Gabrielle! Gabrielle!! Gabrielle!!!

Okay, okay. A friend was dying to know: What is Gabrielle like in person? Is she really that hot?

Gabrielle is the married woman who's carried on an affair with her 17-year-old gardener in ABC's hit "Desperate Housewives." She's played, with dramatic aplomb and expert comic timing, by a petite, twinkle-eyed, muy caliente Mexican-American actress named Eva Longoria. ("It's pronounced EE-va or EH-va, depending on who's saying it, but it's never A-va," she explained with a wide smile.)

If there was such a thing as an overnight breakout star in the past TV season the 30-year-old Longoria was it.

And last night at the ninth annual "Noche de Gala" dinner benefiting the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, held at the Renaissance Mayflower, Longoria, in a low-cut, backless black BCBG number, was the undisputed red-carpet star. "Eva! Look this way!" said one photographer. A couple of onlookers in tuxes turned to each other, and one said in a hushed voice, "Isn't that Gabrielle?"

Longoria was honored with the first-ever Horizon Award, "to acknowledge an overnight success story like Eva's," said Felix Sanchez, a Washington lawyer who in 1997 started the foundation with actors Jimmy Smits, Sonia Braga and Esai Morales.

Elizabeth Vargas, in a silver beaded top and black velvet pants (both Armani), rushed in from her stint as sometime-anchor of ABC's "World News Tonight." The ubiquitous journalist and "20/20" co-anchor received the Raul Julia Award for Excellence, presented to a person or organization whose work "most advances the presence of Latinos" -- Vargas's father is Puerto Rican, her mother Irish -- on TV and/or film, Sanchez said.

The gala wasn't the only Latin game in town. A few blocks away at the Warner Theatre, Carlos Mencia headlined what promised to be a raucous, laugh-out-loud event, the fourth annual "Reyes of Comedy Night," hosted for the first time by Comedy Central. Mencia, star of the cable network's "Mind of Mencia" -- an edgier, R-rated version of ABC's wholesome "George Lopez Show" -- is having quite a year. Since its launch in July, his is the most-watched new series on Comedy Central, attracting about 1.4 million viewers a week.

The mood at the gala was jovial, with the 350 or so attendees -- among them Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and actors Shohreh Aghdashloo and Carlos Bernard of Fox's "24" -- dining on Greek salad and Chilean sea bass. Some of the big shots from NBC, CBS, ABC, PBS, Univision and Telemundo were there, too. "Of course they're here," said Susan Whiting, president and CEO of Nielsen Media Research. "They all realize that the dramatic increase just in the last few years of the Hispanic market is something they must all pay attention to."

Smits kicked off the dinner, solemnly asking for a few seconds of silence in honor of the victims of Hurricane Katrina -- he visited Baton Rouge and Biloxi with Gloria and Emilio Estefan on Monday, he said.

"Tonight, we celebrate the contribution made by two Latinas from opposite ends of the programming spectrum: news and drama. Be it fact or fiction, we know that our reality -- Latino images and stories -- is often bypassed," said Smits, known for his roles as the high-powered attorney Victor Sifuentes on NBC's "L.A. Law" and the suave and charismatic cop Bobby Simone on ABC's "NYPD Blue." This season, Smits will continue his role as presidential candidate Matt Santos on NBC's "West Wing."

(So, Jimmy, who'll win the election? "I really don't know, they're still writing the show," said Smits, who is Puerto Rican and Surinamese.)

"The TV business is very fickle," Smits said in an interview before the dinner. "I can't fool myself into thinking that everything is rosy, because it hasn't been. The truth is, in every decade, there are a handful of Latinos that people turn to. Back in the day, the names they turned to were Montalban, Moreno, Julia. These days, the names are Lopez, Longoria, Mencia. But that's not enough. If you think about the population" -- Hispanics at 14 percent of the U.S. population are the largest minority group -- "that's not enough. Sorry for sounding ungrateful, but that's the truth. But when something works, as in Eva's case, then there'll be clones all over the place."

This fall, Latinas in leading roles -- including Jacqueline Obradors in ABC's "Freddie" and Eva La Rue in CBS's "CSI: Miami" and seven others -- are all over network television. But foundation chairman Sanchez said, "Eva's role on 'Desperate Housewives,' if you think about it, is historic. It is the most visible and recognizable Latina role ever in the history of broadcast and cable TV."

Longoria, a former Miss Corpus Christi with a degree in kinesiology from Texas A&M, was the newcomer, the naive neophyte, among the five gorgeous suburban women -- Nicollette Sheridan, Teri Hatcher, Felicity Huffman and Marcia Cross -- of "Desperate Housewives." In a matter of months, Longoria rode on the celebrity I'm-here-I'm-everywhere wheel. That was her, in a memorable string bikini, on the January cover of Maxim, named as "#1 Hottest Woman in the World." In April, she landed a $1.9 million contract to be the new face of L'Oreal. That same month, she was in town filming "The Sentinel," starring Michael Douglas, Kiefer Sutherland and Kim Basinger, in which she plays a Secret Service agent, originally named Jill Inski. But whenever someone called Longoria "Inski" on the set, she didn't respond. Couldn't Jill be Latina, she asked. And Inski was changed to Jill Marin.

Hispanic actors had been "very scared to embrace their culture and to put it out there for the fear of being pigeonholed," said Longoria, sitting in a Mayflower suite minutes before her red-carpet entrance. She's refreshingly down-to-earth, quick to laugh, even as she asked a reporter, "Can you hold my purse?" as she posed for a picture. "There were so many times I've been cast as a character that wasn't necessarily Latin. But I say, can we put something in that ties in my culture? I've gotten a lot of praise for actually saying, this is who I am, let's show it, let's embrace it."

On "Desperate Housewives," Longoria plays a Mexican American -- and on fictional Wisteria Lane, Gabrielle and Carlos are the richest couple on the block, with an Anglo gardener.

"Desperate Housewives" star Eva Longoria at the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts gala at the Mayflower.Eva, Eva, over here! "Desperate Housewives" star Eva Longoria at last night's Noche de Gala.