Clearly Calista

-- InStyle magazine

Calista Flockhart is breaking out of character. On this sunny weekend afternoon, the star of Fox's Ally McBeal, known for zealously guarding her privacy, is walking down Rodeo Drive, the most trafficked street in Beverly Hills. The sidewalks are jammed with shoppers and tourists, but Flockhart has forgone her usual baseball cap and isn't even hiding behind her favorite bug-eyed sunglasses. With every step she takes, passerby register recognition: Some do with the classic double take, others surrender to outright gawking. But Flockhart keeps moving, seemingly oblivious of the excitement she's stirring up. "It used to make me embarrassed, but now I'm more unaware of it," she says, pressing on with an unhurried yet determined gait. A moment later, however, even Flockhart cant ignore a fan who lets out a huge gasp. "That was hard to miss," she says with a laugh. So why is Flockhart braving the crowds? She says she simply wants to visit her favorite store: the Gap. Despite the beautiful Richard Tyler gowns she wears to all those award shows, it turns out that Flockhart is not a natural born clotheshorse. She trots right by Gucci and Parada and Armani and the exclusive celebrity fitting rooms they offer. Once she steps into the Gap, however, she begins some serious browsing. She checks out the khakis. Caresses a fuzzy sweatshirt. "It's all about comfort," says Flockhart, 34, who is dressed in black boots, a pair of vintage Levi's from Soho Jeans in New York ("I went there recently and bought 6 pairs"), and a black Searle pea-coat over a gray cashmere V-necked pullover by Costume National. The sweater, she explains, is signature Flockhart, one in an ever expanding, mostly gray collection. Unfortunately, the Gap doesn't have a sweater-or anything else today-to her liking. So Flockhart ends up empty-handed. That Flockhart will undertake something as visible as a shopping trip to the Gap near Rodeo Drive may be a testament to how determined she is to withstand-and even disregard-all the recent public scrutiny. Over the last 20 months, she has been hit with a gust of attention that would knock a row of linebackers off their feet, let alone an unpretentious former theater actress with a frame as slender as a tulip stem. She has been swathed in superlatives, inspiring comparisons to Audrey Hepburn for her swanlike beauty and to Mary Tyler Moore for the sweet, kooky way lovelorn Ally connects to the TV audience. Her hit series has also endangered postfeminist debates-sparked by hemlines, no less-which landed Flockhart on the cover of Time. Then late last year, after she showed up at the Emmys looking startlingly thin, rumors of an eating disorder began to circulate, countered by persistent denials from Flockhart and friends. This month she will be up for further review when William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream premières, in which she co-stars with Michelle Pfeiffer, Kevin Kline and others. As Flockhart takes a last quiet look at the Gap's wares, the hoopla of the past year seems distant for a moment. "All stars fit some archetype," says Michael Hoffman, the director of A Midsummer Night's Dream, "and I thing people are drawn to Calista as an archetype of the Little Match Girl-this very sensitive waif who at the same time houses a remarkable strength." When Flockhart is leaving the store, one of the salespeople alludes to the way that strength has been tested in the past year. "I love your show," he says, and then adds: "Hang in there, with the press."

Indeed. The actress is sitting in a small, half-empty coffee shop on L.A.'s Beverly Boulevard when the dread question about her weight arrives. As she orders lunch (salad and a turkey sandwich), Flockhart describes the first few days after she was branded with the rumors of anorexia. "It was hard. People were staring and watching what I was putting in my mouth. If I was on an airplane and I wasn't particularly hungry, the reaction was like, 'Uhhh'-you know, 'Quick, make a phone call.' I'm healthy," she insists, contending that not only was the story untrue but that it was an unfair intrusion on her privacy. "It was a virulent, vicious, relentless pursuit," she says, describing how reporters and photographers started following her car when the gossip began. (Ironically, paparazzi shots taken on Rodeo Drive during the aforementioned expedition would run, a few days later, in an Australian magazine with a headline identifying this reporter as "Ally's Real Life Lover.") It is not Flockhart's style, however, to dodge confrontation. "Calista doesn't back down from anything," says David E. Kelley, the creator, writer, and executive producer of Ally McBeal. "When the show started and Ally was being criticized for being too neurotic or too unlikable, [Calista] just sailed directly into the wind and through it." Case in point: When the media began carping about the micro-miniskirts Ally wears, "it just made me wear them shorter," Flockhart says. "That's so in my nature. If somebody tells me not to do something, I'll do it faster, louder, and bigger than ever." As if further evidence of her assertiveness is needed, when another deli customer walks by and begins to stare quite obviously at Flockhart, she startles the gawker by staring right back. "I've stared at people my whole life. When I was a kid, my mother would tell me to stop it," says Flockhart, whose mother was a schoolteacher and father was a quality-control executive with Kraft Foods. Her family moved around a lot when she was a child, but when they finally settled in Medford, New Jersey, during Flockhart's high school years, she began studying acting. After majoring in drama at Rutgers University, she moved to Manhattan, where she gained acclaim in such stage productions as The Glass Menagerie and Three Sisters. Maybe all that staring paid off by giving her some actorly insight into human behavior. Noting that she's the one under the microscope now, she says, "I guess it's sort of divine justice. It's payback time."

Of course, not all of Flockhart's life is spent coping with stardom. In between her 14-hour-plus workdays for Ally McBeal, she has been busy decorating her first home, which she bought in Los Angeles last August. "It has this backyard with big East Coast trees. That's why I bought it. You don't feel like you're in L.A.," says Flockhart, who moved here upon Ally's 1997 début, after living for almost a decade in Manhattan. "I sort of arrived with a bag and my dog [Webster, an 8-year-old terrier mix] and hit the ground running." Decorating "has been a really slow process," says Flockhart, whose tastes are eccentric. Her favorite recent furniture purchase is a pair of reclining chairs made of sea grass. "They are really funky. They look very African," she says, adding, "I have a treat for you," as she pulls a swatch of fabric from her coat pocket. "I'm living with the fabric for my couch." It's a bold, dark brown paisley and she studies it as if trying to make up her mind, then turns it over, revealing the fabric's other, more muted side. "I could put it on backwards," she says. "I'm new at this, but I think it's important to build a comfy nest for myself." Warm comfort, not cool fabulousness-that's Flockhart's recurring fantasy. She dreams of finally moving into her house, and putting on her favorite pair of white drawstring pajamas, and climbing into bed, "with clean sheets and flowers by the bed and chamomile tea and a good book." Other important rituals of her life include taking the herb astragalus every morning and kickboxing with a trainer a few times each week. When she needs time to relax, she nestles into one of those beloved gray sweaters: "I have this gigantic one from Sears," she says. "It was my grandfather's. When I wear it I feel like I'm getting a hug from him." The mention of family and physical affection prompts the question, Isn't Flockhart, like the always pining Ally, longing to share that coziness with someone special? Definitely someday, she says, as she fiddles with one of the simple diamond-stud earrings she's wearing-a leftover Ally McBeal prop that she forgot to take out. Flockhart has dated on and off for the past three or four years, but remains single. "Webster [her dog] is her sweetie," says her friend, indie film actor Liev Schreiber. "It's supposed to be like that now," says Flockhart. "I'm busy and I'm going through a transition. I'm comfortable spending time alone." But she does have some ideas about her ideal mate? "I want to spend a lot o time laughing. I want somebody who's smart and busy and ambitious. I think it's sexy to have drive, to have an agenda." Of course, love often appears when you're not looking for it. For Flockhart's sake, one hopes that when romance finds her, the rest of the world won't also be looking.

- Degen Pener