoming a makeup artist to pay for her classes at Chicago’s comedy and improv studio The Second City.

“I was actually starting to work with a lot of well-known photographers and I needed an agent, so I went into an agency to seek representation,” Meneses says of submitting her book of work. “I was sitting outside the office waiting for their makeup artist agent to see me when the owner of the agency walked by and asked to see my book.”

Meneses explained that the book was already on another agent’s desk so the owner went in to find it.

As she recalls: “He said, ‘It’s not there.’ I said, ‘It’s with Barbara.’ And he said, ‘That’s our makeup person.’ I said, ‘Yes. I’m a makeup person not a model.’ ”

But he disagreed and sent Meneses on a “go-see” for a beer poster. She booked the job.

“I got paid $10,000 and I was, like, ‘Bye makeup!’ ” says the actress, who was surprised her Ukranian-and-Mexican heritage was a sought-after look at the time. “Back in prehistoric days, there were no models that looked like me. Everyone looked like Christie Brinkley or Iman. They were either white or black. Cindy Crawford was modeling and she was considered really exotic.”

But her look worked well for her and many beer posters followed. So did a two-year stint in Milan when she was 20, which she says was “late in life” according to the modeling industry.

“There were girls there that were 15 and 16, and their parents let them go by themselves. There were hundreds of girls,” says the successful model. “The agencies said they’d take care of them, but as soon as the office closed at 6 p.m., it was, ‘Okay. Bye, girls. Don’t get killed.’ ”

Meneses says a lot of her fellow models spent their time in Europe “doing drugs and getting crazy,” but she credits her work ethic for saving her from a similar fate.

Eventually she transitioned back into acting, booking arcs on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, The Hughleys and Everybody Loves Raymond though the ’90s and early 2000s, but “retired” after marrying hedge fund manager John Simpson in 2004.

But after getting a divorce, Meneses – who is mom to Stella, 4 – decided it was time to get back to work.

“Last year at this time, I was a total soccer mommy,” says Meneses, who currently graces the cover of the American Gem Trade Association’s Prism magazine and is one of the celebrities wearing jewelry for the AGTA’s 2016 Spectrum Award Jewelry competition. “I came out of retirement and Telenovela was the second thing that I auditioned for. I got it and I was, like, ‘What?!’ I missed that while I was married, so working again is so fabulous.”

Telenovela airs Mondays (at 8:30 p.m. ET) on NBC.