By Julie K.L. Dam
Updated October 21, 2002 12:00 PM

When Jillian Fink checked the appointment book at her chic L.A. hair salon, Delux, and saw the name “Patrick Dempsey,” she figured it was just another joke by a prankster employee. “All the people he had written in were names of celebrities famous in the ’80s, like Molly Ringwald,” she says. Dempsey—who earned heartthrob status that decade in films like Can’t Buy Me Love and Lover boy—fit the profile. Then he actually turned up for a haircut. “I was shocked,” Fink recalls of that day in 1994. “But at the same time, I was happy because he was so cute.”

It was the kind of love-at-first-sight moment that drives romantic comedies like Sweet Home Alabama, in which Dempsey currently costars with Reese Witherspoon. But in real life, both Dempsey and Fink were in relationships, and it took another three years of occasional haircuts and harmless banter (“She was always flirting,” says Dempsey, to which his wife protests, “That’s not true!”) before they became a couple. Wed in 1999, the pair, both 36, have been swamped with new projects: caring for an 8-month-old daughter, Tallulah Fyfe; for Fink, overseeing the development of her own high-end cosmetics line; and, for Dempsey, rejuvenating an acting career. “They’re both just very grounded,” says Alabama director Andy Tennant. “They’ve forged this alliance that can take on all.”

Except working together. Though Jillian’s makeup was on the Sweet Home Alabama set, she wasn’t. “We try not to get into each other’s work too much,” says Dempsey. Unless he’s being her guinea pig. “My big thing,” he says, “is to make sure the lipsticks taste good when you kiss. And, well, so far they taste pretty darn good.”

Dempsey developed his taste for showbiz growing up in Lewiston, Maine. The youngest of three children (dad William, now deceased, was an insurance salesman and his wife, Amanda, was a high school secretary), he joined a local troupe that performed vaudeville acts at age 11. After dropping out of high school at 17 to pursue acting, he won the lead role in a 1983 San Francisco production of Torch Song Trilogy. Then came 1987’s Can’t Buy Me Love, which landed him on the covers of teen magazines. He still has a following from those days—including Witherspoon. “My brother, who was on the movie [set], driving me, was so excited,” she says. “He loved him in Pizza Boy. I said, ‘I don’t think it was called Pizza Boy. I think it was called Loverboy.’ We were big fans ever since we were kids.”

Dempsey was still a kid himself—21—when he married his manager and acting coach Rocky Parker, who was 27 years his senior. “I got a lot out of it; it made me a much better man,” he says. But with the age gap, “people wind up going through two different cycles in their lives.” As their relationship deteriorated in the early ’90s (they divorced in 1993), so did Dempsey’s star status, due to some box office bombs. “I wasn’t on the hot list anymore,” he says.

In 1997, when he found out through a mutual friend that Jillian was suddenly single, he called her up. On their first date he cooked pasta for her at his home. Three months later she moved in. (They now live in a three-bedroom Spanish-style house with Tallulah and their dog and two cats.) Their wedding—at his family’s farmhouse in Maine—was an intimate affair. “He saw her and started crying,” says Kristen Mason, 35, Jillian’s sister and business partner.

Since then, they haven’t looked back. Fink—the daughter of an education administrator from Denton, Texas—had built Delux into what actress Heather Graham calls “the grooviest, totally rock and roll salon” (which she sold in 1998) while also doing makeup for celebrity pals like Drew Barrymore and Milla Jovovich. Her plans for her own line got a jump start when Barrymore asked her to create lip glosses for the Charlie’s Angels shoot in 2000. Fink, Barrymore and the film’s makeup artist, Kimberly Greene, “sat in Jill’s kitchen and mixed colors for days and days,” says Mason. The result: the Delux Beauty line of lipsticks, blushes, eye shadows and liners, which is now sold in stores nationwide, including Sephora and Fred Segal.

Meanwhile Dempsey’s career picked up steam with his turn as a detective in the third Scream movie. Recurring TV roles (Will & Grace, Once and Again) led to film offers, including Alabama and next month’s The Emperor’s Club, with Kevin Kline. The second time around with fame, “I really love it now,” says Dempsey. “But I also have a life outside it, with Jill and Tallulah. I am really thankful that it is all going well.”

Julie K.L Dam

Rachel Biermann in Los Angeles