Heart and Souls

updated 01/23/2006 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/23/2006 AT 01:00 AM EST

As Melinda Gordon, the psychic young newlywed she plays on CBS's Ghost Whisperer, Jennifer Love Hewitt not only sees dead people, she counsels them—helping unhappy spirits reconcile with the loved ones they left behind. Turns out Hewitt may be a bit too convincing in the role. “I get invited to funerals a lot,” says the former Party of Five star. “They associate me with what my character can do. It's heartbreaking.” Especially her recent en counter with one woman in a mall. “We did a show on a boy killed in a train accident, and this woman's son died that way,” says Hewitt. “She said [the episode] forced her to deal with a lot of things, and she felt like she had her son back.”

On the set, Hewitt keeps the mood much lighter. “She's always giving gifts,” says Whisperer costar Aisha Tyler. “She'll bake a huge batch of peanut butter cookies for everyone.” And yet, “she is much funnier and more sarcastic than her public image.”

Take, for instance, the way she deals with the paparazzi. Hewitt, 26 blames their constant presence, in part, for adding to the pressures of dating in Hollywood. “The second a photo is taken, a guy doesn't want to go out with you again,” explains Hewitt, who has dated fellow celebs like Joey Lawrence, Carson Daly, Craig Bierko and Antonio Sabato Jr. but is currently unattached. Now, when she sees photographers lurking, she addresses them head-on. “I'll go up to the car and say, ‘What's your name? If you're going to follow me all day, let's introduce ourselves to each other.’”

Too bad that kind of directness doesn't work on casting directors. After making her mark in FOX's '90s cult hit Party of Five, Hewitt faced resistance as she tried to graduate to adult roles. “Half the town thinks you're talented, and the other half thinks you're a joke,” she says. “So to be on a show that's successful [Whisperer is regularly the top-rated Friday-night series], I am so grateful every day.”

She also cherishes living on her own in a two-story Spanish-style house in L.A. Of course, her independence comes with an asterisk. “I still call my mom [Pat, who lives nearby],” says Hewitt. “I'm like, ‘Mom, how do I not turn my underwear pink?’” It was Pat, a former speech pathologist (divorced from Jennifer's father, Danny, since their daughter was 6 months old), who brought her to L.A. at age 10 from Killeen, Texas, and has been advising her ever since. When Hewitt had misgivings about playing Audrey Hepburn in a 2000 TV movie—“I was afraid I wasn't pretty enough,” she says—her mother pulled out a Hepburn bio and reminded Hewitt that the actress had been similarly insecure. Pat urged her daughter to play it that way.

Although that project received a lukewarm response, Whisperer has restored Hewitt's Party of Five-level luster. Since the drama sometimes demands 17-hour days, she lies low on weekends playing charades-type games with pals. No bar-hopping for her. “I'm not going to put my heart and soul into a show and then screw it up, have one too many drinks, dance on a table and have no respect for myself,” she says. “I don't make judgments on other people who party. It's just not me.”

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