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Michelle Pfeiffer: Actress

The experts agree: There's no one quite like Michelle Pfeiffer. "Unbelievably beautiful," says Rob Reiner, who recently directed her in the romantic comedy The Story of Us, due at Christmastime. "She has become more luminous the more mature she has become," says Deep End of the Ocean author Jacquelyn Mitchard. And Michael Hoffman, director of this month's A Midsummer Night's Dream, calls Pfeiffer "the Greek ideal," adding that "the closer you get the camera to her face, the more beautiful she is. It has something to do with the structural perfection of her beauty, the marble-y cool quality of it."

Pfeiffer used to give such unabashed compliments a big quack. "I look like a duck" was her analysis in PEOPLE in 1990, when she was the cover girl of our first-ever 50 Most Beautiful issue. "It's the way that my mouth sort of curls up, or my nose tilts up. I should have played Howard the Duck." Reminded of those words 10 years later, Pfeiffer, now 41, laughs. "Well, seeing that things tend to spiral downward as we get older, I probably am not quite so ducklike anymore." Indeed, happily married for five years to writer-producer David E. Kelley (The Practice, Ally McBeal) and the mother of Claudia Rose, 6, and John Henry, 4, Pfeiffer admits that she not only takes care of her family, but has lately begun to take better care of herself. "Ten years ago I did nothing beauty-wise," she says. "I smoked cigarettes, ate whatever I wanted and used bar soap on my face. People were horrified by how I treated my skin." What a difference a decade makes. Today, she says, "the maintenance is just way out of control. I'll use sunscreen and have regular manicures now, and I never used to do that. Now it takes me so long to go to bed or get out of the house."

That wasn't the case growing up in Midway City, Calif., 31 miles southeast of Hollywood. One of four children of air-conditioning contractor Dick Pfeiffer and his homemaker wife, Donna, Michelle was "definitely considered the prettiest in the family," says her younger sister DeDee Pfeiffer, who stars on the WB series For Your Love. Still, Michelle hardly imagined herself a future glamor goddess. "I was a tomboy," says the actress who put the claws on Cat-woman. "Really rough-and-tumble. Ask me to play dolls with my daughter and I don't have a clue. I'm just not a girlie girl." By fourth grade, though, she was envious of her friend Suzette. "I had this really short blonde pixie," Pfeiffer recalls with a smile. "And Suzette had these beautiful little brown ringlets, and she was very feminine and very petite." The 5'6" Pfeiffer was, she says, "always considered really big. In progress reports, the teachers always wrote that I talked too much and was the biggest one in class—like it was something to be proud of."

By the time she reached Fountain Valley High School, says DeDee, Michelle "didn't know how pretty she was. She was a typical high school girl who just happened to have been gorgeous. She'd have a boyfriend, and when that boyfriend didn't work out, she'd have another one. But it wasn't like we'd have 20 guys at the door." For her part, Pfeiffer is circumspect about the effects her features have on others. "A person's looks are a double-edged sword," she says. "Sometimes it works in your favor, sometimes it works against you. Some people peak when they're 12 and some when they're 30." Pfeiffer and Kelley instill images of diversity into their own children, something especially important to them since adopted daughter Claudia is biracial. "We stress that everybody has the body that's right for them, the skin that's right for them and the hair that's right for them," Pfeiffer says. "We encourage them to embrace people's differences."

After a year studying psychology at Golden West College, Pfeiffer dropped out and entered a beauty contest—because she wanted to meet a Hollywood agent who was one of the judges. Voila, Miss Orange County of 1978. And, soon, a one-line part on Fantasy Island, followed by a string of starlet parts on the small screen. But Pfeiffer, who was divorced from actor Peter Horton in 1990 after nine years of marriage, didn't want to remain just another pretty face, and opted for movie roles with edge and ego, from comedies like 1988's Married to the Mob to wrenching human dramas such as 1995's Dangerous Minds.

Staying in shape for those close-ups is harder work than it used to be. Pfeiffer, who dated actors Val Kilmer and Fisher Stevens before she settled down with Kelley, works out at her Los Angeles home, doing both cardiovascular exercises and stretching. "I'm the most unlimber person on the planet," she says, "but I make up in strength what I lack in flexibility." Cooking for her kids challenges her low-fat, moderate diet. "I spent years trying to clean up my act," says Pfeiffer, who admits to a lust for popcorn and peanut M&Ms. "Then I found myself making macaroni and cheese and grilled cheese sandwiches."

Though she wouldn't mind if "my legs were a little longer, and I really would like curls, I'm not unhappy with the way I look now," she says. "I have a few more lines and things, but fortunately my husband likes old women!" As for the future, though, Pfeiffer isn't quite ready to become a living legend. "All I really care about," she says, "is that I'm able to age gracefully and that I don't ever look like a wax figure of myself." Not a chance.