By Carol Wallace
July 25, 1983 12:00 PM

Their bedroom eyes, voluptuous lips and streamlined bodies were the talk of the Staying Alive set. But enough about Sylvester Stallone and John Travolta. Theirs weren’t the only hot bodies around. Take a look at the movie’s lithe leading ladies, Cynthia Rhodes and Finola Hughes.

For newcomers Rhodes and Hughes, being cast in the long-awaited Saturday Night Fever sequel is a Cinderella story come true. Like Tony Manero, who goes from chorus kid to Broadway sensation in Staying Alive, these dancers are suddenly leaping from obscurity into the public eye. “They’re both originals,” raves Travolta. “I hate to use the cliché, but they’re stars—they each have a strong presence.” Stallone is equally captivated. “Finola was truly a great find, and Cynthia even more so because she’s amazingly talented in every area,” he says. Cindy is already on her way to bigger things. Confident of her ail-American appeal, Paramount just signed her to a five-picture, six-figure deal, and Rhodes has also inked with Stallone’s talent agency and publicity firm. It could not happen to a nicer girl. Says Cindy, “I’m a Goody Two-shoes and proud of it.” Not that Finola is much different. Observes Stallone of his actresses, “These girls were both impeccably raised. I mean, to them, kissing before they were 16 was a mortal sin.”

Finding the pair was no easy task for director Stallone. He plucked Travolta’s co-stars from a pool of more than 2,500 aspirants after an extensive, transatlantic search. While Rhodes, 26, a blond, merry-eyed Nashville native, had a bit part in that other dance flick, Flashdance, it was her come-hither gyrations in the rock group Toto’s Rosanna video that caught Stallone’s eye. He wanted Cindy for the role of Jackie, the chorus girl who is Manero’s wholesome, long-suffering lover. “Unless she was a mute, I knew she had the part,” says Sly. There was a more exhaustive search for the other side of the script’s love triangle, a snooty British dancer who is a Broadway star. “I thought I would have to put on a tutu and play the part myself,” cracks Stallone. The vamp role ultimately went to Hughes, 23, a long-haired British actress-dancer who appeared as the white cat in the London production of Cats. Finola won’t discuss her Staying Alive salary, but Cindy confides that she earned $50,000 for her role.

For both women, the prospect of working with two popular male idols was daunting. “I thought Sly and John would be egotistical and make me feel like a peon,” says Rhodes. “But when I met them, it was like I had known them all my life.” After she encountered Travolta for the first time in Stallone’s office, John playfully began massaging Cindy’s feet. She reciprocated with a back rub. All the while Stallone recorded the event on videotape as a sort of mini-screen test. “They were just like little kids, always joking and teasing,” says Rhodes.

Stallone’s successful strategy was to nip any first-time jitters with large doses of praise, pampering and playfulness. If he caught either actress eating sweets (Cindy sometimes devoured a one-pound bag of M&M’s in a day), he teased, “How are you doing, whale hips?” During the filming of a nightclub scene, Stallone leapt onstage and belted out a Joe Cocker-style version of Jumpin’ Jack Flash. He also let kissing scenes run on, overtime that nobody griped about. “John’s a great kisser,” says Cindy, giving him a high eight on a 10-point scale. Finola is more generous. “He’s an 11,” she insists.

Predictably, the actresses’ gushing assessments of John and Sly range from “wonderful” all the way to “fantastic.” Despite such genuine affection, there apparently were no offscreen dalliances. Linked in the past to previous co-stars Debra Winger and Olivia Newton-John, Travolta followed a hands-off policy on the Staying Alive set. “To say we weren’t attracted—me to them and them to me—would be a lie,” observes John, “but it was more titillating toying with the idea.” Rhodes demurs: “It was work, and I purposely never let myself get attracted to him.” She adds quickly, “I’m sure people are thinking I’m stupid.”

The actresses likewise maintained a professional distance between themselves. Although Cindy and Finola compete for John’s bod in the film, off camera their paths rarely crossed. Sly reports: “I don’t think they realized how much they liked each other until the last two days of the film, when they flew to New York and talked the whole way about every subject known to man.” The acrimony on the screen is acting. “Usually you get two women like this and they’re scratching each other’s eyes out,” observes Steve In-wood, who plays a Broadway choreographer in the film. “These two would have coffee together. I used to tease them and say, ‘C’mon, girls, start something. This is getting boring.’ ”

No wonder Paramount execs have dubbed Cindy “the Doris Day of the ’80s.” Don’t worry, she takes it as a compliment. Rhodes doesn’t smoke, drink or take drugs, she quotes the Good Book, rarely cusses, and has said “I love you” to only one man, Gene Miller, 27, now a guitarist in Barbara Mandrell’s band. Their two-and-a-half-year romance ended in 1980. She has turned down offers to pose for Playboy, and rejects flat-out all scripts calling for nudity. Vouches Sly, “This girl would quit the business before doing anything to embarrass her parents.” Okay, she does like to wear minidresses and stiletto heels that showcase her stunning legs. But if there is yes-yes in her style, there is “no-way” on her lips. “I have moral values that I want to live up to,” says Cindy, who was raised a Baptist.

Still, she doesn’t want to appear out of it in the process. “Just because I don’t get laid every night doesn’t mean I don’t know what’s going on,” she says. She finds many Hollywood types long on ego but short on gentlemanliness. “Out here, you go out with a guy a few times and he thinks you owe him something,” says Cindy. She does have one curious pastime, however. She confesses, somewhat sheepishly, to hosting occasional “smooching partners,” male friends whom she puckers up with in front of her fireplace. “I love to kiss,” she says. “I think it’s a lost art.”

Witty and outgoing, Rhodes has been perfecting her role as all-American sweetheart since childhood. The youngest of three children, she grew up in Nashville. Her father, Adrian, is a master sergeant in the Tennessee National Guard and her mother, Edna, is a housewife. As a child, she won beauty contests, imagined herself as Marilyn Monroe, and told people that she wanted to be a movie star. But most of her teens were spent training six hours daily to be a gymnast, which accounts for her remarkably athletic dance style. She won some 30 gold medals in statewide competition, but gave up her goal of winning the Olympic gold to concentrate on a career in showbiz.

During high school she worked as a singer and dancer at Opryland, U.S.A., and later she sang with a local rock group. Rhodes moved to L.A. twice before sticking for good in 1980. During her first two tries, she stayed in her apartment, homesick and fearful of auditions. “To this day, if you say the word ‘audition’ to me I get sick as a dog,” she says. Through a choreographer friend she got a bit part in Xanadu, and later she worked as an assistant choreographer on One from the Heart, in which she also danced.

In 1980 she toured Europe and the U.S. with the rock group the Tubes, working as a sexily clad dancer and backup singer. “I had a blast,” she says. “It was a lot of tits and ass, but I got to act onstage like somebody I would never be.” Returning to California, she auditioned for the lead in Flashdance but lost out to Jennifer Beals, who, cracks Rhodes, “could pick her nose and still look good.” Still, as Beals’ punked-out friend Tina Tech, she performed a dazzling solo to the tune of Manhunt.

These days Cindy lives quietly in a $1,350-a-month Marina Del Rey apartment (complete with Jacuzzi), a splash away from the ocean. Not dating anyone special now, she says marriage and children are far away. “I’m still a kid myself,” she says. Despite occasional bouts of insecurity, Rhodes believes that the Good Lord has been kind to her. “I’m happier than I’ve ever been,” she says. “When people tell me to think of something tragic that’s happened to me, I can’t think of one thing.”

For Cindy’s co-star, Finola Hughes, Staying Alive required a great adjustment. As she told PEOPLE correspondent Jerene Jones, getting cast in a Hollywood musical produced a severe case of culture shock. “It happened so fast,” she sighs. The film’s London casting director caught her performance in Cats, videotaped an audition, and sent it to Stallone. Sly then summoned her to Los Angeles. That was her first visit to America. “I was terribly homesick,” she recalls. Four and a half months later Finola finally returned to London with her starring role in the can. “I take things as they come, make quick decisions, and jump in feet first,” says Finola, who sees herself as “half Irish, half Italian and three-quarters foolish.”

She found little of herself in the role of Laura, Travolta’s tangy temptress, who holds a black belt in bitchiness. “When I think of the part and of the person I am, it’s weird,” reflects Hughes, whose feline features flash an electric onscreen presence. “I hardly ever wear makeup, I wear jeans. Suddenly here I was, having to be this haughty lady in furs and heavy makeup.” Nevertheless, Finola’s energy and her dedication to dance impressed Stallone, who describes her as “a skittish stallion.” “Finola is always revved up,” observes Sly, “I don’t think I ever saw her off her toes. If you said, ‘Hey, there’s a call for you,’ she would hop over like a little doe.” Just as he muscled up Travolta for the movie, Stallone shaped Finola to his specifications. Says Sly, “Her buttocks had to be more curved, her shoulders broadened.”

Like Cindy, Finola has found the good-girl routine to her liking. She too does not smoke, drink or take drugs. Born in London, she lives with her taxi driver father, Bill, and her younger brother, Sean, in that city’s Fulham section, where she is in the process of buying her own house. (Her mother died four years ago.) She became interested in dancing and singing at 3, and at 10 won a scholarship to the Arts Educational School. At 11, she was a gnome in a Covent Garden production of Falstaff, which made a strong impression on young Finola. “I said, ‘This is it. From now on, it doesn’t matter what I do. I’ve performed on the Co-vent Garden stage.’ ”

After Staying Alive, Finola performed in a six-part dance series for the BBC in England, where she is best known for her television dance work. Although her actor boyfriend resides in London, Finola is toying with the idea of moving to Hollywood, where she returned last week for the Staying Alive premiere. She is, however, taking a wait-and-see attitude about fame and fortune. “It’s part of the English reserve,” she says. “You don’t say ‘Wow,’ in case it doesn’t work.”

Whether Hughes’ and Rhodes’ careers lead to a happily-ever-after life in Hollywood is yet to be decided. (Saturday Night Fever seems only to have catapulted Travolta co-star Karen Lynn Gorney into obscurity.) But however Cindy and Finola fare, having the high-powered Stallone in their corner can’t hurt. “They have a magic with the camera that I was totally blown away by,” raves Sly. If stardom isn’t a strut away for these two, then, says Stallone, “I give up.” Who knows? Maybe he has found his next Mr. T.