From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Yes, Lindsay Lohan has spent much of her summer partying in Los Angeles. And Miami. And Las Vegas. But Lohan's chief defender—her mom, Dina—would like to make one thing clear: Lindsay Lohan is not a girl gone wild. "If anything," says Dina, "Lindsay is a late bloomer. To go to a club when you're 18 is not ridiculous." And yet even at 18 Lohan can still be girlishly sensitive. "If there's something printed that's wrong, she calls and says, 'Mommy, I can't believe they wrote this,'" says Dina. "I say, 'You're at the top. There's a price for everything. You can't cry and whine. You're a star.'"

Gypsy's Mama Rose couldn't have said it better. In just one year, Lohan has evolved from Disney tween queen to A-list leading young lady. Thanks in large part to the critical and box office success of this spring's biting comedy Mean Girls, Lohan has captured the hearts and minds of young moviegoers, studio executives and even Olympic champions; interviewed in late August by Access Hollywood, swimmer Michael Phelps stated the obvious: "Lindsay Lohan is pretty hot." Indeed, her recent and rapid physical transformation has been so eye-catching, she has spent the last few months denying rumors of her breasts being surgically enlarged. But in a great Hollywood tradition that includes Goldie Hawn and Jane Fonda, her tabloid antics and undeniable sex appeal mask formidable talent. The actress currently has no fewer than five film projects in development—and hopes to have her debut album out in time for Christmas (see box, this page). "She is like rapid fire—really quick, really smart," says Tommy Mottola, who signed Lohan to his Casablanca Records label in July. What's more, he adds, "she is full of life. She is becoming a real woman."

Chief among those helping her make the transition has been her boyfriend, Wilmer Valderrama, 24, the Venezuelan-reared actor who plays the lovably goofy Fez on FOX's long-running sitcom That '70s Show. The couple were first spotted together in May but only took their romance public around Lohan's 18th birthday in July. "She is my girl," says Valderrama. "I love her very much. She is a fantastic person and I'm extremely proud of her." The chain-smoking, club-loving pair, who move with a party pack that includes Paris Hilton, Bijou Phillips and Nicole Richie, recently exchanged promise rings—and yes, Mom approves. "Wilmer's a sweetheart," says Dina, 41, a former Radio City Rockette. "He is very protective. He's basically Lindsay's first real boyfriend."

Fortunately for the media, the relationship has not been without drama. Out and about on the L.A. club scene, Lohan and Valderrama have variously been spotted looking passionately in love and tensely not. Acknowledges Dina: "They're going to make their mistakes now. They're living publicly. They're going to have fights. It's normal behavior." For his part, Valderrama says their relationship "is about trust. She's a smart girl. She knows what's good for her."

Even more drama has sprung from Lohan's family life (see box, p. 74). Dad Michael, 44, who is separated from Dina and has been embroiled in legal problems, has at times had a strained relationship with his eldest daughter. (Lohan, who grew up on Long Island, N.Y., has three younger siblings.) For the most part, Lohan has kept quiet about the strife, though she remains extremely close to her mom. "We're on the phone 10 times a day," says Dina. "Lindsay and I have always had this open relationship where she tells me everything—sometimes stuff I don't want to hear. Lindsay is a very open soul."

And a confident one. Even at age 12, when she made her film debut in Disney's 1998 remake of The Parent Trap, Lohan flaunted a precocious self-assuredness. "Everyone asks me, 'How'd you learn all those lines?'" she told PEOPLE at the time. "I read the script once. It just comes naturally."

These days Lohan's cool confidence sometimes draws charges of arrogance from her critics, who point to her public feud with rival Hilary Duff (the pair had a falling-out in 2003 after both dated pop star Aaron Carter) and her unabashedly indulgent spending sprees—in May she happily dished about buying herself an $80,000 Chopard watch—as evidence of an attitude in need of adjustment. Mom Dina says it's simply Lohan's honesty that gets her into trouble. "She's honest to a fault," says Dina. "She's naïve in a lot of ways."

But she's also a savvy businesswoman whose choices—from a wickedly funny turn on Saturday Night Live in May (in which she gamely poked fun at both her much discussed bustline and the Duff tiff) to displaying her Britney-worthy dance skills as host of the MTV Movie Awards in June—have revealed her wide-ranging skills. Her upcoming rock album is an attempt to launch her into triple-threat territory. Says Diane Warren, who penned "I Decide," Lohan's single on the Princess Diaries 2 soundtrack: "I think she's going to be a really successful recording artist. I think it's real."

As for her film career, although she frequently cites Jodie Foster as a primary role model, Lohan is currently content to stay in familiar territory rather than delve into edgier fare. She maintains her mantle as queen of the Disney remake with Herbie: Fully Loaded (an attempt to revive the old Herbie franchise about a little car with a mind of its own), which is now shooting in L.A. "Lindsay has gotten scripts that have those darker roles," says Dina. "She says, 'Mommy, I'm not at that place mentally and physically to play those roles. When I'm ready, I will.'"

In the meantime, Lohan, who currently lives in a rented Beverly Hills pad—her mom commutes between L.A. and New York—is relishing her role as Hollywood's crush du jour, and the ambitious young star isn't expected to slow down anytime soon. "Lindsay will always keep growing," says Dina, who predicts her daughter will be "a Julia Roberts, a Meg Ryan." Someday, she adds, "she'll do a film and get an Academy Award and no one will remember her boobs."
Michelle Tauber. Sean Daly, Michael Fleeman, Todd Gold and Nick White in Los Angeles and Joanne Fowler, Sharon Cotliar and Sue Miller in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Sean Daly,
  • Michael Fleeman,
  • Todd Gold,
  • Nick White,
  • Joanne Fowler,
  • Sharon Cotliar,
  • Sue Miller.