As quick-tempered weapons whiz Nikki Franco on the syndicated series V.I.P.
—sort of an extreme Charlie's Angels—Natalie Raitano fires rockets and Uzis with abandon. Offscreen she's less lethal, but still excitable. Case in point: At a 1998 cast get-together a staffer interrupted her conversation. "I said, 'Dude, what's your problem?' " Raitano says. After he called her a word that rhymes with "rich," Raitano pitched her drink in his face. "Everybody said, 'That's why they picked you for the character,' " she says.
It certainly wasn't for her theatrical credentials. A former aerobics instructor and host of a 1997 ESPN2 exercise show, Raitano, 35, had no acting experience when she caught the eye of V.I.P.
creator J.F. Lawton at a 1998 party. "She was tough and sexy," says Lawton. Those qualities quickly endeared her to series star Pamela Anderson
, who plays the owner of an elite bodyguard agency. "We've become close friends," says Anderson. "She's a girl's girl—crazy and funny and silly."
Raitano's natural spark has long been evident. The oldest of three kids raised by Bart, 64, a paper-company owner, and Angie, 62, a teacher, she was a ballet star in her tiny hometown of Charleroi, Pa. "Natalie was always extremely aggressive about her goals," her father says. She thinks her character's aggressiveness is key to her appeal. "Everybody wants a little Nikki Franco in them," Raitano says. "It feels good to tell mean people, 'I'll kick your butt.' "