The Love Decade

A working girl from the age of ten, Jennifer Love Hewitt looks at twenty.

Jennifer Love Hewitt in 1999. Credit: Ron Galella/WireImage

She has become a far bigger Love than even Courtney. With those eyes, that face, her growing craft and an increasingly killer bod, Jennifer Love Hewitt is one of America's most adorable cottage industries. Love – as she's called – is on her way to media omnipresence. She acts – playing the long-suffering Sarah on Fox's Party of Five and the same character on a show of her own, Time of Your Life, planned for the fall; and in movies like I Know What You Did Last Summer and Can't Hardly Wait. She sings – she was making teen records at thirteen. She pitches – since she moved to L.A. at ten with her family, her face has been featured in an endless string of commercials. And she produces! Upcoming projects include a TV movie in which she plays Audrey Hepburn and a film idea she sold while still a teen. She has even popped up in videos (Smash Mouth's "Can't Get Enough of You Baby" and in her own "How Do I Deal"). Not bad for a girl just out of high school who still lives with her mom.

Her success results from her ability to strike a balance between being the woman of our dreams and the girl next door, whether she's having her feelings hurt on Party of Five or her pals dismembered in a bloody Summer. A recent poll asked the question, "If you had one condom left, what celebrity would you want to use it with?" Love, along with Brad Pitt, finished first. And yet, in person, Love comes across as friendly, eager to please – the pretty girl you're pals with, not the pretty girl you dream about doing bad things with beneath the bleachers.

How does she handle her ubiquity? "It feels good," says Love, who has a way of sugarcoating what's already very sweet. "The best way I can explain it is, it's like the Fourth of July – when you watch the fire-works and you don't understand how anything could be so big and bright, but they still enchant you, even though it seems like, wow, you could never touch that. That's what my life feels like now. I sort of don't understand at all why it's happening, so I'm just following it along. But it's great. I'm having a good time."

This afternoon, Love is inside Stage Twenty-one – which is done up to look like a New York apartment building – on the Sony lot in Culver City, California. She is making a pilot for the Fox series, which for now is appropriately called Time of Your Life. On the new show, Sarah will journey to New York to find her birth father and will end up sticking around the Big Apple – hopefully until syndication. We are sitting in her trailer during a break. Love is asked whether she's had to give up a lot, like actually being a teenager.

"I don't think you can get anything without giving up something," she says. "I give up ten hours of sleep every night for four really great hours" – in Love's dream life, even her sleep is superlative – "and an incredible day at work. I would be the biggest candidate for a big kick in the head if, with my life, I was to say, 'I'm not happy with that.' When I was ten years old and my friends were reading in school in their history books about all these different places, I was traveling to those places. And it's only gotten better since."

Can't we pretty please project anything tortured on you – some sort of celebrity misery? "No, I won't let you," she adds, sticking to her pleasant guns. This seems odd, considering that she has made her name on a show that has turned teen angst into a national pastime. "Right," she says, grinning. "So I don't have to."

Over hot chocolate in a cozy Burbank coffeehouse a few days later, Love – dressed down in sweats and unbothered by the other slurpers – reflects on the significance of her twentieth birthday, which represents the tenth anniversary of the pivotal moment of her life: the Hewitt family's massive and now massively rewarded leap of faith. It was on her tenth birthday that young Love arrived in Hollywood from rural Texas, having persuaded her mom to drop everything for the express purpose of getting her in the right place to become a shining young star.

Love was born in Waco, Texas, and raised in nearby Killeen by her mother, Pat, a speech pathologist, who separated from her father, Danny, a medical technician, when Love was six months old. Jennifer's brother, Todd, now a chiropractor, is eight years older. Their was not a show-business family, though she believes Patsy Cline was her grandmother's third cousin. Others said to be on the family tree include Jesse James and Harry S. Truman.

At the time of the move, Todd was eighteen, and he stayed back in Texas to graduate high school. For a while, there was a stepfather in the picture, about whom little is said. Todd says the family "never went hungry, never wanted for anything, but we weren't well off. We had clothes on our back and food on the table, and as far as we knew everything was fine."

Todd Hewitt recalls worrying some about his sister and mom heading off to the big city, but he was already a true believer in Love. "I remember standing in the driveway, watching the U-Haul pull out, the car all loaded down," he says. "Never once did I ever think they would fail and have to come home."

On Love's first night in Los Angeles, they lived large, checking into the Holiday Inn in Hollywood, where they celebrated with Love's favorite treat in the whole world – strawberry cheesecake – in the revolving restaurant atop the hotel. The next day, a big white limo took her to Saks because her then-manager had arranged tickets to the Grammys. In the elevator, Love met Pearl Bailey, who sang "Hello, Dolly!" for her to prove she was more than the lady from a chocolate-chip-cookie commercial.

Love's singing career – her immediate goal – didn't take off right away, but that didn't hold back the little girl who was already a veteran of livestock shows. Love quickly scored a role on Disney's Kids Incorporated series. Her dogged work ethic paid off slowly as she plowed through a Barbie dance video, commercials, three pop albums, promotional shows for L.A. Gear, small movie parts (check out Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit, in which Love can be seen, if barely heard, as a classmate of another late-Nineties It girl, Lauryn Hill) and a number of short-lived TV series like Shaky Ground, Byrds of Paradise and McKenna. Before her Party of Five audition, she warned the show's creators, Christopher Keyser and Amy Lippman, that she might be some sort of TV curse.

Wisely, they were not deterred, and Love landed what she considers the role of a lifetime. "The first time we saw Love, it was just instantaneous," Keyser recalls. "You think, 'Wow, this person is incredible,' and you have to have her." "She was not the character we had envisioned Sarah to be," Lippman confirms. "We completely changed the character to fit with who she was when she came in."

Through all the work, there was no looking back for Love, though she maintains that the option was always left open by her mother: "She still says, 'If you get tired of being in the business or you're not having fun anymore, we can still pack our bags for Texas and go back.' My mom was incredibly gracious and sort of handed over her life to me and said, you know, go for it."

Love is characteristically loath to wallow in the dark side of endless auditions and jerky casting types. "I've definitely had crappy experiences, but I won't talk about it," she says. "Because that's not nice. So I can't. But, just so you know, I have had them."

Generally, though, work was a more welcoming place than school. "I had a rough time," she says of her days at a public middle school in the Valley. "I would have stayed, but it was hard on me. I didn't like the teacher saying what I was doing would ruin my education, because I had social skills that those kids weren't going to have for another six or seven years from getting to do what I do. I was dedicated to school, and I didn't feel that I needed the ridicule." The kids weren't much better. "They kind of think you're a freak because you're, like, 'actress girl,'" she says. Still, she found Los Angeles a much easier place to live than Texas.

"Only when I came to Los Angeles did I feel like I truly belonged somewhere, because there were lots of people around just like me," Love says. When she was fourteen and it was time for her first date, the lucky boy was Fred Savage: "He gave me a big hug at the end. I got to be Winnie for a night."

When Love is asked about her mother, who doesn't speak with reporters, she wants to make it clear that Pat Hewitt is not a stage mom. There was no pushing – nothing, Love says, but inspiration. "I have gotten her strength and her sense of humor," she says. "And I've gotten her tender heart. I am pretty much a little version of my mom." Todd Hewitt says that "my answer to the stage-mom thing that comes up always is, quite simply, you can't force someone for ten years to work as hard as she has. It's just impossible to get the kind of effort and results and quality of work."

Does Love see anything she got from her dad?

"I don't really know him as well, you know?" she says quietly. "Like, I knew him from six until about ten, and then I came out here to do this stuff, and we haven't seen each other that much since. I don't know him as much – I mean, I am sure I have gotten things from him, but I don't know him as well as my mom, so it's hard to say."

Love says that Todd was her hero growing up and that at times he acted as a father figure. Indeed, Love's twentieth birthday has hit her big brother hard. "I wish you wouldn't mention that," he says, sounding choked up. "I am not doing well with that. Without being too sentimental, my little girl is growing up."

Indeed she is. Love first met her boyfriend, MTV VJ Carson Daly, "for literally two seconds" at the MTV beach house. Then she did his show MTV Live and got to know him better. She did the show again, co-hosted an MTV Oscar special with him and things developed. For sustaining the relationship across a continent, Love proclaims, "I think we deserve a huge round of applause. I think we've done a really good job – it's been almost a year now." Recently, Daly took some abuse from Howard Stern for comments about his spiritual beliefs, which came from an interview with Teen People in which Daly spoke wholesomely of his relationship with both God and Love. In some minds, he somehow linked the two.

"It bothered me only because I don't think people should be mocked for what they believe in," she says. "No-body else has the right to judge that." On the other hand, she adds, "You can only be complimented being on Howard Stern – I mean, he's talked about my breasts numerous times, and the tiny tops from I Know What You Did Last Summer and I Still Know What You Did Last Summer. People are always like, 'Did you hear Howard Stern? Are you offended?' And I'm like, 'No – I feel honored. That's what he does.'"

Love embraces being a sex symbol as well as a role model. "We're a society that's based on eye candy," she says. "Especially in the movies. People don't want to go see a two-and-a-half-hour movie with somebody in sweats who they don't find attractive. That's why Natalie Wood, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Bette Davis and Lauren Bacall were what they were. Of course they were talented, but as a little bonus they happen to be beautiful. When people say that stuff, it makes you feel good. I don't consider myself that, so it makes me feel good when other people do."

Love insists that most of her fan mail isn't of the "You're so hot" variety. "Mostly I get, 'You seem so sweet and friendly,'" she says. "Or, 'You remind me of my best friend.' And my personality is a little bit like that. The one thing people have said to me most is that they just feel really comfortable with me, which is great. I try not to be like 'celebrity' and 'people.' I don't think there's a difference. I am not a star. I'm an actor, and I happen to be working."

She also happened to play her own small part in recent American history. One late-fall night in 1995, she says, she was performing at a gala in Boston; the first family was expected to come. But this was during the shutdown of the federal government. In the teeth of a crisis, the president took a pass on Love's event, so his wife and daughter went without him while the Big Creep stayed back at the White House and had a historic Party of Two with a certain intern.

Just outside the stage of Party of Five – on the day Claudia's sweet-sixteen party is being filmed – Love spends some time with a young fan here on a visit set up by the Make-a-Wish Foundation. Unaware that a journalist is snooping, she's being warm, nice and all sorts of other good things that don't make particularly good copy.

Love is asked whether she's yearning for her bygone teens. "I miss those years," she says slyly. "I've been crying softly on my pillow."

A few days early, Love celebrated her twentieth birthday, February 21st, with her mother. The idea was to go back, for a day, to being the little girl on whom the family took its biggest gamble. "We did everything we did when we first came here," Love says. "We went roller-skating on the Santa Monica pier, we went and had our photo taken in the photo booth, then we played skeet ball. Then she took me to this place where I used to go swing on the swing set." All of that meant missing a special Party of Five concert by R.E.M., but the day wasn't an entire rock & roll loss. Love explains that her favorite birthday present was her very own electric guitar. "It's awesome," she says.

How nice. What kind of guitar?

"Um, a white one," Love says, and somehow it sounds like the perfect choice.