11/06/2000 at 01:00 AM EST
Her role as Lauren Hutchinson, the overweight, orthodonticall) challenged high school dork in the 1982 CBS sitcom Square Pegs
, didn't exactly turn Amy Linker into a crush-worthy teen pinup. Still, she got her share of fan mail—"from chubby kids, kids with braces," recalls Linker's mother, Carole. "And because she's so sensitive, she felt really guilty that she didn't have those problems."
In fact, Linker and costar Sarah Jessica Parker
"were both too pretty for their roles," admits Square Pegs creator Anne Beatts, who based the series on her own experience as an awkward high-schooler. To compensate, the 15-year-old Linker masked her flawless smile behind prop braces and wore a 3-in.-thick polyester-filled "chubby suit" to widen her frame. "People who've seen me since the show say, 'You've lost a lot of weight,' " says Linker, 34. "I just laugh."
In real life, Linker has shed more than just her character's faux girth since Square Pegs' one-season run. When the show was canceled she also jettisoned her acting ambitions. These days Linker works for a marketing company based in Santa Monica, where she does Internet research. "I love it," declares Linker of her 9-to-6 days. "It's a whole new world."
For a while, Linker felt the same way about Hollywood. The daughter of retired New York City teachers Stanley Linker, now 65, and his wife, Carole, 64, Linker decided to become an actress at age 8, around the time her parents divorced. "The divorce was traumatic for me," says Linker. Watching TV shows like the ABC drama Family "would make me cry, and I would think, 'Somebody understands,' " she says, so "I wanted to do what they did, to move people to joy and tears."
Linker's mother set up a meeting with a talent agent, and roles in a Burger King commercial and a TV movie followed. Then, after a stint on the 1981 sitcom Lewis & Clark, Linker auditioned for Square Pegs. "I didn't think I had a chance, so I went all out," she recalls. "I wore clothes to make me look chubby" and a trio of messy ponytails.
The geeky getup worked, and Linker nailed the role alongside the 16-year-old Parker. The two became fast friends. "We just kind of understood each other," says Linker. Indeed, the young costars "were exceptionally close," recalls Brad Lemack, who worked for the series' production company. "They'd eat together, do schoolwork together. There's a wonderful realness and sweetness about Sarah. And Amy is the same way."
Linker, who still keeps in touch with Parker, says she is "thrilled" by her friend's Sex and the City success but hardly surprised. "She's always been very disciplined," she says. The same could be said of Linker, whose focus soon shifted toward school rather than acting. Though Square Pegs attracted an adoring fan base—many of whom still sing the show's praises on the Web—the series was canceled in 1983. Yearning for a regular-kid life apart from showbiz, Linker says she began to feel like a square peg in the round hole of Hollywood. "I always wanted a good education," she explains, "and I knew there were things I was missing out on—football games, singing in the choir."
After graduating from Beverly Hills High School in 1984, Linker headed to Wellesley College in Massachusetts and completed her bachelor's degree in French studies in 1989. She spent the next few years tooling around Europe (savings from two sitcoms and other work paid the bills), then returned in 1996 to L.A., where she found work in retail and odd office jobs.
Now happily dating an L.A.-based screenwriter whom she declines to name, Linker insists she doesn't miss the glamor of acting, although she did tune in to the Emmy Awards last month to root for her old friend Parker, dazzling in a feathery Oscar de la Renta dress. "I thought she looked beautiful," says Linker. But she can't see herself dressing likewise. "Wearing feathers?" she laughs. "I don't think so!"
Deborah Starr Seibel in Los Angeles