Jennifer Love Hewitt: One Hundred Percent from the Heart

At 19, Jennifer Love Hewitt is having a remarkable career. She's got a killer movie franchise, a cool TV series and three CDs under her belt. She's even doing her first grown-up role in a film with Ben Stiller. And she'll soon be portraying Audrey Hepburn on the small screen. More remarkable than her career is her attitude--the girl called Love actually likes being a role model for young adults, and she's determined to stay someone they can believe in.

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There are still probably a few people over 25 who don't know who Jennifer Love Hewitt is. Though the fizzy, endearing, sought-after 19-year-old seemed to emerge fully formed out of nowhere at 16 the night she debuted as lovely, sensible Sarah Reeves on Party of Five, not everyone watches that hit show. And though her sleeper teen-scare flick I Know What You Did Last Summer nailed down the number-one box-office slot and stayed there three weeks at the end of 1997 before hooking in over $100 million worldwide, it was hardly Titanic.

But now that its been announced Hewitt will play the young Audrey Hepburn in a TV movie, and now that the sequel to I Know What You Did Last Summer is about to come out, and now that Hewitt is making the jump to adult roles by playing opposite Ben Stiller in the upcoming edgy comedy The Suburbans, nobody has much of an excuse for not knowing who she is. She's Hollywood's sweetheart of 1998.

"Love"--the middle name was turned into a nickname at the suggestion of her mothers college roommate--is almost ubiquitous, and it's not hard to see why. She radiates healthy, sweet hugability, nicely leavened with a shot of melancholy, and she's so oddly free of the blatant narcissism that marks many actors in her age range that she leaves one room to love her back. Moreover, she's got a sexual vibe that's playful, wholesome and unthreatening. She's the hottie that young guys find approachable, and the looker that young women want to be or be friends with.

Hollywood itself hasn't warmed up to such an earthbound teen icon since Molly Ringwald. And now that Hewitt is attempting the transition out of her adolescent roles, the whole towns watching with fingers crossed to see whether she's going to live up to the claims being made for her by her formidably loyal admiration society of casting directors, agents, producers and studio bosses.

Why such claims for Hewitt? First of all, because she's not the latest model off the seemingly endless assembly line of fresh-faced, interchangeable, three-named dolls long on TV luck and brazen drive but short on experience. As a three-year-old, she vanished from the supper-club table of her parents in Killeen, Texas, only to be found in another room atop a grand piano crooning "Baby Love." At six, having studied tap, jazz and ballet, she worked the crowds at a livestock show in a pig barn singing "The Greatest Love of All." At nine, revved up by enthusiastic contest judges and talent scouts, she convinced her mother, Pat, a speech pathologist and audiologist, to head for good to Hollywood. They arrived on Hewitt's tenth birthday, and after less than two months in L.A., the ambitious little trouper, billed then as "Love Hewitt," landed a recurring spot on Disney's Kids Incorporated.

That led in short order to commercials, a dancing and singing stint for L.A. Gear in trade shows in Paris and Japan, and a dance workout video in which she practically out-twinkled the buffed-out Barbie doll star. In the next five years, the little phenom released her first CD, Love Songs; got cast as a regular on three short-lived TV series (_Shaky Ground, The Byrds of Paradise_ and McKenna); did a small bit in Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit; recorded her second CD, Lets Go Bang (a self-titled third CD came later); and had her name linked (casually, briefly) with Joey Lawrence. Then, having affixed to her stage name that all-important, more adult-sounding "Jennifer," she sealed her teen-poster-girl fate with her debut as one of the well-heeled San Francisco lookers on Party of Five.

The petite showbiz veteran invites me to meet her one early evening in a private lounge in, of all places, the Beverly Hills Planet Hollywood, where, cross-legged before a low table, we merrily mow our way through hot hors d'oeuvres, a massive fruit platter, soft drinks and vanilla ice cream. Hewitt is so practiced and poised, so geared to teen-mag chatter, I realize she's not going to reveal the grit under that gossamer unless I pretty much cut through it. So I say, "You're absolutely the leading contender for the title Most Beloved Girl in Hollywood. Isn't it just a little confining? Do you ever have the slightest urge to shake things up the way, say, your Party of Five costar Neve Campbell did in Wild Things, by playing a druggy, scheming sexual carnivore?"

From the expression of horror Hewitt gallantly tries to conceal, I'm ready for the resounding No.

"I have this role model thing going on that's pretty important to me," she says, looking fresher and even more delicate than she does on-screen. "I like knowing that people look up to me. I know from being a teenager how hard it is to find someone you can look up to, put your faith, love and excitement into. The fact that kids do that with me is probably the greatest honor that I have, something I treasure more so than any success. I can't lie and say that I don't think about that when I pick a project. I like being a normal, approachable person and I like playing them, too. I would only do something edgy if it had a real purpose. Movies where characters do drugs, don't go anywhere, and don't realize by the end what a stupid thing they're doing are pointless to me. I don't get them. I'd only play an edgy, rebellious person if, by the end, you saw the life experiences that made her do what she did. It's human to make mistakes. Everybody does. That's something I'd like to play."

Hewitt's passion on the matter of being a role model--something most Hollywood actors young or old run the other way from--is considerable. "What I'm really happy with is the way fans feel able to come up and talk to me as a friend, as somebody that they feel really comfortable with," she continues. "Something that's been happening a lot lately is that people give me a hug, which is so nice and confirms a lot for me. I don't ever want to be above anybody else. Nobody's better than anybody else. People just have different circumstances and were put here for different reasons. What we all are is human beings and were all on the planet to try and figure out what the heck is going on here. That's the kind of work I want to do in movies, too--things that say, Lets be good to each other. It's a weird world and were all we have."

Hewitt's notion of being a populist celebrity extends right to her new relationship with MTV's Carson Daly. "He feels the same way I do when we go out--that it's sort of your duty to take the few seconds it takes to sign an autograph or say hello," she explains.

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