Alexander has certainly had plenty of practice. At the height of her career as a dancer-choreographer in the early '90s she went through drug rehab. "I was trying to live the life of the rich and famous," she says. More recently she ended what she calls a "rough" eight-year relationship with a musician she declines to name. But, to hear her tell it, her entire adult life has been shaped by the death of her mother, Alverina, an opera and jazz singer turned homemaker who suffered a fatal heart attack in 1980 when she was 41. "She gave up her career to raise her children, and I always got the feeling that a little part of her regretted it," says the actress. "That's a feeling that keeps my ambition alive."
Her dreams took root relatively late. The New York City native, younger of two daughters of Alverina and her husband, Henry, a construction company owner, didn't take her first dance class until she got to Queensborough Community College—to meet the gym requirement. But her teacher "made me believe I could be a dancer even though everyone else said I was too old," she recalls. "Stupidity took me pretty far."
It took her all the way to hoofing on Broadway in Dreamgirls and, by 1989, to choreographing Whitney Houston's world tour. But while her career was blossoming, Alexander felt her life was skidding out of control. In December 1990 she checked herself into a California rehab clinic for 30 days—with Houston's blessing. "She was incredible," says Alexander. "She said, 'Honey, I'll wait for you. Your job will be here when you get back.' "
It was. But after working with Houston for another two years, Alexander decided she needed a new challenge—acting. That turned out to be a bigger leap than she had bargained for. "It took a long time to prove herself," says Alexander's close friend, choreographer Brad Jeffries. "She lived in a one-room apartment and had one pair of sheets."
These days Alexander's linen closet—and life—is a bit lusher. She lives in a Los Angeles duplex with her two cats, and was already cast on ER when she landed her costarring role in February 1995 on NewsRadio. There she plays Catherine Duke, the quip-slinging anchor who is Phil Hartman's chief antagonist. "She showed such strength in her reading," says executive producer Paul Simms, "we knew she could match [Phil] word for word."
Next season, Simms promises Alexander's part will be juicier. (It hasn't been decided whether she will return to ER.) Before that, audiences may be seeing Alexander in yet another role, starring as the girlfriend of a man with AIDS in the independent movie No Easy Way. It's a part she has been researching, without wanting to, for years. "I started a list of all my friends who had died of AIDS, and I stopped at 78," she says. "I think about things like that, and I'm just real glad to be here."
TOM CUNNEFF in Los Angeles