Each morning before breakfast, actress Wendie Malick likes to take her dogs for a hike in the Santa Monica Mountains. “People are sometimes surprised that I am not a glamour puss,” says Wendie, best known as Hot in Cleveland’s neurotic ex-soap star Victoria Chase.

“Me in jeans with animals — that is the other side of me,” she tells Closer exclusively, adding that she’s extremely comfortable “in my old dusty boots and some ratty jeans and covered in dust from head to toe.” Recognizing the things that make her happy hasn’t made Wendie, 67, complacent — it’s quite the opposite.

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In between quiet times when she can commune with nature, her animals, and her husband of 22 years, Richard Erickson, she likes to challenge herself. “I always describe myself as a work in progress. There are still so many things I don’t know and so much that I want to get better at, including being a good actress,” says the star, whose recent projects include a play and a new Hallmark movie.

“I keep on working because I love it and I work with people I love.” Wendie has always had a talent for making the most of life’s opportunities. In the 1970s, a scout for Wilhelmina Models spotted the struggling actress in NYC, which led to five years on international runways. “I always had wanderlust so that was my passport to seeing the world,” says Wendie, who returned home and found steady but small acting work until her big break on the HBO series Dream On in 1990. “That opened doors for me,” she says.

As time passes, Wendie says it’s even more imperative to appreciate every day. When you’re older, “you don’t put off the things that are on your bucket list as much,” she notes. “When you have an impulse to reach out to somebody, you don’t overlook it. Little gestures and kindnesses mean more now.”

Good deeds have had a way of paying off, too. Wendie met her husband while building homes for the poor in Tijuana. “You just never know what can happen when you are in a dump in Mexico,” she says with a laugh. “People should try new things. There are all kinds of possibilities out there.”

That impulse to try something different recently led Wendie to star in a new play by Paul Rudnick, Big Night, on the LA stage. Theater “is a richer experience,” she says. She also stretched her wings in the role of a lawyer and hip granny in Hallmark’s Darrow & Darrow, which premiered in October.

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“She’s like Auntie Mame,” says Wendie. “Right up my alley!” After this, she’s not sure what’s next, although she notes “there is talk” of a Hot in Cleveland reunion. Regardless, she’s happy to keep learning and growing from whatever life throws her way.

“When you’re younger you have this illusion you are in control of your own destiny, but I don’t think you are,” Wendie tells Closer. “I think the world has lots of interesting surprises in store for you and it’s all about riding that wave."

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