Awright guys, quit panting.

Star of a million sexual fantasies and of the movie "Perfect," in which, as an aerobics instructor, a sex symbol on gimbals, she offers her gyrations to the nation, Jamie Lee Curtis sashays into the Jockey Club and orders . . . a Shirley Temple?

"To me, unfortunately, the term 'sex symbol' connotes mindlessness," she says, piled among the pillows in a corner booth. "It connotes where your physical and sensual presence is the only thing people respond to. I do it because I like doing the work. I'm not a vamp girl, I'm very much the baby girl, especially in my private life. I walk around in Tretorns and baggy safari shorts and odd assorted T-shirts from my husband's T-shirt collection. No makeup, like a very semigeeky, awkward girl. Girl! And I stress girl! I really think of myself as a girl. I only put on my womanly stuff when I go to work."

And as she sits there with her eyes boring into you, like an Irish setter demanding to be loosed into the yard, tugging the yoke of her loose cotton sweater over her collarbone, demurely replacing the hem of her print dress to cover a panoramic stretch of leg that leads to, yes, Tretorns, she is less the homecoming queen than the sorority sister who helps the queen with her buttons, or even better, your sister, commiserating when the homecoming queen breaks your heart.

"I am flattered," she says. "But I don't want to be limited anymore. I don't want people to constantly put these labels on me. I am trying very hard to satisfy whatever that image is that people have of me and still do good work."

In the face of the inexorable logic of Hollywood, that's easier said than done. Marilyn Monroe had to die before anyone took her seriously as a comedian. Jamie Lee's father, Tony Curtis, known for light, scatterbrained comedies, had to scratch and claw to get the part of Albert De Salvo in "The Boston Strangler." Her mother, Janet Leigh, is rarely taken seriously as an actress, even though the fact that she starred in some of the best American movies, from "Psycho" to "Touch of Evil" to "The Manchurian Candidate," is clearly more than a coincidence.

Jamie Lee Curtis didn't go into "Perfect" thinking she would be exploited for her body. "After I had an experience on a movie called 'Grandview USA,' " she says, "I just made this decision to myself: I can't make bad movies anymore. You never know if it's going to be a good or a bad movie. The one control you do have is if you can get a good director. I almost made a list of who I wanted to work with." The list included Mike Nichols, John Schlesinger, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese and James Bridges, whom she met "at a party, funny enough" and who offered her the role of Jessie, an Olympic-class swimmer turned health guru, in his new movie.

"I wanted to get away from murder and mayhem and prostitution and down-and-out and anything horrific," says Curtis, who until now has appeared only in what might be called "dark" roles. "I wanted to be healthy. It was a time in my life where I was feeling very healthy and very happy, and I wanted to use that part of me once in my life."

But she had become bankable by using her body: Her seven seconds of nudity in "Trading Places" remain for many the most vivid moment in the movie. "For some reason, people responded to the sequences in those movies very strongly. I mean, I read a review of 'Trading Places' where they literally say I'm naked in the whole movie. I never did those parts in those movies to say, 'Well, I'm going to use this opportunity to expose myself and garner acclaim and it will be my savior and will get me better movies.' If I was going to exploit my body, I would've done it when I was 18 years old, when I was even younger and more nubile.

"I made a conscious decision not to do any nudity in 'Perfect,' although it was not asked of me," she says. "It's not a comfortable thing to see. I'm now married. There's nothing fun about it. I don't have a sense of humor about it -- ask anybody with their clothes off if they have a sense of humor about having 30 people watch them make love to someone who they don't want to be making love to."

What happened in "Perfect," though, was the same old story. National magazines offered her their covers, on the condition she wear a leotard. "I went into the movie thinking Jim Bridges, Aaron Latham, John Travolta. I went into the story thinking of her Olympic background. So it's sort of disheartening to be dealing with this exploitative thing about my body, it's just really strange. I went into this with different intentions than to exploit my body -- I wanted to make a movie with Jim Bridges." And then Jamie Lee Curtis, who has been around Hollywood for all of her 26 years, the daughter of movie stars, the godchild of MCA/Universal czar Lew Wasserman, admits, "Maybe I'm naive."

Jamie Lee Curtis is the second child of Curtis and Leigh. Her father was born Bernard Schwartz -- that makes her half-Jewish, and she wears a medallion that combines St. Christopher and the Star of David. "It was made for my mother when she was married to my father," she says. "I like the fact that I'm part of that religion, that's what my father's heritage is. It's more about history. It's not a practicing theology that I model my life after."

Her parents divorced when she was 3, and she had what she calls an "abnormal normal" childhood. "I didn't really grow up in Hollywood, I grew up in a rustic part of Los Angeles, Benedict Canyon before it was developed. Five acres of untamed land around us, ranch-style house and big dogs, a donkey in a corral outside. Tree houses. It's one of the biggest misconceptions people have about children of certain stars, that they grew up wearing lame' diapers or something."

Curtis grew up with her mother, and remains close to her, talking to her on the phone every day. "Her mother has been this really stable influence in her life," says someone who knows her. "She's really like her mother. But every now and then you see glimpses of her crazy father."

Relations with her father have been strained at times. He's only seen one of her movies, "Love Letters"; Jamie Lee dragged him to it, and he arrived with a girlfriend her age. At the movie's emotional climax, the girlfriend turned to her and said, "Do you like my hair better blond or should I make it a different color?"

"That was then, this is now," Curtis says. "I go to him as a friend, rather than a father. I don't go to him as a source of paternal strength. I do look to him for wisdom."

The only legacy of growing up in Hollywood, it seems, is that she finds it hard to enjoy going to the movies. "I'm a product of movies, I'm around movies a lot, I'm in them -- it's very hard to lose myself and relax. European films are easier, because the people are less recognizable to me. 'Chariots of Fire,' I lost myself -- until I saw Brad Davis. I know Brad, and I love him in the movies, but it was boom -- I'm watching a movie."

She went to girls' schools in Los Angeles, then to Choate, the L.L. Bean-and-cigarettes capital of the western world, which she hated. The University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., lost her after three months when she started working at Universal television. Her first role was on "Quincy"; she was one of five nurses on the ill-fated "Operation Petticoat." "There was a time when I missed it, when all my contemporaries were still in school and I was working. I was worried about taxes and W-4s. I was worried about my utilities bill, and they were worried about whether they should go to the frat party."

Her big break came in 1978 in John Carpenter's "Halloween," a modern suspense classic. She played a resourceful baby sitter up against a psycho killer with resources of his own. " 'Halloween' was a great movie," she says. "The subsequent movies that tried to emulate what 'Halloween' did were awful. What John had so well planned out in his mind was that you just spend a half-hour with these girls before any of the weird stuff happens. You get to know these little girls -- they talk about boys, they talk about baby-sitting. It's really a basic thing: Unless you have identifiable, vulnerable characters that the audience can grasp a hold of, and protect, you're never going to get the audience to be scared."

"Halloween," through no fault of its own, gave birth to the slasher genre, and Curtis starred in a number of them: "Terror Train," "Prom Night," "Halloween II." She actively pursued, and landed, the lead in "Love Letters," a low-budget feminist drama. Her second big break came in "Trading Places," in which she played Ophelia, a hooker with a heart of gold.

"I can tell you, the studio wasn't happy when I hired Jamie Lee Curtis," says "Trading Places" director John Landis. "They said, 'She makes monster movies!' But I insisted, and now they're all heroes, of course."

Movies receded from her mind last May, when she opened up Rolling Stone and saw a picture of Christopher Guest, the "Saturday Night Live" player who was then starring in "This Is Spinal Tap," which he cowrote. "I just really did an old-fashioned 'Spanky and Our Gang' double take," she says, shaking her head like a maraca. "I said, 'Whoever this guy is, is it. That's as good as it gets.' " She called his agent -- welcome to Hollywood -- who passed along her phone number.

He never called. "About two months later, I went to dinner in one of my favorite restaurants in L.A., Hugo's. I walked in and about 30 feet away was Chris sitting at a table. We sort of acknowledged each other, and then he just got up and left. Acknowledged me as he left, never came over and said hi. And then called the next day."

They were married in December. "Hugo's catered," she says.

Her next movie, "Eight Million Ways to Die," will begin shooting in July. Directed by Hal Ashby and costarring Jeff Bridges, it's a thriller about the drug underworld. Bridges plays a cop, Curtis a prostitute, both alcoholics. "I've had enough fresh air," Curtis says. Since "Perfect" wrapped last November, she has had seven months off. What does she do with her free time? "Take care of my husband," she says. "I've perfected the Caesar salad."

If, as Kenneth Tynan once remarked, a star is someone who does one or two of the hardest things in the world extremely well, then Jamie Lee Curtis is a movie star. She'll never be the kind of actor who becomes a character, like Dustin Hoffman or Meryl Streep; her great virtue is the complete honesty with which she connects with the camera -- she may be 40 feet tall and in Dolby stereo, but there's nothing between you and her. It's the kind of acting that feels like no acting at all.

"I think I wanted versatility more than anything in my life, because the people I really respected as actors were those who could really lose themselves. But I realized that my abilities come from me. Jamie is a very strong individual, and if I whitewash out me, and color back in other characters, I get terrible, I get acty. What I do is just channel the character through me."

Although she claims she can't play comedy (what her husband does, she says, is "way beyond me"), everything about her belies it. When she shalumps around the Ritz in her loose clothes and sneakers, or does her "Our Gang" double take, she really is a "semigeeky, awkward girl," and that's funny -- you can see delightful possibilities for Jamie Lee as a goofball boho intellectual in an urban comedy. That kind of role would help her transcend her pinup image, but she also has to probe more profoundly the persona she created in "Halloween."

"It's very unusual for an actress to project not only great sexuality but real intelligence," says Landis. "You know who else had that? The young Katherine Hepburn and the young Rosalind Russell. If Jamie Lee could get a part like Rosalind Russell had in 'His Girl Friday,' she'd blow everyone away."

Just as Bill Murray has emerged as the archetypal '80s man, Jamie Lee Curtis has become the woman at the center of an age, America's zeitfrau. With her bobbed hair and boyish face yoked to her voluptuousness, she's androgynous even before she gets dressed. Her manner is pure '80s, as no-nonsense as a hacksaw and direct as a plumb-line, but her hourglass figure, her mother's figure, harkens back to the '80s' sister era, the '50s. And as the Sensitive Man has retreated, replaced by Murray's ironic Peck's Bad Boy, women like Curtis have become the perfect partner -- in charge of the situation, a bedrock for the emotionally unmoored, essentially maternal. Men today want mothers (Julian Lennon told Rolling Stone he wanted a pair of breasts to bury his head in), and Jamie Lee Curtis is there for them.

"As awful as that term is -- 'lady of the '80s' -- it's very much true," she says. "This is my generation now, and I represent it. I don't look good in long hair. This is long for me -- it's all going before I shoot the next movie.

"It's almost a maternal thing, which is great, because it will segue into my next career real easy," says Curtis, who plans to be a mother within the next two years. "I know that with children, I will be very no-nonsense. 'Whaddaya got behind your back? Come here, let me see. No no no don't try to throw it in the trash. C'mere. Ah, it's a frog. And what were you going to go do with the frog? You were going to stick it in Mommy's purse, weren't you? But aha, Mommy caught you!' "