January 15, 1996 12:00 PM

After a wigged-out audition, she’s sipping champagne with Whitney

LELA ROCHON HAD ONE SHOT TO land the role of a lifetime—and she knew it. It was late 1994, and she had just learned that Forest Whitaker had settled on an actress to play opposite Whitney Houston, Angela Bassett and Loretta Devine in the film he was directing of Terry McMillan’s novel Waiting to Exhale.

Rochon, a fan of the book, was crushed. “This was important to me. I’d never played a character with so much depth,” she says of Robin Stokes, a businesswoman who is unlucky in love. So the actress, 31, pulled some strings. She called a stylist she knew from her stint on the WB Network sketch-comedy show The Way am Bros.—who also happened to be a friend of McMillan’s—and begged her to plead her case. Shortly there-after. Whitaker agreed to see Rochon.

With the pressure on, she decided to go for broke. In the midst of a serious monologue about all she had done for her man, Rochon yanked off her wig and ad-libbed a line that played off the film’s title: “Shoot, how long can a girl hold her breath?” Whitaker cracked up—and Rochon had the part in what has become one of the hottest movies of the holiday season.

Rochon insists she was just being faithful to the character. “Robin might be superficial,” she says, “but inside I see her as so sad. She wants to be loved.” Evidently, Whitaker agreed. “It’s not all about looking pretty,” he says. “You need to see her heart. That’s why Lela was cast. She impressed me with her spirit.” Rochon has also impressed the heavily black, female audiences at Exhale—who helped propel the film to No. 1 during its first week at the box office.

Getting inside the role wasn’t much of a stretch, admits the 5’9″ beauty, who lives alone in her two-bedroom Los Angeles condo. “Men are attracted to Robin for the wrong reason,” she says. “They just want to score.” Rochon, who says she is “casually dating” these days, is used to being judged superficially, partly as a result of playing small roles as sexpots in a pair of Eddie Murphy movies—1989’s Harlem Nights and 1992’s Boomerang. “I relate to Robin’s pain,” she says. “Some people never take the time to know that I have a college degree, that I’m independent, that I’m an intelligent young African-American.”

Rochon has never been one to coast on her good looks. Born in Torrance, Calif., as Lela Rochon Staples (she dropped her last name at the suggestion of an agent), to Samuel Staples, who owns a graphic-arts company, and his wife, Zelma, a nurse practitioner, the actress was once a stand-out athlete. Rochon ran track and played basketball at Cerritos High School and soon was dancing in talent shows. She went on to Cal State at Dominquez Hills, where she majored in broadcast journalism and minored in theater. “She was intensely competitive,” says her father. “It served her well going into show business.”

And Rochon didn’t waste any time. While still in college, she modeled (“It was sooo boring,” she groans), danced in Lionel Richie and Luther Vandross videos and appeared in 28 Spuds MacKenzie Bud Light commercials. That led to being cast as a pregnant pal of Lisa Bonet in an episode of The Cosby Show. After graduating college in 1986, she did those steamy roles in the Murphy films, plus a frustrating string of failed TV-sitcom pilots. Finally she made a vow: “I wasn’t going to do sitcoms or guest-star as everybody’s girlfriend, because I was getting no respect.”

Thanks to her wigged-out audition, all that has changed. She has just completed Mr. and Mrs. Loving, a Showtime drama with Timothy Hutton. Tentatively set to air in March, it is based on the true story of a couple imprisoned in 1960 for violating a Virginia ban on interracial marriage. Still, she says, she loves comedy and dreams of being “a black Meg Ryan.” Her performance in Exhale gives her a chance to show both sides of her personality. “Robin is funny, complicated and daring,” Rochon says, searching for the right words to describe the role she was able to relate to so well. “She isn’t just a T-and-A character. This is a girl with T-and-A—and soul.”

DAN JEWEL

KAREN BRAILSEORD in Los Angeles

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