By Sophfronia Scott Gregory
November 15, 1999 12:00 PM

Delta Burke hasn’t been this excited about working in Hollywood, the town she stormed out of in 1995, since she was a 24-year-old ingenue with superstar dreams. After a hiatus from an industry that broke her confidence, if not her spirit, she has returned. “Going out there now, I feel all grown up,” says Burke. “I don’t feel afraid or intimidated.” In fact, she’s relishing the role of an ex-beauty queen turned sympathetic mom in a guest spot on The WB series Popular, airing Nov. 11. “Being with them reminded me of myself at that age,” says Burke, 43, of her young costars. “I had them call me Mom, and they hovered around. I would dispense my pearls of wisdom about what I had learned in the trenches.”

She has enough of those pearls to make a three-strand necklace and then some. As the irrepressible Suzanne Sugarbaker in the 1986-93 CBS series Designing Women, Burke found fame but gained a reputation as a demanding diva. She also split with producers Harry Thomason and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, who became displeased with her behavior when Burke’s weight rose to 215 lbs. She lost her best friend, costar Dixie Carter, in the maelstrom and was fired in 1991. When two other sitcoms, Delta and Women of the House, failed, Burke left town for New Orleans with her husband, Gerald McRaney, the former star of Major Dad.

Now, after four years of focusing her energies on her top-selling plus-size clothing line, Delta Burke Design, Burke is back. At 150 lbs., she is lighter than she has been in 13 years and more upbeat than ever, crediting her customers with giving her confidence. “To have women come up and say thank you for giving us our dignity back, it just makes you cry,” Burke says. “It opened my life.” So last July, Burke returned to L.A., where she now rents an apartment in Beverly Hills and tools around in a brand-new BMW. Her message: She’s ready to work. “It’s been kind of fun, like starting over in a way,” Burke says. “Everyone wants to see me and see what I look like.” McRaney (Promised Land) admires her moxie. “To have faced the personal stuff she has and to keep going,” he says, “is a remarkable act of courage to me.”

The offers are beginning to trickle in. Burke just wrapped an independent movie, Sordid Lives, costarring with Olivia Newton-John and Beau Bridges. “She has a great sense of humor,” says Newton-John. “At the wrap party, she did karaoke.” Burke concedes that she’d like to do a sitcom again, but “it’d have to be something that felt right, a character I can live with. Now, in my 40s, I want to be a strong role model.”

Her latest career turn hasn’t come without speed bumps. There is still a touch of the raw nerve about Burke, who, though sporting perfect hair and candy-pink nails, skittishly chain-smokes cigarettes while discussing her life. Her 10-year marriage is happy but endures many separations due to the couple’s busy careers. “Mac and I hardly ever get to see each other,” says Burke, whom McRaney calls his “baby girl.” That won’t change anytime soon, since he dislikes L.A., preferring their 1850s Creole townhouse in New Orleans or their 500-acre farm in Mississippi. But Burke is optimistic. “There are a lot of jobs where people have to be separated, and you find ways to deal with it,” she says.

Except now, in the twilight of her childbearing years, Burke, who told PEOPLE in 1996, “I don’t have an overwhelming desire to have a child,” finds herself yearning to be a mother. “But I don’t want to hope for it. I don’t want to be hurt,” she says, her eyes filling with tears. She and McRaney (who has three children from two previous marriages) haven’t yet conceived the old-fashioned way, but at this point Burke is unwilling to seek medical assistance, fearing “the stress of that, and what if it doesn’t work?” she says. “I’ve seen too many aging actresses go bananas about ‘got to have a kid.’ I don’t want to be one of those women.”

Burke’s own family roots are strong. An Orlando native, she remains close to her mother, Jean, 68, a homemaker, and sister Jennifer, 33, a business developer. (She also has a brother, Jonathan, 36; dad Frederick died in 1984.) The relationships helped Burke cope with the chronic depression that started in her teens, when she entered the beauty pageant circuit (she won the Miss Florida title in 1973). “I’m not trendy, I don’t have any of the hip things to have,” Burke says today. “I am simply depressed. Whenever I’ve tried to go off medication, the depression comes back very badly.” Burke copes by “letting go of things she has no control over,” says Jean.

But her depression worsened during what she calls “the dark days” of Designing Women. “You wish you could cease to exist,” she recalls. “You become the butt of every joke. I’d turn on the radio and they’re saying, ‘Delta Burke, how much weight have you put on?’ She also found the diva tag unfair. “You start on a show and you’re an ensemble, and then someone’s singled out, and that’s difficult for everyone,” she says. “I don’t know why I was singled out. Things got so ugly. That threw me.”

After three years, Burke reconciled with the Thomasons and reprised Suzanne Sugarbaker for Women of the House. She even calls Linda Bloodworth-Thomason her “creative mother.” “We think Delta is a great comedian,” says Harry Thomason. But Burke and Dixie Carter had a falling-out (neither will say why) and haven’t spoken since the firing. Carter, through an assistant, says she wishes Burke much happiness. For her part, Burke prefers to be stoic about the experience: “Now that time’s gone by, I can just remember the good.”

Ironically, once out of the spotlight, Burke lost weight. A diabetes diagnosis two years ago led her to be more vigilant about her eating habits. “I’ve just about eliminated high glycemic foods like white bread, rice and refined foods,” she explains. But the weight topic dogs her as well as McRaney, who in a recent interview was forced to respond to a reporter’s rude question about his wife’s body. “I got mad,” McRaney recalls, “and told him, ‘Look, pal, if I had wanted a little boy, I could have had one.’

These days, back in waifland, Burke finds that the pursuit of the perfect body still pushes old buttons. “Even now, at this age, knowing they airbrush models, I’ll still see them and say, ‘Why can’t I look like that?’ she says, laughing. ” ‘Airbrush my face, dammit!’ ” But this time, Burke stops herself. She is determined to play the game on her own terms. “[Before] I was beautiful, and I didn’t know it. I bought into them telling me I wasn’t good enough,” she says. “I can’t do that again. I am good enough, and I have to believe that.”

Sophfronia Scott Gregory

Jennifer Longley in New York City, Patricia B. Smith in New Orleans and Alexandra Hardy in Portland, Oregon