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Calista Flockhart is in a good mood, and she hasn't been in many of them lately. It's a pleasant Saturday after-noon in Beverly Hills, and she has taken Webster, her 8-year-old terrier mutt, on a walk to a nearby dog park, enjoyed her usual double cappuccino at a local Starbucks and, as she does every weekend, chatted by phone with her parents, Ronald and Kay, who live in Morristown, Tenn. Now, in a restaurant with a reporter, the besieged star of FOX's megahit Ally McBeal listens intently as a waiter rattles off the day's specials: fresh porcini and black trumpet risotto, grilled Hawaiian sailfish and sauteed white salmon. Flockhart opts instead for a bowl of tomato bisque—and smiles. "Doesn't it seem weird," she asks, "to be talking about food?"

Not exactly. Since she first walked into the unisex bathroom of her oddball TV law firm last season—an enchanting bundle of intelligence and anxiety wrapped in a micro mini—Flockhart's McBeal has provided ample watercooler grist for critics and fans alike. There's Ally's inflatable life-size doll (good for slow dancing and snuggling when real men are scarce), that pesky dancing baby (a diapered emblem of her biological clock) and her incredibly shrinking hemlines. Yet nothing—not even the flap TIME magazine sparked this summer when it anointed Flockhart, 33, a poster girl for postmodern feminism—has incited as fierce a reaction as Flockhart's appearance at the Emmy Awards in September. Her size 2 Richard Tyler sheath left nothing to the imagination. Always slim, the 5'5 1/2" star looked emaciated.

Suddenly, it was not Ally, her fictitious alter ego, but Flockhart herself who had become a national obsession. People wanted to know: Is she too skinny, and does she have an eating disorder? Shortly after the Emmys, Jay Leno quipped on The Tonight Show that a typical McBeal dinner consisted of three peas and a lima bean. The L.A. radio station KROQ proposed a Meals for McBeal drive—and threatened to send truck-loads of Twinkies and Ring-Dings to the McBeal set. Then, in early October, WCBS, New York City's local CBS affiliate, aired an unconfirmed news report that Flockhart had checked into a clinic as a result of an eating disorder. Flockhart's then publicist quickly called in with a vehement denial, which the station immediately aired and has not since rebutted. Flockhart angrily maintains that the report was untrue, but the damage had already been done.

"I was walking Webster when the show aired," says Flockhart, between sips of her soup. "I came back, and there were about 14 messages on my machine asking if I was okay. I called a friend and said, 'I don't know. What's wrong with me?'"

Breaking her public silence to discuss that question in an exclusive interview with PEOPLE, Flockhart is open but wary. "The last couple of days have been pretty tough," the actress says of the unrelenting speculation that her weight loss, obvious not only at the Emmys but in new episodes of Ally McBeal, must be the result of an eating disorder. Asked point blank if she is anorexic, Flockhart doesn't flinch. "I guess I don't know the exact definition of anorexia," she says. "But I eat. I eat normally. I eat whatever I want, whenever I want. I don't have a messed-up relationship with food." She pauses. "Am I anorexic? I guess my answer would have to be no."

Indeed, Flockhart says she eats three well-balanced meals a day. Her breakfast? "It's always the same," she says. "Oatmeal, with a banana and honey, egg whites, spinach and yogurt." A typical lunch? "Some kind of fish or chicken. And a chocolate chip cookie for my sweet tooth." Dinner? "Either chicken, pasta or sushi."

And yet, when Flockhart casually rolls up the sleeves of her gray wool sweater, she reveals limbs that are noticeably bony. When she realizes her exposed, skinny arms have caught her interviewer's attention, she quickly explains, "I have small bones. I was born with tiny bones."

Those close to her staunchly deny the rumors Flockhart calls embarrassing and hurtful. "I've heard people say, 'Oh, she's only 102 pounds,'" says former high school boyfriend Brian Anderson, now 33 and a high school history teacher at their alma mater. "Well, when wasn't she 102 pounds? I've been out with her, and she eats like everyone else." Ally McBeal's resident chanteuse, Vonda Shepard, agrees. "She hasn't been out sick as far as I know, which is a sign that she's healthy," she says. "She eats. She works out." And, adds Shepard, "she's pretty annoyed about the whole thing." As is Jane Krakowski, who plays Flockhart's secretary on the show: "I got a call from my mother asking if Calista was in the hospital. I told her it wasn't true. But it's crazy how many people are talking about it."

Still, as Flockhart admits, there is no question that she looks thinner now than she has in the recent past. Though she does not weigh herself regularly, she believes she has dropped three to five pounds in the last year, hovering at just over 100 pounds today. The reason, she says, is that she has cut back on junk food such as pizza, her favorite, and, because of her 14-hour workdays, slacked off her normally rigorous workout routine. "In the process I think my body has changed from being muscular to softer," says Flockhart. "I'm not saying people aren't seeing what they're seeing. If I did, it would indicate I'm nuts. I'm just saying it's normal weight fluctuation." She adds, "I don't look in the mirror that often, but when I do, I have to say, no, I don't think of myself as too thin."

Nor, apparently, do some of her 14 million Ally McBeal fans. According to Dr. Bita Rahbar, a psychologist at the UCLA Medical Center eating disorders clinic, Flockhart's physique can send a dangerous message. "I have a number of kids in my practice who say, 'Why should I have to gain weight? [Flockhart] looks this way and she's successful,'" says Rahbar. "It takes weeks' worth of work to really undo the effects of [watching just one episode]." For Flockhart, reversing the effects of the past few months may take even longer. "It's hard to live under a microscope," she says. "People are watching and whispering. It's isolating. It's frightening." Referring to Emmy night, Flockhart adds, "You open yourself up to such harsh judgment when you go to the Emmys. Joan Rivers is ready to smash you no matter what you wear. I felt special that night, and it has really hurt my feelings that everyone has held up that picture [in the Tyler dress] and said it's shocking, horrible, disturbing. Think about how it would feel to have people say you look 'horrifying.'"

Flockhart has never enjoyed the spotlight, despite her choice of career. Born in Freeport, Ill., to Ronald, now 66, a retired executive for Kraft Foods, and Kay, 65, a former schoolteacher, Flockhart and her older brother Gary, now 37, spent their youth moving along with their father's job location: Minnesota, New Jersey, New York. As Flockhart told PEOPLE last year, even as a child she shied away from attention—the kind inspired, for instance, by the name Calista (meaning "the most beautiful" in Greek). "I used to make up names for myself like Ann and Jennifer because I couldn't stand the trauma of being teased," she said.

After graduating in 1983 from Shawnee High School in Medford, N.J., she spent a year at a state college before enrolling in nearby Rutgers University. Though a theater major, she thought of acting "as a hobby," she says, "not something you could do for a living." She appeared in such plays as Much Ado About Nothing, but it was her turn as the teenage tomboy Millie in William Inge's Picnic that changed Flockhart's life. "The director told her, 'You nailed it,' and she was really proud," says her former Rutgers roommate Liane Kamena. "That's when it all clicked for her."

After graduating in 1988, Flockhart moved to Manhattan, where she shared a small two-bedroom apartment with three other women and her then puppy Webster. Though Webster would become Flockhart's most devoted companion—he is on the Ally McBeal set with her almost every day—he was not then the sole object of her affection. Throughout college, Flockhart had been involved with a man she met just before attending Rutgers—and remained with for several years. "They were engaged at one point," says Kamena. "But as much as she really loved him, she felt that he wanted a woman who would stay home, have babies and clean the house, and she couldn't see her life going that way."

Flockhart broke off the engagement after arriving in Manhattan, where she struggled as an actress. To make ends meet between gigs—including one Off-Off Broadway role that paid $400 for eight weeks work—she performed such odd jobs as handing out towels in a health club and waitressing. "There were plenty of times I said, 'Why did I pick this career? I'm broke, I'm starving, I have no structure to my life, no stability,'" she once said. Fortunately, she had family. Her brother sent her a case of canned ravioli that she rationed at two a day for herself. Her parents sent toiletries, the occasional check and lots of loving support. "They never said, 'Calista, give it up, this is a pipe dream,'" says Kamena. "They believed in her."

By 1993, with a few TV roles to her credit—including, ironically, the title role in HBO's 1992 movie The Secret Life of Mary-Margaret: Portrait of a Bulimic—Flockhart joined Malaparte, a small Manhattan-based theater group headed by actor Ethan Hawke. Her most noticeable role arrived in 1994, when veteran stage actress Julie Harris picked Flockhart as her costar in a Broadway revival of The Glass Menagerie. Around the same time, she got another big break when director Mike Nichols saw her in an Off-Broadway production of The Loop—and cast her to play Robin Williams's daughter-in-law-to-be in the 1996 hit comedy The Birdcage. Kamena was surprised to hear Flockhart complain about her first big film. "She said, 'There's nothing I can do with my part.' And I said, 'You're in a movie with Robin Williams!' But she said, 'The role is stupid.' She wouldn't care if she was kissing Brad Pitt," says Kamena, "if the role was crummy."

After more stage roles, Flockhart soon became a buzz-worthy New York actress. In 1997 she flew to L.A. for an Ally McBeal audition. "I was jet-lagged and tired, so I just went in there and thought, 'Well, whatever happens, happens,'" says Flockhart. "We had heard hundreds of people," recalls McBeal creator David E. Kelley. "But when she walked in on a cold reading, she just was Ally."

That afternoon she was offered the part. "I nearly fainted," says Flockhart. In time she even developed friendships in L.A. On the McBeal set these days, says her costar Courtney Thorne-Smith, "she's like the girl in the sixth grade in charge of the popular group. We're always having a good time."

Indeed, despite the recent media glare, the East Coast actress is learning to fit into Hollywood—in her own way. In fact, the biggest recent lifestyle change she has made, she says, is that "I've discarded the mandatory padded show business bra. It's all about self-acceptance. It's okay to be who you are." The empowered Flockhart—financially as well as emotionally, with a reported salary in the range of $40,000 per episode—has even bought a two-bedroom Victorian home in West L.A. Thanks to her 14-hour workdays, that project may take some time. "My role is very physical," she says. "My mental focus has to be sharp. If I were unhealthy, I wouldn't be able to do what I am doing."

Including, presumably, taking on the authors she tackles in her free time: Tolstoy, Chekhov, Raymond Carver—who for now, she sheepishly admits, are her closest male companions. "I haven't met anyone who I want to be my boyfriend. When it comes, it comes. But right now it's not a priority." In the meantime, there is Webster to walk, the house to decorate ("I've never had the means before," she says. "I hope it's fun") and the expectations of her weekly fan base to consider. "Though I may not feel like a role model, I recognize the responsibility," says Flockhart. "I feel like I'm up to the responsibility. But I also have to be who I am. I can't go out and gain weight and be somebody I'm not in order to be a better role model. I think the societal obsession about my physical appearance is interpreting my weight as a sickness, and in the end all I can say is: They're making a big mistake."

Written by: Karen S. Schneider
Reported by: Todd Gold, Ken Baker, Amy Brooks, Julie Jordan, Elizabeth Leonard, Craig Tomashoff in Los Angeles; Jennifer Longley in Medford; Lisa Kay Greissinger in Chicago

  • Contributors:
  • Todd Gold,
  • Ken Baker,
  • Amy Brooks,
  • Julie Jordan,
  • Elizabeth Leonard,
  • Craig Tomashoff,
  • Jennifer Longley,
  • Lisa Kay Greissinger.