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Now she's spelling out what's tickling Tori

She's heard all the jokes and jabs, and with a new show, the heiress shows she can play along.

March 31, 2006|Mimi Avins | Times Staff Writer

What Tori Spelling wore when pitching a comedy series last pilot season was rather out there, even by the loosey-goosey standards of TV. She walked into offices at the six major networks carrying her 13-pound pug, Mimi LaRue, and wearing a T-shirt bearing the words:

"No, I don't live at the mansion."

"No, I don't hate Shannen Doherty."

"No, I haven't had my ribs removed."

"Yes, I do dress up my pug," was written across her narrow back, in bold pink letters.

No matter what you've heard, the dog, whom Spelling routinely clothes in chiffon and pearls, was not sporting a matching tee.

If reality television has taught us anything, it's that viewers tune in to see people they like as well as those they, oh, "hate" is such a strong word, but you get the point. Spelling, "Beverly Hills, 90210" alumna, tabloid regular, gay icon and plucky Hollywood heiress, has her fans, but in the 16 years she's been working as an actress, the 32-year-old has been subjected to what even the most poisonous observer of pop culture would have to admit is more than her fair share of vitriol and ridicule.

So many rumors (mean and mostly inaccurate) have circulated over the years that Spelling's image threatened to overwhelm any character she might play. After her 11-year stint on "90210" ended in 2000, she starred in five comedy pilots in five years, none of which were picked up. She was cast as a young woman trying to make it in the big city, as a struggling shoe saleswoman, and as a publicist's assistant. The pilots tested badly for a consistent reason: No one would buy Spelling, the daughter of famously wealthy producer Aaron Spelling, as a comically suffering working girl. Audiences didn't believe her as a dog walker, much less one who scooped up her charges' poop.

"People would be going, 'Give me a break,' " Spelling said this week at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. "So one day I woke up with the realization that if they can't get past seeing Tori Spelling in whatever part I play, I'll do what I love, comedy, and I'll give them Tori Spelling."

The first two episodes of the meta half-hour comedy "So NoTORIous" will premiere back to back Sunday on VH1. In the single-camera show, Spelling plays a fictionalized version of herself, an actress who, yes, had a nose job and is surrounded by an entourage of loyal old friends loosely modeled on the posse she formed in high school, back when Harvard-Westlake was known as the Westlake School for Girls.

Although "So NoTORIous" is scripted, not improvised, it aspires to be a kind of "Curb Your Tori." With her pals and Mimi LaRue in tow, Spelling ducks paparazzi, engages in passive-aggressive jousts with her mother and searches for romance and professional fulfillment while references to the sort of gossip nuggets quoted on her T-shirt whiz by. Her father is represented by a disembodied voice, a la Charlie of "Charlie's Angels." Her mother, a sugar-dipped Mommie Dearest, is played by Loni Anderson and has been given the made-up name Kiki.

With apologies to Dorothy Parker, if the number of minor celebrities willing to participate in orgies of self-humiliation on television were laid end to end, no one would be a bit surprised. So it's all the more impressive that Spelling's decision to laugh along with the people who snicker at her seems to have been a smart choice.

At 10 a.m., the Roosevelt, current custodian of the late-night scene, has the air of a babe stumbling home in last night's party dress. Spelling was L.A.-savvy enough to arrive for an interview dressed down, in jeans and a sequin-trimmed sweatshirt. "I'm so excited about getting a good review in Entertainment Weekly," she said. "I've gotten Fs before from them, for my TV movies. Fs and Ds."

There's humor in being flunked by Entertainment Weekly, and pain. In conversation, Spelling toggles between mild self-pity and feistiness, vulnerability alternating with bravery. Her little girl's voice can be as high and breathy as Marilyn Monroe's, but when she speaks seriously about having paid her dues and worked hard, it drops an octave.

"I'm not asking for anyone's sympathy," she said. "I'm just saying, when you do work hard and do good work, you expect to be praised for it. Or at least given a fair chance. I feel I'm not always given that. What can you do? After so many years of being hurt and fighting it, you just accept it. I've chosen this career and this lifestyle and what goes along with it."

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