December 10, 2001 12:00 PM

Sitting on the Camarillo, Calif., set of the local cable talk show In the Spotlight one afternoon, The West Wing‘s star Martin Sheen submitted to a 20-minute interview before turning the tables on the show’s host, Kari Michaelsen. “How,” he demanded, “did you stay so normal?”

It’s a question Michaelsen is more than happy to handle. As Katie Kanisky, the eldest daughter on NBC’s popular ’80s sitcom Gimme a Break (which starred Nell Carter as a housekeeper), she spent much of her 20s living the young-star high life: She hung out with hot actors like Michael J. Fox and Kristy McNichol, dated the ill-fated pop star Andy Gibb and fought to keep eating disorders at bay. Then, as suddenly as she had found comedic success, she dyed her blonde hair brown, quit acting and ended up pursuing a career in journalism. “I was getting caught up in the Hollywood machine,” says Michaelsen, 40. “People would talk to me normally and then find out who I was and treat me like an alien.”

Now she’s putting that experience to work interviewing celebs such as Sheen and John Travolta, and local personalities on the half-hour Spotlight, which airs twice weekly in four California counties. “She knows the stresses, workload and time demands of celebrity,” says executive producer Russell Stemper. “And she can put people at ease.” The viewing audience may be tiny compared with that of a hit sitcom, but that doesn’t seem to faze Michaelsen. “I want to do things that are uplifting,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be heavy, message-oriented stuff.”

To answer Sheen: Michaelsen credits her parents—singer Arne Markussen, 79, and Roberta Stevenson, a former dancer who died at 77 of bone cancer last year—with keeping her behavior in check. “My parents,” she says, “weren’t impressed by celebrity.” Born in Manhattan, Michaelsen quickly followed them into showbiz, singing on the soundtrack for Sesame Stree and performing in Off-Broadway plays by age 11. In 1975 her family moved to Beverly Hills, and Michaelsen (who changed her name from the Norwegian Markussen) soon won guest spots on such shows as Diff’rent Strokes and Eight Is Enough. She graduated from Beverly Hills High School in 1979 and was studying psychology at UCLA when she won (beating out, among others, Helen Hunt) the role of Katie, “the pretty one who was dating all the boys,” she says.

Offscreen the 21-year-old Michaelsen dated Gibb after he guest-starred on the show in 1983. But their two-year relationship was defined by his escalating drug use. “I went through the whole Betty Ford thing with him,” she says. “But when he was having a relapse, he didn’t want me around him. In the end, we just let it go. It was too painful to watch someone you care about killing himself.” A few years after the breakup, Gibb, 30, died of heart inflammation.

Though Michaelsen says she never touched drugs herself, she did feel the Hollywood pressure to be superslim. “I would tease her that if she got any thinner she would be wearing children’s clothes,” recalls Carter, 53. Says Michaelsen: “I was never anorexic, but I got caught up in that dieting thing. There were some weeks where, if I thought I’d gained two pounds, I’d eat very little and have a grapefruit for lunch. I could have gone over the deep end.” Instead, she happily left the show in 1986 after her role was cut back. “My character progressively got blonder and dumber,” she says. Though she dyed her hair to avoid typecasting, better roles were elusive. Living off income as a motivational speaker and residual checks from Break, Michaelsen spent the next decade taking business courses. In 1999 she got a job cohosting a morning radio show in Santa Barbara, Calif., which led in 2000 to Spotlight.

Michaelsen’s next role? Bride. Engaged since last July to David Waldock, 52, a Mercedes executive she met while car shopping, she plans to wed next July. She’s already mulling which room of their four-bedroom ranch-style home in Westlake Village, Calif., should become a nursery for the baby they hope to conceive soon after. “We already have a drawer full of stuff for this child,” she says. Would she trade her current life for her Break days? Not a chance. “Now,” she says, “I know where I want to go.”

Ericka Sóuter

Karen Brailsford in Westlake Village

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