From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
IT WASN'T A SETUP!" INSISTS MTV talent coordinator Claire McCabe, recalling how she introduced two of her network's hottest personalities, Jacinda Barrett and Chris Hardwick, last November. Though both had starred on MTV—Barrett, 24, an Australian-born model, was on the '95 season's The Real World, set in London, while Hardwick, 24, has been Jenny McCarthy's fast-quipping Singled Out sidekick since 1994—each had never so much as seen the other on TV, let alone met face-to-face. Says matchmaker McCabe: "I told Chris that Jacinda was new in town, and they should go out." But she also cautioned, "You'll have fun but you'll never fall in love." Explains Hardwick: "I think she wanted to keep expectations low and not accept blame if it didn't work out."

No need to worry about that anymore. Since March, Barrett and her tiny white shih tzu Legend have been living in Hardwick's bright, one-bedroom Los Angeles apartment. In their rare domestic moments over the stove, Barrett mostly confines herself to vegetarian meals, while Hardwick munches hamburgers. "We're opposite in so many ways," Barrett says. Fortunately, both are fascinated with her dog—in Hardwick's case, perhaps a bit too much. Speaking of a deposit Legend recently left on the kitchen floor, he raves, "It was like sculpture, like a miniature of Stonehenge."

Their relationship has been a bit offbeat from the start. That first date consisted of joining pals at a West Hollywood bar, where, Barrett says, "Chris spent most of his time talking to my roommate Sharon [Gitau, who had also been on the London Real World]." It wasn't until Hardwick drove Gitau and Barrett to his place for a late snack that romance began percolating. It was 2 a.m. and everybody was yawning, when Hardwick mentioned that he'd, ahem, just bought a new bed. "I know that sounds like some bad line," he says, "but it was true!" Gitau and Barrett never made it home that night. First they fell asleep on the bed, then their host crawled in afterward. "We were all just tired," says Hardwick.

Another date followed (Barrett and Hardwick dined, then drove around that time), and by last Christmas—when both endured three weeks of separation while she flew home to Brisbane, Australia, to see family (and he racked up $2,000 in phone calls)—they realized they were in love. "We started spending every minute with each other," says Barrett. "Everyone warns you about moving in together too soon, but it was [already] like we were living together." Observes a friend, former Real World coordinating producer Matt Kunitz: "They both realized how good the other was for them. They calm each other down."

Barrett's mother, Lyn, a secretary, says her daughter has "always been free-spirited and determined." At 14, she begged her parents (her father, Jerry, is a civil aviation officer) for modeling lessons, and after high school she left home at 17 for runway jobs in Europe. Two years ago, when she heard that The Real World was being cast, Barrett sent the producers a tape of herself in a bikini, lip-synching a song in the shower. Recalled Kunitz: "When you get thousands of tapes, something like that stands out."

Hardwick is no slouch at getting attention himself. The only son of Billy Hardwick, a retired touring pro bowler, and Sharon Hills, a Realtor (the couple divorced in 1982), Chris was born in Louisville, Ky, but grew up all over the U.S. At age 4, he was sitting ringside in a Las Vegas showroom, when Tony Orlando began chatting with him. Never stuck for a comeback, he ended up onstage with the star, singing a duet of "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree." "Agents were interested in getting him into the business," recalls his mom, who insisted that school came first. In 1992, while he was at UCLA, a guest shot on the syndicated game show Studs led to his hosting MTV's short-lived game show Trashed. "The end result of Trashed," says MTV exec Lisa Berger, "is that everyone loved Chris."

But now none more so than Barrett, whose biggest problem, like Hardwick's, is finding time to play. When not modeling for Marie Claire magazine or J. Crew catalogs, she auditions for movies, and will be seen playing a ghost in next spring's spooky Campfire Tales. Her cable guy, meanwhile, hosts a show three nights a week on local rock radio station KROQ, is directing a series of short films for MTV, and is planning to continue with Singled Out even after popular cohost McCarthy ("She's a lot smarter than people think," he says) leaves at the end of the year. In the meantime, he admits of himself and Barrett, "Of course we've talked about marriage. But we haven't planned anything yet."

STEPHEN M. SILVERMAN
ANNA DAVID in Los Angeles

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  • Anna David.