As the whiney Rachel Green in TV hit `Friends' Jennifer Aniston - along with her hairdo - has amassed a huge following. But will the fans curl up and dye after seeing her latest movie offering, wonders Ivan Waterman

Ask the lady herself about the Rachel phenomenon while she perches ever-so-pertly in a plush New York hotel suite and you get a smiling, innocent "Gee, really? This is all a mystery to me" look. Rehearsed, naturally, but still pretty damn good.

There's a pause for thought until she says, quite seriously: "I know people think I must have planned it this way but I'm really not that smart. I don't sit around thinking `Now how do I make my next million?'. I could never be that calculating.

"The hair thing was really an accident as well. I went for a change on the show but I never expected that kind of response. The whole thing was just ... weird. You know, the paparrazi even take pictures of me taking out my trash!"

What is true is that there's no escaping Anistonmania. She is the face of L'Oreal. She does commercials for Microsoft. She says she's actually lost track of how many products she endorses. She gets paid something in the region of pounds 2 million a year. She's doing well.

Friends has just finished a third season on Channel 4 and her popularity is still growing. No wonder she is stalked by photographers. "I really don't get to see much of that stuff," she comments, sipping her fizzy water. "It's great to be so well liked but I'm not so sure about the loss of privacy and how it affects you. Sure, it's the price you pay, but sometimes..."

Not long ago some autograph-hunting fans cornered her in a boiling Manhattan sauna, hoping she'd unwittingly let them into a few on-set secrets. "I mean!" she says, grinning. "What did they think I was going to write on? I kept my cool though. Looking back, I guess that was kind of funny."

At first sight there isn't that much to Jennifer Aniston, the Californian babe with a Greek/ American actor father who also happened to have the late, lollly-sucking Kojak star Telly Savalas for a godfather. She's ordinary- cute, not pin-up material. She has a tiny bust and waistline and her blue eyes are concealed behind librarian-style oval specs. Her red hair - Sixties wraparound style - is floating across her shoulders. The shiny red lips are pout-free and her round jaw-line lacks the strength of a Julia Roberts or Michelle Pfeiffer.

These are perplexing times for Ms Aniston, who at the age of 28 is gearing up to make an impression on the Hollywood studios. Which is why we are sitting in the distinguished confines of New York's The Mark Hotel off swish Madison Avenue, where she is promoting her first starring role in a movie, a light romantic comedy fable called Picture Perfect.

She is nervous. She gets top billing in the modern adventure as Kate Mosley, a bright high-flier who's working her way to the top in the advertising business. She also wants to find Mr Right so long as he doesn't get in the way of her promotion. Her best pal Darcy (razor-sharp Illeana Douglas) invents a smart, wholesome fiance for her to thereby ensure her progress as a responsible member of staff with a secure, stable private life.

The director is Glenn Gordon Caron who helped create Moonlighting on the small screen for Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis. He saw Ms Aniston as his perfect Kate. Twentieth Century Fox, at least, is convinced she can make a successful transition from TV to the movie house.

After re-settling in Los Angeles from New York in 1988 she landed support roles in mediocre TV spin-offs such as Ferris Bueller. In her last movie, She's The One she was outshone by starlet du jour Cameron Diaz.

And then there was... Leprechaun. She can still hear the critics howling in their seats. "Oh my God!" she screeches when you bring up her movie debut in the little known 1993 "comedy" horror flick which featured a 600 year-old beast wreaking havoc in North Dakota.

"They STILL show that late at night," she says, laughing. "I think I can deal with it now - well, kind of. But a girl could get a better start in the movies." Nobody from Friends has, as yet, really hit the box office bullseye. Courteney Cox (Rachel's best buddy Monica) scored in the teen horror flick Scream but David Schwimmer (on-off boyfriend Ross) was dealt a poor hand as a mummy's boy in every sense in The Pallbearer. Matt Perry (Chandler) flopped alongside the gorgeous Selma Hayek in Fools Rush In. Matt Le Blanc (Joey) was weak in Ed.

So the pressure is definitely on and Aniston sighs: "Yes, I'm feeling the strain. There are people out there who used to like us moving in for the kill. When young people, in particular, succeed fast you had better be sure not to mess up.

"We thought after the success of Friends that everyone was on our side. Then we started making movies and... ouch! But I think, when I get up in the morning, I know what I'm doing and where I'm going. That's most of the problem solved."

When Caron approached her, she felt it was time to make the leap. "There are distinct similarities between acting and advertising in that you are selling yourself," she says. "You are trying to make an impression. You have to charm people and convince them you are right as a kind of product.

"They are pretty parallel careers. Kate is more neurotic then me. Everything she does is based on fear. There are moments when I'm unsure and there were times when I moved to Hollywood that I thought I stood no chance. You have to make wrong choices before you get it right. I sure did."

Sceptics abound, but Caron believes Ms Aniston can become a "player". He says: "She is a terrific comedienne. Everyone knows that. But she also has this Katherine Hepburn quality. She shows great vulnerability. She is going a very long way."

The reviews for Picture Perfect were good, her next movie The Object of My Affection is already in the can and ready for release this summer. Directed by Nicholas Hytner, (The Madness of King George), the new comedy stars Jennifer as a pregnant girl with a gay male flatmate desperate to have a child of his own.

Aniston gathers herself up and prepares to leave. Jennifer/Kate has "sold" herself well. "I know it sounds corny, but it's true. Every day I think about how I have this great opportunity... and I'm not going to let it slip!"