Long-limbed and coltish, Blake Lively is a textbook California blonde, the blogging era's Christie Brinkley. An overnight icon thanks to her role in Gossip Girl, she's athletic, wholesome and impossibly gorgeous. She's wearing high heels, a tight-fitting sweater and skinny charcoal jeans that make her look leaner and even taller than she is (5ft 10in); she towers with poise over everyone else.
In fact, it's only close up, once she sits down and relaxes on the sofa, that her age – she's just 20 – becomes obvious. Lively talks with a Valley Girl-ish openness, again betraying her blonde California roots. Indeed, given the verging-on-icy image she projects as a red-carpet regular, the stream-of-consciousness chatter is jarringly youthful.
In this case, though, it's an advantage, given that she is talking about her new film, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2. It's a sequel to the 2005 original, reuniting stars Lively, Amber (daughter of Russ) Tamblyn, onetime "Gilmore Girl" Alexis Bledel and America Ferrera, temporarily relieved of her mouthful of metal from Ugly Betty.
The whole thing, as the stars stress, was a testosterone-free zone: as well as the four leads, women filled all the key behind-the-scenes roles on the movie, from producer Kira Davis and composer Rachel Portman to Sanaa Hamri, a music-video veteran tapped to be the director. Fittingly, in the year of the first truly blockbuster chick flick, Sex and the City: The Movie, Pants 2 is like SATC for the tweenage set.
Neurotic, self-analysing Carmen (Ferrera) is the movie's Carrie-like narrator, albeit with a dowdier wardrobe, while Bledel's arty dreamer Lena is Charlotte York with a Greek surname and family in Santorini. Tibby, the wisecracking cynic played with witty charm by Tamblyn, is a kohl-eyelined, boho Miranda. But, as with the SATC quartet, the breakout star here is Lively's alter ego – the consequence-shunning, id-heavy Bridget is a PG-13 Samantha Jones, with sport subbed for sex as her favourite aerobic activity.
"Bridget is a free spirit, she doesn't ever connect herself to anything," Lively explains, noting how her character is exiled from her friends for much of the movie, first on an archaeological dig and then in an emotional reunion with her estranged grandmother (Blythe Danner). "But she's also like Indiana Jones. It's crazy, with all these big hats this time. The costume designer did such a good job," she says, beaming.
The movie's final act, filmed in Greece with all four together, was a denouement that Lively and co had lobbied the series creator and film consultant Anne Brashares to write. No wonder – the Santorini stint was like a paid gap-year, complete with unexpected mishaps.
"Once we got there, it was more Jason Bourne-like than Sisterhood-like. We had these moped accidents in our first scene. So I was on crutches the rest of the time, which took away the excitement of walking up those beautiful cobblestones," Lively recalls. And one of the film's final moments, which sees the group take a devil-may-care leap into the Aegean from a cliff top, was improvised after Blake and co-star Ferrera noticed local boys doing the same thing. "I'm really moved by that last shot at the end. Jumping off that cliff was really fun because we did it ourselves."
The foursome are clearly a close group, ribbing one another fondly and with familiarity. There's an unforced ease between them that even seasoned actresses would struggle to feign, and Lively is obviously anchored by her real-life sisterhood.
Bledel, Tamblyn and Ferrera, five years older or more, treat her like an endearing, if slightly wide-eyed and daffy younger sister. They gasp when they realise she's not yet 21. "So we have one more month to make fun of you?" Tamblyn teases, then justifies her ribbing: "We have to, it's our right – we've known her since she was 16!" It's all good-natured, though: the co-stars helped Lively find a Manhattan apartment from an internet café while filming the movie in Greece, and Tamblyn even helped to redecorate. "Blake is like our fun, she brings in all the music and energy – she's so pure, and we intend on keeping her that way," Ferrera says.
That's hardly surprising, given that the first Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants movie was Lively's acting debut. It was no doubt reassuring for the barely legal Blake that her own father, Ernie, doubled up as Bridget's onscreen dad in that film and in the sequel.
The pair's onscreen relationship in the wake of the suicide of Bridget's mother is stern and uncommunicative. That was tough for Blake. "I'm yelling at him, but I can't yell at him," she says, making another distinctly teenage face. "He'd just give you a big bear-hug."
She's clearly close to Ernie, a jobbing actor with a 30-year CV of guest spots in shows from Murder She Wrote to The West Wing. To make some money, he tutored young talents from Jason Priestley to Brittany Murphy. Growing up in Tarzana, California, the rest of her family was also in the entertainment industry: Lively's mother Elaine worked with child actors (in this case as a talent manager), while all four of her siblings (two girls, two boys) performed, including brother Jason, best known for his role as Rusty in National Lampoon's European Vacation.
Yet, in spite of her family's showbiz background, Blake had no interest in following them onscreen. "My dad was the first of the family who got into this business and I never wanted to be," she says. After hopscotching between a dozen schools, the acting holdout finally settled at Burbank High, focusing on classic teen goals such as a college place. "I was class president, on the cheerleading squad and in a competitive show choir and in six different clubs."
So how did the acting come about? Lively blames her siblings. "My brother threw me into it – he told his agent about me and I basically got pressured by my brother. I went out [for auditions] a couple of times... I was very, very fortunate to get such a huge break right away. The first movie was my first job, ever." Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants was a sleeper, grossing just $39m domestically when released in October 2005; however, the female-bonding film gained a devoted tweenage following once it was released on DVD (hence the sequel).
For Lively, Pants was a life-changing experience: after the movie, she swapped her plans for college gowns and A-grades for go-sees and auditions, finally succumbing to the lure of the family business.
And it was at one of those hire-me cattle calls that she snagged her star-making role: the stiletto- and couture-clad bad-girl-gone-good Serena van der Woodsen in the sexy, sudsy TV show Gossip Girl. Based on Cicely von Ziegesar's teen books, the series generates a huge buzz, though it's oddly ratings-light. It turned Lively from an appealing, if aspiring, starlet into a Carrie Bradshaw-esque fashion plate and paparazzi-stalked headline-maker.
"Serena is the star of the show and is supposed to be its emotional heart," says Chris Rovzar, who edits New York magazine's Daily Intel blog and is the on-call expert on all things Gossip Girl. "Serena is a reformed bad girl, and inherently very kind, which is not something you can say about many of the characters on the show."
Rovzar thinks the parallel with Carrie Bradshaw is crucial to Lively's success. "It's like Sarah Jessica Parker: people associate her with her character, and see her in real life dressing very fashionably and looking beautiful, and think that she's running around New York like that." He chuckles. "Oh, and she's the breakout star because she's the blonde."
Asked about the oddest story Lively has heard about herself in the show's wake, she lets out another of her nervous-but-knowing teen laughs. "It was 'Blake tells a tall tale!' – that's I'm really 5ft 4in and I lie and say I'm really tall, but I have to be wearing stilts all the time. Our hair and make-up girl on Gossip Girl thought it was really funny, and she tacked it to the mirror."
But such red-top rumours reaffirm her celebrity: they're a clear marker that Lively's on the cusp of true stardom. Another undeniable sign is that she's landed Leslie Sloane Zelnick, a heat-seeking publicist who specialises in batting off scurrilous rumours about zeitgeist-surfing stars. "Leslie tends to have two tiers of client – white-hot talent who at any given moment may be the most famous person on the planet, and up-and-comers," says V C the New York gossip veteran Ben Widdicombe, editor-at-large of Star magazine. "Leslie handled Katie Holmes until Tom Cruise swooped down in his spaceship and took over her life. So it's an indication that the industry is taking Blake's future very seriously."
For now, Sloane Zelnick doesn't have to work all that hard on Lively's behalf. As Blake's Sisterhood co-stars continually remind her, she isn't yet 21 – that milestone is on Monday – and she doesn't smoke, drink or hit the Manhattan starlet circuit like her male co-stars from Gossip Girl. "I've kissed just three people in my life, other than stuff I've done for TV or movies. I grew up with the mindset that after work you go to dinner and watch a movie. I don't want to go to a club and not wear panties."
Maybe it's the threat of a phone call from Ferrera that keeps her at home. "Now we're in each other's lives," she explains, gesturing to her co-stars, "if any of us dared to be ridiculous we'd get a lot of phone calls from each other saying, 'What were you doing? You're grounded!'" Out of Betty Suarez drag, Ferrera's more thunderous than sunny, so it's no idle threat.
Lively's role on Gossip Girl earned her two Teen Choice awards (as breakout female and TV drama actress) and she knows exactly why. "Gossip Girl is heightened reality. It's sparkling. There are outfits we wear in a short scene on the street that cost $50,000. It's eye candy, it's entertainment, it's gossip."
Though a show full of 15-year-olds gussied up in outfits worth more than a car can reach the highest levels of camp, there are realistic elements too – notably, its Manhattan setting. "Shooting in the city is wonderful. I sometimes think 'What am I doing? What job gets me up at 3.40 in the morning?' But it's a magical place, like a character in our show. I don't think it would work if it wasn't in New York. I can't describe it, it just makes me warm and fuzzy."
Though Lively is still fresh meat in stardom's grinder, she has been well trained by Zelnick and co. She's tight-lipped on details of the upcoming season of her show, and lets almost nothing slip about Gossip Girl's notorious plotlines. Some news, though, has trickled out; the first episode will be a recap of the characters' summer in the Hamptons, while Blake and co-star Leighton Meester will soon have a Krystle-and-Alexis-style catfight.
With her groomed, honeyed hairdo, Lively is reminiscent of another TV icon: she has the bounciest California girl coiff since Farrah Fawcett 30 years ago. Unfortunately, rumours are circulating that she's developing a distinctly Farrah-like diva streak. On-set sources grumble about her perfectionism, and reports surfaced that Lively held up the red carpet at last weekend's Hamptons launch party for the second season of Gossip Girl because she fretted that she had food stuck in her teeth (she begged snappers to delete their photos). And Lively's off-screen life replicates Serena's: she's said to treat Meester as a real-life "frienemy", and she's now seen kissing leading man Penn Badgley in the street more often than on TV ("He's very stoic and calm and confident," she's said).
Widdicombe says: "I have followed her personal and professional lives very closely, and people were fascinated by her burgeoning real-life romance with Badgley – not to mention the delicious drama over the apparent mutual dislike between Blake and Leighton. But the ratings indicate that people are more interested in the personal lives of the actors than of the talent."
He's right: the juicy offscreen antics haven't juiced the show's ratings. With audiences hovering at about one million, it ranks only 200th or so out of all the primetime shows in America. Put another way, that's a barrel-scrape from the bottom. Even so, Gossip Girl has ricocheted around the American TV networks: it even sparked the return of Beverly Hills 90210, which will resurface this autumn populated with permatanned West Coast counterparts to GG's scheming, over-privileged Manhattan teens. (BH 90210 has been retooled for the new millennium, though: one of the Brenda and Brandon-like arriviste urchins is now a black adoptee rescued from a foster home.) And Gossip Girl has proved immensely popular with the teen audience in Britain. Its success in both countries helped to put Lively on the cover of Vanity Fair as one of the hottest young stars to watch.
Yet it's hard to reconcile the rumours of co-star dissing and on-set demands with the leggy woman who sits, eyes wide open, on the sofa. Lively discusses denim brands like an enthusiastic sorority girl. "I like J Brand and Rag & Bone – and the jeans in this movie were a much better fit than last time," she says.
Yet that candour may be a marker that she's a better actress than most might assume. Lively's next project should settle the question – it's a prestige ensemble film, helmed by Arthur Miller's daughter Rebecca. In the flashback-heavy The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, Lively plays the younger incarnation of Robin Wright Penn's title character. The older actress was unexpectedly generous. "It's her character I'm playing, so we talked about it," Lively says earnestly. "I asked, 'Are there any Pippa tendencies you want to talk about?' But she said, 'What are you talking about? I saw your reading and copied you!' So I didn't have to worry about doing anything that Robin was doing."
If that film succeeds, Lively is poised to elbow her way into one of the spare spots in the front row of movie starlets. "She's definitely the kind of actress writers and directors fall in love with, literally as well as figuratively," Widdicombe says. "I predict a career arc for Blake similar to Uma Thurman and before her, Cybill Shepherd. She has an unexpected gamine energy, which animates her classic film-goddess good looks. It's a rare quality that humanises her to men without detracting from her sex appeal, while at the same time the sympathetic characters she has chosen to play appeal to young women. She has the air of the female best friend you would have around to dinner – and then six months later wonder why she was sleeping with your husband."
Here's hoping the Gossip Girl scriptwriters are listening.
'The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2' opens on 26 August
Ten things you have to know about 'Gossip Girl'
By Alice Jones
* 'Gossip Girl' was developed from the best-selling tween novels by Cecily von Ziegesar, a wealthy 38-year-old Manhattanite who bases her tales on her own Upper East Side upbringing.
* The anonymous Gossip Girl, whose arch, all-seeing blog stirs up simmering rivalries, is voiced by Kristen Bell, better known as Elle Bishop in 'Heroes'.
* The show is the brainchild of Josh Schwartz, the man behind 'The OC'.
* 'Gossip Girl' screens on CBS's new youth-orientated channel, The CW. It attracts a cultish average audience of 2.6 million, but many fans prefer to catch up online.
* The show is filmed entirely in New York. Locations include Madison Avenue's Palace Hotel, where Serena lives; it's owned by the billionaire father of Chuck who, naturally, has a penthouse suite. The boutique-y store Henri Bendel on Fifth Avenue is the only place to be seen shopping.
* Costume designer Eric Daman is acquiring the same mythical status as 'Sex and the City' stylist Patricia Field. Chanel, Ralph Lauren and Fendi are favourite labels. The show's website lists all the characters' clothes and accessories (with prices) per episode.
* The music is chosen by Alexandra Patsavas, who created 'The OC's distinctive soundtrack.
* Bad boy trustafarian Chuck Bass is played by Ed Westwick, a 21-year-old alumnus of the National Youth Theatre, from Stevenage.
* Screen couple Serena (Blake Lively) and Dan (Penn Badgley) are an item in real life.
* It's one of the most blogged-about shows, with websites devoted to stalking the cast as they shoot and gossip sites where real and fictional entanglements are updated by fans.