Homestead, Iowa — Ashton Kutcher may look like a corn-fed pretty boy but he comes from a place that prides itself on turning out tough guys. And if it weren't for some extraordinary breaks, he might still be Chris Kutcher, hanging out with the farmers and factory workers in this isolated, rural town (population 100) where he grew up.
On the surface, the story of how Chris became Ashton -- rocketing from the cornfields to the catwalks to his current perch in the Hollywood Hills as the town's latest hunk-turned-baby mogul -- sounds like "Green Acres" in reverse.
"Guys around here are supposed to be farmers and badasses," says Ryan Fell, 20, a local bartender who attended the same small high school as Kutcher. "They're not supposed to be models and actors. Chris still takes a lot of a lot of (flak) for that."
His former high school principal agrees. "Modeling is not what our men do," says Tom McDonald, who also is the stepfather of Kutcher's high school sweetheart. "But I guess you make it any way you can. He's one in a million. No one from around here has made it like he has."
Kutcher, 25, the son of two one-time factory workers, switched to his middle name when he became a model. He has just signed a new contract worth a reported $5 million to remain on Fox's "That '70s Show" through 2005. On Oct. 26, he starts a second season as host and co-creator of MTV's hit hidden-camera series "Punk'd" and has four new movies coming up, including "My Boss's Daughter," a romantic comedy with Tara Reid that opens Aug. 22, and a film to be directed by Cameron Crowe called "Elizabethtown." Kutcher also is positioning himself off-camera as a powerhouse producer. His production company, Katalyst, is selling five new TV shows to the networks and developing six new feature films, according to his partner, Jason Goldberg. And the L.A. restaurant Dolce, in which Kutcher is an investor, seems to be thriving.
Kutcher unquestionably has been lucky (he was offered roles in two new TV shows the first day he came to L.A.), but he also by all accounts has a natural acting ability and entrepreneurial streak. Some actors make it big in a TV show, then try to cross over into movies and fizzle out, like Luke Perry from "Beverly Hills, 90210" or James Van Der Beek from "Dawson's Creek." But Kutcher is doing all he can to transcend the flavor-of-the-month curse. His romance with 40-year-old Demi Moore has gotten him the most attention, and he's probably gotten some free career advice from his nouveau Rat Pack pal P. Diddy. But Kutcher's real secret weapon may be his quite calculating sense of how to craft his own image.
"It's easy to get pigeonholed in this town," says partner Goldberg, 32. "But we had a very definite objective. We were on a mission to let the world know who he is. He is more than just charismatic. 'Punk'd' is what really put him over the top. He is the audience; he thinks like those people. But we're very clear on what he will and will not do. We've had a lot of money thrown at us for various projects that we've turned down. This way we've been able to control his career."
Kutcher and his publicists tried to postpone this story because the timing did not suit them; they wanted it to run in January in advance of the February release of "The Butterfly Effect," in which Kutcher is both star and co-executive producer. Though Kutcher was not well known until he began dating Moore this spring, he already is turning down the kind of press most young actors would covet. He did not participate in a coming Details magazine cover story. He also declined to be interviewed for this article.
Inspired by fraternal twin
Some of his old friends and acquaintances, to whom he always will be "Chris," believe the source of some of his drive and determination has been overlooked in the flurry of glossy magazine stories focusing on Kutcher and Moore. They say that Kutcher's relationship with his fraternal twin brother, who has been less fortunate in life, serves as much of his inspiration. "My brother is my hero," he said in a 2001 interview.
Michael Kutcher, born five minutes after Christopher Ashton Kutcher, had mild cerebral palsy at birth and endured numerous health problems and surgical procedures, culminating in a heart transplant when he was 13. He lives in a modest apartment in Cedar Rapids and recently left his job as a head bank teller at a local credit union to work at an insurance company across the street.
"I am very proud of my brother," Michael Kutcher says.
"Mike's more timid and quiet," says Joy Janda Curfman, 26, who attended Clear Creek Amana High School with the Kutcher brothers and was especially close to Michael. "What Chris has, Mike lacks. I think Chris has always had some guilt about that. Chris was always the class clown, he wanted a lot of attention, and he got it. He always acted off the wall and did crazy stuff."