The 25-year-old starlet is on the brink of Hollywood domination

By EW Staff
June 23, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

Jessica Alba is about to do something dangerous. Something she’s never done in any of her movies. Something so daunting she’s never tried doing it in public before.

Jessica Alba is going to tell a joke.

She’s standing in a soundstage on the Sony lot on a balmy afternoon in early June, preparing for her gig as host of the 2006 MTV Movie Awards. It’s two days before the show tapes, and the place is all but deserted; aside from some hammering workmen around the set, the only faces in the audience are the poster-board head shots marking the seats various celebrities will occupy during the ceremony. But Alba snaps on a microphone anyway and steps to the stage. ”Can you believe this is the show’s 15th anniversary?” she asks the auditorium. ”According to national statistics, that means it’s probably not a virgin anymore!” The head shots stare blankly. Talk about a tough crowd. ”Um, maybe I should do it in a funny voice?” Alba wonders later. ”I do this great doggie voice…”

Never mind. MTV didn’t hire Alba for stand-up; they chose her because to a certain tweenysomething demo, she’s the hottest young thing in heels at the moment. Hotter than that other Jessica whose photograph is smiling in the front row (named Simpson), hotter than any of the Kates who’ll be attending the show (like Beckinsale and Hudson), hotter than all the other actresses whose pictures are scattered about. So hot, nobody even cares if she’s funny.

As they say in Hollywood, Alba is ”having a moment,” enjoying such a rush of media and fan effusion she’s becoming impossible to miss. The 25-year-old starlet has been popping up on magazine covers (like Playboy in March, though Alba didn’t pose for the magazine and tried to stop them from selling the ”unauthorized” cover), making the scene at A-list events (a Dior fashion show in Paris in February, something called the Oscars in March), and, of course, getting mentioned almost weekly in the gossips (including constant speculation on when she’ll be marrying her current beau, Cash Warren). Come to think of it, about the only place you won’t find Alba these days is on movie screens. Her last film, the scuba thriller Into the Blue, left theaters eight months ago; her next, Awake, a medical drama she finished last year with Hayden Christensen, still doesn’t have a release date.

And that’s what makes this ”moment” of Alba’s such a strange interlude. Where’s all the hype and hoopla coming from? There’s no studio publicity blitz pushing her into the limelight. She hasn’t wowed the public with any tour de force performances recently — or, for that matter, ever. Sure, she made a big blip on the pop-culture radar six years ago as a mutant biker babe in Dark Angel, James Cameron’s futuristic Fox series, but the parts she’s played since then — even that lasso-twirling stripper in Sin City, one of her best turns to date — haven’t been the type that set careers on fire. Lots of actresses, some with pictures saving seats for this awards show, have better credits. So how come Alba gets to host? Why, of all the stars in Hollywood, was she the most searched-for actress on Yahoo! in May? And since we’re asking questions: Why did this particular young actress get picked to be ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY’s 2006 Must List cover girl?