She Acts, She Sings, She Models, She's 18 : Pop music: Milla's getting praise for her latest career venture, 'The Divine Comedy,' an album of acoustic-oriented, airy, folk-pop tunes that she wrote when she was 16.

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Don't hate her because she's beautiful.

Hate Milla--if you must--because she's beautiful and bright too, because she gets to make movies as well as model, and because she's not only cut her first album but is actually drawing good critical notices for it. And, perhaps, because she's 18.

If it's any consolation, having it all does come with its own minor psychic peril.

"I was sick to my stomach last night," says the sometimes-supermodel, recalling a key gig the previous evening in which she had to prove herself to a cynical L.A. insiders' audience. "I had to keep telling myself to stop thinking about throwing up."

On this morning, the usually effusive Milla is back in her wired-up, cocksure, chain-smoking mode, sitting cross-legged on the couch at her mother's Hollywood Hills house. She doesn't believe that all the music industry sorts who packed the pub for her invitation-only show were well-wishers.

"I guess people really wanted to see if I could do it," she says, figuring some cynical observers showed up hoping she'd fall flat. Not everyone can be expected to be supportive when a cover girl turns up on her own album cover.

"I don't mind that at all, because I would expect the same (scrutiny) of anybody else in the position I'm in," she says. "I expected the album to be slagged from every corner, like, 'What is she trying to do, this little model?' And I knew that all the people were there to see if I could really perform. I could feel everybody's Filofaxes going in their heads, marking things down."

Happily, Milla kept her dinner down and the mental Filofax scores high. The expected slagging hasn't come; much the opposite. Music fans can judge for themselves when she makes her first public appearance in L.A. on Sunday at LunaPark, where the queasiness quotient should be lower, given the approval level she's been enjoying.

Enthused Rolling Stone of Milla's "The Divine Comedy" in a 3 1/2-star review: "She is no crossover opportunist or vacant pretender. She is a natural poet and melodist . . . (with) the burning intelligence of an artist."

Her acoustic-oriented, airy, folk-pop tunes ("For me it epitomizes that time of my life where I was listening to a lot of Kate Bush, a lot of Enya") aren't tremendously radio-ready. Even so, the wistful first single, "Gentleman Who Fell," did well with stations of the "adult alternative" ilk, as well as garnering play on alternative rockers such as L.A.'s KROQ.

Milla (pronounced MEE-la; she recently stopped using her last name, Jovovich) emigrated to America from Russia with her parents at age 5, and her modeling career took off just a few years later. A handful of movies followed--from forgettable starring roles in "Return to the Blue Lagoon" and "Kuffs" to a fleeting appearance in "Dazed and Confused."

Although she was signed by SBK Records on the basis of an original demo she cut at age 12, she was soon shuffled off to sing along with tracks laid down by producers who saw her as a potential looker out of whom they might be able to squeeze a couple quick European hits. She initially complied, then balked, defiantly insisting on recording her own material.

The impasse was resolved in her favor; SBK eventually allowed its headstrong teen creative control, and those embarrassing early sessions never saw the light of day.

"They signed me for the package they got, and they just got a lot more of the package than they expected," she says, breaking into the loud, pronounced snicker that is one of her more endearing personal trademarks.

The musings on "The Divine Comedy" were written when Milla was 16, and though there is nothing at all overtly teen-age about them, she describes the album as "this great mix of youth and experience. I was confused like any other 16-year-old is. There's this young woman just fighting to get out, but there's still a kid, you know--an experienced kid that's gone through a lot, that's read a lot of books and that knows a lot more than a lot of 40-year-olds do."

In person, the Ayn Rand-quoting Milla is fast-talking, high-spirited, exceptionally sharp for 18 and just slightly coarse--not the ethereal figure her album, or a sultry model's portfolio, might suggest.

Those qualities helped make her a premier party girl on L.A.'s social circuit while she was in her mid-teens. But, even if by her own admission she was 16 going on 40, Milla considers being "in business" as a very young actress-model a factor that helped save her from indulging too heartily, rather than a root of indulgence.

"No matter what fast lane I was running through, I never lost my head to a point where I could never get it back. I never let myself hit rock-bottom, because I had too much respect for myself, for my career and for the life that I was working toward--and too much respect for the books I had read, for the knowledge I had taken in--to let myself go pfffft and just go underground for the rest of my life or take stupid drugs or whatever. Most young people don't have that sort of reality to relate to--a career they need to uphold. I had that.

"My head is just straightening out to where I can really feel responsible for my life and career and choices, whereas a lot of people wouldn't feel that way until they're in their 20s," says Milla, who currently lives in London. "I feel like I've gotten a head start on life, because I can at this age say, OK, well, I've gone through all my (expletive), I partied and did all that stuff when I was younger, and now I can be a lot smarter about it, in every aspect of my life."

Impulsively, she yells out to the patio. "Mom! Can I have a cigarette?" In a moment, her mother's clicking heels approach, vice dutifully in hand.

"I love doing that! She hates it!" chortles Milla, out of earshot of Mom. "I mean, god, she started smoking again because of me. I've been the bad influence." She snickers, not letting the onset of the age of legality shove her entirely into the slow lane just yet.

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