Bound for stardom, she headed straight for Hollywood, by way of Georgia.
There, in Peachtree City, show creator Josh Berman was bringing to life a risky plot: Deb, an aspiring model, tragically dies and comes back to earth trapped in the body of plain Jane Bingum, plus-size attorney.
The success of the show hinged on casting the right Jane, the heroine who would portray Deb’s daffy, confident spirit navigating life as a super intelligent, larger woman. After all, no one wants to watch a size O model bemoan her new life as a size 12. The Deb/Jane hybrid had to be charming, yet firm; sympathetic, but not pitiful as she experiences a world that now views her differently.
Berman said they searched for several months for the right Jane, taking blind submissions from across the country. But casting Elliott was swift and certain upon her first audition.
“We knew. Once we saw her, it wasn’t a question. She was Jane. She might as well have popped off the page into real life, and you never, ever get that,” said Berman, who has also worked on such shows as "CSI" and "Bones." “As a TV writer, I’ve never seen that before, where someone owned a part so quickly.”
Especially for a novice. Elliott’s nearly anonymous path to TV fame was atypical. To that point, most of her life and career had been spent onstage in such musicals as "The Pirate Queen" and Boy George's "Taboo."
Talking between takes on the Fayette County set of "Drop Dead Diva," Elliott, 35, recalls her childhood dreams of becoming the next Barbra Streisand.
Her father was a city manager, thus she moved often as a kid, a type of nomadic lifestyle she maintains today criss-crossing from Atlanta to Los Angeles. Her love of singing began as a toddler, eventually taking her to Western Michigan University where she studied musical theater. From there, her career took off in Chicago and led to Broadway.
It was when she toured in “Beauty and the Beast” in 2001 that she met actress Anne Kanengeiser, who recently visited Atlanta with “The Phantom of the Opera." Kanengeiser recalls their conversations about career dreams and struggles. Elliott was still learning what roles would be possible for a woman larger than a size 2 but too small to star in "Hairspray."
"Every person in the world has their moments of doubt," Kanengeiser said. "I told her that she has that gift, and to hang in there, because when you hit it, you're not going to stop."
Kanengeiser was right, even if Elliott has left the stage behind her, at least for now. But her music is never far away.
"Drop Dead Diva" is rich in song and dance. After all, the show opened its second season with a courtroom-based musical number starring Paula Abdul in which Elliott and co-star Margaret Cho sang "Would I Lie To You?"
Berman explains he didn’t set out to incorporate music in the show, but Elliott’s voice, combined with the talents of co-stars Cho and Kate Levering (whose Broadway past includes "42nd Street") made it an easy fit. In fact, "Drop Dead Diva" is among the first cable shows to release its own CD with the stars performing, he notes.
"It’s a little bit of home in this new home I’m creating," said Elliott, her voice fatigued from allergies discovered in Georgia. "I like that we don’t necessarily do it all the time, but throw it in every once in awhile. I love those moments."
On the show, which now draws such guest stars as Liza Minnelli, Faith Prince, Delta Burke and Cybill Shepherd, Elliott’s character has a close relationship with a judge played by Rosie O’Donnell. If their rapport seems easy and genuine, it’s because it is. Elliott first met O’Donnell when the latter produced "Taboo."
Elliott says working with people like O'Donnell have been among the show's greatest gifts.
"They’ve been so, almost like, nurturing to me. They've been so supportive," she said. "Rosie said, ‘Don’t forget who you are. Don’t let them define who you are.' ... That's in my head more and more as I go into the project."
"Drop Dead Diva"
9 p.m. Sunday, Lifetime.