From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
After watching Channing Tatum shimmy down to a G-string in his new movie Magic Mike, it's a tad disappointing when he shows up for his interview wearing a blazer, of all things. But the easygoing Southerner, 32, is far from buttoned-up about his own brief stint as an 18-year-old male stripper, which inspired the film. "It's very exposing-if you will," he says with a chuckle. "My common sense hadn't developed. Now I realize how ridiculous it was."

Ah, youth. But in Tatum's case, it all (eventually) paid off, big time. Mike-with a starry cast that includes Matthew McConaughey and Joe Manganiello-is one of the summer's most anticipated movies. It also sealed his rep as an A-lister (his previous films 21 Jump Street and The Vow both topped the box office). "It's about working hard," he says of his rise. "No matter what the outcome."

Born in Alabama and raised in Tampa, Tatum was a natural athlete who mastered hip-hop dance moves at high school parties before winning a football scholarship to Glenville State College in West Virginia. But he floundered and dropped out, returning home where he worked odd jobs. Answering an ad seeking dancers, Tatum soon found himself part of a local all-male revue. As the youngest member, he squeezed into a Boy Scout costume for his first routine. "My sister and her friends showed up, and I'm like, This is the worst night of my life," Tatum says. "And I'm singing 'Camp Granada.' It was terrible." He quit nine months later. "It was fun while it lasted," adds the actor. "But it was a crazy world." Segueing into modeling and acting, Tatum landed his breakthrough role in the '06 teen movie Step Up, costarring Jenna Dewan, 31, whom he wed three years later. "I fell head over heels," he says, looking down at his wedding band. "Nothing has changed; if anything it's deepened."

Working nonstop ever since, Tatum now appreciates the simple pleasures in life: eating cheese and pepperoni pizza, watching shows like Jackass and spending quality time with Dewan and their two dogs, Lulu and Meeka. For now. "I can't wait to show our grandkids Step Up. I've been talking to Jenna like, 'Come on, when is this happening?' "he says of starting their family. "We'll be able to say, 'Without that kiss, y'all wouldn't even be here!'"