Jennifer Love Hewitt stars in the new series, "The Client List"… (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)
The billboards are impossible to miss. There she is: Olive skin glistening, leg arched seductively, virtually naked save for flesh-colored lingerie that barely contains her ample cleavage.
Jennifer Love Hewitt has towered over fast-food joints and gas stations for months to sell the actress' new show, "The Client List," which premieres Sunday on Lifetime. On the program, she plays a Texas single mother who works at a full-service massage parlor to make ends meet.
The series marks a new creative direction for the relatively chaste Lifetime, best known for its ripped-from-the-headlines, made-for-television movies and tacky reality shows like "Dance Moms." The move signifies no less of a change for the 33-year-old actress who rose to early fame playing a wholesome girl next door on the long-running '90s family drama "Party of Five."
But after appearing in a few teen movies — most memorably 1997's "I Know What You Did Last Summer" — her big-screen turns weren't as well-received. It wasn't until the 2005 launch of "Ghost Whisperer"that Hewitt regained her stride. The CBS series, about a woman able to communicate with spirits, earned solid ratings and ran for five seasons.
"I think people were expecting me to go play another network show and play the same girl I've been playing for a long time," she said, sitting at a booth last month at Corky's diner in Sherman Oaks, where "The Client List" crew members were preparing for a scene in the show's sixth episode. "But now starting my 24th year in the business, I needed a little bit of a re-creation. I looked at my career and thought, 'Let's shake it up a little bit. Let's have butterflies in our stomach.'"
"The Client List" grew out of a movie of the same name, also starring Hewitt, that ran on Lifetime in 2010. Lifetime executives, who've struggled with ratings in recent years, were encouraged by the film's strong numbers. According to Nielsen, last year the network's prime-time viewership fell 6%, to 1.1 million, from 2009, while Lifetime's core audience — women ages 18 to 49 — was down 14%.
"This is a bold series for us, there's no doubt about it — and we want to bring in new viewers," acknowledged Rob Sharenow, Lifetime's executive vice president of programming. "We're proud of our Lifetime movies, but we are trying to evolve the mother ship and do things that are more accessible to the general public. And with this show's marketing campaign, I've definitely had a lot of anecdotal comments from men who have never noticed Lifetime in quite the same way."
Hewitt, too, has heard from men intrigued by the risqué advertisements. But by now, she says, she has become accustomed to public commentary about her body. In 2007, a round of unflattering bikini shots made the rounds on the Internet, prompting the actress to appear on the cover of People magazine under the headline "Stop calling me fat!"
"Because my body has certainly been talked about in a negative way, the fact that people are talking positively about it now makes me feel good," said Hewitt, who is also an executive producer on the new series. "It would be great if there was an equal amount of, 'Wow, she really gave us a great performance' as 'She has big boobs.' They're not always equal.... I always try to remember that it's Hollywood, and part of our job as actors is to be eye candy — so it's fine."
Playing up her sexuality hasn't always come easily to Hewitt. Harry Elfont, who directed the actress in 1998's "Can't Hardly Wait," said the studio initially had reservations about casting her as the "prettiest girl at school" when her image was more the "cute, supporting best friend."
"She was figuring out the balance of how sexy she should be," recalled Elfont, who noted, "she was still girlish and innocent, but at the same time — she knew she looked good."
It's partly that sexy-but-sweet reputation that has endeared Hewitt to audiences. While she realizes the importance of her sex appeal, she also believes there's a "best friend vibe" about her: "a dorky, throw my hair in a ponytail and pillow fight with my friends kind of girl," as she puts it.
Hewitt isn't shy about using social media and has been exceedingly open on her Twitter account. She shares pictures from "The Client List" set, muses about her desire to become a Victoria's Secret angel and retweets saccharine love sayings, like "come live in my heart and pay no rent." She has also been candid about her relationship struggles, most notably in the 2010 self-help book "The Day I Shot Cupid: Hello, My Name Is Jennifer Love Hewitt and I'm a Love-aholic."
"She's enormously approachable," said Cybill Shepherd, who plays Hewitt's mother on the new show. "I loved the experience of working with her so much that I'd probably do the phone book with her. And she looks gorgeous on those billboards. They'll get people to tune in, and then they'll see her wonderful acting."
Indeed, Hewitt's TV movie role earned her a Golden Globe nomination — an honor that still leaves her dumbfounded.
"It was like, 'Wow, somebody noticed something else,'" she said with a laugh.
"I'd like to find some more parts like that that could offer a different side or a different conversation piece. I have not been offered those yet," she said. After pausing for a moment reflectively, she tried to regain her optimism. "But, hey, I've only got a few years left before I'm a character actor, anyway, so might as well work it."