Dana Delany

The new femme fatale on Desperate Housewives is trusting her instincts about whatever else might come her way. At 51, she says, "I love big surprises."

By Margot Dougherty; Photographed by Michael O'Neill

At Home in the Spotlight

"I think you know everything as a child, and then sometimes it’s smooshed out of you," Dana Delany says. "Since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to act." She gets up from a salmon suede love seat — "I want to show you something" — and climbs the suspended stairs of her modern three-story house in Santa Monica. Descending, she waves a copy of her application to Phillips Academy Andover, the Massachusetts prep school that she attended, and reads an excerpt from the essay she wrote at 16, predicting where she’d be in 20 years:

"The final curtain falls and another day comes to an end. This is my life — the theater. At age 36, many women have married, settled down, and raised a family, but that is not for me. My day does not begin with crying babies and a husband late for work, but with the dimming of lights, the rise of the curtain, and the current of magic between actor and audience. This is living to me…."

Delany laughs — a deep laugh that makes you think that under the right circumstances, she could tell a good bawdy joke — and seems both amused and impressed by her teenage self. "Can you believe this?" she asks. "I’m exactly where I said I’d be."

That would be in the catbird seat. Delany, 51, has four independent movies ready for release, and this season she joined ABC’s megahit Desperate Housewives as Katherine Mayfair, the newest and possibly most devious femme fatale on the block. "I lived on Wisteria Lane 12 years ago and left under mysterious circumstances with my daughter," she says of her alpha-mom character. "Now I’m back with my new, younger, handsome gynecologist husband."

Delany knows a lot about the older woman-younger man dynamic. "I’ve been dating younger men since my 20s," she says with a smile. "When I was 29, I dated someone 21." More recently she went out with a wine connoisseur 11 years younger and, after that, a writer 14 years her junior. "I can’t go any younger than that!" she says. "That’s my limit. But younger men are just more fun. I like their energy. I’ve always been kind of young for my age."

Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry isn’t surprised by this art-imitating-life scenario. "Dana looks so much younger than she is, it’s actually a little freaky," he says. "She comes onto the set with no makeup and her hair not done and looks like a 35-year-old on her way to the beach. Whatever she’s doing, it’s good for her."

This is immediately apparent when Delany opens the door to her home. She’s wearing a short cotton skirt with red-and-brown cross-hatching and a brown camisole just the decent side of sheer. Her hair, still wet from a post-yoga shower, has earned her the nickname Breckie on the Housewives set for its shampoo-commercial lushness. Delany bought the house, which a real estate agent would describe as "architectural," while starring on China Beach. Rather than choose a slick, celebrity-studded enclave, she opted for a quiet street that’s walking distance from the beach and shared by apartment buildings and single-family homes with modest yards. The house’s open-plan main floor combines kitchen, dining, and living areas, and a large window overlooks a shaded swimming pool. A cluster of black-and-white photographs, mostly nudes, hang on one wall, and on another there’s an early John Alexander painting, The Interview, depicting a wide-eyed, topless blonde in a hot tub with an Uncle Fester type. "Obviously I had a theme," Delany says. "This was sort of my breast floor. I’m trying to change it up a little."

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