From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
GROUND ZERO IS A NONDESCRIPT DENTIST'S OFFICE IN downtown Smyrna, Ga. It was there in the mid-70s that Dr. Ted Aspes, a pediatric dentist, nurtured what just may be the most profitable asset in modern cinema—Julia Roberts's smile. An aesthetic marvel that when fully deployed makes her look like "I have a hanger in my mouth"—or so Roberts recently told Oprah Winfrey—the smile will one day be recalled as iconically as Monroe's figure, Gable's mustache, even Taylor's violet eyes. But in the beginning it was imperfect, and Aspes had to fit Roberts with a retainer to fix a space between her two front teeth that she had created by sucking her thumb. David Letterman, the gap-toothed gabber with an avowed crush on Roberts, got wind of her orthodonture and has been pestering Aspes for photos of young Julia before her gap sealed up. "He's constantly pumping me for information about her," says Aspes. "I told him I need a release before I can send him a picture, but he never gets one."

It's easy to forgive frisky Dave his infatuation—Roberts is, quite simply, the most appealing actress of her time. Forget the fact that eight of her 24 films have each grossed more than $100 million, including the last three: 1999's bouncy romantic comedies Notting Hill and Runaway Bride and this year's inspirational blockbuster Erin Brockovich. Forget too that Roberts, 32, commands $20 million per movie, unprecedented for an actress, and that this March Forbes magazine put her atop its list of the Power 100, ahead of such showbiz bigwigs as Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg. Heck, forget that Roberts is wildly in love, bundled snugly in a fairy-tale romance with good guy Benjamin Bratt, 36. Forget all that and focus on the smile—it's the smile of a woman in full flower, a star at the absolute peak of her charm. "When she gives you that big smile, it's like a light coming on," says Notting Hill's producer, Duncan Kenworthy, "You want to have it in every shot, because it's so glorious. But you have to use it sparingly. It's like a weapon."

Luckily for her adoring public, she has been wielding it more and more these days. "She had a period of malaise, but now the sun is out from behind the clouds," says film critic Roger Ebert. "Whatever it took for her to accept herself and her success, she was able to do it." And so, 10 years after Pretty Woman made her a movie star, the cute and coltish ingénue has matured into a rare and sophisticated beauty. "She's just become stunning," says Bob McGowan, her manager early in her career, "Guys used to swoon over her all the time. But she became a 10 whereas before she was a 7." Her deepening allure is no mere cinematic effect. Last December, when Roberts turned up at the opening of the Me & Ro jewelry boutique in Manhattan, "guys were just standing there going, 'Wow!' " says the shop's co-owner and Roberts's pal Robin Renzi, "One guy called up his buddy on his cell phone and said, 'You've got to come down here! Julia Roberts is here and she's even more beautiful in person!' "

Radiant, yes, but never blindingly so. Hers is not a cool or daunting glamor but rather a warm, engaging winsomeness. "You don't feel a barrier between yourself and her," says her Erin Brockovich director, Steven Soderbergh. "There's a lack of pretension that people respond to." And it's not just men with pitter-pattering hearts who do the responding. "Boys, girls, old, young—they all love Julia," says Garry Marshall, who directed Roberts in Pretty Woman and Runaway Bride and who feels she's something other than an ordinary sex symbol. "I'm sure she likes to be taken as attractive, but it's her natural appeal that draws people," he says. "Like that outfit Jennifer Lopez wore to the Grammys—I don't see Julia doing something like that."

Julia did, however, show surprising cleavage to play the brassy, sassy single mother and legal assistant Erin Brockovich, easily her juiciest role in years. "I think Benjamin said it best when he said, It took a village to raise that cleavage,' " Roberts told Today's Matt Lauer, in reference to the specially constructed bras that helped enhance her performance. But even that film's costume designer says making the star look beautiful was the easiest part of his job. "When you're dressing Julia Roberts," says Jeffrey Kurland, "you don't have to worry about what's going to look good."

And that's despite her admittedly healthy appetite. "I want to eat all the junky food," she told Oprah. "Biscuits and gravy and grits." That's why, she joked, "I get paid the most.... They pay me by the pound." In fact, she keeps her 5'9" frame in fighting trim by going for six-mile jogs and doing lots of yoga. Yet her attraction has never been strictly physical—her quirky southern charm has always complemented her face ("She's a half-bonkers southern belle," is how Hugh Grant, her Notting Hill costar, puts it). As a shy but playful child growing up in Smyrna—her mother, Betty, 65, and her father, Walter (he died in 1977), separated when she was 4—Julia Fiona Roberts, whom everyone called Julie, "had that little spark, that extra personality, that the average child does not have," says dentist Aspes. In the 10th grade "she got away with more in class than anyone else," recalls her former English teacher David Boyd. "I was usually very strict, but she would give me that smile and start talking about who knows what, and then we'd all be off the subject. The class would love it."

Roberts skipped college and followed her big brother Eric, 44, into acting, earning raves for her supporting roles in 1988's Mystic Pizza and 1989's Steel Magnolias. Then came her fateful 1990 audition for the part of a prostitute in a film then called 3000. "She had a kind of street urchin behavior that disappeared when she broke into the smile," says Garry Marshall, who quickly cast her opposite Richard Gere in Pretty Woman.

After that film, however, Roberts lost some of her luster by courting unwanted publicity—there were the many affairs with leading men like Liam Neeson and Dylan McDermott; the last-second split-up with fiancé Kiefer Sutherland; the quickie marriage to Lyle Lovett. Her movies, too, got drearier: Does anyone remember Mary Reilly or Michael Collins? But things changed when Roberts looked up while dining at a Manhattan restaurant in 1997 and saw her knight in shining muscles strolling by: Law & Order's Benjamin Bratt. "We're just ecstatically happy," Roberts told Oprah. "We're drunk with joy 24 hours out of the day. We're sickening."

Actually, fans can't get enough of her glowing face. "She's incandescent," says actress Lorelei King, a costar from Notting Hill. "One time there was a scene with a gazillion extras who were pushing and shoving and all that, and when we were finished she turned to everyone and smiled and waved and dazzled them. And they were utterly charmed." So are those who get to see that magnetism up close. "If I were a mosquito with just one wish," says Aaron Eckhart, who plays her Erin Brockovich boyfriend, "it would be to land on Julia Roberts's lips." The lady herself has learned how to keep grinning even while being hassled by paparazzi, lest they snap her mid-frown. "I have my Stepford smile," she recently said, explaining that even while "I'm panicking, I'm freaking out, we're being attacked," she can communicate with her beau through clenched teeth. "I say, 'Just get in the car, let's go, come on.' "

Good thing she has such control of her smile, cause it looks like she's going to be using it a lot in days to come. Next up for Roberts is the female lead in the gritty romantic comedy The Mexican, opposite—are you ready?—Brad Pitt. For the part, Roberts even trimmed her prized locks to just above the shoulder. "It's a nice cut with layers that really frames her face," says the movie's producer, Lawrence Bender. "Believe me, it looks great." There's also buzz that Roberts could win her first Oscar, for Erin Brockovich. And, of course, how long can it be before she makes an honest man out of Big Ben—and before she's happily raising a couple of little Bratts in her homes in Taos, N.Mex., and New York City? "She smiles a special smile when Benjamin comes around," says Marshall. "If you or I tell her she's pretty, she just says, 'Oh, thanks,' But when Benjamin tells her she's beautiful, that means something to her."

Letterman can poke around all he wants—there don't seem to be any gaps in her life anymore

Alex Tresniowski
Jill Westfall in Miami, Julie Jordan and Mark Dagostino in Los Angeles, Sue Miller and Fannie Weinstein in New York City, Champ Clark in Chicago and Liz Corcoran in London

  • Contributors:
  • Jill Westfall,
  • Julie Jordan,
  • Mark Dagostino,
  • Sue Miller,
  • Fannie Weinstein,
  • Champ Clark,
  • Liz Corcoran.