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Friday, March 27, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Femme Nikita' Star Peta Wilson Is Relishing Her Newfound Celebrity

Newhouse News Service

NEW YORK - For Madonna, doing "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" is about as pressure-packed as belting out "Like a Virgin" in the shower. After all, the host was Madonna's co-star in "A League of Their Own"; they're pals.

Coming on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" after Madonna, however, is an act of true show-business courage.

It requires intestinal fortitude, an adventurous spirit, a touch of temporary insanity, a good hair and makeup man, a supportive mother, a savvy publicist and a little stardust of your own.

Peta Wilson qualifies on all counts.

At a taping session for a recent show, the star of the USA Network's sizzling spy caper "La Femme Nikita" waited her turn to play the daytime-TV version of ring-around-the-Rosie. Unlike Madonna, whose attendants number in the dozens, Wilson surrounded herself with less than a six-pack of moral support: a USA Network publicist, a friend from New York, and what she calls "my Australian entourage - hair, makeup and mum."

Looking typically torrid in white leather pants and a Calvin Klein tank top with matching Converse All-Stars, Wilson prepped for the big event by cranking up the Madonna CD on a boombox, dancing around her dressing room and beyond ("I need hallway!" she yelled at one point), kibitzing with her hair and makeup guys, and talking about "Nikita" and Madonna with a newspaper reporter.

"I'm not nervous," she said. "I look at this as just part of the job. I've got my friends with me. My feet are firmly on the ground.

"And hey, let's be honest. I'm pretty interesting. But I'm not as interesting as Madonna."

USA is working on correcting that perception. When it premiered roughly 15 months ago, "Nikita" swiftly established itself as the cable network's signature series. Based on the 1990 French film, it is a weekly action-adventure-mystery series about an undercover agent whose beauty is matched by her brainpower and kick-boxing ability. She's cocky and cunning, the anti-"Ally McBeal."

The role is demanding physically, but with 37 episodes in the can and nine more to shoot before completing Season 2, Wilson says she's adjusting.

"I've got to say the second season's gone like that," she said with a snap of her fingers. "The first season I thought I was dead. I felt like I'd aged about 25 years. This year I feel like a teenager. It's been lots of fun. . . .

"The pressure's still on, but also off a little, because we're doing really well."

The network will try to do even better next season by building to "a huge cliffhanger" at the end of this season, Wilson said. "I can't give away details, but I'm really excited about it."

Doing "Rosie" generates a different sort of excitement, one that Wilson admits she's still adjusting to. "La Femme Nikita" is her first series, and the celebrity that goes along with a hit - even one with a relatively small audience of a couple of million viewers a week - can be as unnerving as it is exhilarating.

"Last year I felt like a little fish in a little fishbowl," she said. "This year I feel like a little fish in a huge fishbowl, swimming around, going, `Holy heck!' . . . I feel like I'm a bit of a surfboard rider. At any given point, I'm on the wave right now, and it could crash and I could hurt myself."

The strain didn't show during a breezy five minutes with O'Donnell, who gave her a big hug, and then something better: She showed a clip from the series.

"Rosie rocks," Wilson said. "She's amazing. She was my first talk show. I'd done nothing. She came to me backstage, where I was sitting between Mia Farrow and Randy Travis, and was so reassuring. The other ones . . . they're much more formulated. This is much more casual. It suits me better. I feel more comfortable."

It showed onstage, where Wilson and O'Donnell gabbed like best buds. It's all that Team Wilson could have hoped for: She didn't make anyone forget that Madonna was there first, but she made it easy to remember her, the dynamic star of "Nikita."

"When you're an Australian army brat," she said, "nothing much intimidates you. This all could be finished tomorrow. So I'm not going to waste my time being nervous and freaked about it. I'm just going to enjoy it while it's there."

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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