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Jennifer Love Hewitt: Determined to be happy, endings and all

How does Jennifer Love Hewitt do it? In her telefilms, series and feature films, she is always decked out like Sex Fantasy Barbie, all cantilevered boobs, mile-long fake eyelashes, micro-skirts, and hair extensions blown out as wild as any of Scavullo's Cosmo cover girls – yet somehow, she just looks … sweet.

Her new TV series, The Client List – which premieres Sept. 2, after a record-breaking run in the United States, on the new Lifetime Canada channel – is the latest example. Hewitt plays Riley, an abandoned wife/single mom/trained masseuse who makes ends meet by providing happy endings at a rub-and-tug parlour. She wears lingerie or little outfits (sexy office worker; PJs and pigtails); she's liberal with the oil; she swings her hair, reaches under the sheets, strokes men's thighs; and then she – chats with them. About why they don't have a girlfriend, what's up with their wives, why they work so hard, why they're lonely. It's a hand job (implied, never seen) with a cupcake and a kiss on the cheek.

On the phone this week, Hewitt does it again. "Honestly, the only thing I was squeamish about was how little I was going to be able to eat, because I would be in lingerie the whole time," she says, giggling. "Men love the show, because we give them lots of eye candy. And women are pleasantly surprised by how in control our female characters are, and how we stock our season with a lot of abs for them." (The male clients are insanely buff and handsome.)

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"And I've been surprised by how many couples watch the show, which really makes me happy," she continues. "Women say they aren't threatened by Riley, or by their husbands or boyfriends being into Riley, because she's a mom and a nice woman. They're okay that their men are attracted to her." That line would put Pollyanna to shame, but Hewitt goes even further: "I think a lot of relationships would be better," she adds, laughing, "if we could have female friends in our lives that we loved, and it was okay when our boyfriend checked them out for a second."

You may laugh, too, but if you were on the phone with her, I bet you'd buy it. I've interviewed Hewitt, who's 33, a few times – the first when she was 19, starring on the TV show Party of Five and screaming herself hoarse in the I Know What You Did Last Summer franchise. And each time, she's had this uncanny ability to turn every cynical bone in my body into a shiny candy cane with sprinkles on it. She's warm. She's open. She radiates a professional good cheer that she's honed since she began working at age 10. With her friends, Hewitt uses her middle name, Love (she signs her notes "Love, Love"), and I think in some ways her name is her destiny (though she's had bad luck with boyfriends, including Carson Daly, John Mayer, and the Scottish actor Ross McCall, with whom she broke off an engagement in 2008).

She's utterly sincere. "I'm not a trained actor, I'm not a skilled actor, I'm an actor of heart," Hewitt says. "That's the only thing I've ever learned. I didn't go to classes. I don't know how to break down scripts the way other actors do. I don't study my lines a superlong time. But I do 100 per cent, wholeheartedly, at any point there's a camera on me; try to bleed from within as much of my own heart and love for what I do, as I can, into every word and every moment, every chance I'm given."

And she's utterly unselfconscious. Ten years ago, while Hewitt was shooting The Tuxedo on a Toronto sound stage opposite Jackie Chan, I watched her film a fight scene in a strapless evening gown. As she swung a punch, the momentum carried one of her breasts right out of her gown, in front of a large, mostly male crew. With anyone else, it would have been sexy, embarrassing, or some horrifying combination of the two. With Hewitt, it was adorable. "My boob popped out!" she exclaimed. She held open her dress, stuffed her breast back in, giggled, and was ready for the next take before the crew could heave their lower jaws off the floor. Under that dazzling cleavage beats a true sweetheart.

But all that would mean squat if Hewitt weren't also canny about her career. She developed The Client List for herself, first as a telefilm (she was nominated for a Golden Globe), then as a series. She's a producer, she directed the season finale, and she knows the ratings of everything she's ever done. For example, she proudly mentions that her last series The Ghost Whisperer, which ran for five years on CBS, "was the biggest show that network had on a Friday night in 15 years."

She did teen horror just as studios were searching for the next Scream; she pitched a love story (wearing fake glasses, she admits, so the suits would take her more seriously) just as horror was petering out. And now, as she hits early middle age, she's embraced the TV-movie genre – especially the "women's story" niche that Lifetime has made into its brand – and defends it unabashedly.

"I feel really insulted when people say women's stories are somehow small or less-than," she says, "particularly when women keep television going. And I feel insulted on behalf of Lifetime when people [sneer] about their movies. Go anywhere in the world and bring up a Lifetime movie, and someone will say, 'I love that movie!' I think if something has a brand that's attached to it, it's a success. People know what their product is – what could be more successful than that?"

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Being positive is a choice she makes consciously, Hewitt says. "You have to work at it, but it's just an easier way to be. There's inherent negativity in just living life. There's crap that happens, there are bad people, bad moments. So the more positive you can be in and around those things, the easier it is." She learned that lesson from her mother, Pat, who died of cancer in June, and who had been her manager and best friend. "My mom was the most positive person I've ever met, and refused to be anything else," Hewitt says. "And she just got through stuff easier than most people."

So last April, when massage therapists protested The Client List's depiction of masseuses as sex workers, Hewitt was unfazed. "I expected it, because how could you not," she says. "And it was fascinating to me, because on TV there was also a pill-popping nurse, Nurse Jackie; a meth-cooking teacher, Breaking Bad; and a dope dealing mom, Weeds. To me, a mom giving happy-ending massages doesn't seem quite as bad as that."

She giggles again. "It's funny. Never in six years did any medium complain that I was too sexy as a ghost whisperer. They didn't mind I showed all that cleavage while crossing people over. They all thought it was awesome."

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