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No geek, Drew emerges as star

If you believe Drew Barrymore, the 23-year-old actress hasn't exactly matured into a knockout screen goddess.

"No! Look at me," she insists, turning her gaze downward. "Look at this. That's not sexy! I'm, like, such a geek."Despite a cherub's face mounted on a Jezebel's body, Barrymore insists on her utter geekiness during a recent interview to promote her new movie, "The Wedding Singer."

"I'm not one of the hip people," she says, brushing her bleached-blond hair from her porcelain skin. "I stick out like a sore thumb in a crowd of the hip people. It's so embarrassing."

Ah, who needs the hipsters, anyway? These days, Barrymore - the former child star turned hell-raiser - doesn't need to fit in. She's the very definition of post-rehab, freshly scrubbed cool.

A once notorious party-hearty vixen who closed her share of bars and flashed David Letterman, Barrymore even shed her clothes in a Manhattan nightclub.

Then, of course, there were her early struggles with drugs and alcohol that are the stuff of Hollywood nightmares: drunk by age 9, a coke casualty at 13 and a recovering addict at 14. By 19, she was married, quickly divorced and a Playboy pinup.

Things seemed to have tumbled completely out of control for the actress once dubbed America's Sweetheart following her debut role as the wide-eyed Gertie in "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial."

Still, as if to demonstrate that child stars don't necessarily have to end up in a drug-hazed coma, Barrymore has recently emerged from her dark teenage years as a vibrant and approachable young woman . . . and hardly a geek.

"There's a great lightness to her. And yet she also has a lot of wisdom, especially for a young girl," Frank Coraci, director of "The Wedding Singer," says. "Drew is the kind of girl every guy falls in love with."

And now, with three new, upbeat films and a maturity beyond her years, the gushy, charming Barrymore is finally the kind of girl you can bring home to Mother.

"I feel as old as the Stone Age," she says, laughing hard. "My past is such a great part of my life, but I like to live in the now. It's really just been a natural evolution. I keep trying to find my way."

Barrymore made her show business debut as an 11-month-old shill for Puppy Choice Dog Food, landing the role of Gertie opposite Steven Spielberg's darling alien by age 7. Two years later she was burning up the screen in "Firestarter."

But after her embarrassing and much publicized battles with addiction, a painful year of institutionalization and a tell-all teen-age autobiography, "Little Girl Lost," directors more or less laughed when her name came up.

"One thing that really bummed me out big-time was that on a professional level people thought I was incapable, or that I would be problematic," she says. "That was so hard for me because I'm such a stickler for professionalism. I don't tolerate any ... ego or lateness. Never in my life have I had a problem on a set."

Barrymore was forced to take on sleazier movie roles, as a promiscuous teen in 1992's "Poison Ivy" and a troubled teen experiencing "Mad Love" in 1995. She also starred in "Guncrazy," "Boys on the Side" and "Bad Girls."

Last year, she made tentative steps toward the lost limelight by appearing in two celebrated films - Wes Craven's "Scream," the successful comic sendup of horror movies, and Woody Allen's offbeat musical, "Everyone Says I Love You."

Now, she stars as the girl-next-door with Adam Sandler in the romantic comedy "The Wedding Singer," and will next appear with boyfriend Luke Wilson in "Home Fries" and as the title character opposite Anjelica Huston in "Cinderella."

"I firmly believe after watching her work that she can do anything that she wants," Allen Court, who co-stars in "The Wedding Singer," says. "She has a natural talent. And she has no fear."

"I feel great," Barrymore says, beaming. "I feel so unscrewed-up. The older I get, the less uptight I get and the younger I feel. You know, I felt so much responsibility growing up. I was terrified because I didn't have a family and I was terrified that I wouldn't have a place to stay or food to eat, or anything.

"And you don't think, when you're 6 years old, I can call my friend and say, `I need to live in your guest house.' If I was an adult, I'd do that - I'd reach out to somebody. But when you're a kid, you don't understand that concept.

"I was such a self-sufficient little nut," she continues. "I felt like I was on this hamster wheel, thinking, `I've got to do this,' and, `I've got to do that.' Now, I'm still on that hamster wheel but my priorities have changed. It's not because I need to make sure I have food and shelter. It's because I need to make sure I don't waste my day. I want to do the things that I believe in."

These days, Barrymore is a spokeswoman for the Female Health Foundation, an organization that educates young children about sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies. She also volunteers her time to the Wildlife Waystation, a California animal sanctuary.

Growing up in the Hollywood fishbowl has slowly tempered those youthful and reckless nights of bra-tossing, vodka-soaked revelry, she says.

"You have to be smart about it. You have to think, `OK, I can't do that. I don't get to go and have fun with people because I will be publicly judged and depicted and criticized for that.' And that ... bites," she says.

"But when I think of that, instead of sitting around and complaining, there are things that I get to do in my life that are so extraordinary that I'm willing to give up going out for a beer in order to work in a program for the U.N. Now, that's important."

And, as if to cement her newfound image, Barrymore will soon appear as Cinderella. How bizarre is that?

"I know, it's going to be weird," she says, unleashing peals of laughter. "I'm honored, are you kidding? Cinderella? I'll take it, OK?"