CHICLY DRAPED IN SUEDE AND BLACK velvet, Tawny Kitaen swoops into the parking lot in her while Mercedes 560 SL, sashays into the Thai restaurant, orders hot-and-sour soup and, in a breathy directive that would have done Jayne Mansfield proud, informs the waiter, "I like it very, very hot." When, suddenly, an infant at a nearby table sets up a squall, the actress coos sympathetically. "You know," she says, "that doesn't bug me anymore."
Which is a darn good thing, since as the moderate bulge just south of Tawny's tableware attests, the one-time Elite model is herself shortly in store for the padding of little footsteps. Once known primarily as the spouse of heavy-metal rocker David Coverdale (and as the sultry star of several videos made by his band, Whitesnake), Kitaen, at 31, clearly seems headed for more conventional climes.
On the personal front, the former hot number is six months pregnant by her boyfriend, California Angels pitcher Chuck Finley, 30. And professional, with thankless bimbo roles in such B-movie classics as The Perils of Gwendoline behind her, Kitaen is getting attention for more than her curves. She shows up on TV twice a week: as late-night deejay Mona Lowland in the syndicated hit The New WKRP in Cincinnati and as this season's new and glib cohost of America's Funniest People (on which she replaced Arleen Sorkin). As if to herald her mainstream arrival, she has even become "like, best friends" (the platonic kind) with no less than comic prince Jerry Seinfeld, whose dressing-room trailer is adjacent to hers on a Studio City lot. "People see a woman like that and expect the stereotype," says Seinfeld, who joins her for tarot-card readings and hours of phone yakking. "But there's a big, active brain there."
To hear Kitaen tell it, the new image is a great relief. "The sex-symbol thing kind of makes me feel uncomfortable," she says. "It's what I look like, not who I am." Not that hordes of adolescent males could be blamed for vaulting to the opposite conclusion. Young Julie Kitaen was only 12 when she began cultivating an image, becoming "Tawny" after meeting a Native American boy by that name. That was the same year that her parents, Terry, a Harley-riding worker for a San Diego neon-sign company, and Linda, a model turned bank secretary, divorced. (Tawny and her two younger siblings stayed with Linda.) School was particularly difficult, since Tawny was hampered by dyslexia. (On America's Funniest, "if I read two words backwards and it's funnier that way," she reports, "they'll keep it in.")
A dropout from San Diego's Mission Bay High at 17, Kitaen became a "surfer chick" fond of dating rock musicians. Then in 1986, having jiggled her way through Sergio Valente jeans ads and a host of little-noted screen and TV roles, she met Coverdale. Even before they were married three years later, Kitaen sank comfortably into what she describes as "a very '80s, Dynasty-type" existence, globe-hopping in champagne-doused splendor and, she admits, doing her fair share of drugs. "I never liked coke," she says. "I'm such a hyper person, so I liked anything that made me mellow."
Yes, things were a little over the top at the time. But the young Kitaen was only too happy to make the climb. "There's nothing like rock-and-roll money," she says, winking. "We'd buy one of everything in every color and pick up $10,000 dinner tabs in Tokyo for the whole band." Of course, there was also the time that she left a little something behind in a Madrid hotel safe: her entire (and extensive) jewelry collection. "I'd never seen David so mad," she says.
After a year, the marriage ended in a "truly amicable" divorce. Kitaen now lives alone in a sleek, plant-filled L.A. high rise; Finley (with whom marriage is not yet in the game plan) has his own pad in Newport Beach. They met at an Angels game in '90, but Kitaen waited a month and a hall before agreeing to a date. "I have always believed that not being available is the best way to get attention," she says slyly.
Now Kitaen spends her spare time needlepointing pillowcases for the nursery. "I can't wait for work to be over," she adds, "so I can climb into my softest pajamas and get into my big fluffy bed, with TV remotes all around me." If it all sounds like dullsville compared with her former fast-lane life, Kitaen insists that it is anything but. "I don't shop much anymore, and I don't dress flamboyantly," she says. "I've come into my own. And it's such a comfortable place to be."
As if on cue, the telephone rings, and the mom-to-be tells her caller that next Tuesday will be just fine for a home delivery. "It's my foie gras," chirps a clearly delighted Kitaen. "I ordered some from Neiman Marcus!" Some habits, clearly, die harder than others.
JOHN GRIFFITHS in Los Angeles
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