After his breakup last September with Jennifer Love Hewitt, Carson Daly vowed that his love life would be starlet-free. Period. "I swore I would never date another actress," recalls the MTV veejay. "I can't handle the drama and the games!" That changed in February when he filmed MTV's Spring Break festivities in Cancun, Mexico. "I went there not looking for anything," says Daly, who promptly met—and fell hard for—American Pie's Tara Reid. "Tara went home to L.A. for the Academy Awards, returned to New York City the next day and hasn't left since."
Then again, nothing in Daly's life has gone quite according to plan. Originally hoping to become either a priest or a professional golfer—how's that for extremes?—he instead wound up hosting Total Request Live, MTV's highest-rated daily show. Each weekday afternoon more than a million viewers tune in, and hundreds more congregate outside MTV's Times Square studio, screaming his name and waving signs like "Hey, Carson, You Have a Nice Booty," while he counts down the day's top videos and interviews the celeb du jour—anyone from Britney Spears
to John Travolta. "Since the first day I met him, Carson has been very genuine," says rap rocker Kid Rock. "I mean, we've seen a lot of VJs, and a lot of them have been superiorly irritating. But he's like the Dick Clark of the new millennium, man."
For Daly, 26, hosting TRL remains an intimate experience. "It feels like it's my house and people just kind of stop in, and the viewers are my neighbors," he says. "Jim Carrey comes by, I take a bullhorn out my front door and go, 'Hey, guys, Jim's here!' and they all come over."
To many, Daly brings to mind that other famous Carson. "He's like what Johnny Carson was for our parents," says Dave Sirulnick, MTV executive vice president of news and production. "Johnny could sit down with comedians, actors and sports stars. He treated everybody equally, but you knew he was on top. We tell Carson that he is in control, whether it's Madonna
or a new act, and he's learned to embrace that."
He has also learned about love celebrity-style. When Hewitt, then 20, split with him last September after a yearlong romance, he got the news from the radio. "I woke up to Howard Stern telling me my relationship with [Jennifer] was over," says Daly. "Then I heard Steve Kmetko on E! say, 'Just off the Associated Press: Jennifer Love Hewitt and Carson Daly have officially broken up.' "
Daly did not take kindly to the runaround. He recalls telling Hewitt, "If we were going to break up officially like this, maybe we could have just talked about it. I don't see why you had to tell your publicist. And now I have been publicly humiliated."
Thanks to Reid, the wounds healed quickly. (Reports that Daly also had dated pop singer and TRL mainstay Christina Aguilera
were only rumors.) "I've never in my life felt so happy and excited," says Reid, 24, who moved into a one-bedroom New York City apartment with Daly earlier this month. "He's humorous and sarcastic but has the greatest soul. And he's like a dog, he's so loyal."
In the romance department, Daly was a late bloomer. This is a guy who spent the night of his senior prom watching 60 Minutes with his stepfather, Richard, now 67 and his financial manager. (Dad Jim died in 1979 of bladder cancer at age 46; mother Pattie, now 56 and a Palm Springs, Calif., TV talk show host, married Richard in 1981.) "I was kind of a wimpy type, a mama's boy a little bit," says Daly, who grew up in Santa Monica. Adds his sister Quinn, 29, a computer company public-relations director: "He was the nice guy. The prettiest girl in the classroom would be his best friend but wouldn't date him."
His social life may have been quiet, but Daly was never bored. He began dabbling in broadcasting at 8, recording faux commercials and voice-overs at home with Quinn. But at 18, the devoted Catholic strongly contemplated entering a seminary after high school to become a priest. "My faith is everything to me," Daly explains, although he decided instead to focus his career on golf, at which he had excelled since 13, once playing with Tiger Woods in the American Junior Golf Association.
He received a partial golf scholarship to L.A.'s Loyola Marymount University in 1992 but left in '93 hoping to turn pro. Once again, Daly's career path veered off, this time thanks to an internship at a Palm Springs radio station. Six months later he was on the air alongside Jimmy Kimmel, who now is the host of The Man Show on Comedy Central. On the radio "he was extremely likable," Kimmel says. "I always told him, 'We've got to get you on MTV. It's the perfect place for you.' "
Daly landed four other radio gigs during the next four years before MTV brought him to New York City in 1997. He was wary of flaming out like many of his MTV predecessors. "I didn't want to get caught up in being a veejay, have a moment of being famous, then leave after three years and try and parlay that into acting or Noxzema commercials," Daly says. He is in the process of signing a new contract to continue hosting (and also executive-produce) TRL as well as develop TV projects for both MTV and CBS. (For the latter he hosted the Miss USA Pageant in February and the Miss Teen USA pageant in August 1999.)
Yet Daly's professional wish list does not stop there. "I think one day there might be a big, giant building that says 'Carson' on it, with a magazine there, a record company and a production company for late-night TV and movies," he says. "But," he hastens to add, "I'm in no rush."
Cynthia Wang in New York City