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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."

Jamie Lee Curtis — growing older, becoming new again.

In her own words:

"I want to be older. I actually think there's an incredible amount of self-knowledge that comes with getting older. I feel way better now than I did when I was 20. I'm stronger, I'm smarter in every way, I'm so much less crazy than I was then.

"Years ago my husband and I were at the Golden Globes. I was wearing some borrowed dress that wasn't me, my hair was done in a way that I never wear my hair, and I had earrings on. And my husband said, 'You know who is the most beautiful woman in the room?' And I was hoping he was going to say me. And he pointed across the room at Jessica Tandy. She was sitting at a table wearing a cream-colored silk-shantung pantsuit. Single strand of pearls, short white hair, a little lipstick — nothing else. And I thought, 'He's totally right.' There was none of the pretense, none of the trying so hard.

"My style is a distillation. I've etched out who I am through myriad haircut attempts, outfit attempts, beauty attempts, diet attempts. It's been an evolution. I've let my hair go gray. I wear only black and white. Every year I buy three or four black dresses that I just keep in rotation. I own one pair of blue jeans. I've given away all my jewelry, because I don't wear it.

"The same way that midcentury modern architecture was in the '50s, I want to be as a human being. New. Different. Challenging the old. Function over frivolity. Clean living. Clean lines.

"If I can challenge old ideas about aging, I will feel more and more invigorated. I want to represent this new way. I want to be a new version of the 70-year-old woman. Vital, strong, very physical, very agile. I think that the older I get, the more yoga I"m going to do.

"I saw a picture of me in a tabloid, where they had actually given my weight. I was like, 'How dare you — I'm not 161 pounds!' I was indignant. I got home and I went on a scale and I was 161 pounds. There's a lot of Lycra in clothing, so I didn't notice the weight gain. I was in denial about it. This was two years ago.

"Then I went to the doctor. And my blood pressure had risen a lot, and my cholesterol was crazy. I had gotten lethargic. But I wanted to play tennis again. So I started a really healthy way of eating, just avoiding things that I had been shoving in my mouth. Over the course of a year, I dropped about 20 pounds.

"Now, I get up at five o'clock in the morning every day, filled with energy. I play tennis three times a week, and I do yoga. I'm never going to be an athlete, never going to be running triathlons — I'm not that person. But I walk with girlfriends, and walking is incredibly good for you.

"That was a moment of truth and a big shift, taking care of my physiological life.

"My biggest concern is that I will calcify as I get older. I am a creature of habit: I wear the same clothes; I eat the same food; I am very regular in all of my activities. I can get lulled into complacency. Decalcification means constant evolution, where I'm constantly trying to shed skins and shed ideas.

"I look at my relationships all the time. If a relationship is really negative on an ongoing basis, what am I doing in it? What am I protecting? Am I protecting someone from the hurt and sting of losing me? Because that's not healthy. It's not good.

"The one benefit of being around fame my whole life is I've seen the façade of it. I know what people look like before they get all duded up. I see these people duded up and they're talking differently, as if they're titled aristocracy. They're a girl from New Jersey, and it's just hilarious. What are you doing in the gown, with the fake English accent?

I’ve been an inconsistent parent at times, and it’s my greatest regret. When my daughter was small, I worked too much. I was replicating what my own mother did. A woman I admire tremendously named Dr. Susan Williams has a great phrase. She says, ‘Children are paparazzi. They take your picture when you don’t want them to, and then they show it to you.’ My daughter showed me pictures, aspects of myself that I didn’t like. It was Annie who went, ‘Hello, this isn’t working.’ And I made adjustments, and then she did it again, and I made more adjustments. An unflattering picture of you is incredibly helpful.

"My mother was just freaking beautiful. That was her burden, to keep that going. She had two kids, and then naturally life took over, and there was a lot of alcohol, and other things took their toll. [Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis divorced in 1962; she married stockbroker Robert Brandt later that year.] I respect that she survived all that, with no real help. She had a couple of good friends, but this was a generation of women that didn't trust a lot of other people. I feel badly for her that she didn't have any of the support I have. At the end of her life she was miserable, miserable. But coming where she came from and achieving what she achieved was a huge accomplishment.

"My daughter is in college. Annie is a beautiful dancer and choreographer; her real talent, I think, is her ability to create a feeling from movement. She's a talented girl and really bright.

"My son has some learning issues, and we're in a [specialized] environment educationally. So that's a whole new learning curve for all of us. And it's been fascinating. I work hard with his school, helping and learning and fighting on behalf of these kids.

"When my kids leave I would like to go back to school. To me, a great boomer fantasy would be creating courses of study, like book clubs, where people come together in small groups, for lectures, reading, movies, music, art, and then travel to that place. We would do Italy, we would do the Netherlands, we would do Russia. We would study Nazi Germany, then watch Schindler's List and The Diary of Anne Frank, then see my girlfriend Deborah Oppenheimer's documentary, Into the Arms of Strangers, and hear about stories of the Kindertransport, then read four or five historical fiction books and then travel there.

"As we get older, we say goodbye to a lot of people. We say goodbye to our friends, to our family, and discover our capacity to love and communicate and have intimacy — real intimacy, not the superficial intimacy we had in our youth. Strip away the bulls---; be done with that. Ask yourself these two questions: Did I learn to live wisely? Did I love well?

"Service is another way to get out of the calcification of your life. I am the spokesperson for two children's charities — the Children Affected by AIDS Foundation and Starlight Starbright, which does wish-granting for ill children. I host a lot of charity events. There's a lot of personal satisfaction in being of service to other people. It's the complete opposite of being for sale.

"If I get the chance, I would like to evolve as a public voice, to find a way to talk about making better choices. It is very difficult to talk about people's personal choices, and the addiction to having what we want when we want it. For instance, diabetes is an Armageddon. Where did this come from? It came from us. We need to live the example more. Giving up something that makes us feel good in order to keep us alive as a species. We need a surgeon general who challenges the way people eat. I don't know why doctors don't say, 'Oh, you smoke? I'm not going to treat you. It's clear that you're not interested in being alive.'

"I'm going to give myself a breakfast birthday party. I'll serve my favorite meal of the day: cereal and waffles and bacon and pancakes and scrambled-egg-white omelets and protein shakes and cappuccinos. My friends will come with their kids. The little children can get their hands dipped in wax, and they can watch the wonderfully talented candy carver swirl the liquid candy into dragons, and they can leave with a dragon lollipop.

"To celebrate, I'm making a book of 50 of my photographs and giving it to each of my friends. It's not for public consumption. People have been very complimentary over the years, and many have said, 'Oh, you should have a show.' I thought about it, and I thought, no. I don't need more attention. I don't ever want to make taking pictures into another way of saying 'Here I am.' Because I'm as here as I want to be."