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Lauren Graham, 12.18.00 ...

Lauren Graham kicked off her professional acting career as a dog named Striker. It was the name of the massive official mascot for a 1993 World Cup Soccer conference at a New York convention center.

Buried under a mound of rubber, latex and fake fur with a giant helmet-like head, the starving Graham was all excited about the gig that paid $300 per day.

''I had never made so much money in my life, so I couldn't wait to get started,'' she says. ''There I was, posing for pictures with the conventioneers, smiling a smile nobody would see under the costume's head.''

It didn't take long for Graham, a highly intelligent individual, to realize that she had been screwed.

''It was extremely claustrophobic inside the suit and I had to trade off with another girl who was very sweaty,'' she recalls, not at all amused. ''And I discovered that people are very mean to mascots. They would knock me on the head and scream up my nose, 'Who's in there?' and 'Are you a boy or a girl?' I went home and cried two nights in a row.''

But the training apparently was invaluable as she now stars in her very own drama series, ''Gilmore Girls,'' and has become the flavor of the season of the TV critics. Graham, 32, plays 32-year-old (''I'm so glad that I don't have to lie about my age anymore'') Lorelai Gilmore, the decidedly cool single mother of a studious 16-year-old daughter, Rory (Alexis Bledel). Their extraordinary relationship is occasionally rocked by financial problems, forcing Lorelai the manager of a quaint inn in their quirky little East Coast town to confront her demanding, old-moneyed parents (Kelly Bishop and Edward Herrmann) for relief.

''It's a modern mother-daughter relationship,'' Graham explains, ''where I play someone who had a kid when she was a kid and therefore missed a lot of her teen-age and young-adult development years. She still has some of those elements and is working them out. Lorelai has learned to be a good parent, but remains young and fun. The one person she doesn't want to be like is her own mother, a very rigid, strict and closed-minded individual.''

The show is Graham's second starring role in a TV series in the span of less than a year. When she found out that she had been hired for ''Gilmore Girls'' (on March 16, her birthday), the stylish actress already was headlining a short-lived NBC show called ''M.Y.O.B.'' as Opal Marie Brown, a high school administrator trying to keep the lid on a rebellious niece. In fact, ''M.Y.O.B.'' hadn't even aired yet. She was hired in ''second position'' for ''Gilmore Girls,'' meaning the producers would have to go through the expensive process of recasting the series if ''M.Y.O.B'' to which she was legally bound was picked up for a full season. As luck would have it, ''M.Y.O.B.'' bombed. Only seven episodes were shot and it was scratched from the Peacock Networks' lineup after a mere five segments aired.

Graham, no relation to actress Heather Graham, was born in Honolulu and reared during her formative years in various parts of northern Virginia, rubbing up against the outskirts of Washington, D.C. It was a comfortable, upper-middle class, horsey-set environment provided by her attorney father, Lawrence Graham, now the president of the National Confectioners and Chocolate Manufacturers trade association.

While a toddler, Graham's family moved to Asia and, for a time, lived in Japan while her father worked for a federal aid program in Vietnam. By the time she was 5, her parents split up and she was raised by her single father until he remarried 15 years later. Her mother, Donna, ''basically left to pursue a career'' and currently lives in London where she is working on a book detailing Western influences on Japanese culture.

''My mother also remarried and her daughter, Shade Grant, is going to Oxford this year,'' she says. ''My dad and stepmother, Karen, have a girl and a boy, both going to high school.''

''Growing up an only child with a single parent is probably why I'm an actor,'' says Graham. ''My father read to me from the time I was born and I skipped kindergarten, because I could read at the age of 4. Literature just sparks your imagination. I took acting very seriously by the time I went to Langley High School near the CIA headquarters. Some people think my father was a spy, because of working for that government agency in Vietnam, but he can't find his car keys, much less keep a national secret.''

Craving the New York experience, she majored in English and earned a bachelor's degree at Barnard College before accepting a drama scholarship to Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where she emerged with a masters of fine arts degree three years later.

''SMU has a really nice facility and some wonderful teachers,'' she says, ''and it has all kinds of scholarship money from people like Greer Garson and Bob Hope. The most terrific thing of all was that I got an agent from a showcase I did there.''

A couple of lean years in New York followed, with stints as a cocktail waitress and administering college entrance exams to prep school kids before launching a respectable career in TV commercials and occasional series guest shots.

''In 1995, dead broke, my good friend Connie Britton and I squatted in the house of a person we vaguely knew for a couple of months,'' she laughs.

''The house was for sale, didn't have a stick of furniture and they were threatening to shut off the electricity every day,'' said Graham. ''Just before we were to be tossed out, Connie landed a job on 'Spin City' and I got a recurring role on 'Caroline In The City.'''

She went on to guest star on ''NewsRadio,'' ''Law & Order,'' ''3rd Rock From the Sun'' and ''Seinfeld,'' while co-starring in the abbreviated sitcoms ''Good Company,'' ''Townies'' and ''Conrad Bloom.''

Her feature films include the upcoming ''Sweet November'' with Keanu Reeves and Charlize Theron, plus ''Dill Scallion,'' ''One True Thing'' and ''Nightwatch.'' All the hard work for the single, never-married actress adds up to a comfortable lifestyle, complete with a beautiful home in exclusive Hollywood Hills and a handsome boyfriend ''in the business but leave him out of it. I'm being sensitive to others.''
Credit: Copley News Service

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