Her Elizabeth Taylor eyes go deep purple when she recalls the accident.
"It was 1963 in Indianapolis, and MGM had picked me as the girl who most resembled Elizabeth Taylor to help promote her new movie, 'The VIPs,' with Richard Burton.
"They put me on the back seat of a convertible and drove me around Chicago and Indianapolis and people really thought I was Elizabeth.
"A postal clerk gawked at me and rear-ended a car. I asked the driver to go around the block, and we found three children had been injured. I felt awful."
MGM asked her to come to Hollywood. But because of the mishap, she told herself: "What kind of life would that really be? Spending a career looking like somebody else?"
So Helen Houser became a schoolteacher and taught for more than 20 years until a back injury forced her to resign.
During that time, her breathtaking resemblance to one of the world's most beautiful women faded into the background.
"I loved teaching, being able to influence children, help them learn things that would be of some help to the world," Houser, 52, said.
Her back injury, the result of a hiking accident, left Houser permanently disabled and feeling sorry for herself in her Huntington Harbour home. And then one evening about a year ago, during a rare outing in the Los Angeles area, someone remarked that she looked like Elizabeth Taylor.
Had she heard of celebrity look-alikes? "Yes, I told myself, remembering 1963. I probably did it before anyone else."
Helen Houser made her first local gala appearance as an Elizabeth Taylor look-alike Saturday night at the Disneyland Hotel. Unsuspecting guests, chatting over cocktails, lapsed into stone silence when "La Liz" swept through the double glass doors in a pale peach satin gown once worn by Rosalind Russell.
One young man visibly lost his breath as she came toward him, tea-rose pink lips flashing a smile somewhere between "National Velvet" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."
What was it about her? What magic did those features weave, assembled as they were on a face that might belong to just about anyone else? The eyes. Huge. Deeply set. Not as violet as Taylor's, perhaps, but every bit as blue, glinty, dancing and piercing. The brows. Two bold strokes of sable. The nose. Less aquiline than Taylor's, but unnervingly close.
"Actually, it begins with our foreheads," said Houser, reeking deliciously of Passion, the fragrance Taylor launched last year.
"Elizabeth and I have the same hairline, the same round curve to the forehead," she said, using a finger to trace the similarity on a photograph of herself. "Actually, I look more like her from the nose up than the nose down. Her chin is a little thinner. The lips have always been a little different." And at 5 feet, 5 inches, Houser is a full inch taller than Elizabeth. And four years younger.
"I've never thought I was pretty," Houser said. "People always told me I was, but I've always had a hard time accepting that. I never thought I was as pretty as she was. That was frustrating. I thought, if I was going to look like her, I wish I were that beautiful."
Except, of course, when Liz got very heavy. "I dyed my hair red then, so people wouldn't think I looked like her at all."
Houser has never met Taylor, although "I've been in the same room with her. Robinson's in Los Angeles hired me to do a Passion perfume promotion last fall. A magician pulled me out of a big perfume box in front of store employees. Then, later in the day, Elizabeth was there, and I was within 30 feet of her. I'd like to think she didn't notice me because of all of the flashbulbs going off . . . I happen to know she doesn't like look-alikes."
Nor does Taylor seem to approve of name-alikes, Houser said. "I named my daughter Elizabeth after her. And, once I heard about a woman who told Elizabeth she'd named her daughter after her, and Elizabeth said: 'Well, aren't you glad my mother didn't name me George Washington?' That hurt. To me, it was important that I named my daughter after her" (with Helen as a middle name).
How does it feel to look like a woman some consider the most beautiful on earth? "Well, it beats looking like Lassie," Houser said, laughing. "But I can't see how looking like Liz is of any use to humanity. And, that bothers me.
"But my father, a 102-year-old Presbyterian minister, told me that maybe this is something that will get me back on my feet. Maybe there is some other plan."
Her dream, Houser said, is to become Elizabeth Taylor's friend. "What I really want to do is help her, if possible, by going places she can't practically go.
"If she couldn't go to an AIDS function, for instance, I could go as her representative. Michael Jackson has look-alikes sign autographs for him.
"Other than doing that, I don't see much of a future in this. But, I will say that after I broke my back, if it hadn't been for Elizabeth Taylor and her (own) comeback, I think I would have rotted away. . . . "