If you’re postpuberty, you can be forgiven for having no idea who Jesse McCartney is. But if you still catch rides to the mall with your mom, chances are the 17-year-old — who stars as grumbly surfer Bradin on The WB’s Summerland (Mondays at 9 p.m.) and whose debut solo album, Beautiful Soul, just went platinum — features prominently in your diary. It’s easy to see the attraction, from his tousled blond bangs (imagine Ricky Schroder’s hair glued meticulously, strand by strand, to his head) to the unhs and hehs he peppers throughout his scientifically-engineered-forteen-hysteria pop songs.
Those same songs that seduce tweens seem also calibrated to drive a select section of the population completely insane. Still, such scoffing won’t ruffle the pragmatic McCartney. ”Pop is always gonna be ragged on, but pop will never die,” he says. ”As long as there’s 12-year-old chicks.” And, to be fair, they’re not the only ones falling under his spell. ”When I came up with the concept for this show,” says Summerland cocreator and costar Lori Loughlin, ”I said, the one thing I know I need is for this boy to become the hottest thing in the nation. And somebody upstairs was listening to me, ’cause I got him.”
So how often does the hottest teen in the nation wake up with no idea where the day will take him? ”Every morning,” says McCartney, whose casual honesty and light dusting of acne are signs of a refreshingly well-adjusted teenage boy. ”I usually have no idea.” Take Jan. 17: He was in New York City to visit The View, TRL, and Nickelodeon’s U-Pick Live, and performed for radio-contest winners at Planet Hollywood — before flying back to L.A. in the wee hours of the morning so he could be at work by 6:45 a.m. (On days like that, his support staff — among them, the obligatory momager — usually dangle a Red Bull in front of McCartney to keep him moving.)
But this absurd schedule doesn’t faze the showbiz vet, who toured America in The King and I at 9, did four years on All My Children, and first throbbed hearts at 14 as a member of semi-anonymous boy band Dream Street. Right now, he’s working feverishly to reach one of his goals — doing independent films, roles like Leonardo DiCaprio’s in The Basketball Diaries — a goal that will require him to sharpen his edge. ”That’s happening right now,” he insists, pointing to his association with ex-con rapper Akon (who remixed the ”Beautiful Soul” single). ”Parents may not be comfortable with the projects I work on, but that’s the way it is.” And yet he visibly stops himself from cursing during interviews. ”If you can avoid it, why not?” he says slyly. For the time being, McCartney remains about as dangerous as the Fonz.
Over in TV land, Summerland exec producer Remi Aubuchon celebrates McCartney’s nice-guy image, saying it lets the show — about three orphans (including McCartney’s Bradin) living with their aunt (Loughlin) and her free-spirited roommates — ramp up the drama. ”If we take him down the road of innocent drug use,” says Aubuchon, ”the audience knows he’s not gonna become a drug addict.” So while it’s no Requiem for a Dream (another film that McCartney admires), the second season of the series opens with Bradin — spoiler alert! — overdosing on muscle enhancers and tumbling down a flight of stairs. An incredibly photogenic black eye ensues, as well as some splendid moping.