Playing for Keeps

04/11/2002 AT 11:00 AM EDT

She made it onto every best-dressed list after the Oscars last month and commands up to $5 million a movie. But for Reese Witherspoon, neither Oscar-night glory nor supersize paychecks can compare to the adulation of a certain small red Muppet. Shooting her next film, Sweet Home Alabama, in the same New York City studio as the Sesame Street gang last fall, the 26-year-old Legally Blonde star was introduced to an admiring Elmo. "It was just the thrill of my life," says Witherspoon, who has a 2-year-old daughter, Ava, with her 27-year-old husband, Gosford Park actor Ryan Phillippe. "I thought, 'You know what, this is pretty much making it!' "

It's not exactly the swingin' Hollywood high life. And while Witherspoon admits "sometimes I feel like the youngest mom in L.A.," she certainly doesn't regret having Ava and marrying Phillippe at the tender age of 23. "I really enjoy being a wife, and I really enjoy being a mom," she says. "But it's a lot more challenging than I thought it would be."

Maybe she should tell that to Backstreet Boy Brian Littrell, who married actress Leighanne Wallace, 31, in 2000 at the age of 25, much to the devastation of 12-year-old girls around the globe. Says Littrell: "I wanted to get on with my life and I thought, 'The sooner, the better.' "

For a slew of young celebs currently rushing to wed, sooner can't come fast enough. Consider these youthful pairings: singer-actress Brandy, wed at 22 to 22-year-old music producer Robert Smith and expecting their first child in July; country singer LeAnn Rimes, a newlywed at 19, to 21-year-old dancer Dean Sheremet; actress Kate Hudson, married at 21 to rocker Chris Robinson, 34; and NBA hotshot Kobe Bryant, 22, who married a then-18-year-old Vanessa Laine in April 2001 -- after proposing while she was still in high school.

It's enough to make Liz Taylor wonder what's in the water. Not only are many Gen-Y celebs bucking the national trend -- the median marrying age in the U.S. is 25 for women, nearly 27 for men -- they're turning their backs on decades of Hollywood tradition. In the 1960s, '70s and '80s, many celebrities opted for serial romance (more than a few of them with Warren Beatty) or cohabitation (a la Kate Hudson's mom, Goldie Hawn, and Kurt Russell, or Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon). In short, they did anything to avoid the altar. Now "the pendulum has swung the other way," says Bonnie Eaker Weil, PhD, a New York City-based family therapist and the author of the 2000 bestseller Make Up, Don't Break Up. "Young kids want to get married. They are not afraid of divorce. They are more frightened of having no permanency in their lives."

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