From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
SITTING CROSS-LEGGED ON THE plush mauve carpet of her Bur-bank, Calif., penthouse, Jennifer Love Hewitt is enjoying three of her favorite things: hot mushroom pizza, ice-cold Pepsi and a saucy game of kiss-and-tell. "It's like a series of bells," explains the 17-year-old star of Fox-TV's Party of Five about her rating system for kissers. "Ding is, eh, okay. Ding, ding is better. Ding, ding, ding—even better. And a really good kisser—dong!" So what about teen idol Scott Wolf, the Tom Cruise lookalike whose down-to-earth girlfriend she plays on the show? "Dong, dong, dong! He's definitely a three-dong kisser!" she exclaims, slapping the floor so excitedly that her cat Don Juan goes into a tail-whipping frenzy. A moment later and a little more calmly, the petite Texas native elaborates about her 28-year-old costar (his character is 18). "Sometimes I say, 'Wow, I'm the luckiest teenager alive—kissing an older man every day and getting paid for it!' "

Luckiest and busiest. While many of her peers worked on their tans this summer, Love, as she's known to family and friends (the name is from her mother's college roommate) juggled puckering duties on Party; interviews for her new movie, House Arrest; and final-mix sessions on her second CD, Jennifer Love Hewitt, a collection of R&B ballads. "She is talented, beautiful and sings like an angel," enthuses House Arrest costar Jamie Lee Curtis. "She has the tools to do whatever she wants."

What Hewitt has always wanted, apparently, is the spotlight. At the tender age of 4, she suddenly disappeared while in a restaurant-dance hall with her mother, Pat, and older brother Todd, only to surprise them—as well as the other diners—by turning up on stage and belting out "Help Me Make It Through the Night."

"I never really fit in where I lived in Texas," observes Hewitt, who was raised in Killeen, north of Austin, by Pat, a speech pathologist, after her parents divorced when she was 6 months old. "I would host and direct and star in these little plays, and my friends never really wanted to do it. I always thought there was something wrong with them." Hewitt found a more receptive audience at the dance studio where she studied tap, jazz and ballet and at the livestock shows where she sang. Before long, even strangers were urging her skeptical mom to test Hewitt's potential in Los Angeles. "I thought everybody's little girl could do what she did," admits Pat, whom Hewitt describes as her "best friend." Finally, however, her daughter's pleas, combined with a local talent scout's referral to a manager-friend in L.A., convinced Pat to give it a go.

Within weeks, Hewitt had her first gig, on the Disney Channel's Kids, Incorporated. Not long after that, she was traveling to trade shows in Paris and Japan as a dancer for L.A. Gear. So quickly did Hewitt take off, with roles in several TV series, that Pat put her own career on hold to keep some sanity in her daughter's life. "Mom is a big reason why Love is who she is," says brother Todd, 25, a Dallas chiropractor.

And who Hewitt is, admiring colleagues say, is a young woman both exceptionally poised—and unspoiled. "Love has a 17-year-old's personality and a grownup's professional perspective," says Party of Five co-creator and I executive producer Christopher Keyser, who was in on the decision to cast a Hewitt last season for what was envisioned as only a handful of episodes. "You can't imagine that someone who's 17 can be so professional."

At least most of the time. There are moments when the straight-A student, who has a 10 p.m. curfew during the week and collects celebrity autographs ("I am so starstruck it's sickening") still acts like the teen next door. Take that day last fall when her favorite actor, Johnny Depp, visited the Party set. Despite all those Scott Wolf kisses and having casually dated calfcake Joey Lawrence, 20, for a few months, Hewitt blushingly admits that when she saw Depp, she "started screaming at the top of my lungs, locked myself in my dressing room and had a crying, screaming fit."

As courtly as his Don Juan DeMarco character, Depp called later from New York City, inviting her to coffee the next time she came to town. Given Hewitt's hectic schedule, that hasn't happened yet. But considering her career trajectory, the next time they meet, Depp might just ask for her autograph.

PAM LAMBERT
MONICA RIZZO in Burbank

  • Contributors:
  • Monica Rizzo.