May 11, 1998 12:00 PM

“She walks like a duck, her lips are much too thin, and she has a slightly crooked nose,” London’s Sunday Times gossip writer Taki recently observed. “But the overall effect is to die for.” Whether she’s draped in baggy sweats on NBC’s Mad About You, sporting a dirty tank top in Twister or a waitress’s apron for her Oscar-winning turn in As Good as It Gets, Helen Hunt, 34, takes a unique bend in the beauty road. It’s hard to imagine another star offering to pay for a reshoot of a closeup because she looked too good for her character. “She was gleeful in looking worse,” says As Good as It Gets director and coproducer James L. Brooks.

The 5’7″ actress’s disregard of conventional Hollywood preening and posing is the result of growing up in showbiz. The daughter of Gordon Hunt, an acting coach and director, and Jane, a photographer, Hunt nailed her first job at age 7 on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, playing Murray’s daughter, and has been in front of the cameras ever since. Intensely private, she won’t discuss her five-year relationship with actor Hank Azaria, who does voices on The Simpsons and made a campy splash as The Birdcage’s gay houseboy. And forget the whole Beverly Hills show-mansion gig.

Hunt, an opera lover, lives in the down-market San Fernando Valley and commutes to work in her sedate black Volvo. As for hitting the premieres and parties, she’ll take a pass. “I probably haven’t gone out for a New Year’s since I was about 19,” she told INSTYLE last December. “I’ve probably rung in the last few New Years in my pajamas.” Even so, her allure is anything but plain-Jane. “She’s a great gal, as we used to say,” As Good as It Gets costar Jack Nicholson enthused in TIME. “She’s a babe.”

To stay that way, Hunt works out four times a week, but her warm skin tones and blonde tresses do best when left alone. “Even her most glamorous is a relaxed glamorous,” says stylist-to-the-stars Phillip Bloch. “Less is best for her.” Adds director Brooks: “She’s not one of those people who walks into a room and expects you to sniff their perfume.”

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