AS SOON AS THE PRODUCERS OF ABC's new series Clueless laid eyes on the dolls that Mattel toys had created based on the show's characters, they knew something was missing. "They showed us the Cher and Dionne dolls," says Twink Caplan, the show's co-executive producer, referring to the series' two stars, "but we were like, 'Where's Amber?' She has the cool hairdo, the wild clothes. She has a definite attitude."

If, as Caplan predicts, Amber is one doll little girls will want to toy with, the moguls at Mattel have Elisa Donovan to thank. Reprising the role of fashion victim and Cher nemesis that she originated in the 1995 hit movie, the 24-year-old actress can sport a Judy Jetson spacesuit or a dress covered in road signs, accessorized by a hard hat and an orange street-cone, and still exude "a certain Ann-Margret quality," says Amy Heckerling, who wrote and directed the movie and is co-executive producer of the series. "She's funny and sexy, somebody who's willing to jump into something and go whole hog."

Like Amber, in fact, but not exactly. Showing up at a West Hollywood diner looking decidedly untrendy in baggy jeans and an oversize sweater, her green eyes under a shock of tousled red hair, Donovan downs a breakfast of grapefruit, toast and coffee as she compares herself to her alter ego. "I love that Amber says what's on her mind," she says. "I'm much more careful about what I say and wanting to please everyone." As for being a slave to style, "I love clothing and how different outfits make you feel," she says, "but I'm not obsessed with it. I'm not willing to go to the extent that Amber would to look good."

Sadly, that wasn't always the case. For the first time, Donovan is going public in PEOPLE with the fact that, from 1993 to 1995, she was a hardcore anorexic. For most of those two years, her daily diet consisted of coffee, water and a few grapes. Every few days she would eat a little sushi—but just the fish. By 1994 the 5'6" actress's weight had dropped to 90 pounds, 30 pounds less than she had weighed four years before in high school. Still, she says, "I never saw it. I was certain I was eating enough."

Her career didn't help. "In this industry you're praised for looking good, and nobody cares how you get there," says Donovan. "People in my life were like, 'You're gonna die. You look awful.' But people in the business would say, 'You look so good on camera.' "

Even a medical crisis couldn't make her address the problem. Dehydrated and on the brink of starvation, Donovan began having heart palpitations one night in January 1995. "I couldn't breathe," she recalls. "I was dizzy, and my heart was beating out of my chest." Jennifer Maisel, a former roommate, rushed her to Midway Hospital Medical Center in Los Angeles, where Donovan was rehydrated but refused to accept psychiatric help. "She wouldn't talk about something she couldn't see," says Maisel.

About a month later, Donovan realized she needed help and started therapy. Working with a nutritionist and a psychiatrist, she eventually gained 20 pounds—and insight into her behavior. A dancer and gymnast as a child, she believes she had long been predisposed to anorexia. While growing up in affluent Northport, N.Y., the youngest of three children of Jack Donovan (a former AT&T vice president) and his wife, Charlotte, she says, "I always had body-image problems and obsessions with food."

A more positive fixation—with acting—took root in her teenage years. After appearing in plays at Northport High School, Donovan moved to Manhattan in 1991, where she took acting classes and bartended before landing a part on the now defunct ABC soap Loving. Three years later she moved to Los Angeles and was cast as Joey Lawrence's girl friend on Blossom but quit after a few episodes to begin filming Clueless, the movie. More than a year after it wrapped, Donovan learned she'd be playing Amber again on TV

While putting in 12-to 14-hour days on a shooting schedule she calls "manic," Donovan works equally hard to keep her disorder in check. "I have really difficult days," she says, "and days where it's fine." Her new boyfriend, interior designer Dodd Mitchell, 29, is a source of support. "I think it helps to have someone to talk to," says Mitchell. "Before, it was such a secret."

"My anorexia was a way to feel successful," Donovan says. "It gave me tremendous satisfaction because it was something I was the best at. Now I try to feel successful through my talents and my intelligence as opposed to my physical appearance. Anorexia stays with me, but it doesn't define who I am. I won't allow it to."

STEVEN LANG
TOM CUNNEFF in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Tom Cunneff.