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For Jennifer Aniston, success is a bumpy ride

JENNIFER ANISTON SHOULD BE on easy street, but at the moment—late for a date with a movie camera on a sweltering Manhattan morning—she's stuck in traffic on Hudson Street. Her personal trainer turned up late for an exercise session at Aniston's two-bedroom West Village sublet. Which left her little time to get ready for work. Which led to her crunching her glasses underfoot. Which made it tough to inspect the gunk her 7-month-old Australian shepherd mix puppy, Enzo, threw up on the rug.

As the van ferrying her and Enzo to the film's Lower East Side location creeps past six pallbearers carrying a casket, Aniston frowns: "Geezuz, I hope that's not some sort of omen." The 28-year-old actress eyes the graffiti-spattered buildings lining the street. "Hey, this isn't Brooklyn," she says. "Weren't we supposed to be in Brooklyn today?" Just as the van reaches its destination, it is rear-ended by a car that speeds away. "You better get out!" barks the driver, raring to give chase. "Honestly," sighs Aniston, flicking at the trademark tresses that spawned a generation of copy-cuts, "this kind of stuff never usually happens to me."

Doggie goo and fender benders aside, Aniston, after three seasons as the sweetly appealing Rachel on NBC's hit Friends, is ready for liftoff. Friends was renewed for a fourth season—with Aniston and her costars reportedly raking in only somewhat less than the stratospheric $100,000-an-episode salary they asked for last year. And having won critical praise for a supporting turn in last summer's box office lightweight She's the One, Aniston takes top billing in the new romantic comedy Picture Perfect, which opened Aug. 1 to encouraging reviews. In it she plays a junior ad exec who invents a fiancé to advance her career and attract office lothario Kevin Bacon. ("She carries the movie," applauds Bacon.)

Aniston's more challenging screen test will come with The Object of My Affection, the film she has been shooting in New York City this summer. She takes on the demanding role of an unwed pregnant woman who falls for her gay male roommate. Aniston wears a pad that makes her feel—as well as look—pregnant. "I'm loving it," she says. "I can only hope that I feel this good when it's my turn to actually carry a baby." Aniston told Cosmopolitan she'd "like about three kids. I love everything about them. Their backs, necks, smell, all their fits. I want to be a young mom too. I'm not ready now, but in a couple of years..."

And she sounds like she has a daddy in mind. Having dated actor Charlie Schlatter (her costar on the dud 1990 sitcom Ferris Bueller) and Counting Crows rocker Adam Duritz in 1995, Aniston's search for Mr. Right was going wrong. Enter Tate Donovan, star of Fox's 1995 sitcom Partners, the voice of Disney's Hercules and Sandra Bullock's main squeeze for nearly four years. "He's so real, so honest, so funny, so kind and considerate," Aniston gushes about Donovan, 33, who has his own apartment in L.A. but crashes with Aniston whenever he's in Manhattan. "He's all these things meshed into one perfect guy."

Donovan, who was introduced to Aniston by mutual friends in November 1995, admits he "didn't know who she was—I'd never seen Friends." Once he found out, having recently broken up with Bullock, he was wary about dating another household name. Sure enough, spooked by paparazzi, he and Aniston called things off after only a month. "Literally, our second date," says Donovan, "there were video cameras everywhere, and I was like, 'I'm out of here.' "

But they were back together three weeks later—and now there's no end in sight. Says Donovan: "I definitely want to get married; she definitely wants to get married. There are no proposals or anything, not yet, but we definitely think about it." Even though they exchanged Irish commitment rings on their first anniversary, Aniston adds, "There's nothing to report. You have to take more time to get to know someone." But, she admitted to USA Weekend, "I have always been somebody that really wants to be married."

Of course they're already in a family way in puppy terms. Last Valentine's Day, Aniston had just finished a scene for Friends and made haste back to her dressing room expecting to find Donovan. "Then I opened the door," she recalls, "and this little puppy with a ribbon on poked his head out." It was 9-week-old Enzo.

So why isn't this picture perfect? Well for one thing, there's that old standby, the travails of celebrityhood: pushy fans, rabid supermarket tabloids and a touch of vertigo. "You feel like you've just been pushed out of a plane, and you're in free fall," she says. "When somebody follows you 20 blocks to the pharmacy, where they watch you buy toilet paper, you know life has changed." She's particularly miffed by reports—true, she admits—that she and Donovan have been apartment-hunting in New York City. (Her home base is a 2,500-square-foot Hollywood Hills house she purchased last year.) "I guess we can't do anything now," she sighs, "without someone being there to know what we're doing."

Still, it ain't all bad. Aniston was giddy over meeting Prince Charles in May at the annual Prince's Trust benefit concert in Manchester, England. "He said, 'How are you? It's nice of you to come all this way,' " she recalls. " 'Is everything going well on Friends?' I said, 'Yes, and thank you for asking,' Then he goes, 'Well, I suppose I should watch it then.' I thought that was kind of sweet, him admitting he'd never seen the show."

Aniston's parents, model-actress Nancy and longtime soap villain John Aniston, know the vagaries of the showbiz life all too well: after 12 years, Days of Our Lives recently declined to renew John's contract. He had tried to steer their only child, born in Sherman Oaks, Calif., away from showbiz altogether. (Her godfather, the late Telly [Kojak] Savalas, was more encouraging.) "It's not the kind of business anybody would wish on their child," says John, 64. "It's fine if it goes the way it has gone for her, but if not, it can be devastating."

Ironically the future TV star was discouraged from watching the tube when she enrolled, at age 6, in Manhattan's Rudolf Steiner School, where students design their own textbooks and are asked to refrain even from seeing movies. Still, she found ways around the rules—"like when my brother would babysit and let me watch Donny and Marie," says Aniston, whose half brother John Melick (Nancy's son from a previous marriage) is an L.A. assistant director of commercials. She also sneaked peeks at The Bionic Woman. "She'd make that ba-na-na-na-na sound effect around the house, running around directing herself in scenes from the show," recalls Melick, 38. "I guess she was destined for television."

Her parents' divorce when she was 9 was "like a slap in the face for her," says Melick. But, he adds, "I think it made her the strong, independent person she is today." Before it did, the breakup turned a conscientious student into something of a troublemaker. "I figured if I was bad enough," she recalls, "both my parents would have to come to the principal's office. It was me bringing them back together again." At New York City's Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and the Performing Arts, Aniston affected "a mini-Mohawk, just above my ears, and lots of liquid eyeliner. I did liquid eyeliner better than anyone in history." But, recalls pal Andrea Bendewald, "no matter how she looked, the boys loved her."

Against her father's advice, Aniston skipped college and waited tables at a Manhattan burger joint while taking night classes in psychology and auditioning for stage roles. It was a long wait. ("I was such a loser," she says.) She told casting directors she'd been on Saturday Night Live when she'd just been an extra whose part was cut. The 5'5" Aniston also suffered a more physical inflation. Soon after she moved to Hollywood in 1990, she spent more than a year dieting and exercising to shed 30 pounds and reach her current weight of about 110. Aniston, who still admits a yen for Big Macs and mayo-on-white-bread sandwiches, objects to the fact that "Hollywood puts pressure on women to be thin." Aniston's dad (whose original family name is Anastassakis) shrugs it off. "Greeks like to eat," he says. "Jennifer was built like an Aniston."

In early 1994—by then a veteran of several ill-fated TV shows (Molloy, The Edge) and one low-budget horror film (Leprechaun)—Aniston read for a sitcom about six coffee-swigging singles. Three hours after her audition, she had the role of spoiled suburbanite Rachel. "I thought, 'Whoa! I never figured this would be happening to me at this age!' " she says of the show's success. "I thought I would be older, wiser, better." Fortunately the Friends family became—you guessed it—friends, playing poker and trading decorating tips. Costar Lisa Kudrow admires Aniston's continuing selflessness: "No matter what's going on, her ear is always tuned into you."

Now approaching its fourth year, Friends was rated second among sitcoms (trailing only Seinfeld) last season but second to none in controversy. Aniston will say only that she's "proud" of costar Matthew Perry, who checked into rehab in June for a month to overcome an addiction to painkillers. As for last year's dustup over salaries, that "got misconstrued," she protests. "Renegotiations happen on every show."

After 14 hours of filming, Aniston is late again, this time for a dinner with some cousins visiting from Philadelphia. "I do feel like I've become more confident in myself as I go along," she says, as her taxi hurtles down Broadway. "But then there are days when I'll still beat myself and go, 'Oh, God, I didn't do that scene right.' Sometimes it'll wreck me for the night. But I'm getting better. Really." The ride ends with a recorded reminder, in a heavy Noo Yawk accent, to "take alia yo' belongings when leavin' dis taxi and pleez get a receipt from da drivah." Aniston giggles, then replies in her best Brooklynese: "Tank you. It's been a pleashah."

SAMANTHA MILLER
CRAIG TOMASHOFF in New York City and LORENZO REVET and JULIE JORDAN in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Craig Tomashoff,
  • Lorenzo Revet,
  • Julie Jordan.