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The Essential Jamie Lee Curtis

The multi-tasking actress is an exuberant crusader for aging wisely and well.

On a chilly afternoon in a rustic canyon in Los Angeles, Jamie Lee Curtis's house buzzes with activity. As she makes a pot of tea in the kitchen, 12-year-old son Tommy whizzes by. Upstairs, electric-guitar sounds throb as husband Christopher Guest, the "mockumentary" film director (Best in Show, A Mighty Wind), helps daughter Annie, 21, sing and record a song as a gift for her mother.

"It's a surprise," says Curtis, carrying the tea tray into the living room. "I'm going to have to pretend I haven't heard it." In black slacks, sweater, and high-heeled boots, and wearing a wedding band of tiny diamonds, Curtis is a picture of understated elegance. In Hollywood, where middle-aged actresses are expected to resort to extreme measures to look younger, her short, naturally silver hair is subversive. By local standards Jamie Lee is letting her freak flag fly.

The straight-talking actress and author is embracing her upcoming 50th birthday (November 22) with characteristic zest. "I have not one second of anxiety about turning 50," she says.

Radiantly healthy and easy in her own skin, Curtis is gifted with a trenchant wit and self-awareness, which she deploys when sharing her own life struggles. The daughter of movie stars Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis, she was born a Hollywood princess. Fame came at 20, when she starred in a spate of horror movies, including Halloween. Later she came to be known as "the body," displaying her voluptuous figure in such fare as Perfect. Eventually her skill with a well-timed wisecrack became her claim to fame in comedies such as Trading Places. In her biggest success, True Lies, she played a mousy wife who transforms into a sexy action heroine.

In her early 40s, addicted to prescription drugs and alcohol, Curtis entered a sobriety program. Self-searching led to transformation, as she deepened her commitment to what meant most to her. She scaled down her acting career to raise her kids. "Jamie always wanted a regular, serene home life," says her friend the author Lisa Birnbach. "I remember visiting her when Annie was little, and they were making heart-shaped pancakes with Annie's initial in jam, and I thought, 'I don't do this for my kids.' She sets a very high bar for herself as a mother, a wife, and a friend, and she's totally sincere about it."

In 1993 Curtis began to publish children's books, including Today I Feel Silly & Other Moods That Make My Day (HarperCollins Children's Books, 1998), a New York Times bestseller.

While Curtis costars with a dog this fall in a comedy called Beverly Hills Chihuahua, she is limiting her acting to roles that don't require long hours. She has a new gig as a spokesperson for Dannon Activia yogurt, she volunteers at her son's school and for several children's charities, and this September she will publish her eighth book — Big Words for Little People.

An accomplished photographer, Curtis collaborated conceptually with the photos on these pages, asking that they represent her quest to "shed skin," to jettison what no longer serves her. She says she aspires to "essential being. Nothing extraneous."

A few days after the photo shoot, Curtis e-mails an eerie photo she took of a pet reptile's discarded skin. "It happened today," she writes. Oh, and another thing — remember those black boots she was wearing on the day of the interview? "I'm giving them away," she reports. "No more high heels. Too uncomfortable. Don't need 'em. Gone."

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