Spice Girl

By Janet Weeks

Lisa Nicole Carson is sipping hot chocolate with whipped cream in a Hollywood Hills diner and flipping through a pile of her own press clippings, evaluating photos of herself. "This is beautiful. This is beautiful. This is gorgeous." She stops at a sultry image of herself in a bikini, a tattoo of a crab visible just beneath her navel. "I really dig this one. I want to get a copy of this and have it blown up."

No crisis of confidence here. Carson likes herself just the way she is-although defining this unconventional Ally McBeal co-star isn't exactly easy, since she has an oddly indirect way of answering questions. For example, she has had a birthday since that day at the diner. So is she 29 now? "I'm any magical age," she says in a sleepy, baby-girl voice. "I'm 23." She's single, but does she have a boyfriend? "I have someone special. This guy-" She pauses. Hello? "Um. I don't want to talk about it." Clearly, Carson has little in common with Renee, the strong and direct district attorney she plays on Ally. "She is a big talent who marches to her own drummer," notes Ally co-executive producer Jeffrey Kramer. "She has a strong sense of herself, and I think she has a unique way of looking at the world."

But back to the diner: She is cuddling the cocker-spaniel puppy, Josephine, she brought to breakfast and talking about her roles on Ally and ER, in which she plays Carla Reese, mother of Dr. Benton's (Eriq La Salle) son, Reese. This season, Dr. Benton has had to deal with Reese's hearing impairment largely on his own since Carson says her increasingly busy schedule on Ally prevents her from doing more on ER. "Being on both shows gives me the opportunity to change characters," she says. "If I had more time, I'd do a third show."

A native of Brooklyn, New York, Carson started acting at 8, when she played Yente in a school production of "Fiddler on the Roof." When Carson was 12, her family-parents Fannie and Lester and three siblings-moved to Gainesville, where her dad is a journalism professor at the University of Florida. Her parents later divorced, and her mother returned alone to New York City, where she is a kindergarten teacher. Carson studied acting for a year at Gainesville's Santa Fe Community College before rejoining her mom in New York, where she worked onstage.

She moved to Los Angeles in 1993 for a TV pilot, Divas, which wasn't picked up, and she stayed-despite the fact that she can't drive. Not that she hasn't tried:As a teen, Carson flunked the behind-the-wheel test three times (the third time because she didn't turn on the windshield wipers in the rain). How does she get around? "I have kind friends." And close relatives. Her siblings Wyatt, an aspiring actor, and Lynn, a fashion buyer, live nearby. (Brother Lester, a personal trainer, lives in Atlanta.) She counts her Ally costars among her "pals," too, and says the buzz about Calista Flockhart's weight has had no effect on the cast. "We haven't paid attention to that. Calista is a fabulous actress. That's all that matters."

Carson's too busy to worry about such things. She has a small but pivotal role in the upcoming Eddie Murphy/Martin Lawrence movie, "Life." She's writing a screenplay, thinking about recording an alternative R&B album (she sang the national anthem at this year's World Series) and taking another stab at that driving test. If she can focus. "You have to get in the right frame of mind to become a driver," she says. "I need a lot of time to get my head together." -Janet Weeks