.: Charmed Life :.

By Kate O'Hare

Holly Marie Combs

After four seasons of family conflicts and powerful social issues on David E. Kelley's critically acclaimed drama "Picket Fences," Holly Marie Combs was ready for two things. She wanted to have some fun. And she wanted to grow up.

"As much as I loved 'Picket Fences,' she says, 'it was hard after a while to have all the arguments and the crying. Too much crying and fighting! Especially for my character, Kimberly, being the teenager. So this looked like something that would be totally different, I don't want to say a lot more fun, but in a way more fun.

" And I get to play older, finally. That was important to me. I think Kimberly aged two years in four years, from 16 to 18. So it was exciting for me to actually play someone closer to my own age."

On the WB's Wednesday-night drama " Charmed" (9 p.m. Eastern), 25-year-old Combs plays chef and restaurant manager Piper Halliwell, the middle child of three San Francisco sisters who have found out that they're hereditary witches with magical powers. On top of that, they're the " Charmed Ones," whose duty it is to protect the innocent and fight against evil. Along the way, they deal with dating, clothes, jobs, sharing a huge Victorian house and the other hassles of sisterhood.

The original pilot, which never aired, featured Lori Rom as the youngest sister, Phoebe. She was then suddenly replaced by Alyssa Milano. " She was the right combination," says Combs. " We had a break between doing the pilot and starting the series. It was a little weird at first. We were like, 'What?' It was totally unexpected, and we were caught a little bit off-guard.

"It really did surprise me. But I had the first scene with Alyssa the first day, and she was so sweet and so nice, I couldn't find a thing wrong with her. And she was funny, which the youngest character really needed to have. It was the element that we were missing."

Playing the oldest sister, Prue, is "Beverly Hills 90210" star Shannen Doherty, and as soon as that was announced, tongues began to wag about possible conflicts and diva behavior on the set. Combs is quick to dispel that notion.

"Actually," she says, "I'm not quite sure if I want to talk about this, but I kind of do, because I'm so sick of all these rumors. I just had surgery (for a uterine fibroid) recently, and we shut down for two weeks.

" These girls, I mean, Shannen was with me through every doctor's appointment and held my hand, and Alyssa was in my hospital room every day, she even climbed into bed with me. These are kind of life-and-death things when you really need people, and they're actually there. It's pretty nice.

"It made a huge difference in how fast I got better to have them around and have them be so supportive of me. These were not pleasant doctor's appointments and tests that they sat through with me. And my crew was so supportive of me. It's really become this family atmosphere where we take care of each other."

Not having grown up with sisters, Combs is also happy to be working on a show with so many other women. "It's great because there are so many more women than actually just the three of us. That's what people don't realize. Our whole hair-and-makeup trailer is all women, and we're actually working with a woman director right now. So I call it 'Estrogen Dome.' The women rule the set.

" It is different than any experience I've had, but it's also a lot of fun. And we've all synched up our menstrual cycles. It's weird."

What did Combs think of the idea for the show? " I thought it was great because it would be something different, to have three women, three brunettes, who are not neurotic or in need of therapy. I was really happy that they were these independent, family-oriented, very personally, in their own ways, successful. That always appeals to me. I like strong women."

Each sister has a particular power. Piper freezes people in place, but that hasn't helped her hold onto a steady guy. Which is not to say Piper hasn't tried, but so far she's fallen for a warlock, a ghost and a handyman who turned out to be a magical being.

" I've had it all. What's going on here? Phoebe's the one who's supposed to be dating up a storm. How come I have guys in and out of here every three weeks? I think there's one coming up who's not bad news, but he doesn't hang around either."

Luckily for Combs, real life is going a little better. During the interview, she pauses to take a call. " It was my boyfriend," she reports. " He was so sweet. He just called to say 'I love you.' There's got to be something wrong with this man. He's too perfect. He's a second-grade schoolteacher, so he calls me at recess. It's so cute!

"I just happened to meet him by chance, and thought he was a really amazing person. He's very brave, with 22 7- and 8-year-olds every day. I can't imagine how he does it. He teaches in South Central L.A., so he's got an even bigger challenge."

With the show doing well in the ratings and a lock to return next season, what would Combs like to see happen? "'Actually, going to San Francisco for once would be nice. It's all Hollywood magic now. Apparently we are going next year sometime. That would be fun."

And for Piper? "I guess I'd like her to be a little more relaxed. They enjoy calling me 'hyper Piper' on the set. She's always worried, constantly worried, about something. That's part of her charm."

But don't expect Piper to start showing up in the same form-fitting, sometimes skimpy clothes her sisters favor. "No," says Combs, "I've made that very clear! Because it was starting off that way in the beginning, and I said, 'No! We don't have to be naked all the time!'"