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November 27, 2009

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'Twilight' hunks part of film's heartthrob history

FIFTEEN-YEAR-OLD Chloe Bates is in love. A student at an all-girls Catholic school, she lights up when she talks about her handsome 17-year-old honey.

Chloe doesn't know too many boys, so she still gets a nervous, buzzy feeling whenever she thinks about HIM. Her friends know all about this guy - he's a regular text and telephone topic between school, homework and dance practice.

Chloe keeps a few pictures of him on her bedroom wall, scattered among snapshots of her and her friends. She also writes about him in her journal. But she can't really get close to him. It's like he doesn't know she exists.

Chloe is in love with Taylor Lautner, one of the hunky stars of the "Twilight" films. And she's not alone.

Girls have been falling in love with movie stars since the dawn of cinema. When teenagers became Tinseltown's prime marketing target, Hollywood delivered handsome heartthrobs any girl could love.

James Dean. Frankie Avalon. David Cassidy. Rick Springfield. Johnny Depp. There are teen icons for every generation. For Chloe and millions of girls around the world, it's Lautner and Robert Pattinson of "New Moon," the latest installment in the "Twilight" series.

These girls aren't just experiencing a movie-star crush, they're participating in a uniquely female rite of passage: the birth of romantic fantasy. And today's technology, such as online fan forums, Twitter, an endless Web stream of photos and videos, lets them get closer than ever.

Before real boyfriends and first kisses, girls' imaginary relationships with their heartthrobs provide a precursor to adult romance - a love before they know what love might be.

"They're practicing feelings of love and attachment and attraction and romance," says Los Angeles psychologist Wendy Walsh, whose own 11-year-old daughter also loves Lautner. "These are all new feelings, and what a safe way to play them out, in the privacy of their own room with a poster of Taylor Lautner."

The "Twilight" series of books and films itself is about first love. "New Moon" centers on Bella Swan, an ordinary teenager in love with the mysterious Edward Cullen (Pattinson), who comes from a family of vampires. Edward is romantic and otherworldly, and though he literally hungers for her, he's gentle and protective. But he leaves and Bella finds comfort with her loyal, longtime friend Jacob Black (Lautner), whom she later discovers belongs to a lineage of werewolves.

"It would be so fun to be Bella," Chloe says wistfully. "I love the idea of having two super-hot mythical creatures fighting over me. I just think that would be incredible."

Chloe hasn't had a real boyfriend yet, but she thinks Lautner would be perfect because he's "that fun, hang out, let's-play-video-games kind of guy that I think would be really fun right now."

Like practically everyone at school, Chloe has read all four novels in the "Twilight" series. She spotted Lautner when she saw the film last year and recognized him from a kids' movie she'd seen a few years earlier.

"Now he's hot," she says. "He's really hot."

Besides his looks, Chloe loves the character he plays: a kid-next-door type who's sweet, funny and just a tad awkward.

"I like him because I can feel like that might actually happen, like this guy could be real," she says.

Pattinson is really hot, too, but Chloe finds his character's infinite devotion to Bella "kind of unrealistic."

Fans of the series fall on two sides: Team Edward and Team Jacob. Chloe aligns firmly with the latter, but "it's pretty much half and half at my school," she says.

Each has his charms. On screen, Pattinson plays a dashing vampire. Off-screen, the British actor is shy and soft-spoken, humbled by all the "Twilight" attention. He's 23, lanky and pale, with thick, tousled hair he constantly runs his fingers through.

Lautner is buff and bronzed, with a gregarious personality, dark eyes and an easy smile. To reprise his character in "New Moon," he packed on more than 9 kilograms of chiseled physique.

Pattinson and Lautner may be slightly sexier than teen idols past, but they're cut from the same teen-heartthrob cloth as their predecessors: smooth-faced stars who seem wholesome - and just a touch away from attainable.

Heidi Hurst, executive editor of teen pinup magazine Tiger Beat, notes that since the magazine was established in 1965, the guys on its pages have been "non-threatening, more on the boyish side of good looks." The November issue features Lautner and Pattinson on the cover.

Most Tiger Beat readers, who range in age from eight to 16, "still aren't dating boys in real life and this is their first exposure to boys as in 'They're cute. I like them'," Hurst says.

Chloe buys Tiger Beat when it has a good Lautner spread. She'll also Google him from time to time and, until recently, kept a "very hot, shirtless picture" of him as her computer screen-saver. But she's not as obsessive as some of her friends, who check YouTube for him daily and follow various "Twilight" fan sites. She and a dozen of her friends were planning to make their own Team Jacob T-shirts, and they've seen "New Moon" which opened last week.

Chloe's mom, Jill Mullikin-Bates, approves of her daughter's love for Lautner, calling the young actor "a wholesome, realistic role model."

"He's the right age and super cute," says the 47-year-old mother of two. "It totally brings me back to when I was that age and having those fantasies."

Mom's teen heartthrob? Leif Garrett, a late-1970s icon adored for his feathered, Farrah Fawcett-style hair.

Fawcett, of course, was the most popular pinup of her day. But the boys who bought her iconic poster related to her in a completely different way than Chloe does, because they typically don't have relationships with their on-screen idols the way girls do. Most guys want to get physical with their love objects, where girls fantasize about their heartthrob becoming their boyfriend.

"Pinups are more explicitly eroticized where a heartthrob ... is about feelings, being able to imagine romance rather than just sex and sexuality," says Karen Tongson, a professor of English and Gender Studies at the University of Southern California.

Former heartthrob Rick Springfield says he never believed his adolescent female followers were attracted to him sexually: "If they were confronted with this older man and they saw all this body hair and whiskers, they'd probably completely gross out."

He theorizes that young, screaming fans are merely responding to fledgling feelings of attraction they can't yet define. "They're just letting out all this new energy that they're discovering," he says.

Chloe says if she ever met Lautner in person, she'd be "freaking out on the inside but trying to act cool on the outside." Sometimes when she's with her friends, "we pretend what we'd say to him if we were more confident."

Then there's the life-sized cardboard cutout of Lautner that Chloe's mom and dad recently bought for her. He now stands in her bedroom - her first vision every morning and the last thing she sees each night.


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