The icon who's just an old-fashioned girl

Some say `Ally McBeal' tells us something about modern life. Others see it as mere hype. By Anthony Clavane
WHAT ARE these American publicists like? How far will they go to promote their latest Identikit 90s New Woman, whose quirky-but-cute features and post-feminist mini-skirts have been plastered all over the billboards of central London? Will these cultural imperialists stop at nothing in their sinister bid to foist yet another alien "style icon" on Britain's impressionable twenty- and thirtysomethings?

Only two episodes in and British columnists are already penning their why-oh-why pieces, the sub-editors spitting out their venomous headlines and feminists accusing the eponymous heroine of betraying The Cause. "Why I hate Ally", thundered the London Evening Standard. "Is this mini-skirted neurotic really a role model for the 90s?" exploded the Daily Mail. "So OK, I enjoyed it," whispered the Express. "But I'm certainly not going to admit it in public."

"Not a crooked tooth in sight," huffed the chap from Now magazine, as a clip from the second episode was shown at the Channel 4 press conference last week. "She's too cutesy and plastic," mumbled his elderly friend as they waited for the arrival of the actress who plays McBeal, Calista Flockhart. "Too American you mean," chips in a third, who rambles on about nose jobs, hair-flicks and other irritating habits. Given that they're not single, successful, sharp-suited career women aged between 25 and 34, their reaction is unsurprising.

But never mind the demographic; the instinct is to resist the hype. Even the star's liquid refreshment, strategically placed on the front table, is labelled Ally McBeal Natural Mineral Water. When Calista Flockhart finally appeared, though, it was immediately apparent that she is no precious, manufactured star but a shy, self-effacing, intelligent actress. Dressed down in grey, shapeless cardigan and baggy jeans in place of the smart lilac jacket and micro-skirt, the reluctant Voice of a Generation swiftly disarmed her critics with her soft-spoken irony and hesitant humour.

The News of the World journalist, a woman, got to the point and asked her about her fantasies; her character's dreams of copulating in a giant coffee cup and obtaining bigger breasts. "Well, I've mutilated quite a few people," she said. "Chopped off arms and legs and killed people in my fantasies. I've cut off fingers and cut out a lot of tongues." Not all that cute and fluffy, then.

When the New Mary Tyler Moore confessed to "not being familiar" with the legendary show, there were gasps; when she claimed never to have seen thirtysomething there were groans of disbelief. It got worse. Calista Flockhart is her real name - not, as the Standard alleged, a committee- designed one. She hates being viewed as a role-model, and Ms McBeal gets on her nerves too - "I vacillate between hating her and liking her." At least the backlash is "fun" and makes people think, she said.

So she's not a market-tested automaton. But what about the age thing? The publicists are marketing the hapless heroine as a typical twentysomething, yet Flockhart has been outed by the American press as an alleged 33-year- old. For the first time, she became defensive. "Yes, I'm coy about how old I am. There's something about it that takes away my privacy. It's like asking how much do I weigh. I'm old-fashioned, maybe."

As the journalists crossed out "post-feminist" and scribble in "pre- feminist", she sighed. "I'm very low-key and boring," she insisted. "I hang out with my dog. We sort of pal around. I'm a bit of a loner, I think." She took a sip from her mineral water. It turned out not to be Ally McBeal Mineral Water but Abbey Well. So much for the hype.

`Ally McBeal', Channel 4, Wednesdays, 10pm