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Whoopi Goldberg

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This is the year that Whoopi Goldberg finally became bigger than her hair. The $ 139 million box office take from her summer hit, Sister Act, made her one of Hollywood’s most powerful and bankable women. And she got to the bank with her own unexpected assets—a lava flow of dreadlocks, a honeyed rasp where her voice should be and a name that’s half exclamation point, half Jewish star. If this is the formula for a screen sensation, then somebody spiked the formula.

She did, of course. No one less singular could have filled her multitude of roles this year: playing a South African teacher staring down the bullies of apartheid in Sara-final, handily managing a showy comic spot as a police officer in The Player, penning a children’s book, Alice, and plunking her sofa down in the overcrowded living room of TV talk. In her free time—She has some?—the former welfare mother squeezed in a recurring role as a psychic bartender on Star Trek: The Next Generation. No wonder hers was among the first calls that Bill Clinton took on the night of his election. He probably couldn’t wait to talk to the only person in America busier than he.

All pop-eyed fun on the big screen in Sister Act, Whoopi, backstage, was of sterner stuff. She fought to help rework the script, first designed for Bette Midler, along her own indelible lines. “Sister Act would not have existed without her,” concedes Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg. “Every frame is infused with her personality.” The price of that personality just skyrocketed: She’ll get a reported $7.5 million for the sequel.

Whoopi credits the success of Sister Act, released soon after the L.A. riots, to its upbeat tone. “People wanted something hopeful. They were relieved to see a black face onscreen that wasn’t running off with a beanbag chair,” she says, wryly. As for her teetering talk show, she makes no apologies for lullabying guests in a caffeine-free conversational manner: “I’m a fan, not an interviewer.”

She also has fans, more now than ever, which means she’s become catnip to tabloid reporters on the prowl. Responding to stories that she is romantically involved with Cheers’ Ted Danson, Whoopi only hedges. “I don’t know what we’re doing,” she says. “This has made a really good friendship strained.” It’s hard to believe she would have time for anything more strenuous than that, what with her family (daughter Alexandrea, 18, and granddaughter Amarah, 3), her relentless volunteer work (Comic Relief and Hurricane Andrew victims) and her politicking. But burnout is clearly on her mind. “They’re all good causes,” she says, “but you can’t do anything for them if you’re dead.” Don’t kid us, Whoopi. You’d find time.