January 31, 2005 12:00 PM

Doesn’t she look fantastic?” raves TV fitness star Denise Austin of her occasional workout partner Laura Bush. As Inaugural week festivities consumed Washington, the question buzzed around town: Where had that dowdy gal with what her daughters once derisively called “helmet hair” gone? Slowly and subtly, Bush seems to have shed about 20 lbs., lightened her hair and, with advice from her clothes-crazy twin daughters, tossed out her old jeans and embraced more form-fitting fashion.

Two years ago Bush hosted a fitness fair on the South Lawn and her own personal makeover began. “She started working out after that,” recalls former press secretary Noelia Rodriguez. Now 58, the First Lady meets with a trainer three times a week for a mix of cardio, gentle Pilates and yoga, plus abdominal work with an inflatable fitness ball. “She’s strong now,” says Austin, who has been to the White House’s family-quarters workout room. According to another friend, Bush was thrilled by a quote in The New York Times on the subject: “They’re saying I’m a size 6!” (She’s closer to an 8.)

As for diet, Bush eats oatmeal with fruit and honey most mornings and relies on steely will to resist temptation like Mexican food, a onetime Bush family favorite now relegated to a once-a-week treat. “I’ve found the best way to indulge without regret,” she told PEOPLE last year, “is to eat just a few bites.” The payoff: looking great in her clothes. “She has a great figure, don’t you agree?” says inaugural ball gown designer Oscar de la Renta. And four more years to show it off on the world stage.

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