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LAUREN HUTTON // Native daughter

Relaxing on the lawn of a lush hotel garden, Lauren Hutton confesses the secret behind her earliest success.

Scroll back to the 1950s in rural north Tampa. Hutton was but a swamp child then, a tomboy who prowled the teeming woods near her home for bobcats and gators and ill-advised adventure. When she wasn't badgering the neighborhood boys to play baseball, America's future glamor girl raised herself some mighty fine worms.

"Coffee grounds," the model-turned-actor-turned-talk show host admits, in between sips from a bottle of Sierra Nevada ale. Hutton throws her head back the way some women do, laughing deeply as she recalls the squirming compost pile she tended so carefully. "My secret was coffee grounds."

She's dressed in simple but elegant classics _ black slacks, white blouse, red blazer, with thin-strapped flat leather sandals over bare feet. From another beautiful mouth, the words might ring hollow, a feigned but earnest attempt at toughening up a porcelain exterior.

But in a 30-year career, Hutton has proved she's no paper doll. Right down to her trademark voice _ rough but graceful, like a black pearl. She's the cover girl who left her teeth gapped on purpose, the woman whose stubbornness forced the industry to crown her its first supermodel.

Putting her career second to adventure, Hutton explored Africa 23 times. From each trip she added another layer of primitivism and clarity to her New York high life. It's evidenced today, as she pulls a pack of Marlboros from a woven rattan backpack made by a Malay hill tribe in New Guinea.

Remarkably, the woman who'd dodged TV offers over the years now is involved in not one but two television shows. On CBS' Central Park West, she's a socialite and pouty matriarch to a Kennedy-esque clan. On Lauren Hutton And . . . she's just herself: A real-life Chatty Cathy holding court on a brazenly different late-night talk show.

At 52, with a well-stamped passport and a loft filled with exotic memories, Hutton insists she found her greatest adventures in her own Tampa back yard.

"I've lived inside the Ituri Forest with the Pygmies. I've gone to virgin wilderness, Africa, Asia, South America. Florida was as rich as any place I've ever been.

"I know it's what made splendor and wonder the most important things in my life. I was in God's treasure chest."

Someone has taken Lauren Hutton's lunch, a bowl of beans, and she's not happy. She has only minutes to squeeze in meals and phone calls these days, and she'd like to finish what she has started.

It's a familiar theme for a woman who's been dividing her time between a high-concept glam drama and her talk show, which films four blocks away in the artsy SoHo district. Plus, there's a still-lucrative modeling career for Revlon, Armani, J. Crew and Burdines.

There was a time when Hutton couldn't have imagined settling down for anything, let alone making a commitment she couldn't get out of if the travel bug came biting.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s _ baffling skeptics who told her to fix her nose and teeth _ Hutton became America's favorite face. She's the pioneer Cindy Crawford can thank for the hefty paychecks.

Back then, modeling paid $300 a day. Hutton credits late baseball pitcher Jim "Catfish" Hunter for showing the way.

"I'd read in the paper that he'd just gotten a million-dollar contract. He said his business was youth-oriented, so he had better get his money now," Hutton recalls. "So I refused to take cosmetic bookings. I told all the photographers I wanted a contract, too."

She was 31 when she got the industry's first exclusive contract, an unprecedented event that made her the highest-paid model in history. The gig, 20 days per year with Revlon, put her on the covers of non-fashion journals such as Time and Newsweek.

She became an empire. The Supermodel.

The best part was, Hutton had 345 days a year to herself. She traveled for six months at a time. She made movies. From American Gigolo to Lassiter to Zorro the Gay Blade she went, a string of acting ups and downs that became more down-and-out as the years went by.

By the mid-1980s, the modeling jobs were drying up too. She had hit 40, a dreaded age for models. Somehow, the industry she'd helped create was going on without her.

It should never have happened, the up-from-Spanish-moss-Tampa childhood of Mary Lawrence Hutton, as she was born.

Her mother was a Charleston belle, a classmate of Barbara Bush at Ashley Hall. Her dad, Lawrence Hutton, came from old Oxford, Miss., blood. His scout leader lived next door _ William Faulkner.

With Lawrence off to war, Mary's mom took the youngster to Miami. A divorce soon followed, as did downward mobility.

A new husband who had lived in the jungles of South America brought the family to the north Tampa neighborhood of Forest Hills, then so wild that Hutton's mother insisted they were merely "camping out" to ease the embarrassment of reality. It was there, in unspoiled old Florida, that Hutton found salvation in the swamp.

"In one week, you'd see 6- and 7-foot diamondback rattlers, coral snakes _ snakes that could kill you," she recalls with childish glee. "It was pure heaven."

Back then, Hutton's passion was America's pastime. "I took many a beating because I loved baseball, and girls were not allowed to play." When her elementary school required girls to wear dresses _ a not-so-subtle attempt at keeping them off the field _ the would-be catcher slipped a dress on over her jeans.

The wild streak followed Hutton into adolescence. She got her first switchblade at Oak Grove Junior High. At Chamberlain High School, she fell in love, over and over. Sneaking off with boys to St. Petersburg for boating trips, she would dream of sailing around the world.

"She was never a typical high school person," says James Rayfield, a former classmate who now teaches drama at their alma mater. "She had her own sense of self. She was intelligent, she cared about ideas and thinking. That set her apart."

Though popular enough to be voted "Best Eyes" by the Class of 1961, Hutton didn't know where she belonged. "I was sort of the glue between the cliques. I was the freak in between the honor society and the cheerleaders and the majorettes."

Finding her place at the still-infant University of South Florida was even more difficult.

Jack Clay remembers Hutton breezing into his drama class more than 30 years ago. He cast her in one of USF's earliest plays _ Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. His first Gwendolyn.

"For a beginning actor, she was quite remarkable. Very stylish and quite funny," said Clay, now a retired drama professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. "I didn't see how (USF) could contain her. She was much too flamboyant and worldly."

A ferocious right-wing investigation of USF in 1962 convinced Hutton to leave. The Johns Committee had launched a full-throttle attack on what then-state Sen. Charley Johns called "the campus of evil." He scoured for deviants _ Communists, homosexuals, pornographers and atheists.

Shocked by the witch hunt, and inspired by the burgeoning free speech movement elsewhere, Hutton set out for New York with $137 pinned to her underwear and a bag of homemade clothes.

She took a friend's advice and went to the Playboy Club. Too young to be a prime-time bunny, she worked the lunch shift. But there were four other Marys on staff. Soon Lawrence, her middle name and father's name, was fashioned into Lauren, a nod to the great Lauren Bacall.

A few years older, and the 18 year-old Hutton might have waited out the rough years. Terrified of the city, she fled to New Orleans, enrolled at Sophie Newcomb College and went to work at Al Hirt's jazz club on Bourbon Street.

Like a modern-day Streetcar Named Desire, her life was a jambalayaed mix of beauty and blight. By day, Hutton studied art, psychology and sociology. At night, working as a waitress, she squeezed into a Grecian goddess getup, complete with gold wig. Around 3 a.m., she'd head out for oysters. At dawn, she'd rouse herself for class with a bottle of tepid Coke kept next to her $25 Salvation Army brass bed.

A year and a half of the routine took its toll on Hutton, who collapsed from exhaustion.

After a brief return to Florida, she gave New York another chance. The real dream was to sail to to Tangier and save endangered wild animals. She got a job house modeling at Christian Dior for $50 a week, but could never save enough for the trip.

It was 1989 when Hutton got a call that would again change her life. She was filming another "bad movie" in Yugoslavia. A young photographer named Steven Meisel wanted to use her in an ad campaign for Barney's department store.

Hutton didn't know Meisel, and wasn't sure she fit into the latest incarnation of the modeling industry. After all, she was 46.

When the ads came out, older women rejoiced at the long-overdue sight. Finally, a mature supermodel. Hutton was back in business.

At the same time, TV was undergoing a revolution of its own. Frustrated film actors lauded the small screen for the meaty roles it offered women over 40.

Shows like Seinfeld were making New York the hip place to be, even though most were filmed in California. And the talk show industry exploded.

Hutton's acting career dried up after she decided that being "the cheesy movie queen" wasn't as inspiring as a modeling comeback, something her generation could be proud of. Even as a self-proclaimed talkaholic, she didn't see herself in the company of Ricki, Oprah or Geraldo, either.

But then a photographer friend got the idea to film an interview with Hutton and controversial author Camille Paglia. The plan evolved into talk show concept that would bring intellectualism to late-night TV.

The result is an artsy, highly stylized, dimly lit half-hour talk show with a diverse roster of guests such as the Rev. Al Sharpton, author Bret Easton Ellis, actor Kathleen Turner and scholar Deborah Tannen. Lauren Hutton And . . . airs weeknights at 1:35 a.m. on WTSP-Ch. 10.

Hutton sits but a china bowl of grapes away from her guests. When one talks, the other is shown reacting in black and white. Camera operators and visitors wear all-black flight suits, so as not to disturb the ambience if they stray on camera.

"The most difficult thing for Lauren has been mastering her time on air," says the show's creator and producer, Luca Babini. "She tends to be very natural. She really forgets she's filming a show."

It's something Hutton can't forget on Central Park West.

Initially, hers was but a secondary role, that of Linda Fairchild Rush, a hero politician's widow who remarries the head of a media empire. In a cast of mostly twenty- and thirtysomethings, she would be the wise, if sexy, matriarch.

"She embodies New York," says CPW's co-executive producer, David Stenn. "She brings a certain sort of classiness that is discernable to everyone who watches."

But after an over-hyped debut and disappointing ratings, the Wednesday series has been pulled until early January. When it returns, it will have undergone a facelift to attract an older, more traditional, CBS audience. Hutton's role will be beefed up by a romance with new leading man, Gerald McRaney (Major Dad).

"Lauren Hutton is the coolest mother on television. It seemed a waste not to play that up," Stenn says, noting the obvious sensual differences between her character and that of Dallas matron Ellie Ewing. "She'll be the coolest Miss Ellie ever."

Hutton laughs at the comparison, and the flattery. She's calling from New York to talk about her high school reunion two years ago. It was her 30th, but her first.

"You'd think that after you lived all over the world for such a long time, that we wouldn't be interested in the same things anymore. But in fact we were. We were burning with the enthusiasm of our youth. The things that were passionate to us then we were still passionate about now."

Did her classmates, most of whom stayed in Tampa, shudder at the presence of a star in their ranks?

"I've never been a star. I never wanted to," she says earnestly. "I loved traveling more than acting, more than modeling."

"My serious career was adventuring. I got that from Florida."