08/22/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT
CARMEN" MIGHT MAKE SENSE—BUT HOW DOES A NEWly arrived screen siren end up with the first name Cameron? "My dad always picked out the coolest names," explains Cameron Diaz
, the drop-deadly beautiful 21-year-old model making her movie (and acting) debut in the hit comedy The Mask, in which she plays the moll who loves lime-headed superhero Jim Carrey. "If I was a boy it was going to be Menachem El Genio or Sebastian Emilio. Luckily I was a girl."
Audiences are counting their blessings too. With her long legs, pronounced curves (augmented in the film by a bra from Frederick's of Hollywood) and a less than classical nose, the 5'9" beauty suggests a blend of Veronica Lake and Ellen Barkin. The Long Beach, Calif., native—the younger of two daughters—says the look is the genetic product of "a mixture of a lot of things." Her father, a foreman for Union of California Oil, is second-generation Cuban-American. Her mother, an exporting agent, is German, English and American Indian.
Diaz was a 16-year-old junior at Long Beach Polytechnic High School when a photographer she met at a Hollywood party offered to help her land modeling work. She was initially skeptical, but within a week she had a contract with Elite, and soon after, she was earning up to $2,000 a day on assignments for clients including Coca-Cola and Nivea. "My parents were completely supportive," says Diaz—but also cautious. They insisted she finish high school. And they warned her off the lower life forms she might encounter. "My mom gave me this," says Diaz, fingering a long silver hairpin. "It's beautiful—and it can be used as a weapon. Moms are like that."
While shooting an L.A. Gear ad four years ago, Diaz let down her defenses long enough to fall in love with Carlos de La Torre, 27, a video producer. "I spent the entire day trying to get him to talk to me," says Diaz.
"I was ignoring her," says De La Torre, laughing. "It's taboo to hit on the models when you're working for the company." But he called the day after, and within a year they'd moved in together (they share a two-bedroom apartment in West Hollywood). "She's a genuinely good person," says De La Torre, at the moment sitting beside his honey and expertly cracking her toes. "People like her, even women like her."
And Hollywood executives like her. She landed the part of Tina in Mask—albeit after 12 callbacks—with no more acting experience than a high school drama course. "The first day was hell," she recalls. "When Carlos was driving me to the studio, it was like, 'Babe, pull over, I'm going to throw up.' "
Clearly, the jitters passed. Today Diaz is considering a part in Hugo Pool, in which she would play a woman confined to a wheelchair by Lou Gehrig's disease. "Being considered for that made me feel good," says Diaz, who, mock-obsessively, is already looking ahead to the day she'll be competing against younger women. "After all," she says, "I'm not 16 anymore. I'm starting to see the firmness in body go away." She fakes a sob—then springs back to life. "But you give me french fries, I'll stuff 'em down my face."
MARIA SPEIDEL in New York City