July 20, 1998 12:00 PM

Jane Krakowski well remembers the night she flew to Los Angeles for her final audition for FOX’s Ally McBeal. It was March 1997, and she was trying out for the role of Ally’s acerbic and audacious personal assistant Elaine Vassal. As it happened, Krakowski’s seatmate on the flight turned out to be none other than Calista Flockhart, who was headed for her final read-through, as Ally. Coincidentally, the actresses had known each other for years (Krakowski’s best friend, Liane Kamena, was Flockhart’s college roommate). “We went to our hotel and hung out,” recalls Krakowski, 29, lounging in her one-bedroom Manhattan apartment, “and the next morning we called to wish each other luck.” They also wanted to know what each was wearing. Flockhart settled on a demure lavender suit. Not Krakowski. Noting Elaine’s sheer brassiness, “I said, ‘I’m wearing the tightest sweater that I own, with a Wonderbra.’ ”

A bigger lift came later that day when Krakowski learned she’d won the role, at about the same time Flockhart landed Ally. The two giddy actresses flew back home to New York City together the same day. And with Ally McBeal, last year’s breakout series, about to enter its second season, Krakowski is still flying high, thanks to a character whose popularity is rising as fast as Ally’s hemlines. At first, fans complained to Krakowski that some of Elaine’s stunts—such as wandering the office not in a Wonderbra but a “face bra,” her wacky invention for preventing wrinkles—annoyed them. But they became more sympathetic after the Nov. 10 episode, in which Ally told the troublemaking Elaine that her need to be the center of attention “makes you look sad.”

She’s now finding other ways of getting noticed. “One of the producers was driving home one day and heard on the radio a song I did from a CD,” says Krakowski, referring to her nascent singing career. (She has recorded three compendium albums, including Sondheim at the Movies and The Burt Bacharach Album.) As a result, Elaine, at the office Christmas party, got to croon, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.”

And it’s not just her acting or singing her costars appreciate. “I can just sit down and talk to her,” says Greg Germann, who plays Ally and Elaine’s boss Richard Fish. The night of the Golden Globe awards last January, he recalls, “we all met at Jane’s [one-bedroom rental] apartment in L.A., and we got in this limo and felt like we were [going to] the prom.”

Which is as close as Krakowski herself ever got to prom night. A native of Parsippany, N.J., and the younger of two children of Barbara, 57, a college theater instructor, and Ed, 58, a chemical engineer, she was 15 when she was cast as troubled teen T.R. Kendall on NBC’s Search for Tomorrow for two seasons. Her own adolescence was also less than perfect. As a student at the Professional Children’s School in New York City, “I was never asked to dances,” she says. “I never had a regular boyfriend.” (She does now, and though she won’t identify him, “a lot of fun is being had,” says Krakowski.)

At 18, she made her Broadway debut—on roller skates—in the musical Starlight Express and three years later won raves in Grand Hotel. Since then, Krakowski has juggled theater roles (Once upon a Mattress) with TV (CBS’s Due South) and films. Next month, she costars in Dance with Me, with Vanessa L. Williams and the young singer-actor Chayanne.

Still, she owes much of her success to her shot on a smash TV show. If she hadn’t landed the role, she says, “that flight back after our audition would have been really long. ‘Send me back a chocolate chip cookie from first class there, Calista!’ ”

Michael A. Lipton

Cynthia Wang in New York City

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