From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
You won't catch Lucy Liu walking off the Ally McBeal set with any of those slinky little suits she wears as caustic Ling Woo. "They're all so tight, with padded this and padded that," she says. "I'm kind of a tomboy." In fact, while her onscreen alter ego dresses for excess, the 5'3" Liu has been known to show up for her morning yoga classes in ripped-up pajamas and to stroll the Ally set in her bathrobe. "She's gorgeous, but she never thinks of herself as beautiful," says pal Rhea Perlman, who first met Liu on the 1996-97 sitcom Pearl. "She doesn't take great pains to look great."

Then again, she doesn't have to. On the day Ally's Greg Germann (Richard Fish) and Liu began their onscreen romance, "I looked at her and just went, 'Whoa!' " says Germann. "She's stunning," agrees her friend Colin Gray, an actor. "She has this incredible sexual aura around her."

For Liu, 30, such reactions still come as a surprise. Although she lately has been turning heads on the big screen as well (with roles in Payback, True Crime and next month's Austin Powers sequel), during her childhood in Queens, N.Y., "the popular girls were all blondes," she says. The youngest of three children born to Chinese immigrants, "I wanted to be Barbie and I was as opposite to Barbie as you could get." The bowl haircuts she regularly got from her mother didn't help. But Mom did pass along one proven beauty trick. "She used to slather Vaseline on her face every night, and she looks great," says the unmarried Liu, who has traded up to pricey Yonka moisturizer. "I can't live without it. I have to have it for my face, and for my hair, which is long and can get tangled."

Liu also swears by treatments of olive oil and lavender to keep those locks "shiny and smelling nice," and stays fit practicing martial arts. With Ling-like confidence, she adds, "Maybe in 10 years I'll do something with my hair, like cut it short. But I feel lucky—there's really nothing to change."