07/06/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT
Shemar Moore has a problem keeping his shirt on. Fans of the Young and the Restless heartthrob arc constantly after him to disrobe (a request he always declines). And when he does doff his top, it's likely to disappear—which is just what happened when Moore stripped down during a baseball game at Mel Harrison's family reunion a few years ago. After some sleuthing, Harrison discovered that his teenage cousins had swiped the sweaty pullover. "They hung it on their wall at home," says Harrison, Moore's former high school coach. "So I asked the girls, 'Did you at least wash it?' " They hadn't.
Moore, 28, has had plenty of opportunity to flaunt his ripped tummy since landing the role of Malcolm Winters on the top-rated CBS soap four years ago. Having had little acting experience at the time, Moore feared he would flop. "I was a model just out of college," he says. "I thought, 'What if they see through me? But Moore embraced his character—a wily photographer who once bedded his brother's wife while she was woozy on flu medication—with dogged determination. "Within two days, he was in acting class," says actress Tonya Lee Williams, who plays Moore's wife on the show. "He got real serious and never let up."
The actor credits his sharp focus to the tough love administered by his mom while he was growing up. Born in Oakland to an interracial couple—Marilyn, now 54, a business consultant, is white, and his father, Sherrod, 56, who has held various odd jobs over the years, is black—Moore had a decidedly peripatetic childhood. Soon after moving to Denmark to shelter Shemar, then an infant, from racism, his parents split up. In the years that followed, Moore says his father drifted "in and out of the picture," while he grew extremely close to his mother.
About a year later, in 1972, Marilyn took her son to Bahrain in the Persian Gulf, where she had secured a lucrative teaching position. When Shemar was 6, Marilyn relocated again, this time to her hometown of Boston, where her fears about racism were soon realized. "It was a complete culture shock for me," Moore says. "It was the first time in my life I heard the words 'n——r' and 'chocolate.' " Mother and son finally settled in Palo Alto, Calif., in 1984, where Shemar found that his exotic good looks and baseball talent helped him win many friends in high school. But babes and bases took their toll on Moore's studies, until his mom set his priorities straight. "If you want to convince him of something he doesn't want to do, you'd better have a hard hairbrush," Marilyn jokes of her son's resistance to her guidance. Shemar agrees that the brush work worked. "She kept things in perspective," he says. "She gave me reality checks."
In 1988, the scholastically reborn Moore enrolled at Santa Clara University with a partial athletic scholarship. To help cover costs, Moore signed with a modeling agency. Soon after graduation in 1993, an agent noticed his picture in GQ and asked Moore to audition for the Y&R part.
After four years of small-screen melodrama, Moore has developed an A-list fan club. He dated songbird Toni Braxton in 1995 after shooting her video "How Many Ways." "We had a little bit of chemistry and a little bit of curiosity," he says. Not enough of either, apparently—they broke up after six months. Pyrotechnics did ignite when Moore introduced himself to Halle Berry
on the CBS lot in 1996, while she was filming Bulworth. "I dropped a few hints that maybe we should keep in contact," he says. "I guess those hints dropped in the right place." But last February, they too split up.
Today the unattached Moore lives in a tidy one-bedroom L.A. apartment with furnishings straight out of the IKEA catalog. Five days a week he hits the gym to pump iron and box with a personal trainer, just the regimen to keep a step ahead of the rabid fans who have been known to chase him through malls. How does he handle the adulation? "You just laugh and take it in stride," he says. "It's a great thing to be loved."
Deanna Kizis in Los Angeles