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Jennifer Love Hewitt: Pollyanna of pop

We know Jennifer Love Hewitt best as the scream queen of teen thrillers. But Hollywood's 'perkiest person' also has her eye on the singles chart, as she reveals to Matthew Sweet

21 February 2003

Jennifer Love Hewitt – recording artist, movie star, self-styled "perkiest person in Hollywood" – says she wept with awe in the presence of Catherine Zeta Jones. "I started crying in front of her," she recounts. "She said, 'What's wrong with you?' and I said, 'I'm just so excited to meet you!' and she said, 'I don't really understand, but OK.'" Johnny Depp produced the same effect: "I locked myself in my trailer, bawling my eyes out while he stood outside." When she encountered Sigourney Weaver for the first time, she tells me, she wet herself. But I don't think she means that quite as literally.

So, is Jennifer Love Hewitt for real?This is what I can tell you. She is as irrepressibly upbeat as a Disney heroine. Her conversation is a mix of wide-eyed sincerity and self-deprecating skittishness. She has impeccable manners. When we meet, she apologises for having her coat draped over her knees as if gawking at her shins were a legitimate part of the interview process. Then she asks me if I'd like a drink, shovels ice into a glass and fills up the gaps with water. "You're very welcome," she trills, when I thank her.

Like the other J-Lo, she's been flitting between the multiplex and the mic for years. Over here, she's best known for the former: she narrowly avoided being gutted by apsychopath in 1997's I Know What You Did Last Summer (left) and its sequel, got her hair entangled in Ray Liotta's flies in Heartbreakers (2001) and high-kicked alongside Jackie Chan in The Tuxedo (2002). In the US, she's as celebrated for her four albums of R&B-flavoured teenpop – and she'd like the same parity in the UK. A single, "Can I Go Now", is released here in early March, followed by the album, BareNaked, whose title must have made the Jive Records marketing department faint with gratitude.

In the sleeve notes, Love – as her fans and her family call her – offers this message to purchasers, in that balloony handwriting favoured by diligent schoolgirls: "To anyone with a dream, this record is living proof that your greatest dream can come true. Listen with hope, work like you don't need the money, love like your heart's never been broken and dance like no one's watching!" Fortunately, the songs are less sappy.

Hewitt was born in 1979 in Waco, Texas, and became ravenous for applause shortly after the weaning stage. Her first public gig was at a livestock show in her hometown, where she was billed below the pigs. In an outfit sewn by her mother, she belted out her version of Whitney Houston's "The Greatest Love of All" to an audience of admiring cowpokes and abattoirsmen. "I was a hit," she says. "It was the pig-barn success that made me think I should go to LA."

Hewitt's classmates did not share her razzle-dazzle aspirations. "I thought there was something wrong with me because there were no people like me. I wanted to be on television, not watch it," she recalls. So, at the age of nine, she lobbied her mother to relocate to California and put her up for commercials and sit-coms. Pat Hewitt, freshly separated from her second husband (her first, Jennifer's father, had left the family home two weeks after his daughter's birth), concurred. They arrived in Hollywood in the early hours of the morning of Jennifer's 10th birthday, booked into the Holiday Inn on Sunset Boulevard, and ordered strawberry cheesecake from room service. Truman Capote might have done justice to the scene. "When I got to LA I was surrounded by kids just like me – loud and obnoxious, and wanting to be in front of people doing stuff all the time. I thought: there's nothing wrong with me, it was those people back home who were weird."

So, in countless Californian TV studios, the rest of Jennifer Love Hewitt's childhood was recorded for posterity. The Barbie Workout Video was an early triumph – footage of an aerobics instructor claiming to be "a friend of Barbie" exhorting pre-teen chorines to feel the burn. The Disney Channel's Kids Incorporated, a mixture of musical numbers and moralising, gave her three years of work. Between 11 and 16 she went through her wilderness years, securing parts in TV pilots that were not picked up. It was her role in the US TV seriesParty of Five that brought her fame, and the recording contract and leg-up to Hollywood she had craved since birth. She cut her first album when she was 13.

All of which makes her sound a very serious child. "Absolutely not," she says. "I was a complete goofball, always singing at the top of my lungs like crazy and trying to make people laugh." To give me an example, she takes hold of my hand to see how far she can curl back my thumb. "Some people's thumbs can really bend there, and they're supposed to have a kind heart. See, yours will do it a bit more than mine." She's definitely kind-hearted: I can see no difference. "Now," she adds, somewhat unnecessarily, "I realise it's not true. But I used to press until I felt like I was going to break my thumb. I thought if I was still growing I could change the structure of my bone to make it bend really far, so that other kids would know I had a kind heart. It was my life's mission to make my thumbs bend. It didn't work."

There is another girlhood aspiration, however, that she has been able to live to the full: playing the lead in an Audrey Hepburn biopic. So when a script for a romantic comedy called Why Can't I Be Audrey Hepburn? landed on her doormat, its writer-director, Ryan Murphy, found himself on the receiving end of a charm blitzkrieg. Hewitt located a shop that stocked sterling silver telephone dials of the kind coveted by Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's. "I put on a black turtleneck and a black skirt, and I pulled my hair back in a ponytail," she recalls. The shop assistant presented her with the trinket of her desires before she had time to open her mouth. But Murphy didn't give her the part and the film, in any case, collapsed. But two weeks later Hewitt was offered something better – the title role in a TV movie entitled The Audrey Hepburn Story. There's a double happy ending. Why Can't I Be Audrey Hepburn? is back in production, with Hewitt in the lead.

Hewitt kept the frocks from the biopic and, she claims, still occasionally puts on the little black number to wander the pavement outside Tiffany's. Is she joking? I can't tell. But Martin Balsam's line from the movie seems apposite: "She's a real phoney. You know why? Because she honestly believes all this phoney junk that she believes." Hewitt and Holly do have some common ground: they are both Texan runaways with a yen for the neon and a taste for tight-fitting jumpers. But it's hard to imagine Hewitt sharing the sense of terror that sends Holly scuttling to Tiffany's for a recuperative browse. If you're playing Jackie Chan's sidekick, that doesn't matter. If want to record soulful pop, I suspect it does.

"Life's pretty easy, if you let it be," she tells me. "I haven't really tested life that much, so far." Holly's "mean reds" – those moments when "suddenly you're afraid and you don't know what you're afraid of" – don't seem to have touched Jennifer Love Hewitt. Unless, of course, they are what drove her to tears in the presence of Catherine Zeta Jones.

 

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