October 25, 1999 12:00 PM

Every morning when male rowing crews oar past Debbie Lee Carrington’s L.A. houseboat, they hoot at the psychedelic-colored, 5-ft. Barbie cutout standing on her deck. “I love hearing the guys shout,” says the actress. “Barbie has a flat personality, but not me. I love making people happy.”

Carrington, 39, has been doing a lot of that lately as Mini-Mimi, a pint-size clone of Drew Carey’s nemesis Mimi Bobeck on The Drew Carey Show. Her character, inspired by Mini-Me in Austin Powers, has been so popular she will pop up on the show periodically. “When we got going, it was like synchronized swimming,” says Mimi’s portrayer, Kathy Kinney. “I just feel sorry she has to wear that Kabuki makeup.” Carrington shrugs. “Little people are costumed up all the time,” she says, which made her hard to spot as an Ewok in Return of the Jedi and a penguin in Batman Returns.

The middle of three children of a San Jose, Calif., insurance manager and his schoolteacher wife, she was diagnosed with dwarfism at 6. Her size didn’t stop her from becoming a high school cheer-leader—and helped her win the first of 28 film roles when she was cast as a munchkin in 1981’s Under the Rainbow. Carrington, who earned a degree in child psychology from the University of California-Davis in ’82, knows how to apply her schooling. Razzed one day by kids at a nephew’s Little League game, “she turned around,” recalls her sister, technical writer Kathy Ellis, and said, ” ‘I’m a leprechaun, and I’m going to turn you all into little frogs.’ That shut them up.”

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