Her real name is Eve Plumb, and she's a lifelong actress who's now 42 years old and living a normal, modest existence with her husband in North Hollywood. She paints, gardens and is an enthusiastic bargain shopper who frequents flea markets, crafts fairs and antique shops.

But most people don't know that. Or seem to care.

This is what amazes Plumb. Even irritates her at times. It has been three generations and 26 years since "The Brady Bunch" was cancelled.

But thanks to infinite reruns, reunion shows and a still-growing cult following that keeps the cast in an encapsulated spotlight, Plumb has reluctantly seen her adult acting career more closely reflected in the child character who made her famous. She has been labeled, stuck in the middle and, often, overshadowed.

She played Jan Brady. And there has rarely been an escape.

"That's what's so disappointing to everybody -- that I'm not her," Plumb said.

"I had a waitress say to me, `Are you Jan Brady?' `I played her on TV.' " `No, but are you her!?' "

And therein lies Plumb's torment.

As her career enters a renaissance that includes the role of a crabby professor in the movie "ManFast," to be released this winter, and calls to read for TV parts. Plumb is finding that maybe time, patience and lots of perseverance are finally paying off.

"Things go in cycles. You have down times, up times, busy times, not-so-busy times," she said. "I'm having to fight against that stigma of being an ex-child star and, yes, I've reconciled to the fact that the Brady series is what gets me that attention and what deflects what I'm doing now. We all grow up, but not everyone wants us after we do. It's difficult because in our industry the people who cast shows either want a fresh face or established people."

Plumb wonders if she's enough of either because for more than two decades she has been groping for her own identity -- on and off screen. As a result, she has developed a quick-trigger sensitivity about the "Brady Bunch" attachment. She has often rejected Brady projects or promotions because Jan Brady is, well, fiction. Very old fiction.

"The show will be the first thing everyone wants to talk about -- incessantly," Plumb said.

Smart, engaging, and wickedly funny, Plumb is long past being stupefied over the enormous Brady culture.

The rock band Eve's Plum? "I never met them. It's all very odd," she said.

But she'll poke fun at her celebrity by mocking Jan Brady in the first person.

"Funny thing is, if I get mistreated in a shop or store, I think to myself [she drops into a classic Jan Brady whine], `If you knew who I was. . . .' "

And Plumb laughs.

"Don't get me wrong. The series was -- and is -- a wonderful thing. . . . Sometimes I am sensitive. You do get defensive. It can be tiring sometimes trying to answer the same questions all the time. It's easy to get defensive about it. People so often are looking for the bad story. People love to extrapolate things into bad stories: `You're bitter, you're angry.' You answer their question and then they perceive it in a way you didn't mean. After a while, you just can't be responsible for the way people react because you're damned if you do and damned if you don't."

Plumb was already a veteran of prime-time shows and about 40 commercials when she was cast for "The Brady Bunch" at age 11 in 1969. After the series ended in 1974, she had quick success in a dramatic role with the enlightening TV movie "Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway" in 1976 and later with solid roles in "Secrets of Three Hungry Wives" and "Little Women."

But when parts quit coming in during her 20s, she reasoned that Hollywood couldn't separate Eve Plumb from Jan Brady. She went from 1983 to '88 without a screen role, then had a part in the comedy "I'm Gonna Get You Sucka." That was followed by a couple of Brady reunion specials because "work is work," she says.

When the non-Brady acting drought continued into her 30s, Plumb concentrated on her artwork, producing two lithographs, and delving into theater, voiceovers, and stage and stand-up comedy. She admits to periods of reflection, maybe even self-doubt.

"I think everyone who lives long enough has questions about roads taken or not, and choices made," Plumb said. "To say `if I'd only. . .' is to drive yourself insane and not see the opportunities that are available now. My career is what it is, with good and bad parts, embarrassing parts and things to be proud of. But Mary Pickford almost burned all of her movies when she was older, and aren't we glad she didn't?"

Plumb finds it curious why anyone would think she disappeared during the 1990s. "It's funny. Unless you're on the evening news every night, they think you're dead," she deadpanned. "I just haven't been in the public eye every breath I take. I've chosen to live my life as normally as possible. I don't have a rags-to-riches story. I'm not sensational. It's not like I've had to pull myself out of the gutter, or pull myself from the dead."

She landed small parts -- "drips and drabs of work," she says -- and played the mother on the ABC Saturday morning series "Fudge" and appeared as herself in the 1995 spoof of documentaries, "And God Spoke."

Of course, that cameo had its indicative moment. When Plumb arrived on the set for her role as Noah's wife, a goo-goo-eyed stagehand escorted her to wardrobe and then accidentally called her Jan. The editors kept it in the movie.

"I keep thinking [the stigma] is going to end, but there's other times when I realize it's always going to be with me," she said.

Plumb found a way to make herself less recognizable after talking with "Friends" co-star Lisa Kudrow while the two were at the famed improvisational L.A. workshop the Groundlings in the mid-'90s. Plumb had always wanted red hair.

"Lisa Kudrow told me to go really dark red. Go all out," Plumb said. "I thought, `oh, yeesh' . . . Well, I went with red hair and realized I didn't get noticed as much. I could go out to a flea market or antique shop and open up and talk to strangers. We could have regular conversations and that was part of having a normal life that I really enjoyed.

"I like to think that when people meet me and talk to me, they say, `Look at her! She's normal. She's happy. She's alive and creative.' I don't know if they do. But that's just my perception."

And now, Plumb hopes she's on the edge of a screen comeback. That could be due in part to the recent visibility of two tell-all, behind-the-scenes TV movies about "The Brady Bunch" and last fall's 30th anniversary of the show. Plumb also made a guest appearance on "That '70s Show" and did a rare television interview about the Bradys with E! "True Hollywood Story."

"I love TV, I want to be on TV," she said. But "Hollywood is all about getting in the door, and if I could figure out why I don't get more calls, hopefully I could do something to change that. But if I keep asking myself, `why, why, why' . . . well, you can drive yourself insane trying to figure it out. So I can only be saying to myself, `I'll keep trying.' "