WHEN ACTRESS CHRISTA MILLER was asked to audition for the role of Kate on The Drew Carey Show two years ago, she called on her pal Matthew Perry for help. "I think I gave her one piece of advice, which she either followed or didn't," jokes the Friends star, who first met Miller at a party in 1991 and now tapes his sitcom on a nearby set. "I remember saying, 'We don't need to work on this at all! You've got it.' " Miller had asked Perry to help her flesh out the role. "We decided [Kate] had to have a really hot temper," explains Miller, 32. "She doesn't take crap from anyone."

Sort of like the star herself. As the beer-swigging, hangin'-with-the-guys tomboy on the ABC hit series, Miller, a former model, is, both on camera and off, more like one of the boys than one of the babes. "She was complaining about some foul odor in her trailer," says Drew Carey. "[Costar] Ryan Stiles said, 'Did you check the fridge?' She said, 'There's nothing.' Then he said, 'Did you check the microwave?' She got this blank look on her face. There was roast beef that had been in there over a week." But it's more than Miller's guy-like domesticity that qualified her for the job. "Christa is a lot like Kate," says Miller's mother, '60s model Bonnie Trompeter, now a substance-abuse counselor. "She's always wisecracking and knows how to get her own way."

That determination proved valuable early on. The only child of Trompeter and aeronautical engineer Chuck Miller (they divorced when she was 2), Miller was diagnosed with a rare benign bone tumor at the age of 10. "My mother took me to get X-rays, and everything happened really fast after that," says Miller, whose first symptom was a searing pain in her left femur. "They told my parents they might have to amputate." Thankfully, an operation to remove the pain's source—an orange-size tumor—was successful, as were the two months of radiation treatment that followed. Through it all, says Trompeter, Miller kept her sunny disposition. After surgery "the doctors told her, 'You can't go back to school,' " recalls Trompeter. "But she said, 'No, I'm going.' I'd see her hobbling onto the bus on her crutches." Says Miller: "My parents were more scared than I was."

Miller, raised in New York City, attended the Convent of the Sacred Heart, where she made a name for herself—not in acting, but in athletics. An avid jock, she played on the tennis, volleyball and basketball teams. "At my school, you could do theater or sports," she says. "I chose sports." But after graduating, Miller—who, before she was 4, had appeared on the cover of Redbook and in an Ivory Soap ad—resumed modeling. "You have to really be into it and disciplined," explains Miller, who gave up on the profession in 1990. "I never was." In 1991 she landed a spot on Kate & Allie—unbeknownst, she says, to her paternal aunt Susan Saint James, one of the show's stars. "This was done completely on her own," confirms Saint James. "TV is about having personality, and Christa has a good one." Later that year she headed to Hollywood. Bit parts on Seinfeld and Northern Exposure followed before Drew came calling. "Christa's cute, funny and quirky, and that is a rare and wonderful combination," says Perry. "I knew she was eventually going to get on a show."

Now living in a two-bedroom Los Angeles home with her Shetland sheepdog Skye and two cats, Addie and Scout, Miller admits she doesn't have much of a social life (although she recently started dating an actor, whom she won't name). "Christa's kinda like me—a loner....We're both really comfortable sitting at home reading," says Carey. "I like that. And that she doesn't look really-glamorous." Still, Miller is not always so comfortable with her own down-to-earth image and even admits to occasional bouts of glamor envy. "Yesterday I saw Jennifer [Aniston, near the Friends set]," she notes. "I had nine huge rollers in my hair, no makeup and a flannel shirt. She looked soo cute, and I looked like a homeless person."

STEVEN LANG
JOHNNY DODD in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Johnny Dodd.