March 16, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

Maybe it’s her pouty, party-size lips. Maybe it’s her genetically engineered superhuman intellect. Or maybe 12 million viewers a week are tuning in for her unflappable sassiness and spunky sangfroid in the face of a nihilistic, dystopian, post-nuclear-magnetic-pulse future.

Nah. It’s the lips.

Jessica Alba, the Dark Angel herself, is curled up in a chair in a Vancouver hotel bar, sucking soda from a straw. The star of Fox’s most successful sci-fi show since The X-Files — and the first TV series cocreated and executive-produced by James ”King of the World” Cameron — is only 19 years old, yet already she grasps a fundamental principle of prime-time programming. ”Guys are visually stimulated,” she explains. ”They’re easy to manipulate. All you have to do is dress up in a sexy outfit. Girls just have this power over guys. Guys are sort of stupid that way.”

On Dark Angel, Alba’s other powers over men include zoom-lens eyesight, pin-drop sensitive hearing, and a slew of Matrix-style action moves that make Keanu Reeves look about as nimble as Elizabeth Taylor at an awards show. She plays Max, an escaped eugenics experiment with turbocharged DNA who motorcycles around post-economic-crash Seattle in the year 2020 (after terrorists detonate an electromagnetic pulse bomb over the United States), blowing away futuristic sleazeballs and searching for her long-lost test-tube siblings.

Also, she pouts a lot. And purses her pillowy lips. And sneers sexily.

Of course, science fiction has a long tradition of mixing thoughtful speculation on mankind’s cosmic destiny with hot chicks in skimpy costumes. From Jane Fonda in a tinfoil bikini in Barbarella to Jeri Ryan’s bombshell Borg on Star Trek: Voyager, sci-fi has always made it so. And now Alba, dressed in black leather biker garb, skintight catsuits, and other pneumatically tailored outfits, has become the latest female action figure (emphasis on figure) to make contact with the genre’s warp core: Millions of adolescent boys, and not a few adolescent men, have made her TV’s newest Geek Goddess.

”It can get a little weird sometimes,” Alba admits. ”One time, I was at a pool in a hotel and suddenly I felt this guy standing really close to me, breathing on me. I just ran away.”

And she hasn’t even appeared at her first sci-fi convention yet.

This is where it began,” says Cameron, nodding at a TV monitor in his ocean-liner-size office in Santa Monica. ”This is where I first saw Jessica’s audition tape.”

Actually, it began a little earlier, when the director of the most successful feature film in history decided to try his hand at a TV show. He’d been toying with the idea for ages — at one point he even considered a proposal to turn The Terminator into a cartoon — but decided instead to concentrate on making that risky big-boat movie. Then, about two years ago, he sat down with Charles Eglee — a TV producer Cameron had met in the late ’70s, when both apprentice filmmakers were churning out Roger Corman flicks — and the two old pals started brainstorming TV concepts.

“I told Jim I wanted to do an urban youth ensemble drama, a hip-hop Jump Street sort of thing,” recalls Eglee, who’d already produced a Hawaiian drama (The Byrds of Paradise) and a police drama (Murder One). “And Jim said, ‘Okay, but what if one of the kids in the ensemble was transgenic? What would happen then?’ And I said, ‘Great. What’s transgenic?'”

The answer was a bit complicated—something about implanting cat chromosomes and other animal DNA into a human embryo to make a hybrid TV character—but in the end Eglee got his urban youth ensemble. In fact, Dark Angel is one of the most sociologically diverse shows ever to integrate the airwaves, with a character for virtually every demographic. There’s Original Cindy (Valarie Rae Miller), an African-American lesbian who happens to be Max’s best friend; Herbal Thought (Alimi Ballard), a mellow Jamaican who works with Max at her day job as a bike messenger; and Logan Cale, a wheelchair-bound cyberjournalist who may eventually become Max’s love interest (played by Michael Weatherly, who already is Alba’s offscreen love interest, although when you ask either of them about it they just smile blankly and change the subject).

Alba, as it happens, is something of a genetics experiment all her own. Part Spanish, part Danish, part Canadian, and part Italian, she isn’t exactly the blue-eyed Aryan that usually gets cloned on sci-fi shows. Which is precisely what Cameron and Eglee wanted. “The Nazis had it all wrong,” says Eglee. “If you’re really going to assemble the best of humanity, why not cross the whole genetic spectrum? So that’s what we were looking for. We wanted someone with a transgenic look, but who was also a good enough actress to carry an entire show.”

Cameron and Eglee spent more than a year scouring casting agencies and college campuses, auditioning close to a thousand actresses before Alba’s video ended up unspooling on Cameron’s TV monitor. And even then it wasn’t love at first sight. “She didn’t look that beautiful to me when I first saw her on tape,” Cameron says. “She wasn’t the ravishing beauty we now know her to be. And she wasn’t particularly physically fit. But there was something about her — an attitude, a sass — that made me keep thinking of her.”

“I was a smart-ass,” remembers Alba. “They liked that I had a smart mouth.”

A mere 17 at the time she auditioned, Alba had already logged considerable hours behind the camera. She’d done guest spots on shows like Beverly Hills, 90210 (as a teenage mother) and The Love Boat: The Next Wave and appeared in feature films like Camp Nowhere, Never Been Kissed, and Idle Hands. At one point, when she was 13, she even landed a starring TV role, as one of the humans in a briefly lived Flipper revival.

Still, in other ways, she’s been shockingly sheltered. While other teen actresses were crashing Hollywood parties and chumming it up with Tori at the Spelling mansion, Alba was hanging with a very different crowd, falling in with a group of young born-again Christians. “I would get up at 5 a.m. every day and pray. I went to church three days a week. I never listened to secular music. I took it very seriously. I never do anything half-assed.”

Her parents—Mark, a real estate broker, and Cathy, a housewife, who still live in Southern California, where they raised Jessica after an earlier interlude in Texas—weren’t thrilled with their daughter’s newfound devotion, but by the time she turned 15 the religious fever had mostly broken. “I’d get into trouble for wearing a tank top or tight jeans to Bible study,” she says. “The youth pastor would make me wrap a sweater around my waist to hide my butt. And then I did this episode of Chicago Hope, playing a girl who had gonorrhea in her throat, and my friends from church made me feel so bad about it. Like I was nasty or dirty for doing it. Like I wasn’t a good Christian. It started making me bitter towards the church.”

A summer in Vermont studying Meisner technique with David Mamet’s Atlantic Theater Company completed the deprogramming. “We had to do these acting exercises where you keep repeating what the other person says,” she recalls. “So I’d have to say things like, ‘You’re a f—ing idiot, you’re a f—ing idiot, you’re a f—ing idiot’ over and over again. Or ‘You’re an a–hole, you’re an a–hole, you’re an a–hole.’ By the end of the exercise, I was totally corrupted.”

Not a moment too soon. A year later, she was on her way to becoming the reigning sex queen of the Palm Pilot set. But first Cameron had her learn repetition exercises of a different sort. “I did weight training and cardio training three hours a day, gymnastics an hour and a half three days a week, and motorcycle and kung fu training two days a week,” she recalls of her Dark Angel preparations. “Suddenly I had shoulders.”

“She was willing to make the commitment to transform her body,” says Cameron, clearly a man who prefers women in the buff (he put ex-wife Linda Hamilton on the same sort of regimen for Terminator 2). “She’s a very determined girl. Very self-confident for her age.”

Indeed, according to her 32-year-old costar (and boyfriend), precocious doesn’t begin to describe her. “She’ll explain technical things to me about where the cameras are and when the explosion is going to happen and ask me if I need earplugs and then she’s explaining her scene dynamics,” says Weatherly. “I spent most of 18 trying to find my car keys.”

Dear Jessica Alba, Jessica if you read this i know you and some other people might think that i am just some crazed fan but i am not since the first time i saw you i was love struck…you where so beutiful and i cant stop thinking about you. I wish so much i could talk to you.

There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of similarly heartbreaking letters—some even grammatically correct—posted on the multitude of Dark Angel websites. There are poems, haiku, gossip links (mostly about Alba and Weatherly), and, of course, countless pictures (none nude, at least that this intrepid reporter could find). Even by the Net’s compulsive-obsessive standards, it’s a bracing display of instant mass infatuation.

The Nielsen numbers are impressive too. The series’ two-hour debut last fall pulled in more than 17 million viewers, making it Fox’s highest-rated Tuesday premiere ever. Granted, the other networks were stuck airing the presidential debates that night, but still. The numbers have remained solid ever since, with the show almost always No. 1 in its Tuesdays-at-9-p.m. time slot with teenagers.

And yet all those lovesick fans will be horrified to hear that Dark Angel‘s future is by no means assured. In fact, at this writing, Fox still hasn’t decided whether to renew the show for next season. The holdup, most likely, is money. Dark Angel is one of the most expensive shows Fox has ever aired. That two-hour pilot alone cost somewhere between $10 million (according to Cameron) and $15 million (according to press reports), with each subsequent effects-loaded episode eating up another $2.3 million (according to Fox). No matter how many crazed fans e-mail their love to Alba, Dark Angel may be too pricey to be profitable.

To Cameron, it’s something of a miracle the show made it onto the air in the first place. “The only thing the Fox TV people knew about me was that I spend lots of money and that I had never done TV before,” he says. “And they were worried the show would be too bleak, too dark.”

Fox had reason for concern: Previous attempts at building a post-X-Files sci-fi franchise—Millennium, Freakylinks, The Visitor, Harsh Realm—had all flopped. Cameron’s name in the advertising was a big plus (“From the director of Titanic” certainly has a ring to it), but it hardly guaranteed success (not even Steven Spielberg’s association with 1994’s Earth 2 could keep that series alive). Still, Fox execs insist they’ve never had a doubt. “We’ve always been very optimistic about Dark Angel,” says Dana Walden, president of Twentieth Century Fox TV, the studio that produces the series. “We’re in the business of making money and we see this show as a sound investment.”

Up in chilly Vancouver, on soundstages once occupied by Mulder and Scully (until Mr. Duchovny forced Fox to move the production to sunnier Los Angeles), nobody seems to be panicking either. Least of all Alba, who’s now virtually assured a career no matter what happens to her bioengineered TV alter ego. In fact, she’s already landing larger big-screen roles, such as her part in The Sleeping Dictionary, a romance set in 1920s Malaysia, costarring Brenda Blethyn and Bob Hoskins.

“You know, I’m learning a lot doing Dark Angel,” she muses. “I’ve broken ribs doing harness jumps, messed up my hips doing kicks. But I have a lot more confidence now. I’m less scared. When I walk around I know that if someone attacked me, at least I’d be able to defend myself. I could probably take out an eyeball. Not that I’m going to abuse what I’ve learned. I’m not going around kicking ass. But it’s nice to know I can.”

It’s a lot like the power women have over men, she goes on. “Most women have it, but once you start to abuse it—once you start to manipulate people with it—you become lame. It’s no longer a power but a fault. The secret to using that power is not to use it.” She smiles and wraps her lips around the straw for another sip of soda. “Just having it is enough.”

The Nielsen numbers are impressive too. The series’ two-hour debut last fall pulled in more than 17 million viewers, making it Fox’s highest-rated Tuesday premiere ever. Granted, the other networks were stuck airing the presidential debates that night, but still. The numbers have remained solid ever since, with the show almost always No. 1 in its Tuesdays-at-9-p.m. time slot with teenagers.

And yet all those lovesick fans will be horrified to hear that Dark Angel’s future is by no means assured. In fact, at this writing, Fox still hasn’t decided whether to renew the show for next season. The holdup, most likely, is money. Dark Angel is one of the most expensive shows Fox has ever aired. That two-hour pilot alone cost somewhere between $10 million (according to Cameron) and $15 million (according to press reports), with each subsequent effects-loaded episode eating up another $2.3 million (according to Fox). No matter how many crazed fans e-mail their love to Alba, Dark Angel may be too pricey to be profitable.

To Cameron, it’s something of a miracle the show made it onto the air in the first place. “The only thing the Fox TV people knew about me was that I spend lots of money and that I had never done TV before,” he says. “And they were worried the show would be too bleak, too dark.”

Fox had reason for concern: Previous attempts at building a post-X-Files sci-fi franchise–Millennium, Freakylinks, The Visitor, Harsh Realm–had all flopped. Cameron’s name in the advertising was a big plus (“From the director of Titanic” certainly has a ring to it), but it hardly guaranteed success (not even Steven Spielberg’s association with 1994’s Earth 2 could keep that series alive). Still, Fox execs insist they’ve never had a doubt. “We’ve always been very optimistic about Dark Angel,” says Dana Walden, president of Twentieth Century Fox TV, the studio that produces the series. “We’re in the business of making money and we see this show as a sound investment.”

Up in chilly Vancouver, on soundstages once occupied by Mulder and Scully (until Mr. Duchovny forced Fox to move the production to sunnier Los Angeles), nobody seems to be panicking either. Least of all Alba, who’s now virtually assured a career no matter what happens to her bioengineered TV alter ego. In fact, she’s already landing larger big-screen roles, such as her part in The Sleeping Dictionary, a romance set in 1920s Malaysia, costarring Brenda Blethyn and Bob Hoskins.

“You know, I’m learning a lot doing Dark Angel,” she muses. “I’ve broken ribs doing harness jumps, messed up my hips doing kicks. But I have a lot more confidence now. I’m less scared. When I walk around I know that if someone attacked me, at least I’d be able to defend myself. I could probably take out an eyeball. Not that I’m going to abuse what I’ve learned. I’m not going around kicking ass. But it’s nice to know I can.”

It’s a lot like the power women have over men, she goes on. “Most women have it, but once you start to abuse it–once you start to manipulate people with it–you become lame. It’s no longer a power but a fault. The secret to using that power is not to use it.” She smiles and wraps her lips around the straw for another sip of soda. “Just having it is enough.” (Additional reporting by Dan Snierson)

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