From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
As a self-proclaimed clean freak, Tempestt Bledsoe thought her new job, hosting the hit reality makeover show Clean House, would be a perfect fit. Then things got nasty: Taping a recent episode at an unusually messy home, "I was surrounded by flies!" she says. "It was as if every fly in the area had heard I was in town and decided to show up. Two flies were sitting on my shoulder while I interviewed the homeowners. I freaked out!"

Flies aside, as someone who "can put everything I own that's important to me in a car in 20 minutes," hosting the Daytime Emmy-winning show on the Style Network has been rewarding for the former Cosby Show actress, 37. "I love helping people put their homes in order," says Bledsoe, who replaced Niecy Nash as host for Clean's ninth season. "Whenever someone says, 'You've changed my life,' you can't replace that."

But it's for the role that changed her own life, plucky Vanessa Huxtable on Bill Cosby's hit '80s NBC sitcom, that Bledsoe still gets the most accolades. "A woman told me just the other day how much she loves watching reruns of the show with her grandchildren," she says. "That feels really good."

Cosby ended in 1992, but Bledsoe still keeps in touch with her castmates-including Bill Cosby, whom she credits with helping shield her from the pitfalls that doom many child actors. "Between him and my mom [Willa, a retired teacher], there were no better examples," she says. "The focus was always on having a healthy childhood."

After the show's eight-season run, Bledsoe received a degree in finance from New York University. Post-Cosby, "I don't feel it was hard for me to reinvent myself," she says. She spent a year hosting her own daytime talk show and since then has kept busy with TV movies and guest-starring roles on shows like The Practice.

But while she had kept her career in shape, Bledsoe realized she wasn't faring as well with her own body. In 2009 she went on VH1's Celebrity Fit Club and shed 19 lbs. "For me, what works best is to try to eat healthy and not worry about the scale," says Bledsoe, a vegetarian who has kept off the weight she lost.

At home in Los Angeles, she loves to cook (her specialty is her grandmother's mac 'n' cheese) for her longtime live-in boyfriend, actor Darryl M. Bell, 47. The two met when Bledsoe guest-starred on Bell's show A Different World (he played college student Ron Johnson Jr.) in 1989 and started dating five years later. The couple have been together for 17 years but say they aren't interested in walking down the aisle. "I wouldn't say never," says Bledsoe coyly, "but we feel great about the way things are." Either way, she's happy. "This is a tough business for anyone, especially if you start out young," she says of Hollywood. "I feel really lucky about the way things have turned out."