When Jennifer Beals got the call in 1982 to fly to New York and audition for a movie called Flashdance, her agent described it as "kind of like Saturday Night Fever." So it was only fitting that Beals, then 18, spent most of the trip simply stayin' alive: The airline lost her luggage, and she was so low on cash that she had to bunk at a YMCA and eat only pine nuts and blueberries for two days. Despite all that, "I remember just being blown away," says Flashdance director Adrian Lyne. "She wasn't the best dancer, but she had a very sweet quality."

Or, as Irene Cara sings in the film's famous Oscar-winning song, Beals took her passion and made it happen. The married mom is still doing the same thing 25 years later as the star of Showtime's drama The L Word. But the actress, now 44, remains a heroine to fans of the 1983 film that made her a pop-culture icon and inspired girls everywhere to wreak havoc on their sweatshirts with scissors. "I got hundreds of letters from people telling me how they'd changed the course of their life because of Flashdance," says Beals, who played Alex Owens, a steel welder by day and exotic dancer by night. "The film has helped so many people follow their dreams."

Before she won the role, the Chicago native's biggest dream had been to attend Yale University, where she was preparing to start her freshman year. Beals deferred her fall semester and set off for Flashdance's Pittsburgh shoot. Filming "was hard, hard, hard," she says (Lyne used stunt dancers for many of the film's routines). "No one believed in us." Beals returned to Yale, where she kept her head down even as the film exploded the following year. "Jodie Foster was already there at school," she says, "so I wasn't the first actor to be walking around campus."

Beals went on to star in such movies as 1995's Devil in a Blue Dress and 2003's Runaway Jury before winning a loyal following as art curator Bette on The L Word. And while Flashdance "feels like another lifetime" to her, the actress knows that for many, she'll always be the girl in the torn top. Speaking of which, Beals swears the iconic outfit was based on her cutting open her own accidentally shrunken sweatshirt, but Flashdance costume designer Michael Kaplan says it was his brainchild: "It made sense for the character and was fashionable."

These days Beals, who lives just outside L.A. with her Canadian entrepreneur husband, Ken Dixon, and their 2-year-old daughter (motherhood "is the best thing," she says), has kept her Flashdance figure with running and yoga. She's filming the French chess drama Joueuse (Queen to Play) with Kevin Kline before starting work on The L Word's final season. And don't look for her to pop in a DVD and relive her Flashdance days. "Maybe on my 50th birthday," she says with a laugh, adding that her life, a quarter-century since Flashdance, "is very good."

  • Contributors:
  • With Natasha Stoynoff/New York City.