12/28/1998 at 01:00 AM EST
Only a few episodes of Ally McBeal had aired when Calista Flockhart, an eight-year veteran of the New York stage, realized she had been kissed by fame. "It happened at Starbucks," she recalls of the L.A. encounter. "I ordered my usual cappuccino, and the girl went, 'Oh, oh, oh, you're Ally McBeal!' " A few months later, during a visit to Hawaii, the unattached 34-year-old was unnerved by the attention from fellow vacationers. "I felt like the whole pool was staring at me," she says. "I immediately went to the place of 'What's wrong with me?' "
Now that her year-old show has become a FOX phenomenon, everyone's looking at Flockhart, and plenty have a notion of what's wrong—be it Ally's skirts getting too short or the actress who plays her getting too thin. ("I'm not anorexic," Flockhart told PEOPLE in November.) Then there's the argument that the flighty, self-involved lawyer has set back the women's movement. "Ally seems miserable all the time, looking for bouquets and a man to complete the picture," observes Blair Brown, who played a single career woman in the 1987-91 series The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd. TIME magazine, with a June cover showing feminism evolving from Susan B. Anthony to Ally McBeal, cited the character as evidence that "much of feminism has devolved into the silly." Flockhart thought the criticism misplaced: "It was weird, because Ally is not real."
Still, Ally is a touchstone for generation-X working women with visions of babies dancing in their heads. "The show explores the strengths and vulnerabilities of women, especially single women facing problems with relationships and the workplace," says Dyan Cannon, who plays a judge on McBeal. Such women have been sending Flockhart several bags of mail each week—and bolstering the besieged star's enthusiasm. "They tell me they have Ally's picture on the wall, and whenever they feel trampled on, they look at it and go 'Errrrrr!' " Flockhart reports. "It's nice that you can give people strength." Maybe even worth putting up with those stares.