She's 17, she's hot, and now she's the toast of New York. Liesl Schillinger on the babe-ification of Chelsea Clinton Photomontage by Nick Gledhill
LAST weekend, Chelsea Clinton took Manhattan.

Alighting at Laguardia Airport "ultra-chic in black pants and a pale grey turtleneck", as the New York Times gushed, the first daughter breezed onto the tarmac. Cameras to the left of her, cameras to the right of her, she got into a private car and zoomed off to the edgy AIDS musical RENT, leaving acres of immovable traffic in her wake.

As Newsday, the New York Times, Post and Daily News and the Washington Post chased her breathlessly, filling the papers with articles that blared "CHELSEA CLlNTON, 17, HITS BROADWAY and A NEW MORNING FOR CHELSEA," the verdict thundered down. The babe-ification of Chelsea Clinton was complete, and the White House had itself its very own Spice Girl.

Chelsea had come to New York to ring in her 17th birthday, and everywhere she went, she kicked up the curiosity, adoration and police escort that fall to the city's favourite daughters. The cast of RENT gave her a private chorus of 'Happy Birthday', theatregoers gaped with a raptness that one journalist compared with toddlers mesmerised by zoo pandas, while on the streets, courageous spectators called out suggestions to add to her fun. "Chelsea, check out St Mark's Place," an anti-social looking youth bellowed. A dewy-eyed middle-aged woman clucked maternally, "It's lovely how she's developing; she's becoming a young lady." Chelsea gave good eye contact, smiled and waved, and with superstar nonchalance, automatically shied away from the kamikaze photographers who dogged her route.

Funnily enough, New York was not Chelsea's kind of town four years ago, when she first lurched into Madison Square Garden and the public eye, on the occasion of her father's first election victory. Clapping joyfully alongside her parents, her braces twinkling and her adolescent arms flapping like a marionette on tangled strings, Chelsea did not win the hearts of New Yorkers. Instead, vicious members of the crowd jeered. The new Vice President's three blonde daughters, known as the Gore Girls, were feted as more suitable White House progeny, while Chelsea choked down insults from late-night comedians and commentators, such as political chat-show host Rush Limbaugh's crack that she was the "White House dog." President and Mrs Clinton leapt to their daughter's defence, demanding that she be permitted to grow up in a media-free zone, and miraculously, the press obeyed.

Having flourished in the nourishing darkness of media neglect, Chelsea Clinton has emerged transformed - or, to use the word that has been appropriated by nearly all American magazines, newspapers, websites and pundits this week, she has "blossomed." The "hands-off" media policy is still in effect (for instance, no one is permitted to know the names of her ever-present friends - much less the name of the "sandy-haired young man" with whom she was observed having soft drinks and pasta basilico at a romantic Georgetown restaurant) but Chelsea has lately shown that she herself can be persuaded to reveal what the press office keeps mum. Somehow, someone found out that she loves ska and alternative music,that she may be vegetarian, and that she wouldn't mind a little more camera attention than she's been getting - tastes that endear her to arbiters of New York cool. "She's the coolest," affirmed young screenwriter Chris Weitz, who is working on a Woody Allen film, in the week of her whirlwind visit. "She is foxxy with two exes." Meanwhile, at People magazine, which in December named the president's daughter one of the "25 most intriguing people" of 1996, a staff writer muses that Chelsea "Has blossomed [yet again] into a much more beautiful woman than she was a teenager. She's g

rown up before our eyes," he continues, "and we can identify with her because we were gawky teenagers, too. Plus, she's the only one in the family who won't be getting indicted." RJ Cutler, producer of the hit film The War Room about the first Clinton ca

mpaign, went so far as to imagine a dream date for her: "Maybe she's looking for some young documentary filmmaker of stellar repute?" he ventured. Chelsea-watchers first took note of the teenager's transformation last spring, when she joined her mother on a tour of eastern and southern Europe and wowed US troops in Bosnia by joining in a war whoop. Since then, she has been photographed - slender legs and all - upstaging her dad at speeches, burnt-church rebuildings, myriad White House functions, and even at the convention in Chicago, where convention planners begged for her to be permitted to address the masses, to counteract Mrs Clinton's tough image. No go; instead, Chelsea appeared on the arm of John F Kennedy Jr at a party for his magazine, George. But seeing is believing, so it wasn't until last week that New York knew that the pictures didn't lie. Chelsea's childlike roundness and shyness of 1992 had vanished, leaving a poised young woman with straight teeth, short skirts, a quick smile, and newly manageable hair-tamed, beauty experts whispered, by potent silicone-based gels. Since the birthday, stunned Manhattan bachelors have been caught muttering, as one estate agent said, "Wait, when did this babe thing happen?"

Predictably, envious types are already speculating that the new, streamlined Chelsea may have had some help from a surgeon or two. Sadly for these evil stepsisters, this Cinderella effect was achieved with no surgery, but time, hair gel, and a little mascara and lip gloss. "She's gotten an image lift, that's all," New York Post gossip Jared Paul Stern opines. A beauty editor at the women's magazine Mademoiselle purrs that New York women would do well to observe Chelsea's beauty secrets. "Mostly, it's confidence," she says. "You cansee in the grooming, she knows what she needs to do. She knows her own style, and she has a great sense of self, and for someone so young, that's really something to commend."

In the tickertape parade's-worth of paper that has been generated by last weekend's visit, journalists have been struggling to prove that their papers were the first to spot the emerging star. On Wednesday, the Washington Post's Blaine Harden recalled that in May, he had reported in the Post that Chelsea was "on the verge of becoming something". After last weekend, that verge has been overshot. But don't expect the new babe to get stuck up about her successful New York debut.

The secret ingredient of Chelsea's babe-ification has less to do with legs and well-chosen clothes than with her mastery of the babe personality, which is to be a "normal girl" - smart but not a brain, hard-to-get but not a snob - even if you happen to be the daughter of the President of the United States.

At Washington's Sidwell Friends School, which she has attended since 1993, Chelsea has a reputation as an an all-rounder, shining in maths and science, playing goalie on the school football team, and in her spare time, studying ballet. Her classmates (even the ones who don't get whisked off to Manhattan sprees, dances on the White House roof, outings to Camp David, and pizza-clogged movie marathons in the White House screening room) vow that she is down-to-earth and friendly. Clearly, what worked in high school has paid off in NYC.

Still, as much as they love Chelsea, New Yorkers love traffic-free streets more, and so most were relieved to hear that she has reportedly been admitted to Harvard's class of 2001, and is not even considering New York's Columbia University. The White House has made no official announcement about her plans for next fall, or for her eventual career plans, but after college it may be even easier to worship her from afar than previously.

Chelsea once toyed with the idea of pursuing a career that would take her farther away from the White House than anything else could; being an astronaut. In the opinion of New Yorkers, if she can make it in this city, she can make anywhere, so why not the moon?

Liesl Schillinger's column returns next week