Toting a basket of fabric swatches, Sabrina Le Beauf is strolling through a posh West Hollywood furniture boutique when she suddenly makes a beeline for a roll of material in a corner. Her eyes light up as she fingers the hand-painted blue-and-gold cloth. It's about $500 a yard, but Le Beauf, whose interior-design clients have deep pockets, doesn't bat an eyelash. "Ooooh," she coos. "It's so beautiful!"

Le Beauf has never settled for second best. The Yale School of Drama grad—best known as Sondra, the oldest and most enviably perfect of The Cosby Show's five Huxtable siblings—was as "smart and serious" as her alter ego, says costar Malcolm-Jamal Warner, who played brother Theo. So Le Beauf, now 41, didn't trifle when she decided to shift careers after the highest-rated mid-'80s sitcom ended its eight-year run in 1992. She attended an interior-design program at UCLA, then began decking out the homes of well-off clients (none famous to date) with budgets of up to $400,000. "Whatever part of the brain and the heart that acting feeds in me, design does the same thing," she says. "You walk into an empty home and little by little you put it together and it comes to life, just the way you build a character. Once it's there and people really like it, it's the same as the applause you get as an actor."

What dampens Le Beauf's spirits is recalling her 1996 split from businessman Michael Reynolds, whom she wed six weeks after they met in 1987. "We sort of agreed we were very different people," says Le Beauf, who believes she headed to the altar too soon. The divorce, she says, left her "very disappointed in myself."

Now unattached, the childless yoga and animal-rights devotee lives in a one-bedroom L.A. bungalow that showcases a style she calls "eclectic." Antiques orbit a white sofa, paintings hang alongside ceramic angels, baby pumpkins sit atop a silver platter. "Sabrina can just look at an empty space and know exactly how to make it perfect," says frequent design partner Linda Barnes-Fenty.

She also filled her Cosby slot just right. With her Creole heritage, the L.A.-reared daughter of a Hughes Aircraft employee and a hospital rescue worker had felt out of place as a theater major at UCLA. "African-Americans who look like me didn't really exist in the casting pool," she says. But at Yale, where Angela Bassett was a classmate, "they made us feel like we could do anything," she says.

Bill Cosby thought she could too. At her 1984 audition, the 26-year-old beat Whitney Houston for the part, he says. "When Sabrina came in, we all recognized that this was an actress. She is thoroughly learned." As poised Sondra, who graduated from Princeton, wed beau Elvin Tibideaux (Geoffrey Owens) and gave birth to twins, Le Beauf was a role model to her costars, Warner says. "You could tell she wasn't in the business to get rich and famous."

Le Beauf fell for Reynolds, then a Washington, D.C., radio producer, after he booked her on a show. Post-Cosby she joined him in L.A., where he had landed a new job. An avid decorator, she decided to "expand my knowledge in something else but acting" and turned pro.

Recently, Le Beauf has reconnected with acting, touring onstage in several cities, and she guest starred on the CBS sitcom Cosby. She says she has only lately come to appreciate The Cosby Show's legacy. "Even though we were a black family, everyone, despite their race, could relate to us," she says. "People needed it, they wanted it, they were ready for it. I didn't realize how lucky I was to be on that show."

Samantha Miller
Ulrica Wihlborg in Los Angeles

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