Earth Girls Didn't Come Easy for the Unsinkable Julie Brown, but Success Has Been Topsy-Turvy

updated 06/05/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/05/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Blithely ignoring a ringing telephone, writer-actress-singer Julie Brown, 30, trips through the pastel-toned chaos of her art-wacko apartment. "The best thing about becoming successful," she says, tottering dangerously on high-altitude pumps across a floor strewn with congratulatory fruit and floral arrangements, "is that you get flowers all the time." She leads the way to another symbol of her new status, a pair of giant hair rollers holding up her stereo. "Aren't these great?" she squeaks. "They wanted to throw them out, but I said, 'No! No! No!' " The Day-Glo spools—props from Earth Girls Are Easy, the sci-fi spoof Brown co-wrote (and in which she co-stars and sings)—are keepsakes of the new, stylish high-point in her career.

After nearly a decade of frizzed-out struggle, the sheen of Brown's success seems as bright as a day-old perm. Earth Girls, itself the product of a four-year gestation, stars Geena Davis as a blue-nailed manicurist and Jeff Goldblum as a blue-furred alien who crashes his spaceship into her swimming pool. The film has drawn amused reviews and lots of attention for its wacky novelty. Brown herself plays Candy Pink, owner of the extravagantly hi-tack Curl Up & Dye beauty salon, and sings three of her signature campy songs, including "I Like 'Em Big and Stupid," from her 1987 album, Trapped in the Body of a White Girl. Julie, who also co-wrote the movie's title track, is one earthly girl whose credits are just beginning to roll.

She already has her own mixed-bag MTV show, and her penchant for cheerful celebrity bashing—for Madonna's 30th birthday last summer, Brown warmly wished her a happy 40th—has earned her that coveted symbol of nouveau hip-ness, a return invitation to appear on Late Night with David Letterman. If negotiations go through, she hopes soon to portray "a psychotic Dinah Shore" as a mock-talk show host on a new TV series. "It's like a fantasy to me," Julie says breathlessly. "I'm just so overwhelmed."

Her giddy euphoria showed at the L.A. premiere of Earth Girls when Brown, a Valley girl born and bred, arrived in a stretch, natch, and a skintight dress with a wire-hemmed, UFO-shaped skirt. Unable to exit gracefully through the limo's door, she popped through the sunroof and slid down to the pavement, cooing, "Oh, I hope no one can see my panties!"

Nobody thought she meant it, but neither could they begrudge Brown her long-awaited day in the flashbulbs. After all, Warner Bros, had commissioned Brown, then-husband Terrence McNally, 40, and her best friend, Charlie Coffey, 36, to make Earth Girls Are Easy way back in late 1984. Brown and Coffey had helped write a song by that title on a five-song mini-album, Goddess in Progress, that McNally co-produced that year. The trio scribbled the movie script in fast-food restaurants, but two years later Warners dropped the project. Another studio, De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, picked it up, signed on Geena Davis for Julie's part but went bust before releasing it. "I've been through every conceivable emotion getting this movie made," says Brown. "I had to give up so much of myself. There was a point where I decided it wasn't worth the pain I went through. Of course," she brightens, "it was worth it."

In the dark days before the movie was picked up by Vestron last year, Brown was feeling truly glum. Her marriage was crumbling (she and McNally separated in 1987), and she felt undone by the power of "Hollywood crazy people," who she says "are so tricky and slick." To keep her sanity, she went into therapy, recorded Trapped in the Body of a White Girl and, by filling in for an MTV veejay, inadvertently launched a TV career; since its debut in February, Just Say Julie has become one of MTV's top-rated weekly video shows. Although the channel had banned her 1984 video, "The Homecoming Queen's Got a Gun," now, says Brown, "They let me say anything. I don't exactly trash the videos, but there's no way I'm going to be reverential about them."

Brown, whose mother is a secretary and whose father is a retired TV technician, is the only daughter in a family of three children. She has a long history of going her own way. "I was a maniac as a child," she says. "I used to build hugely elaborate structures and story lines for my Barbie dolls." That period had a limited run. "You lose interest in Barbie once you decide to make Ken and Barbie have sex," she remembers. "Then you want to be Barbie." When her Girl Scout troop was casting its production of The Wizard of Oz, Brown wanted to be the Witch—not Dorothy. "I knew I'd get more laughs," she says. "And I did." After seven years in a parochial school—"just so depressing and boring"—Brown transferred to public high school, where she discovered that driving a Volkswagen through the science building was a new kind of high. "I was always trying to do things to make school fun," she reminisces. In her senior year that included writing a rock score for Alice in Wonderland—which, after a flirtation with anthropology, led to the theater.

In 1978 Brown was accepted at San Francisco's prestigious American Conservatory Theatre, where she met her kindred spirit, Charlie Coffey. "Everybody else was an Acting Student," she says. "Me and Charlie were goofballs." The two "had a fling for like a minute when we first met," Brown says, but they decided they were better off as pals. "Seven years ago my wife gave me an ultimatum," says the twice-divorced Coffey: " 'Me or Julie Brown.' So obviously I chose Julie." Says Brown: "Sex isn't what our relationship is about. Charlie's my best friend. We've had screaming psycho fights, but as we get older, it gets better."

Back in 1980, when Coffey and Brown went to work for Alan Thicke, who was writing and producing variety specials, it was worse. "It was hard for us to work in stupid variety television," says Julie. "Our sense of humor was a little too twisted." Letting off steam, Brown, who "would have done anything for attention and money," made a prank appearance on the syndicated You Bet Your Life TV show. Posing as a pets clothing designer, she unveiled a disco outfit for dancing cats and a jogging suit for turtles.

In 1982, at an acting class, she met Terrence McNally, a handsome Harvard grad with plenty of spare change who is no relation to the playwright of The Ritz. A year later, with Charlie as the maid of honor, she married McNally. "We're not really friends now," says Brown. "It's kind of neutral." Coffey elaborates: "Terrence is a very single-minded guy, and it was a business marriage. The business came first."

Although Julie is in orbit over Earth Girls' success, she's not about to lose her sense of the absurd. The one-bedroom Studio City house she shares with two cats and some fish is rife with signs of her zany industry. A large pink canvas hanging in the living room, stuck with razor blades and torn Valentine's cards, is titled When a Girl Throws Up. A dead cactus in the hallway has been spray-painted gray. "Now it's art," says Brown.

These days there is little time for creating more kitsch. Collaborating with Coffey, the 5'3" motormouth has just completed a camp horror script, is busy with the two TV shows and has a new LP in the works.

Lately she also has been going out with a 33-year-old TV writer, meaning she no longer has to contend with the "nightmare" of dating. "I don't know how anybody could like it," says Brown, who recalls whittling down dinner dates ("too intense") to coffee meets ("only 45 minutes"). After a 14-month-long liaison with comic magician Penn Jillette, of Penn and Teller—"He was tall, dark and absent," Coffey says—Brown has vowed "never" to go out with another actor. The new beau is "kind and supportive and loving," says watchdog Coffey. "I think they'll be together for a long time." But don't hold your breath for the wedding video. "I want kids but I don't think you have to have the state involved," says Brown. "I want a marriagelike relationship without the marriage. I want to be the Jessica Lange of the '90s."

A tricky task, that—but an even trickier one is keeping her current burst of stardom in perspective. "It would have been very impossible to deal with this attention when I was younger," Brown says. "I'm thrilled with the success, but at this point I also think it's hilariously silly."

—Margot Dougherty, Michael Alexander in Los Angeles

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