Kirstie: How I Got Bikini-Ready

"I like the way I look – and I like the way I feel!" the actress tells PEOPLE

A year ago, when Kirstie Alley first suggested appearing on Oprah in a bikini, the actress was already more than halfway to her now 75-lb. weight loss, PEOPLE reports in its latest issue.

The prospect of commemorating her target weight (“You’re going to see a girl who’s worked on herself!” she once promised) on the Nov. 6 episode of Oprah was powerful motivation: “Yeah!” she told the talk-show host with a grin. Her transformation, accomplished over two years with diet and exercise, “is inspiring,” says actress pal Kathy Najimy. “She’s a role model for women everywhere.”

Yet Alley wasn’t entirely happy with her reveal on the show. “I had practiced my walk – I was going to do this wow-hot-model walk,” she says. “But I was so hysterical, I ended up doing the dorky-girl-from-Kansas walk. It didn’t work out so well!”

Those in the studio would disagree. As soon as the crowd caught sight of Alley (who strutted to the Commodores’ tune “Brick House”), they erupted in cheers and applause. “Everyone was going crazy,” says Laura Stuller, one of Alley’s Jenny Craig consultants. “I was just crying, standing up with everyone else, absolutely thrilled to see her accomplish her goals.”

Getting there wasn’t so easy: Bikini shopping proved quite the nightmare. “If you were a store selling bathing suits, wouldn’t you use, like, pink lights and skinny mirrors?” says Alley. Fed up with what she saw on a shopping trip with Najimy and another actress pal, Leah Remini, Alley asked designer Jeffrey Kurland to create a custom bikini for her.

Her criteria? “I said I liked little bottoms and I wanted the top to be sort of Dolce [& Gabbana] looking.” Kurland did three fittings, taking in the bottom a couple of times “because my body looks better in less,” says Alley. Seeing herself at the final fitting three days before the Nov. 1 Oprah taping allayed her fears. “I was really excited,” she says, “because I thought, ‘I look okay to me!'”

And perfection isn’t her goal. “Never. Never. Never. Never. Never,” she says when asked if she’s hoping to reach her Cheers weight of 120 lbs. “I never maintained 120 without doing something wacky, and I don’t want that life anymore.” And stomach stapling or lipo was never an option. “I don’t advocate cutting out intestines and pinching things off and getting things sucked out,” she says. “I would rather take an extra six months or a year and just not have to go that route.”

She is currently maintaining her weight by eating 1,500 calories a day, most often a combination of one Jenny Craig meal, plus favorites like grilled fish, asparagus and salad with vinaigrette. Her usual workout includes walking on the treadmill and dancing, but to prep for her big Oprah moment – as well as a series of Jenny Craig ads that will feature her in a bikini – she added tough routines of everything from kickboxing to Pilates four times a week with trainer Carmen Demsky.

It’s her stick-to-it attitude that Alley herself is most proud of. “I don’t think of myself as a role model for weight loss as much as a role model for tenacity,” she says. “I like being a role model so women know that they can change anything they want to change – any time.”

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