by Jenny Levine

Rebecca Gayheart left her old Kentucky home for life in the Big Apple at the age of 15- and hasn't looked back. This fall she'll be taking over your television when she stars in Kevin Williamson's new drama Wasteland. Jenny Levine gets the one time Noxema girl to come clean.

Rebecca Gayheart calls me from her black Ford truck as she rounds the corner outside Basix restaurant in West Hollywood. She sticks her head out the window - "Sorry I'm late; I'll be right there." - and drives on through to valet parking. She steps down from the truck wearing a floral skirt and pink sweater, greets me with her all-American Noxema girl smile, orders a bottle of Evian, and fires up the first of many cigarettes. At 26, Gayheart has already been a career woman for 11 years and has been in a relationship with one man (director Brett Ratner) for the same amount of time; she prefers New York to LA and acting to modeling; she is committed to working with good people and playing with good people; and she has a thing or two to say about being misrepresented in photographs.

This fall Gayheart will star in the new television drama Wasteland, created by Kevin Williamson of Scream and Dawson's Creek fame. "It's about a group of people in their late twenties," says Gayheart, "who are basically having a second coming of age. They're all trying to avoid 30, and still sort of acting 19." She plays an actress-turned-homicide-detective and she admits, "It's definitely the only time I'll be able to play a homicide detective. In the show everyone basically makes fun of me the whole time." Although the new show just might launch Gayheart into television stardom, she is slightly wary of being committed to a series for five years. She has already had to pass on a major feature film role because it conflicts with her Wasteland schedule, which she says, "is fine, but I just get scared that I'm going to get really comfortable in the show and not evolve and grow as an actress, and that's always really scary."

Gayheart has found a way to thrive in an industry that is notorious for knocking people down. Perhaps it's because she has been in the business since she was a teenager, and even back then she knew the only person who could stop her from succeeding was herself. "When I was really young, living in New York, I went in to audition for a big agent. I did a little monologue for him and I thought it went pretty well. Afterwards, we sat down and he said, 'Where are you from?' and I said, 'Kentucky', and he said, 'I really think you should probably just move back and go to the University of Kentucky. You'll never be an actress. You're not good.'" Without realizing that this story could inspire "A Chorus Line - Part II," Gayheart goes on to say, "I only cried for a few minutes and then was like, ' F*** him, I can do this!'"

After spending a summer modeling in New York City, Gayheart made a permanent move from her home town of Pinetop, Kentucky, to the Big Apple. She was 15. She doesn't remember exactly why she packed up and headed for the big city at such a young age, but she says that it wasn't an act of rebellion. "I was the daughter who was up at 6:00 am every morning, making breakfast and getting everyone off to school." Her parents weren't exactly thrilled with the idea of their beautiful young daughter moving to New York by herself, but they didn't have a choice. "It was just something I had to do. I didn't take their money. I had $300 and I was prepared to work in order to pay for this private professional high school. I started off thinking I would be a model, but I didn't really like modeling and modeling didn't like me. I'm pretty sure I always wanted to be an actress."

She looks back on her early days in New York with great fondness. "When you're young and fearless, no one can break your spirit." She signed with a big modeling agency not long after arriving in the city. "I was only 15 so the people at the agency assumed I would grow taller, which of course, I never did." But she did land a few modeling jobs which afforded her the opportunity to stay in New York. "My tuition was never paid on time, but I was loving my new life and my independence." She wraps up her sleeves of her pink sweater around the palms of her hands and looks at me knowingly, "I learned so much about who I am and how little you actually need to get by; those are my fondest memories because I survived it and I was happy." She takes a contented drag off her cigarette. "I know if I lost everything today, I could still go back and be that person."

So Gayheart discovered she was born to be a New Yorker. She possessed the gene that distinguishes all New Yorkers from the rest of us who just love to visit. "I love living in New York. I think it's so flavorful and inspiring; you go there and it doesn't matter what you do. You're just a part of the rat race." She even enjoyed being broke in New York. "You can walk everywhere and you can always go to the park. You can entertain yourself. It's just great-of course, [finding money for] food can be a bit of a problem."

At 18, when the romance of struggling for food was wearing thin, Gayheart landed the well known Noxema commercial and washed her way into everyone's heart. Somehow, she became the girl every other girl wanted as her best friend and every guy ... just wanted. What Gayheart wanted was to study acting, so she enrolled herself in the prestigious Lee Strasberg Institute and decided it was time to get serious. She studied there for a year and a half, and then she got the break which completed her transition from model to actor.

"I got the job on a soap [Loving], which I was so excited about. But then, after I got it, I didn't like it." She cast her eyes towards the ground, seemingly concerned that she sounds ungrateful. "But it was a good experience. It was my first job, so of course I was beside myself going, oh my God, I'm going to be on TV."

After her run on Loving ended, Gayheart began to experience the employment yo-yo which accompanies most acting careers, but she developed a strategy for survival early on. "When the soap was over, it was scary because I thought I would never get another job, but I realized it doesn't matter. It always gonna be like that: you always think you're never gonna get another job." And when all else fails? "I go crazy and I drink too much coffee and I bitch and whine and moan about it, and then I'll get myself up and take a class or find some way to fill my time. I never relax, though." And what about when she does work? "Oh yeah, then I relax, then I'm good."

And work did follow: first, the sci-fi series, Earth 2, then a recurring role as Dillon McKay's doomed fiancé on Beverly Hills 90210, after which she finally made a move to LA (which she's still in denial of). Gayheart had barely unpacked in Los Angeles when she landed a small but satisfying role opposite Tim Robbins in the film comedy, Nothing To Lose. Her eyes light up when Robbin's name enters the conversation. "He's brilliant, and working with him was something I was really happy about. Everyone's version of 'the top' is different. For me the top would be to always work with material I like, directors I like, and actors I respect. So far, it has only happened twice; working with Tim Robbins and doing Last Night At Ballyhoo. [Gayheart starred in a production of the 1997 Tony award winning play at the Canon Theater in Beverly Hills.]

So when does Gayheart plan on working with her fiancé, director Brett Ratner (Money Talks, Rush Hour)? "One day - one day far away from now!" I'm taken off guard by this seemingly harsh answer, but that is exactly the kind of statement that makes Gayheart a breath of fresh air. She knows what works for her and she makes no excuses. Nor should she have to: after spending a decade or so stepping in and out of the spotlight, she remains level - headed, even soulful, and truth be told, delightfully goofy. Regarding Brett, she goes on to say, "I'm sure we will work together. I just think we should wait until we're older." How much older? "I'll be 50, at least." She would like to produce and possibly direct in the future and considers turning the tables on Ratner. "I could be like, 'Brett can you play a cameo in my movie?"

Gayheart and Ratner have been together since her early days in New York. She says that for all intents and purposes, "we're already married. The ceremony is for everyone else." That have managed to rise above an industry that preys on young successful couples. "We're both really busy, which forces us to make time to be together. Of course, sometimes it's really awful because we can go a long time without seeing each other, even living in the same house. When he's editing his movies, he doesn't get home till 6am and then my alarm goes off and I get up and leave. But this is what we've always wanted so we're just trying to do it, and not feed into the negative things." What are the negative things? "There are definitely some grey areas [in the entertainment business] where you meet someone, some guy, and it's business, but it's pleasure. You're cultivating a friendship because its good for your career." Gayheart says that in this respect it helps that your boyfriend understands, first-hand, how Hollywood works. "I think it would be really hard to be with someone who didn't understand the logistics of it all."

Brett is so understanding that, after receiving the recent issue of Maxim magazine which rated Ms. Gayheart the "#1 hottest Woman In The World," he called Gayheart and said, "Hey baby, you're my #1 Ho!" Gayheart dismisses the opinions of Maxim's editorial staff: "I think they were all on crack when they made that list." Maxim's flattering rating aside, Gayheart has had her share of disappointments with the press. "It's not like any of the articles are ever accurate," she says. And she has a specific bone to pick with a certain magazine which, she says, will remain nameless.

"They ran a really ugly picture of me." She becomes very animated as she recalls when she saw the issue in question. "So there's this really ugly picture of me, and my friend Ivana is flipping through the magazine, and she says 'Rebecca, what is this?' and its a picture of me all grease up in a bikini. It says [in newscaster's voice] 'Rebecca Gayheart: Uber Slinky Monkey'. I'm like, Oh God, someone just called me an uber slinky monkey. Who has the right to call me an uber slinky monkey, and what is an uber slinky monkey anyway?

"But now," she says, "I'm thinking I'm just going to change my email address to UberSlinkyMonkey.com"

For the record, Rebecca Gayheart is definitely not an uber slinky monkey.

She even fantasizes about giving up the spotlight. She lights another Marlboro with - I almost forgot to mention - the largest match I have ever seen. She brought a huge box of Strike Anywhere barbecue matches along to the interview. "I'm always stuck without a light and I know I won't forget these," she explains. Somehow she manages to make this big box of matches look cool. Suddenly it hits me: Gayheart is the kind of girl that could simply look at something and start a trend.

She is telling me about a party she went to the other night. She was holding her friend's baby and, "I just had this sensation of, Man what am I doing? I could give it all up for this. There are definitely a lot of experiences I'm missing out on. I'm sure that's why Madonna had a baby. She had to know what it was like." Gayheart imagines what it would be like, someday to be pregnant, far away from the flashbulbs of Tinsel Town. "I wanna get really fat and wear big baggy clothes. I don't want to worry about looking cute when I'm pregnant. I just want to go there and get fat."

Today, however, she does have to think about looking cute. She is about to go on a shopping excursion with her girlfriend Sam - "my fashion conscious friend" - so that she can have something new to wear for her next event. She is heading to New York for the announcements of the Fall television line-up, which will include Wasteland, set to air on ABC, and is desperately in search of the perfect day-to-night outfit. "God forbid I wear something twice. God forbid they take a picture of me and I have the same pair of shoes on."

Given that Kevin Williamson has become a hip film and TV writer with the Midas touch, there is little doubt that Wasteland will be a hit, Gayheart will become a star, and she will endure an onslaught of intense media attention. She seems, however, very well poised to handle even the most cynical of questions. I asked her why she thinks people are so interested in celebrity interviews (like this one) that encourage TV and film stars to comment on everything from their own lives to the world at large. She seems unfazed. "I think its kind of like going to dinner with someone you'd really like to meet, just to hear their perspective - that's why I read them."

Gayheart remains unimpressed with her own success. "I just want to do good work. If I could do one great job a year that would be okay with me. But you have to do all this other stuff to get that." The irony is that 'all this other stuff' has positioned Gayheart along side Hollywood's most promising young stars. Take a lead role in Williamson's new television show seems sure to lead her to the well rounded career she desires. And besides, there's always Central Park in June.