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Meg Ryan is more than willing to talk about beauty as an abstraction ("Things that are simple and authentic are what's beautiful to me"). She will happily exalt the charm of Audrey Hepburn ("She had a grace and elegance that seemed innate") and Cary Grant ("There's absolute beauty in a sense of humor"). She is fervent about Montana, where she and her husband of three years, Dennis Quaid, have a ranch ("It hasn't been even remotely spoiled yet"). And the mother of 2-year-old Jack is eloquent on the loveliness of children ("You look at their little faces when they're sleeping, and you can't believe how innocent and perfect and beautiful they are"). But ask Ryan, 32, to discuss her own, as The Washington Post described it, "wild-pony beauty," and she is all stammers and hesitations. "Beauty," she finally says, "is a very oddball subject to talk about in terms of yourself."

Oddball or not, her ideal blue-eyed girl-next-door looks are much of what has made Ryan run so well and so far. One of Hollywood's most bankable (she asks up to $6 million per picture) and well-liked stars, she is, her Sleepless in Seattle sidekick Rosie O'Donnell has cracked, "completely adorable. It's so annoying." But Tom Hanks, who fell in love with Ryan in 1990's Joe Versus the Volcano and again in Sleepless, says, "She's quite a formidable presence when you're with her. She's not a little wisp of a blondie."

Voted "cutest" by classmates at her Bethel, Conn., high school, the 5'8" Ryan, who's now starring as an alcoholic in When a Man Loves a Woman, still struggles against that brand. "I've never thought of myself that way," says the actress. "Who knows what other people think." Comfortable offscreen in getups such as sweatpants and a Muhammad Ali training camp T-shirt, she's no diva of the makeup trailer either. Movie glamor, she insists, "really doesn't interest me." What does? "I find people's exuberance or mystery or their simplicity beautiful, as opposed to just the way their eyes and face are."

The actress has put her image where her ideals are too. She "has no fear and no vanity," Sleepless director Nora Ephron once decreed. Ryan proved it when she simulated an orgasm among platters of pastrami in 1989's When Harry Met Sally.... She continues to surprise; she has bleached her hair platinum blond for the upcoming comedy I.Q., in which she plays the niece of Albert Einstein (Walter Matthau). And she has signed on with Julia Roberts for a remake of the 1939 classic The Women. But one thing Ryan has never had to fake—in a deli or on a set—is luminescence. Volcano director John Patrick Shanley remembers a cameraman's amazement when Ryan stepped up to her mark after he had lighted the scene for her stand-in. Says Shanley: "He put the light meter up to Meg's face and said, 'Do you see that? Her face reflects 200 times more light than the other girl's!' " Radiance and Ryan go together like, well, pastrami and rye.