Playboy Playmate, MTV doyenne, movie actress, comedy show star - she'll stop at nothing to grab the limelight, even if that means posing for an advert on the toilet, reading a copy of the `Wall Street Journal'
Jenny McCarthy gives men heart attacks. On the day she posed for the Christmas cover of Playboy, the old gent hired to don the Santa costume dropped dead of a cardiac arrest. Today, an Israeli journalist due to speak to her has also suffered a minor coronary, but still intends to conduct the interview from his hospital bed. To add to the general strangeness, his name is spelt Pines but pronounced penis. McCarthy is massive in Israel, ubiquitous to the point of embarrassment in the States, but not a household name in the UK.

Here's the biography: she's 24, she grew up in a large Catholic family on Chicago's south side, her father is a steelworker, her mother a janitor in a courthouse. Her employment history goes like this: Polish sausage vendor, Playboy Playmate, host of MTV dating show Singled Out, movie actress (The Stupids, alas), star of her own top-rated MTV comedy sketch show, and, imminently, a prime-time NBC sit-com. She is also about to publish her first book, Dear Diary..., reflections on the Hollywood casting-couch system.

Some interviewees are diffident, some smile politely. McCarthy is an incorrigible knee-grabber and so hyperactive that she has to grip onto a cushion to stop herself whirling off the sofa. "I had a secret from within," she explains, as her PA, Terence, keeps an eye on his watch. "A drive. Something inside of me when I was born. All I did at school was daydream about being in front of a camera and signing autographs." Grease seems to have provided the spark: "I was in the theatre and Sandra Dee came on with her gold-tanned skin, and she started singing Summer Nights. She was so pure and so beautiful that it took my breath away, and I knew exactly at that moment that this was what I was going to do."

It was this zeal that took her from the sausage counter of a Chicago deli to the offices of Playboy, where an impromptu photo session resulted in her transformation from Miss Kielbasa to Miss October. But while nudity kick-started McCarthy's television career, she's now energetically working against the Playmate's airbrushed airhead status. A recent American advert she did for Candy shoes pictured her sitting on the toilet reading the Wall Street Journal. "Well, it shows that women shit!" To McCarthy's irritation, Vogue refused to carry it. "We stole the idea from Naomi Campbell sitting on the toilet with her panties down, shaving her legs. But that was in black and white, and because mine was in colour, people automatically think plop plop fizz fizz. Well, at least you know I'm eating."

Food is a favourite subject: "Man, I love those cheeseburgers. Even if my bio-metabolism was different, I'd still be eating a Big Mac a day, because I love food and I'm not going to take away something I love. If I get fat, fine." Is it just burgers? "Oh no. It's ribs. McDonald's discontinued the McRib sandwich. Do you remember that?" Er, I don't think we ever had it here... "I'm so devastated about that."

The most striking thing about MTV's Jenny McCarthy Show is its focus on the star's bodily functions. Armpit-sniffing and burping are stylistic linchpins, and one sketch features McCarthy vomiting over a conference table in order to remember what she had for lunch. (It's pasta vongole). While she enjoys it for a second time, a colleague pokes about in the sick and produces a sun-dried tomato, accusing her of eating off his plate while he was away from the table. It's more Gilbert and George than Mary Tyler Moore. And it's not just vomit and poo, but blood, too.

"Bleeding? I was bleeding?" I remind her of a sketch in which a plague- rat bites her finger. "It's definitely dark humour," she concedes. "When the show came out in the States the critics said it was the worst show that had ever been on in the history of TV. But it's my way of rebelling. I am sick of guys going, `heh heh heh.'" (She does a passable impersonation of a palpitating Playboy reader, and follows it up with a lavatorial raspberry.) "I'm humanising myself, because in Playboy I was portrayed as not real."

Unfortunately, having shown her bum to the world has brought her unwelcome attention: "When I did a personal appearance in Vegas I had to have ten cops because these guys were just leaping at me from the street and from the tops of cars. It's kinda scary. There are guys just out of prison, and I got them through their sentences." She switches into slavering maniac mode: "`I got through 1994, now I wanna say thanks!'"

But the terrors of celebrity don't bother her unduly. "I can see why people lose their minds. If you see sit-com actors they look so miserable. But I feel like there is a candle inside of my body and it was just lit when I got my first part on TV. And now, baby, it's turned into a motherfucking torch! And it wants to go bounce. And I'm so driven and so focused `cause I want it so bad."

But what is it that she wants? And why does she want it? "It's a good question, because I don't know. I love to spread something to a mass audience and I'm going to write a spiritual book some day, because if I do that I can reach thousand of millions of people." Hang on. Spiritual book? Jenny McCarthy's Guide to Life? "Totally," she replies." But I'm talking about when I'm 50. It'll be for people who've followed my career and it'll touch many people's lives. Even if what I do now lightens people lives up for half an hour, and even if they go, `That's disgusting,' that's fine, because I believe in Purposes and Destinies."

The McCarthy career-plan has been meticulously considered: "TV, at least for a while, so people see me as an actress who doesn't always sniff her armpits. And then I'd like to go onto movies, where you can really hit the world and affect people." So, everyone from London to Azerbaijan is going to be moved by her? "Exactly. Even in Turkey. Gobble gobble."

Does this mean she expects to become some kind of guru? "Hopefully," she breezes. "I know I want to write a book that really covers a lot about spirituality. It would be about looking at life through different lenses, and how we all affect each other. About energy, you know."

This sounds like the kind of religion that people only discover in Hollywood. "No, it's something I discovered in me," she insists. "The Catholic religion was making me feel a tad bit guilty for everything I was doing. But you know what? I realised if you do the right things, you feel good, and if you don't do them you feel real bad and that's your fault not the religion's. I consider myself a Catholic but I broke free from the chain of the Pope." She sniggers at this. "I did it my own way and spread the love."

I suggest that it might be difficult to dispense such ideas while vomiting onto the table. "Exactly. And that's why in a lot of interviews I've talked about spirituality, and not one of them has written anything about it. But it's a huge part of me. It might be even bigger than the side that people know. It'll have its moment. Maybe you'll be the first, man... " She grabs my knee in a gesture of solidarity. "Break that story," coos Terence, her PA.

"Well," I volunteer. "You never hear Pamela Anderson going on about the I-Ching, do you?" "No Taoism," affirms McCarthy. "Just tittyism." And she's virtually jumping up and down on the sofa. "I don't want to be remembered as a sex symbol because there's so much more inside of me. Tra-la-la-laaa! That candle's burning and burning!"

Yes, I confess. I can hear it.