It's Like, Uh ... Jennifer Grey

Hollywood may never know how close it came to meeting Wanda West. If things had gone a little differently, West could have been the new actress in town, a petite, pretty thirtysomething with brown eyes, rock-hard abs and a professional's way with a script. "She reminds me of that girl from 'Dirty Dancing'--Jennifer Grey," producers might have said. "But without, you know, the nose." West would have landed roles--more roles and better roles than Jennifer Grey was getting at the time. That was the idea, anyway, when Grey plotted to make a comeback as Wanda West. "I've got to tell you, I think it could have worked," she says. "This town is so built on who's the new face, and no one would have ever known it was me."

Probably not. The borscht-belt beauty who came of age in the brawny arms of Patrick Swayze in the 1987 teen smash "Dirty Dancing" disappeared forever in a plastic surgeon's office eight years ago. Even lifelong friends didn't recognize Grey after the rhinoplasty that left the actress with a nose she says she never wanted. But the actress is now set to reintroduce herself--as herself. "It's Like, You Know ... ," a sitcom created by "Seinfeld" stalwart Peter Mehlman, features Grey as Grey, and debuts at 8:30 p.m. EST a week from Wednesday on ABC. The show's title could easily serve as an assessment of its overall quality, but casting Grey was an inspired stroke--both for the series and for her. On the sitcom, she's part of the L.A. landscape that protagonist Arthur Garment (Chris Eigeman), a recent transplant from New York, must learn to navigate. While he gets his bearings, he's crashing at the home of his well-to-do pal Robbie Graham (Steven Eckholdt). And, true to the Angeleno stereotypes the program traffics in, Robbie's got a well-known neighbor (Grey) who's something of a poster child for the vagaries of showbiz.

As you might expect given its "Seinfeld"-ian provenance, "It's Like, You Know..." is about nothing so much as it's about hanging around in Los Angeles. The characters are busily idle in much the way Jerry and his cohorts were. One episode consists of nothing more than the cast watching a car chase on TV. You're supposed to be amused by the vacuity of SoCal culture--but there are no surprises here. "Seinfeld" was a show that loved New York in a knowing but novel way. "It's Like, You Know ..." is one that hates L.A. for all the same old reasons. Still, ABC is bullish on the series, having ordered 13 episodes despite a pilot that tested poorly. Further research demonstrated that the characters picked up fans as they became more familiar--and Grey stood out as a favorite.

The real Grey insists her life isn't as scattered as its TV equivalent. "What you're seeing is me if I really needed a nap and I hadn't eaten all day and nothing is going right," she says. "It's like my most kind of in-fear, desperate self, thinking that fame and fortune are the answer, which I really only feel like one day a month." For better or worse, the role offers Grey, 38, the chance to confront head-on some of the gremlins that have plagued her career since "Dirty Dancing." When Mehlman first floated the part past her, she grabbed it, and not just because it represented steady work. "I said, 'Let's talk about all the things that people say behind my back'," she says. " 'Let's let me say them, you know, let's have fun with the absurdity that is my life'."

Chief among the topics on gossip-mongers' lips, of course, has been the plastic surgery that rendered her unrecognizable. Grey insists the radical restructuring of her nose was an accident, the unfortunate result of what was to have been a minor touch-up. She hopes that after airing the issue on the series, "I might not have to deal with it anymore. Every interview I do just becomes anatomy of a nose." Then there's the tabloid-compiled roster of famous ex-boyfriends--a list said to include Johnny Depp, Matthew Broderick, Billy Baldwin and George Stephanopoulos. The never-married Grey's dating history does get a workout on the show, but only obliquely. "She was comfortable with the concept, but she was not OK about naming names," says Mehlman, who rewrote an early draft of the pilot to defer to Grey's wish to shield her beaus. In person, the actress won't discuss her love life, though she's not without a bawdy streak. "Actually, I had the best sex last night with a really famous person," she taunts, grinning wickedly. "Don't you want to know his name? Don't you want to know what we did? I'll tell you, but I want a cover," she jokes. "That's how disgusting this business has become."

Disgusting or not, showbiz has had Grey hooked since childhood. The daughter of "Cabaret" star Joel Grey, she first developed a following with roles in classic teen flicks like "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and the lovable cheese-fest "Red Dawn." "Dirty Dancing" pushed her over the top--just in time for her to begin sliding down the other side. "There were times when I was really scared, when I thought 'I'm going to have to find something else to do'," she says. "It was that bad." She considered going to college, which she'd skipped as a showbiz kid growing up in New York. "I thought of becoming a shrink," she says. "It was the only thing I'd had as much experience in as I did with show business." And, ultimately, she invented Wanda West, who took her name from Grey's former address on Wanda Street in Hollywood. "I guess it's a lost opportunity now--I'm stuck with me," she says. But that might not be so bad, you know?