After Starship Troopers and Wild Things, Denise Richards became the actress most men in Hollywood want to sleep with. Here's how Toby Young blew his chances.

I couldn't quite believe it when I discovered Denise Richards' publicist was called David Lust. Who's her agent? Phil Gluttony? Ever since her performance as a delinquent teenage sexpot in Wild Things, one of the most underrated films of the year, Denise Richards has been among the most desired women in Hollywood. If you ask any man in the industry which actress they’d like to sleep with more than any other at the moment," says screenwriter Bill Stadium, "over 90 per cent of them would say Denise Richards."

     Some actresses generate light, others give off heat. If Gywneth Paltrow is the kind of girl you’d take home to meet your parents, Denise Richards is the one you’d like your friends to see you with. After catching Sandra Bullock in Hope Floats you might look her up in the Internet Movie Database. After seeing Denise Richards in Wild Things you’ll go straight to the Ultimate Nude Celebrity Site. Julia Roberts is the type of girl men marry; Denise Richards is the type they run off with.

     You can imagine my disappointment, therefore, when David Lust suggested I meet her at 8am in an LA Starbucks. In my imagination, Denise Richards didn’t rise before noon and the first thing to pass her lips was a shot of Absolut followed by a lungful of unfiltered tobacco. She had an image to keep up, damnit. What’s the point of hiring a publicist who sounds like a porn star if you’re going to conduct your press interviews in a coffee shop?

     I checked myself in the rear view mirror after I pulled into the parking lot on Santa Monica and Wilshire. Would she be able to tell I’d polished off the best part of a quart of whisky the night before and only had three and a half hours sleep? Answer: yes. I looked like a reporter from central casting: unshaven, bleary-eyed, hungover.

     She picked me out immediately. She was standing in the corner wearing a long-sleeved, white T-shirt tucked into a pair of tight, faded blue jeans. "Hi, I’m Denise," she said, fixing me with her tractor-beam eyes. I mumbled something in reply. Was it my imagination, or did she recoil slightly at the smell of my breath? Suddenly, I felt my knees begin to buckle.

     "Is there anywhere we can sit down?" I asked, panic rising from my abdomen.

     "I’m sure we can find a table somewhere," she said, looking around helpfully.

     A man sitting by himself at a nearby table indicated the empty chari opposite him: "You can sit here if you like."

     "Are you leaving?" I asked.

     "No," he replied, looking at me as if I was a total idiot. This wasn’t going well.

     We eventually found a place to sit down, but it wasn’t long before I was faced with another problem. I’d heard Denise had appeared in an episode of Seinfeld. I asked her to tell me about that.

     "I played the 15 year-old daughter of a TV executive," she explained, "and George and Jerry got caught looking down my blouse and almost lost their deal with NBC because of it."

     Immediately, I found it almost impossible not to stare at her cleavage. Because of the noise in Starbucks, she lent forward every time I asked her a question and spoke into the taperecorder. I had no more wish to get caught peeking than George or Jerry but, as they point out to the NBC executive, when there’s cleavage in a man’s airspace he doesn’t have much choice about where to look.

     Mercifully, she came to my aid. When we’d first sat down, she’d given off this electrifying sexual energy, batting her eyelashes and curling her pillow lips: Malibu Barbie. But as soon as I’d started interviewing her she’d retreated behind this wall of professionalism, responding to questions in a well-rehearsed, businesslike way. What was remarkable was how quickly she’d changed from one persona to the other, almost as if she’d thrown a switch. Paul Verhoeven, who directed her in 1997’s Starship Troopers, noticed this. "I think she knows that region, call it dark or pleasant, that display of sexual possibilities," he told me. "But she can shut if off like that. That is what convinced me she’s an interesting, good actress."

     Denise Richards wouldn’t tell me how old she is — "just put twentysomething" — but I’d guess it was 1971, the year Carnal Knowledge was made. She grew up in Downers Grove, a middle-class suburb of Chicago, where she attended Pierce Downer Elementary School and Herrick Middle School. When she was 12, her parents Joni and Irv moved to the San Diego area where they currently own a chain of coffee shops called Jitters.

     She did some modeling as a teenager and briefly moved to New York where she lived in a model apartment with six other girls. But at 5ft 6in she was never going to get much further than the J Crew catalog so she moved to Los Angeles and started taking acting classes. Before long she was landing small roles in shows like Doogie Howser, MD and Saved By The Bell.

     Her debut feature appearance was in 1993’s National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon One and her first break came when she got the part of Ben Affleck’s girlfriend in an NBC show called Against The Grain in 1993. It was canceled after eight episodes.

     A couple of forgettable film roles followed, plus a guest spot on Melrose Place, but in 1977, she began to break through. In addition to Starship Troopers, in which she played fighter pilot Carmen Ibanez, she had a small part in Gregg Araki’s Nowhere, then landed the role of Kelly Van Ryan in Wild Things, a manipulative teenage heiress who seduces a High School guidance counselor played by Matt Dillon.

     Wild Things is one of those films in which you can watch an actress find herself.l For Ursula Andress, it’s in Dr. No when she emerges from the sea in a white bikini. For Sanra Bullock, it’s the moment she takes the wheel of the bus in Speed. For Denise Richards, it’s the scene in Wild Things in which she stands in the hall of Matt Dillon’s house in shorts and a T-shirt, having just cleaned his car. With her pea-green eyes and parted, puffy lips, she looks as though she’s sprung from the fevered imagination of a horny adolescent boy confined to his bedroom on a hot summer afternoon.

     Denise Richards may not have cut it as a catwalk model but she could have a great career as a centerfold. In addition to her classic, Coca Cola bottle figure, she has a face that combines the soap commercial prettiness of an all-American, High School sweetheart with just a hint of depravity. When I asked director John McNaughton if this was one of the reasons he cast her in Wild Things he said: "That’s how Hugh Heffner got rich." (When Wild Things wrapped the crew presented her with an engraved silver dildo.)

     "Man, I was nervous, I was so nervous," she said about her nude scenes. ("You don’t have to write ‘man’," she added, glancing at my notepad.) "I had such anxiety about those scenes and I know that, watching it, people are probably thinking, ‘Oh it’s not a big deal, she wasn’t like, completely naked.’ But for me it was a big deal because they were my breasts and there was a shot of my rear end."

     The raunchiest scene in Wild Things, which occurs about two-thirds of the way through, is a threesome in a sleazy motel room between Richards, Matt Dillon and Neve Campbell. Campbell had a no-nudity clause in her contract — "I didn’t feel it was necessary for the character," she told me — but Richards knew she’d have to disrobe when she accepted the part.

     In another scene, she and Campbell lock lips during a midnight swim while Kevin Bacon videotapes them from behind a bush. "We were shooting that scene in the pool and we were on nights and I just stopped and thought about it and I was like, ‘What am I doing? I’m half-naked, I’m buzzed and I’m in a swimming pool at three o’clock in the morning making out with Neve Campbell. And I was nervous about getting this role?’"

     For our final meeting I’d suggested that we do something fun, like go to the Beverly Hills Gun Club or Medieval Times. I wanted to give her a chance to let her guard down, even do something she’d regret. I knew that, with the exception of Sharon Stone who married San Francisco journalist Phil Bronstein, actresses don’t usually date journalists. But, Hell, I’d settle for a one-night stand.

     In the end we arranged to meet for a drink at the Four Seasons at 7.30pm. I’d been told it was only five minutes from my hotel on Sunset Boulevard so at 7.25 I asked the concierge how to get there. His directions sounded straightforward enough, but after 10 minutes I found myself back on Sunset. It was 7.35 so I decided to call Richards and tell her I’d be late. I pulled up next to a payphone, ignoring the ‘No Parking’ sign, and dialed 411.

     "I’m sorry, Sir," said the directory assistant, "I have no listing for the Four Seasons in the Los Angeles area." By now it was 7.38. I was beginning to panic. How about Beverly Hills? "No, nothing in Beverly Hills either. Wait a minute. Ah, here it is. Isn’t that interesting. Shall I tell you why I couldn’t find it straight off?"

     "No," I said, calmly as I could. "Just give me the fucking number."

     I dialed the Four Seasons and told the operator to put me through to the bar. Was there anyone there meeting Richards’ description? He said he’d look around. "She’s not here," he announced when he eventually came back on the line.

     Jesus Christ. It was now 7.43. I asked to be transferred to the concierge. "I’m looking for an actress called Denise Richards," I explained hurriedly. "Brown hair, green eyes, five six, at first glance looks sixteen but on closer inspection turns out to be about 27. It’s essential that I speak to her."

     "Calm down, Sir. Take a deep breath."

     I was now in the throes of a full-blown anxiety attack. "It’s a matter of life and death," I screamed.

     "Okay, hang on. I’ll take a look."

     At that moment an LAPD cruiser pulled up and a traffic cop leaned out of the passenger window. "This your vehicle, Sir?" he asked.

     "I’ll just be a minute," I replied.

     "You’re gonna have to movie it."

     I held up my index finger: "One second."

     "If you don’t move your vehicle right now," said the cop angrily, "I’m gonna give you a ticket."

     It was now 7.49. If I hung up and moved my car, the chances were she’d be gone by the time I called back. "I’m sorry, it’s an emergency," I said. "You’re just going to have to give me a ticket."

     Now he was really mad. "What did you say?" he demanded. Images of Rodney King flashed through my mind.

     Just then Denise Richards came on the line: "Where are you?"

     I explained what had happened and she reluctantly agreed to wait for me. I leapt back into my car and started the engine. Then I remembered I still had no idea how to get there. I rolled down my window. "Excuse me, officer," I said in my best Hugh Grant accent, "you couldn’t tell me the way to the Four Seasons, could you?"

     He looked at me like I’d just asked directions to George Michael’s house. "You’re a fuckin’ mook, you know that?" he said and with that he and his partner were gone.

     By the time I arrived it was 8.07 and the first thing Denise Richards said to me was, "You know I have to leave by eight thirty?" The chances of calming her down, winning her trust and persuading her to go out with me in less than 25 minutes were not good. Even Warren Beatty could have pulled that off.

     I asked if she was seeing anyone. "Dating in LA’s hard," she confessed. "It’s like a candy store here and these guys can go out with any girl and not have to commit. I like to be with a man that likes to be with just one woman."

     That sounded promising. So who had she dated in the past? "Mostly actors," she admitted. But how could she date a guy who spent longer in the bathroom than her? "The actors I’ve dated, they don’t care about the hairdryer. I like a man man."

     A "man man?" It wasn’t looking good but I decided to give it one last shot. "What’s your type?" I asked, doing my best to smile raffishly. I should point out here that I’m short, pasty-faced and bald. "Tall, dark and handsome," she said confidently, "every single one of ‘em." As she drove off in her Ford Explorer, I realized I would probably never see her again, at least not in the flesh. On screen was another matter. During the few days I’d spent with her she’d auditioned for roles in The General’s Daughter, starring John Travolta, and The Ninth Gate, to be directed by Roman Polanski.

     If I was her agent I’d be putting her up for femme fatale roles in sexy noir thrillers. The lasting impression I came away with was of a young woman who can be flirty and mischievous one moment, cool and detached the next. Paul Verhoeven agreed: "That’s what’s so interesting about her, that’s why she would be a good killer."

     So, the next Sharon Stone? Maybe, but she’s not ready to be swept off her feet by her own Phil Bronstein.