June 22, 2006 06:00 AM

She certainly meant well. But as Kirstie Alley thinks back on her old notion of stay-at-home motherhood – “Betty Crocker and eating cake batter every day” – her recollections are bittersweet. “I always said I was going to be like my grandmother Annabelle, who was very nurturing and an excellent cook,” Alley says. “But she was also four feet tall by four feet wide. Yeah, forgot that part!”

Step into the French-tiled kitchen in her 1920s Los Angeles villa today and you’re still likely to find the 55-year-old actress – a self-described “fanatic” when it comes to homemade meals (chicken and rice is a favorite) – behind the stove.

Thanks to her weight loss, "I feel like my old self amp#8211; just more enlightened," says Alley.

Only these days the ever-shrinking star, down 71 lbs. and counting, no longer heavily samples the dinner she’s preparing for kids True, 13, and Lillie, 12. (Dad is ex-husband Parker Stevenson.) “It was all about portion size – I’d make something, then have huge amounts,” explains Alley, who at one point was consuming some 6,000 calories a day, more than three times as much as she should have been. “I was so far gone.”

No wonder then that, as she reflects on what it took to go from 219 to 148 lbs., Alley insists, “If I can do it, anybody can.” A year and a half after signing on as a pitchwoman for Jenny Craig, Alley eats about 1,500 calories a day, mostly from the company’s portion-controlled meals, and weighs in weekly with a Jenny Craig consultant (services any non-celebrity client would get, though she receives them for free). “So many women come up to me and say, ‘Well, if I had a chef and a personal trainer and all those perks you have, I could have lost the weight too,'” says Alley incredulously. “I want to go on the record and say, I don’t have a trainer or a chef!”

In addition she’s opposed to (and contractually forbidden to get) plastic surgery, including liposuction – which made her announcement that she plans to lose another 15 lbs. and appear on Oprah in November wearing a bikini all the more jaw-dropping. “I’d like to prove to myself and maybe other women my age that there can still be good years ahead of us,” she explains, “maybe even the best.” Still, she admits it’s a bold move. “At my age, can you really turn your body into a bikini body without having surgery?” she wonders. “This is an experiment!”

One that she wouldn’t have agreed to if not for the support of her children, who saw her get slammed by the tabloids for putting on weight (“It was upsetting to them; they are very protective of me,” she says), then watched as she laughed back in her Fat Actress series and later saw Mom become the public face of a commercial weight-loss company, which required that she lose 65 lbs. Then, of course, came the bikini challenge. “I said to my kids, ‘Can I do this? Will I embarrass you?'” she recalls. “They were laughing about it.”

"She knows from me gaining weight that getting fat lowers your energy level," says Alley (with daughter Lillie in L.A. in 2004).

But did she ever worry about the seemingly contradictory messages she has been sending: first accepting her expanding size, then fighting it, and now selling the public on joining the battle?

In a word, no. “The last thing my kids cared about was their mom getting fat. You have to remember, they had a mother who was now spending every waking moment with them, which they loved,” says Alley, who cut back on work after her sitcom Veronica’s Closet ended in 2000.

And despite the fact that she is endorsing a weight loss plan, “I’m not emphasizing ‘Thin is good.’ I’m trying to teach my kids that you can’t judge yourself on what other people think and that getting into a size 2 Chanel skirt isn’t the be-all-end-all of life,” she says. “I want them to know that having a skinny body does not necessarily equate to happiness.”

Her message, it seems, has been getting through. Lillie, who likes horseback riding and ice skating, “doesn’t think the girls who are ridiculously thin look good,” says Alley. True, too, surfs and plays basketball and favors veggie crudit s or cheese and prosciutto as a snack. “My kids have always had a diet that was 90 percent better than mine,” says Alley, who raised them as vegetarians until age 4. “They have a good viewpoint of it.”

Lately, so does Alley. “If there’s a pie she’s dying to break the diet for, she’ll have a few bites, but she doesn’t go so off the wagon,” says Kelly Preston, who, along with husband John Travolta, is among the actress’s good friends. “She stays on course.”

So confident has Alley become about her ability to eat in moderation that she has even started allowing previously forbidden foods in her home. “For the first time in over a year, I just bought this French goat’s milk butter,” she says. “I would bathe in it and lick myself all over if I could. But now I can count the calories and have some. I’ve gotten to know what makes me feel good, and that takes precedence over some compulsion to stuff something into my body.”

"She's a really fun mom," says friend Kathy Najimy of Alley (horsing amp#8211; er, giraffing amp#8211; around with Lillie and True, and their dog Fawny, in the courtyard of their L.A. home). "She's hip without being irresponsible."

Another breakthrough moment surely came during her May trip to a San Diego spa with several friends, half of whom had joined Jenny Craig with her; the vacation marked Alley’s first attempt since January ’05 to eat totally outside the Jenny Craig box. (She took some of the plan’s single-serving lemon cakes, though.)

The trip was a sort of graduation present for having lost weight together. “We really do encourage each other,” says pal Robin Van Huss, a furniture store owner who has lost nearly 72 lbs. and appears in a Jenny Craig TV ad with Alley, recalling, “Before, we were both so overweight we could barely get off the couch.”

Now Alley works out daily, either on her new Pilates transformer machine or an elliptical trainer (while watching American Idol) or by dancing in the living room for 45 minutes to Gwen Stefani or the Black Eyed Peas, with True and Lillie occasionally joining in. As the countdown to Oprah bikini day ticks on, she is stepping up her efforts. “I’m working on sculpting this body I opened my mouth about,” she says. “I’m not touting myself as a Victoria’s Secret model, but I will look good for myself.”

That’s not the only challenge she’s prepping for. Though she has been open about putting her romantic life on hold while she was heavy, Alley has started dating – if tentatively – once again. “My kids are like, ‘He likes you, Mom. Go out with him!'” she says. “I feel like a 16-year-old and they are like my parents urging me onto the dance floor.”

She has been out in recent months, but all that has come of it, she says, “is that I can say I hate dating.” What she’s looking for is “someone who had been married, was madly in love and is a widower with children.” There is a man she’s interested in, but, she says, green eyes twinkling, “he doesn’t know it yet.”

"My kids actually eat when they're hungry," says Alley (with True and Lillie in her kitchen).

Meanwhile, Alley has got other things on her newly balanced plate. She’s working on two screenplays, a family radio show she wants to produce and a possible retail partnership with a company in Australia that could make her “the Italian Martha Stewart – with bigger breasts,” she says.

She’s not actually Italian, but never mind; she is studying the language and also seriously dreams about becoming the U.S. ambassador to Italy. On her way to a summer-long Italian vacation, she has scheduled a stop in Florida to meet with a former ambassador, “to have him educate me.” As her former Veronica’s Closet costar Kathy Najimy puts it, “Kirstie is the queen of how to think big.”

Just not, any longer, when it comes to dress size. Now when Lillie and True come home from school, Mom sits with them at the kitchen table as they do homework (“I help, or if it’s math, I don’t,” says Alley), and as they munch on their usual prosciutto and brie and a baguette, the actress has a piece of string cheese and fruit. “They have theirs and I have mine,” she says. Then, as the day winds down, the family will take a walk or watch an hour of TV or play a game. It’s in such moments that Alley experiences her greatest fulfillment. “My best quality,” she says, “is that I’m a good mother.”

And getting better all the time. As Alley proudly explains, gaining and then losing weight “jolted every facet of my life. Not in just looking pretty or something. It has revitalized every aspect of me.”

• By Jennifer Wulff. Julie Jordan in Los Angeles

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