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Cate The Chameleon

<?XML:NAMESPACE PREFIX = CS /><CS:BOLD>Cate Blanchett's offbeat sense of style comes straight out of her inner life -- and from trusting in her own feminine and very Australian whimsy.<BR><BR>"I'm curious about how people express themselves,"...

Cate Blanchett’s offbeat sense of style comes straight out of her inner life — and from trusting in her own feminine and very Australian whimsy.

“I’m curious about how people express themselves,” Blanchett says over the phone from Dublin, where she recently started filming “Chasing the Dragon: The Veronica Guerin Story,” about the Irish journalist killed in 1996 by an assassin hired by the drug dealers she exposed. “What excites me is the image people think they present with what they’re wearing. Observing that helps me work on my characters.

“I guess I’ve spent my whole life dressing up,” she says, “whether it’s as an actor or the masking up you do when you go to an event. My absolute credo is: You must have fun with it. And then there’s the incredible life experience of getting to chew the fat with people like John Galliano or Alexander McQueen.”

Blanchett has seared her image onto the public’s consciousness ever since she appeared in her first major film, “Oscar and Lucinda,” opposite Ralph Fiennes. Yet she has the ability to disappear into her varied roles with the relish of a Meryl Streep. It’s somehow appropriate that Blanchett played the elfin queen Galadriel in this year’s hit “Lord of the Rings,” since she has the ability both to seemingly glow and yet disappear into thin air.

She’s always been more than a little fashion conscious — but it’s never been simply clothes for clothes’ sake. Her fascination with clothes and style has been fueled by her constant devouring of books, poetry, plays and music. She laughs when talking about her beauty now, remembering what a nightmare it was growing up in sunny Australia with such white skin. “I desperately wanted a tan, but could never get one,” she once said, chuckling. “I’d lie up on the roof for hours slathered in oil, and all I’d do was burn.”

But Blanchett’s God-given graces are now almost iconic: her pale skin, piercing blue eyes, long aquiline nose that looks different at various angles, her fluidity of movement that comes from years of dance class — and her burning enthusiasm that comes through even when she’s calm.

“She’s like a lightbulb,” says Gloria Gresham, who costumed her on last year’s film “Bandits.” “When she turns on her energy, look out. Cate’s very creative, but focused; she devotes time and energy to each project. She’s ruined me for other actresses because she’s such a joy to work with.”

The daughter of a school teacher and a Texan ad executive who died when she was 10, Blanchett went to university to study business, but quickly realized it wasn’t for her — especially the math. At 18, she took a vacation to Cairo and was cast as an extra. She caught the acting bug and went on to Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Art. After graduating in 1992, Blanchett quickly became a stage star in Australia (one of her roles was as Lucy in the musical “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” which remains one of her favorite soundtracks. Charlie Brown was none other than Geoffrey Rush.)

Now spending most of her spare time in London, where she lives with her director husband, Andrew Upton, and her new baby son, Dashiell, Blanchett seems to relish every moment of everything. Equally important, she seems to take nothing too seriously and never forgets that stardom, in the end, is beyond her control.

“The wonderful thing about Cate is that she doesn’t have to be in Hollywood,” says Hillary Swank, her co-star in The Gift, where the two became friends. “She’s comfortable having her life exactly how she wants it and not comforming to how a celebrity should act. She’s an actor, not a celebrity.”

That inner balance applies even to the drama of public appearances and what to wear. “Fashion changes every 2 1/2 seconds,” says Blanchett, who’s 32. “So if you start to think about how people perceive your style, it can be stultifying.”

She goes with her instincts, and has built up a strong team of designers and stylists who she knows will serve her well. The designers range from John Galliano to Dolce & Gabbana, while Blanchett has worked with stylist Jessica Paster and L.A.-based celebrity makeup artist and Stila Cosmetics founder Jeanine Lobell almost from her red carpet coming-out in Vera Wang black bugle beads in 1999.

As with all her other relationships, Blanchett’s four-year ongoing collaboration with Paster is based on friendship and affection first. “I love Jess to death,” Blanchett states without hesitation. “She calls me at 3 a.m. to ask about the baby, and I call her at 2 a.m. to ask about her dogs. The great thing about Jessica is, it’s very hard to inhabit the fashion world and be human and real.”

Meanwhile, Paster says of Blanchett, “She is innately one of those women who can wear anything and it always looks effortless. I think there are three women today who can go a little over the top and carry it: Nicole Kidman, Uma Thurman and Cate. They just have innate style. Cate goes around in Yohji tennis shoes and a T-shirt when she’s working, but there’s somehow always a twist. She always looks interesting, whether she’s trying or not. Maybe that’s just because Cate is always interesting.”

Ever since Blanchett met Galliano, she’s worn him to the Oscars, the Golden Globes this year (an embroidered bejeweled gray pinstripe Dior couture suit), and donned a sparkling white Dior couture gown to the London premiere of “Charlotte Gray” this past January. “With John,” says Blanchett, “you’re talking about someone who’s just extra-gifted, who understands the cut of something. He’s wicked — wickedly smart, wickedly funny — and he’s up for anything. He’s creating things that will be referenced for years to come. Hedi Slimane, Alexander McQueen, Jean Paul Gaultier — all geniuses. They prove that ‘genius’ doesn’t have to go hand in hand with ‘asshole.’

“These days, I am drawn to the smaller designers,” adds Blanchett, as she rushes off to join her family for dinner. “Molly Stern for MRS, Michelle Jenks in Australia. I like to hear about new designers from word of mouth. There’s a lingerie designer in Australia named Roberta Glass — she makes the most exquisite things. She does her own little thing. You visit her lounge rooms, and it’s like the ultimate Tupperware party! She sent Andrew, my husband, a baby gift for us — but rather than baby clothes, it was a pair of gorgeous undies and a cami top for me. What a sweet gesture! Of course, after you give birth, the last thing you can conceive of is getting into a see-through cami top! Talk about having a laugh with fashion.”

Unfortunately, Blanchett will probably not be showing off any designer dresses this weekend at the Screen Actors’ Guild Awards k — despite the fact that she’s nominated for Best Supporting Actress for “Bandits.” “It’s a bummer,” she sighs. “Yeah, I’m pissed off I can’t go. But it’s the first day of our shoot.

“But I’m very pleased being Veronica. She had integrity, bravery in her writing — but she was also voted the best legs in Ireland! Too bad about her hair. She had helmet hair. So now I’ve got helmet hair. It’s horribly streaked and — oh, I can’t even talk about it! I never get to have nice hair in a film!” (Blanchett even bravely shaved her head for Tom Tykwer’s “Heaven,” a Miramax film that was due out next week, then suddenly switched to an October 2002 release date.)

“All the good hair has been wigs!” she continues. “The Elizabeth hair? Wig. Ripley hair? Wig. Bandits hair? Wig. Actually — wigs.”

But her hair and clothes aren’t the qualities her male co-stars identify when they talk about Blanchett’s utter sexiness. “She got beautiful, kissable lips!” coos Rupert Everett, who pondered them in “An Ideal Husband,” one of the few films in which Blanchett has a passionate sex scene (with Jeremy Northam).

Kevin Spacey, who had the only other fiery Blanchett sex scene, in “The Shipping News,” concurs. “Let’s just say, wow! But Cate’s married with a new baby, so let’s just leave it at ‘wow.”‘

Giovanni Ribisi, who has now worked closely with Blanchett in two films — “The Gift” and the upcoming “Heaven,” in which they have a love relationship — signed on for the latter the minute he heard Blanchett was aboard.

“I don’t usually choose movies based on the other actors,” he says, “but Cate’s extraordinary. She ups the mark. She’s an incredible human being, and it’s always a learning experience to work with her. I just wish there were more actors with her dedication, her insouciance and her unrelenting will to get it.”

Then there’s her Bandits director Barry Levinson, who says simply, “I don’t know where her limitations are. She seems capable of almost any task.”

Blanchett Bio

ORIGINS: Born Catherine Elise Blanchett in Melbourne, Australia, to a school teacher and a Texan ad executive who died of a heart attack when she was 10.

BIRTHDATE: May 14, 1969.

SIBLINGS: Older brother Bob Blanchett is in computers and younger sister Genevieve Blanchett is a theater set designer; both reside in Australia.

HIGHER EDUCATION: Graduated from Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Art in 1992.

RESIDENCES: Long split between Sydney and London mostly, she now resides permanently in a London flat with husband and director-screenwriter Andrew Upton (“Bangers”) and new baby Dashiell John Upton (named for Dashiell Hammett and born Dec. 3, 2001). Currently, however, the family resides in Dublin while Cate films “Chasing the Dragon: The Veronica Guerin Story.” Because she tends to spend more time on location than home, her husband and son are fixtures on the set.

HOW SHE GOT HER START: On vacation in Cairo, Egypt, an 18-year-old Blanchett was asked to be a movie extra. The next day she found herself in a crowd scene cheering on a fairly violent boxing match. She walked off the set, but took the acting bug with her.

AS SEEN ON TV: Cate started her professional career on Aussie television, starring in mini-series and movies such as “Police Rescue” (1994), “Heartland” (1994), “Bordertown” (1995) and “Parklands.”

CAREER BREAKTHROUGH: Playing young Englishwoman thrown into an Asian prisoner of war camp during World War II in “Paradise Road” (1997). Directed by Bruce Beresford and starring Glenn Close and Frances McDormand, the film wasn’t particularly memorable — but Blanchett’s performance was. In one scene, her character withstood torture by Japanese prison guards, and Blanchett wound up stealing the movie from her exalted, more experienced co-stars.

MOVIE STAR DISTINCTION: Taking small parts intended as cameos — “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “The Shipping News,” “The Man Who Cried” — and turning them into star turns. Also, flawlessly portraying regional American accents (“Bandits,” “Pushing Tin,” “The Gift” ), as well as posh British ones (“An Ideal Husband,” “Charlotte Gray”). Similarly, she moves from stiff period to loose contemporary roles effortlessly.

NEXT PROJECT: At year’s end, she starts work on “The Last Man,” a major sci-fi epic from “Requiem for a Dream” director Darren Aronofsky and co-starring Brad Pitt. AWARDS: Golden Globe for best actress, drama “Elizabeth” (1999); AFI, BAFTA Film, Broadcast Film Critics Association, British Empire, Australian Film Circle Critics; several best actress trophies for Sydney stage productions; among others.

ON HER TRUE HAIR COLOR: “It’s one of the great mysteries of the world! I think I’m vaguely blond.”

IN HER BAG: Carries everywhere a set of caviar spoons her husband bought her.

ON MOTHERHOOD: “I didn’t realize how hypnotic my baby would be. I’m drunk with him. It’s fantastic. We had a whole Telly Tubby (British children’s TV characters) conversation this morning; he’s already learning to communicate. It’s become very difficult for me to leave our little world and go off to rehearsal. It certainly is giving me great perspective.”

ON MUSIC: Loves wacky pop songs by Duran Duran and Bonnie Tyler as much as she loves classical music.

ON EXERCISE: Sometimes does belly dancing.

ON LIFE: Is willing to try pretty much anything once.

PAYCHECK: From $100,000 for a low-budget film up to $3 million for big-budget productions like “Bandits.”

Bijou Looks

Cate Blanchett’s style extends all the way to her taste in jewelry. Los Angeles jewelry designer Cynthia Bach first met Blanchett through Jessica Paster, the actress’s red carpet stylist, and created a necklace and bracelet of 100 carats of tiny briolette diamonds to set off Blanchett’s black beaded Vera Wang gown for her “public Hollywood debut,” the 1999 Golden Globes. “It was a fresh young look,” said Bach. “Cate has a very distinctive look she wants to get across, and that’s what makes her so refreshing to work with. She’s very much an artist, dramatic, and not afraid to let her own personality come through.”

The pair turned up the drama — and wow factor — a year later when Bach created burnished gold Indian princess-style hoops, bangles and stacked arm bracelets to compliment her black Jean Paul Gaultier couture. “The jewelry alone was so minimal that we piled it on for a dramatic effect,” says Bach.

And jewelry can even be key in her film roles. Blanchett’s elfin Galadriel ears weren’t the only distinctive thing in “Lord of the Rings.” Costume designer Ngila Dickson created special “elvin” pieces for her character: a silver elvin broach, a ring of power, her elf queen crown and a mother of pearl necklace. “It was positioned on Cate’s chest to convey the center of light,” she says. “It was all meant to convey her ethereal nature. But believe me, Cate’s no lightweight elf!”

The Back Story

Angelina has her pillow lips; Nicole her crimson hair and creamy skin; and Gwyneth her aquiline nose. Yet no other Hollywood star’s back has become as eye-popping an erogenous zone as Cate Blanchett’s on the red carpet.

It first drew public attention in all its lithe, smooth silken glory at the 1999 Oscars, thanks to her John Galliano back-embroidered butterfly-festooned gown. Blanchett turned her back to the press, turned with a smile, and the strobes clicked away. She repeated the same striking move the following year, this time emphasizing the unusual back motif of her Gaultier couture dress with some of the most original gold jewelry that had ever been created to create an Indian Princess image. Even the back of her hair was speckled in gold pieces.

“You can get so many exotic looks with her,” says jewelry designer Cynthia Bach. “All Cate’s features are striking, exotic. She doesn’t have that perfect Hollywood reconstructed face. And she has the most beautiful long back and not one little ounce of fat, even after having her baby. She doesn’t play it safe, ever.”

Blanchett’s thoughts on the back view? “I didn’t want to give anyone a chance to get tired of my face. Besides, I assumed the photographers had seen enough cleavage.”