05/05/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT
KATHY KINNEY MAKES NO SECRET about what is in her bag of tricks: five shades of blue eye shadow, a bottle of black liquid liner, false lashes, scarlet blush, three shades of red lipstick and (for cleaning purposes) a pack of Chubs baby-bottom wipes. That cosmetic concoction is what transforms the amiable 43-year-old actress into the spectacularly gruff-and-garish Mimi Bobeck, resident tough cookie on ABC's The Drew Carey Show. "My mom and friends are proud of me," says Kinney, who parlayed an original one-shot, walk-on performance into a regular role, "but they're always saying, 'You're such a pretty girl, Kathy. Why do you wear so much makeup?' "
Because it works, of course. Sporting two islands of eye shadow that nearly reach her hairline—and an attitude the size of Long Island—Kinney plays a confrontational department-store assistant who is coworker Carey's worst nightmare. The comic, combustive mix between the supporting actress and the show's rumpled star has turned Kinney into a fan mail target for everyone from Texas prison inmates to New York City drag queens. It has also helped keep the Wednesday night sitcom, now in its second season, in Nielsen's Top 20.
Kinney took to her war-painted character with gusto. In the second episode, "I had to hand Drew this envelope, and as soon as I started to hand it to him, I decided to cough on it," she says. "In that moment, Mimi was born." Since then she has been impossible to ignore, telling off coworkers with her trademark "bite me" retort while constantly giving Carey the back of her hand and sometimes the bottom of her boot.
"What Mimi does is horrible, but the sense of joy Kathy brings to her part makes it very attractive and warm and funny," says costar Craig Ferguson, the show's Mr. Wicks. Mimi may be portrayed as an unglamorous screamer, adds Ferguson, but Kinney herself is "one of those people who is comfortable in her own skin." Which is no easy feat for a large woman in Hollywood, the actress admits. "I find that Los Angeles, more than anywhere, can sap your reserve of self-confidence," she says. "But as I'm growing older, I'm like, 'I'm just who I am.' If someone doesn't want that, they can move right along."
A Wisconsin native, Kinney began her odyssey to prime time in Stevens Point (pop. 24,000), the only child of Marian Kinney, now 78, and her husband, Harold, a Cadillac dealer who died in 1970 of emphysema. "I was 15½," says Kinney, recalling his death, "and I hadn't come to terms with why we're alive, what life's all about, who we are and all those things teenagers go through...life seemed so hopeless."
At first she found her solace at one of her favorite hangouts, the local library (where, thanks to her later financial support, she says, her photo hangs on the Productive People from Portage County wall next to "this guy who ran the paper mill and this fur trapper"). Later, at the local University of Wisconsin campus, she studied theater but stayed backstage, working on sets and wiring. In 1976, with one acting appearance to her credit, she quit school and headed to New York City.
There, Kinney scuffled through secretarial jobs, took acting classes and eventually taught an improv course herself. Ten years passed before her first screen role, as Jean in the 1986 AIDS drama Parting Glances. Then TV character parts began dribbling in—as Newhart's sex-crazed town librarian, a mad bomber on Dream On and finally her break-out role on Drew Carey.
Steady paychecks haven't changed Kinney's style. Never married, she shares a two-bedroom, 1930's Spanish-style house in North Hollywood with her cat, fixes antique furniture in her spare time and a couple of evenings a month hosts a poker night for pals. "I have a short attention span playing card games," she notes, "so I'll say, 'We'll play five-card draw, and you have to speak in a Swedish accent.' "
If anything, she hopes TV success will let her pursue some personal goals. "I want to continue furthering the fact that women can look any way they want, be whatever size or age they are and still be successful," she says. "I also want to help make books more available, to show kids how important and fun it is to read." Anything else? Says Kinney with a smile: "I want to do all these altruistic things while flying first class."
PAULA YOO in Los Angeles