Dixie Carter of ``Designing Women' fame says she didn't realize she would learn so much about herself while writing a book.

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Dixie Carter has opinions - lots of them - and never stops for a moment to wonder why.

``Maybe I'm just curious?' she asks.

Carter - known to her many fans as Julia Sugarbaker of the hit sitcom ``Designing Women' - acknowledges that she's answering a lot of questions about herself these days, questions that came up during the year it took her to write ``Trying to Get to Heaven: Opinions of a Tennessee Talker' (Simon and Schuster, $22).

``See,' she notices gleefully, ``I even acknowledged being opinionated in the title. How interesting.'

Carter says she expected the writing process to be soul-baring, but she didn't realize she would still have so many unanswered questions about herself.

``I guess that's the part of writing a book that no one tells you about,' she says during a visit to Dallas. ``Imagine having gone through life, had children, a successful career and still be getting to know oneself. That's wonderful.'

In fact, Carter, who played Julia Sugarbaker for seven years, finds she is practicing the introspection she preaches in her book.

A self-proclaimed Southern belle, Carter offers her views on personal grooming, good manners, proper use of language, healthful eating, plastic surgery and family.

She says she considers happiness ``the pursuit of making your life and the lives of those around you finer.'

A Memphis native, Carter says she stuck close to what she knows for her first literary endeavor, being a Southern woman in the 1990s. And she tapped into her encyclopedic knowledge of style and etiquette.

``I wouldn't write an autobiography because, frankly, I'm not Winston Churchill,' she says.

But she did think she had enough experience with the trappings of beauty - and the pressure of maintaining that beauty - to share.

``Grooming and dressing with care makes you feel good and lifts every aspect of your life,' she writes.

Yet, she says, that doesn't mean that women should fall victim to society's perception of beauty.

``We shouldn't let ourselves be forced into a size 6 just because it's on the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine,' she says.

Carter - who declines to reveal her age - says she considers it important to be healthy and happy with your body, inside and out.

Her Aunt Helen, whom she refers to often in conversation, owns a health food store in Memphis. The bar in her hotel room is well stocked with various vitamins.

``You can't let the cold get ahead of you,' she says.

That's a philosophy that she learned only recently.

``I didn't imagine that I'd be a happy woman,' she says.

``Happiness is not something that you consciously strive for. It's just what happens when you're leading your life in the best way possible.'

Carter, who has spent many years juggling a family (she has two grown children), her career in television and her passion for singing, says many women try to have it all.

``I like to tell women that we must find the ability to balance the professional and the profound,' she says.

``We shouldn't be forced into a career just to have self-esteem. We should do what makes us happy. It's that simple.'

Carter says she wasn't prepared for the twists and turns her own career would take.

After seven years on ``Designing Women,' Carter says, she wasn't quite ready to let go when it was canceled in 1993.

``I felt the show could've gone on longer,' she says. ``But the cast of those women was a unique and irreplaceable fit. And when Delta Burke and Jean Smart left the show, no one could fill their shoes. Their leaving left a terrible void.'

It was during the time after the show was canceled by CBS that she became more ``contemplative' and took up yoga. She went on to produce and star in two successful yoga fitness videos.

Since then, she has completed several TV miniseries and continues to perform at the Cafe Carlyle in New York City. She is also scheduled to sing with the Atlanta, Baltimore and Charlotte symphony orchestras later this year.

Despite being the ultimate career woman, Carter says there is still room for her somewhat old-fashioned Southern ideals.

``We don't hold gentility up anymore except in a Tennessee Williams play,' she says. ``Gentility is a combination of strength and kindness.'

She says many women in the '90s corporate world feel they must become less feminine to succeed. Not necessarily, she says.

``It is possible for a woman to treat people with respect, act with dignity, use her brain and still be a lady,' she says.

``I'm living proof of that.'

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