Nicholas Fonseca
January 09, 2004 AT 05:00 AM EST

Ryan Seacrest’s hair is sizzling. The American Idol host sits in the kitchen of his cozy, Italianate villa in the Hollywood Hills, fresh from a morning run. His hairstylist, a sassy bear of a man named Dean (the same miracle worker who saved us from Clay Aiken’s ears), casually grabs highlighted chunks of the 29-year-old’s locks, bakes them with the ”Lil’ Hottie,” a crimper-like flattening iron, and contemplates the entity that is Ryan’s Hair. ”We’re working for Patti LaBelle right now,” says Dean, as he proceeds to create tiny spikes. ”Once we’ve achieved that, we’ll know that we’ve succeeded.”

A smirk spreads across Seacrest’s smooth, tanned face. He realizes that his well-plucked appearance has been a punchline ever since he made his Idol debut in June 2002, and he’s the first to lampoon his metrosexual tendencies. ”What can I do about it? I could lie and pretend that I hunt and camp, but that wouldn’t be me,” he says. ”Clothes? Shopping? That’s stuff I like!”

Perhaps trying to justify what he just said, he offers an anecdote: ”Oprah came here for a segment on how to get the best television hairstyles. She did the Farrah, the Jennifer, and the Ryan. Me!”

Dean jumps in: ”No men have ever really gotten much attention for their hair. Except for George Clooney’s Caesar. That’s just a short haircut. That’s not hard work.”

Hard work is a concept that wafts like cologne from Seacrest, an Atlanta native, and it’s one he’s embraced throughout his life. A fat kid with braces in junior high, he dieted by dumping everything but the oranges his mom packed with lunch. (Today, he’s taut and fit, and committed to a rigorous workout routine.) As a 16-year-old intern working the graveyard shift at Atlanta’s Star 94 in the early ’90s, he broke protocol by flipping a switch and speaking into the mike. That risk earned Seacrest his own show, and, for the past six years, he has hosted L.A.’s top-rated afternoon radio program.

This month, Seacrest’s career will sprout faster than his dark roots with three gigs: He takes over Casey Kasem’s long-running American Top 40 on Jan. 10; continues to soothe bruised egos on Idol’s third season, beginning Jan. 19; and fronts his own syndicated daily entertainment newsmagazine/variety show, On-Air With Ryan Seacrest, starting Jan. 12. The multimedia attack is part of Seacrest’s plan to empire-build his way into becoming this generation’s version of Merv Griffin, Kasem, and Dick Clark. (Clark declined to comment for this story, but not before his spokesman said, ”Dick sees Ryan as competition. Why would he talk?”)

On-Air, an hour-long hybrid of MTV’s TRL, Entertainment Tonight, and Late Night With Conan O’Brien, is the strategy’s centerpiece, and Seacrest (who created and shares ownership of the show through his eponymous production company) has hired some of the genre’s top producers and talent scouts. ”[The Ricki Lake show] was a talk show turned on its side,” says exec producer David Armour. ”TRL was American Bandstand turned on its side. And this is an entertainment news show turned on its side.” On-Air will tape live in a window-lined Today show-like studio at the Hollywood & Highland complex, a tourist vortex/shopping mall with a killer view of the city’s iconic hilltop sign. There, Seacrest will serve as a ringmaster for at least three correspondents and as an emcee for outdoor performances.

It’s a concept similar to the one that had been floating around Twentieth Television’s production offices (though with no host attached), and when execs Elaine Bauer-Brooks and Robb Dalton heard Seacrest’s pitch last March, they pounced. ”He described, almost verbatim, what we’d been talking about all along,” says Dalton. ”This show will have so many moving parts, and the host will have to juggle a lot of plates. Ryan is the guy to do that.” But syndication is a notoriously difficult arena for new entrants, and Seacrest is aware of the financial liabilities if On-Air doesn’t make an initial ratings dent. ”They are building an entire control room, studio, and sound system just for us. Fox has invested tens of millions of dollars. We’ve invested in a 10-year lease with Hollywood & Highland. You want to talk about things I can’t do? I can’t fail. There is no option.”

So far, so pretty good–the show will air in about 95 percent of the country (mostly UPN and Fox affiliates), and, at Seacrest’s insistence, only between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. “This show is counterprogramming for local news that more and more 18-to 34-year-olds aren’t watching,” he explains. While pitching the show to a group of publicists a week earlier in New York, Seacrest repeatedly referred to his target audience as ”the graduating class of TRL”–which sounds like his way of preempting those nagging Carson Daly comparisons. ”I’m not a comedian,” he says. ”I don’t tell jokes, I’m not a doctor, and I can’t give you professional advice. But I can give you the best moments when I don’t even know what’s coming.” Such unflappability–hey, this is the guy who managed to escape the abominable American Juniors unscathed–is why the smart money is on Seacrest succeeding. ”Ryan’s presence gives this show a leg up,” says Laura Caraccioli-Davis, an analyst and senior vice president at Starcom Entertainment, a media planning and buying agency. ”Young viewers keep heading to networks like MTV and BET, but Ryan has a good, solid talent that should play to them quite well.” Adds Seacrest: ”I want to continue producing and conceiving and selling my own shows. I want to do this for the next 60 years”

Fine…but do we really need to see so much of Seacrest for the next 60 years?”Sure, I want to pull it all off, but I’m cognizant of the fact that I might be everywhere, all at once, too much,” he admits.”I’ll probably do far less extra ‘stuff’ next year.”

We’ll believe it when we don’t see it; despite his ebullience and all-too-rare Hollywood likability, underneath it all Seacrest seems to be a man who derives most of his happiness from work. ”This job is dangerously consuming,” he says.”But I don’t have anything else to pay attention to. I don’t have kids. I’ve never been in love.” With a woman? A man? ”I guess I’ve come to expect that most people will make a judgment based solely on my image and interests,” he says, addressing the persistent rumors that he’s gay.”I hear it all the time when I tell people I’m not gay: ‘No way, you’re gonna come out when you’re 30!’ Well, then, it’ll be a big birthday.”

Later, on the drive home after breakfast, Seacrest makes a pit stop at a Sunset Boulevard newsstand. There, he scoops up a dozen magazines, all but one of them celeb-focused. The reason? ”Homework!” he says. ”Our culture is obsessed with the people we see on television and watch in the movies. I can hate somebody taking a picture of me when I’m not expecting it, but look, I’m the guy who goes and looks at those pictures of stars without makeup wearing their sweats. I don’t know if it’s right or wrong. It’s just interesting. I need to keep up.” With that, he heads home for a few hours in study hall. And his hair looks just perfect.

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