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'This one is you," says designer Joeffer Caoc, in a dry, offhand voice, as though he has seen too much perfection to be impressed any more.

"Your shoulder looks good," pronounces Misura marketing manager Christine Faulhaber, dressed in severe black and standing, arms crossed, by a rack of clothing samples in the Misura showroom in downtown Toronto.

Melissa DiMarco shakes her streaked blond mane of seventies-style shag-cut hair, shrugs her one, bare shoulder up toward her ear, throws a megawatt grin, and looks in a full-length mirror at the rear view of the slinky one-shoulder dress with the peek-a-boo tulle inserts.

"Got to make sure the butt looks good," she muses, deflating the moment of campy glamour. She surveys her reflection with that look of pained and pensive scrutiny most women assume when objectifying themselves. The others in the room watch expressionless as she plucks at the skin-tight material.

"Oh," says she, hands on hips now. "Not bad. It's slinky but classy. And the goods stay up by themselves." She flops her hair to one side and puts one hand down the front of her dress to rearrange her impressive and pillowy bosom.

It's a very babe moment. And she is a babe. DiMarco, who only admits to being 20-something, was recently voted Toronto's hottest television personality by a local radio station. In case you haven't seen her, all body and good intentions, she has made numerous television guest appearances over the past year or so: Due South, Side Effects, Blue Murder, Relic Hunter and The Associates. She played the hairdresser, Irene Stavros, in CBC's three-year soap Riverdale. She's done B movies: No Alibi with Dean Cain and Eric Roberts, The Thin Blue Line with Paul Sorvino and Randy Quaid.

She's got, like, Melissa DiMarco-worship Web sites popping up, like, every day it seems, and she could be a star someday, what with that girl-next-door-in-a-G-string quality to her. And hey, the Oscars are on the weekend, which is where DiMarco is going (on an invitation she got, last minute, from a Toronto-based film producer she has worked with) and why she's shopping around for the all-important freebie gown. (Designers jump at the chance to dress a celebrity because of the possibility of press mentions.)

She leaves Misura after trying on a couple of gowns and getting back into her go-go-girl-goes-shopping get-up: a black mini-skirt, knee-high boots, a sleeveless clingy turtleneck and a black Danier leather jacket. She pops gum in her mouth and heads uptown in her black Mustang, cellphone glued to her ear, hands gesticulating wildly. (I see her in the rear-view mirror of my car and think she's trying to get my attention. Either that, or something is horribly wrong.)

She tells me later that she was arranging a segment for the Nite Life interview she does on CFMT-TV in southern Ontario and also talking to her agent about head shots she wants to take to Los Angeles for some "meet-and-greet" sessions with Hollywood types, agents mostly. Hey, the life of a working actress is hectic.

Behind a curtain at Hoax Couture in Yorkville, she is cradling her naked breasts like an armful of fresh eggs and poking her head out to carry on a conversation.

"You don't want to say the wrong thing," she says, fretting about the statement her choice of gowns might make. Jodie Foster can afford to be understated at Oscar appearances in her Armani outfits, and Jennifer Lopez can wear a split-to-the-navel dress, but DiMarco wants to be somewhere in between serious actress and sex symbol. "I've got a curvaceous body," she says, "so I work with what I've got. If I don't wear body-conscious clothes, then I just look frumpy," she says, screwing up her face and rolling her green eyes heavenward.

The mood in this place is a blend of Zen and hip-hop. A water feature in the middle of the store has water running horizontally over a bed of stones and flowers. Chris Tyrell, designer and co-owner, provides the funky factor. Wearing a Hoax-designed Prince-of-Wales check suit, he has heavy black-rimmed glasses and a hairdo that appears to be inspired by a Simmons mattress commercial about individually pocketed coils. He stands, legs slightly splayed, sandals on, behind DiMarco, as he laces up her bustier as though it were a saddle on a champion race horse. What follows is more girlish banter about her waist size and complexion being "kinda gold" in colouring, so yellows don't work because "I'd kinda all blend in."

She tells me she doesn't get to enter the Shrine Auditorium for the Academy Awards on the same red carpet that, say, Julia Roberts enters on, because that's for the nominees. She goes in on another carpet at another entrance that the media stakes out as well, and where last year, through a similar last-minute invitation, she was, like, swarmed by reporters and camera people who wanted to talk to her just in case she was a somebody and they didn't know it. Once you get inside, there's "no level" she says. If you're in, you're in. She even saw Tom Cruise coming out of the men's washroom near the bar.

She ends up deciding to take the Hoax couture gown, a $450 red silk-satin skirt and a silk Chinese embroidered bustier, worth $595.

Jump-cut to lunch at Sassafraz, a Yorkville restaurant with an onomatopoeically charged name that's meant to signify buzz, Hollywood North buzz. Or so I figure. The waiters, with their de riguer three-day stubble and easy smiles, dip and swing through the room with more frequency than a politician in a press scrum. DiMarco is seated immediately by a window under her signed and framed photograph. The table between us is tiny, like a throat lozenge, perfect for the intimacy of a lunch date.

"My goal is to keep doing what I do now, to keep playing as many different roles as possible." DiMarco's hands, with her perfect French manicure, talk as fast as she does. It's a "gimme," she says, that she gets cast as the "beautiful love interest," so she looks for challenging roles and good writing.

"How long do you give yourself," I ask, "to achieve stardom?" There are legions of wannabe stars who remain forever on the fringe of the big time. Would she be satisfied with that? "I'm at a point where I'm climbing, getting better parts," she says along with her hands.

After Riverdale was cancelled in February, 2000, she had the choice to audition for other series and to go to New York and take a stab at the big daytime soaps, but she chose not to. She wants more exposure in more movies and television shows. She takes a bite of her shrimp. Talking to actors is about listening to a plainsong of self-advocacy, a bit like nodding knowingly over someone's story about why a marriage has gone awry and it's not anyone's fault but the spouse's.

DiMarco talks easily about herself, growing up in Etobicoke in an Italian-Canadian family with just one younger sister and attending York University to study theatre. But her responses are not unchecked. She'll flip the hair, and hitch up the bra, pull a lot of girlish faces, but there's a pretaped quality to many of her answers. Clearly, part of DiMarco's interview strategy is to hem in her babe factor.

Which is why she points out the fact she was on the honour roll in university and an A-student throughout high school. "I want to be respected. I'm not really in it for the fame," she insists. "Part of fame is just being a celebrity, and part of it is the quality of the work. The key is to work on both."

Does she not like being a babe? "Life could be worse," she laughs heartily. She is 5 feet 7 and weighs between 125 and 128.

During a lull in the conversation, I ask what's in her bag, which sits on the dainty banquette beside her, so big and present it feels like a silent companion. It's filled with pantyhose, makeup, her fat appointment book and about five different bras, in case some of the dresses she tried on required support. (All she will say about her celebrated shelf is that "they're real.")

There's also a pair of black evening shoes she brought along. "Spicy" reads the brand name across the sole in big Cosmo-girl letters. "Oh," she squeals, horrified at the disclosure. "It says all the bimbo stuff we've tried to avoid!"

She flails around a bit, her hair and hands and eyes going in all directions. "If you're going to mention that," she says, gaining some composure as she straightens herself up. "Be sure to say that my bag is Oscar de la Renta." She flashes a smile, and takes a small, lady-like bite of another shrimp.

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