"Accent on Success"by Charles Salzberg
taken from fall 99 issue of Flair

These are busy times for Rebecca Gayheart.  Four straight days of rising at 4:30 in the morning would probably do most of us in, making us a little testy, on edge, short-tempered.  Add this that she's got to lose her Southern accent all over again, and you might think you'd want to steer clear of this striking young actress, who made her mark at 18 with legendary Noxzema commercials that still elicits looks of recognition and admiration from strangers--primarily men, of course.  But Rebecca Gayheart is not complaining.
Six hours after getting up and putting in a half day's work on the set shooting Kevin Williamson's new ABC-TV series, Wasteland, she has not a hint of fatigue in her unaccented, lilting voice as she talks about her role as Sam, a fledgling assistant district attorney from North Carolina now living and working in New York City.  As Sam, for instance, she says: "My boss has just told me that in order to be taken seriously as a D.A., I've got o lose the North Carolina accent and those little sayings, like when I have to go to the bathroom I say, "I've got to tinkle,' Can't you just say "pee"?' he says."

This dilemma strikes close to home. At 15, Gayheart, who is a mix of Italian, Irish, German and Cherokee, packed her belongings and moved--alone--to New York City from her hometown of Pinetop, Kentucky ("It's got a population of around 800 now," she says), to fulfill her childhood dream (and probably every other young girl's in America to become a model and eventually an actress.

Not long after she had arrived in New York, a casting agent told her to "lose the accent, honey"- which she did. Even now, though, a dozen years later, she can turn it on at a moment's notice-think Dolly Parton without the attitude. "The agent said, with the accent, I'd never make it as an actress.  At first, I was resistant. I thought of all these successful actresses who spoke with accents. But she said that the difference was, they could speak without one.  So I decided to go to a diction teacher to lose mine.  But when you lose your accent, you lose a part of yourself, and that's something you really don't want to do,"she says softly.

Somehow, you get the feeling that if Gayheart ever did lose a part of herself, she'd find it pretty quick. The words competent, self-assured, focused and ambitions come to mind.  After all, how many 15-year olds head off to the big, bad city to make to way in the world? And make it she has. From modeling to TV commercials (the aforementioned Noxzema and Clairol's "glintz girl"), to soaps (Loving), to film (Scream 2, Urban Legend and Jawbreaker), to stage (the L.A. production of Alfred Uhry's Tony Award-winning play the Last Night of Ballyhoo) and to TV (Beverly Hills 9020 and Earth 2).

And to think, it all started a local mall. "I was 14, and with my mom, when this guy came up to us and said that I ought to be a model. At first, I was embarrassed. I didn't think I was very pretty,"says Gayheart. At the time, she was 5'7", just half an inch shorter than she is today. But the guy was legit, working with the Elite modeling agency in New York. A year later Gayheart called and asked if she could come up for the summer and try to find work as a model. "My mother was very nervous. But 'can't'  was a dirty word in our house.  My parents had instilled in us the idea that we could do anything , that we should follow our dreams, so it was hard for them not to let me go."

And Gayheart's dreams did not include staying in Pinetop, Kentucky.  Even though she had "a very happy, very normal childhood.  I had such a grounded family--my mom and dad were middle-class, working people.  My mom sold Mary Kay cosmetics, and my father was a coal miner.  I have two sisters and a brother--and I was living in the South and having a wonderful time.  Cookouts, dinners together--it was bliss as a child, even though we were 'financially challenged,'  which is a nice way of putting it.  But all that's helped me in my adult years.  Because of the unconditional love I had from my family, whatever happens to me now, I feel loved."

At the end of the summer , when it was time to return to Pinetop, Gayheart, who had just turned 16, had other ideas. "there was no way I was going home. I got a taste of all the opportunities there were in New York, none of which I could have if I went home to Pinetop."  But try telling this to your parents when you're 16. She did.  And they did what any parents would do: flew to New York to bring her back. Fat chance.  First, Gayheart used reason--she lined up a restaurant job and arranged to enroll in high school.  When they didn't go for that, she pulled out her ace-in-the-hole. "I threatened them, " she said. If they didn't let her stay in New York, she'd join the rolls of the world's oldest profession and bring shame to the family name.  Needless to say, that did the trick--so to speak.

Gayheart enrolled in Professional Children's School, where her classmates included Uma Thurman, Jerry O' Connell and Sarah Michelle Gellar; got a job in Canastel's, a trendy Manhattan restaurant; and moved into a "model's" apartment provided by Elite, which she shared with several other aspiring Cindy Crawfords.  "Those first few years in New York were the best years of my life, because I was completely fearless. On the other hand, it was also completely frightening--the girl from the wrong side of the tracks in New York City," she jokes. "I wasn't savvy or worldly, and financially, it was really tough."  She recalls that she ate lots of peanut butter sandwiches and even jumped subway turnstiles. "It was a hard time, but a fun time. I was an outsider because of my accent and being from the South.  I stood out and kept pretty much to myself, bu I learned so much."

The day she moved into the model's apartment was also the day she met Bret Ratner, a college film student who, it turns out, was to play a significant role in her life. "My bags were literally on the living room floor when he camr in to visit one of the other girls.  He was 18, going to film school at NYU, and I knew right away he was going to be my boyfriend."

At first, Gayheart was a third wheel, accompanying Ratner and her friend out on the town, but eventually they began to date.  Today, 12 years later, with only one brief period apart, Ratner, who directed Jackie Chan in Rush Hour, and Gayheart are still together. "We're grounded in our relationship, probably because of my family life.  Monogamy is hard for everyone," she admits, "but it does have its unique problems when a couple is in the entertainment business, because of the long hours and the long periods apart.  But no matter where we are, we try to touch base a couple of times a day by phone."

What Gayheart really is excited about these days is her role in Wasteland which follows a group of people in their second coming of age--finding themselves professionally and personally, about to turn 30 but resisting," she explains.  When Williamson sent Gayheart the script, which includes three female roles, she chose the part of Sam--a Southern debutante trying to be taken seriously in New York.  She's a bit of an overachiever, and you're going to see her journey, her hardships in the city." Sound familiar?