Gabrielle Union loves nothing better than to get together with her actress girlfriends for an informal state-of-show-business address. "We have what I call long, drunken lunches," says Union, 29. "We meet at little restaurants and have cocktails and bitch about Hollywood." As an actress, she says, "you can go from being the 'it' girl to 's—-' girl in 2.5 seconds."

Union's clock is still going strong. In the past four years she has played everything from Kirsten Dunst's cheer-leading rival in the hit 2000 movie Bring It On to a meddlesome shrew in the recent Deliver Us from Eva to the first black girlfriend on an episode of Friends, dating both Joey and Ross. Now she's Will Smith's love interest (and Martin Lawrence's sister) in Bad Boys II. "It's one of the best opportunities I ever had," she says. With Lawrence and Smith, one of the giddiest too: "Martin would do this hysterical impersonation of Bobby Brown dancing," she says. "Will would just start rapping along to it." Her own rap was an ongoing sports dialogue with Bad Boys II producer Jerry Bruckheimer. "She knows more about football than I do," he says of the actress, married since 2001 to former NFL running back Chris Howard. "She can talk to you about any football player in college or anything. You can have a guy talk with her."

Born in Omaha, Union grew up outside San Francisco with two sisters and her parents (now divorced), Teresa, 55, and Sylvester, 58, who both worked as phone-company managers. The avid basketball and softball athlete survived a terrible trauma in 1992, when she was 19 and working at a shoe store: At closing time, she recounts calmly, "this guy came in with a gun and told us to go into the storage room. I thought, 'He is either going to shoot me or rape me,' and he proceeded to rape me. When he did that, it was like I was floating above myself. I'm such a control freak, I thought this couldn't be happening." Later apprehended and sentenced, her assailant is up for parole next year. She'll be at the hearing. "I hope to keep him where he is," says Union, who partly credits her emotional recovery to a rape survivor group at UCLA, where she enrolled the following year to study sociology. Says her sister Tracy, 23, an administrator at Arizona State University: "She came through it for the better. She has a good head on her shoulders."

Abandoning plans of law school seemed like a no-brainer when an offer to model quickly led to work. She soon moved into acting, starting with a bit on Saved by the Bell: The New Class, in 1995. "I made even more money, and I thought, 'Now this is fabulous,'" she says. Her lack of training has never been an obstacle: "I'm extroverted and have a photographic memory."

Something really clicked in 1999, when she struck up a flirtation with Howard at a party in Jacksonville, Fla., where he was playing for the Jaguars. "We were talking smack back and forth," she says. Now 28 and a sports therapist, he relocated to L.A. to be with her. "We're great friends," says Union. "But he's a better cook. He makes jambalaya, gumbo, shrimp étouffée." The couple have no immediate plans for children. "If it's hard to just take care of a dog," says Union, who owns a 1-year-old bulldog mix named Bubba, "taking care of a human being is going to be 24/7." They live in an L.A. home with three bedrooms—and a small mortgage, which pleases the ever-practical actress. "If I had to go work as a social worker, I could still afford it," she says. "We squirrel away a lot. I don't live for today. I live for 20 years down the road."

Tom Gliatto
Rachel Biermann in Los Angeles

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  • Rachel Biermann.