The night before she was to start playing a witch on The WB series Charmed, Rose McGowan sat in her kitchen until 2 a.m. conjuring up birthday cupcakes for her pal, punk-rock vet Johnny Ramone. Three hours later she was on the Charmed set shooting a nightclub scene. "In my real life," she says, "I'm baking cupcakes, and in my fake life I'm dancing seductively."

Some might think it should be the other way around. McGowan, 28, who has appeared in thrillers like 1996's Scream, is perhaps best known for her two-year engagement to shock-rocker Marilyn Manson, 33, and for her outré outfits—notably the see-through dress she wore to the MTV Video Music Awards in 1998. But McGowan is also a professed homebody who knits, gardens and collects Marlene Dietrich memorabilia. When she auditioned for Charmed's long-lost Halliwell sister Paige last year, she hit it off with her TV sibs Alyssa Milano and Holly Marie Combs. "We make each other laugh," says McGowan, whose predecessor, Shannen Doherty, quit last season, reportedly after fights with Milano.

Not that McGowan is a pushover on the set. Like her TV character, "Rose always had a strong will," says her older brother Nathaniel, 30, a graphic designer. "She is not shy about going after what she wants."

Still, her path to stardom was largely serendipitous. Acting, she says, "kind of fell in my lap" at 19, when she visited friends in L.A. and picked up work as an extra. Two years later she caught the eye of director Gregg Araki, who cast her as a nihilistic speed demon in 1995's The Doom Generation. In 1998 she met Manson (né Brian Warner) at a movie screening. "I tend to look at what's inside a person more than what's on the outside," says McGowan, who found Manson "charming and sweet and soft." The couple got engaged in February '99 but broke up last January. "He'd get bomb threats," she says. "I was always on guard. I just got tired. In that way I do feel a bit of a failure."

Born in Italy, the second of six children of artist Daniel and writer Terri, McGowan lived in Tuscany, where Daniel led a religious commune. The family quit the group when McGowan was about 9, and her parents broke up. They resettled in the U.S., with the kids splitting their time between Daniel, in Evergreen, Colo., and Terri, in Eugene, Ore.

At school McGowan seldom fit in. "I had short-cropped black hair and I wore little men's suits," she says. "I was called a freak." Concerned that her daughter was on drugs (McGowan insists she wasn't), Terri put her in a rehab clinic when she was 14. After a month McGowan ran away and spent a few days living on the streets. "I can see now that it was wild," she says. "But I just saw it as having adventures. I felt like Huckleberry Finn of the modern age."

The next year her mother moved the family to Seattle, where McGowan lived on her own while working part-time at a public relations firm and attending beauty school before landing in L.A. "She was very mature," says McGowan's younger sister, artist Daisy, 26. "I wouldn't have been able to do it."

Now, as well as a steady job, McGowan has a three-bedroom, 1920s-style house in the Hollywood Hills and a new man: actor Ahmet Zappa, 27 (son of late rocker Frank), who approached McGowan on a dare at an L.A. burrito shop last summer. "We love to just hang out together," she says. Still, the good fortune is a bit unsettling for. McGowan. "I've never had stability," she says. "I take it one day at a time so I don't freak out."

Susan Horsburgh
Ulrica Wihlborg and Lyndon Stambler in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Ulrica Wihlborg,
  • Lyndon Stambler.