Dressed To Present

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When actress Ashley Judd takes that fabled walk down the red carpet at the Academy Awards on Monday night, she'll wear a dress to die for, her hair will be exquisite, and her makeup will be sublime. Making it look effortless, that's the Hollywood way.

But--reality check, please--all is not what it seems. The decisions, machinations and meetings required before one high-heeled foot is set on that carpet make NATO negotiations look like a cakewalk.

Almost as soon as nominations are announced, fashion designers and their minions work overtime trying to ace out the competition and convince actresses like Judd to wear their gowns. That's only the beginning. The dresses are scrutinized for their entrance-making capabilities and photogenic potential. Stylists are hired; manicurists, booked; makeup artists and hairstylists, consulted. And in between, there's a whole lot of faxing going on.

Judd, 29, who makes her Oscar debut this year as a presenter, can tell you all about it. Choosing a date--older sister Wynonna--was a cinch compared to choosing a wardrobe.

No stranger to splashy, glamorous black-tie events, she nevertheless realizes that this is the Big Daddy of them all, and not just any old frock will do.

"Couture is a given," she says of the kind of dress she wants. "I think it's really important to maintain a sense of individuality. It's not to say that when something is popular you avoid it like the plague, but make it your own."

Judd is holed up this day at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills, far from her home outside of Nashville, Tenn. The night before, she was a presenter at the Scientific and Technical Awards (at which she wore Valentino), a separate event that honors the behind-the-scenes nominees. At the Oscars she'll recap those awards.

Feet up on a cushiony love seat, sipping hot water with lemon, she wears a sheer floral skirt and green lace tank top. She sports no makeup and pulls tendrils of curly brown hair back with plastic clips. Judd points, laughing, to a "sheet mark" left on her face from scrunched bed linens.

Yet even in non-glam mode, it's easy to see why designers clamor to clothe her. Nary a blemish on that sweet-as-apple-pie face, a figure most women would kill for--what's not to like?

So it's not surprising that the designers currently in the running for the Dressing Ashley Derby are heavyweights Giorgio Armani, Valentino and Richard Tyler.

"You want to wear everybody's clothes," she explains. "You want to express your faithfulness, appreciation and sincere admiration for everyone's individual genius. What Mr. Armani does is different from what Mr. Valentino does. They're equally engrossing. But I can't wear two dresses on the same night."

Ah, therein lies the problem. How not to tick off the world's top designers while satisfying your own sensibilities?

"To me, doing this with integrity is the most important thing. The bottom line is, I really appreciate it. I am obviously the beneficiary in a major way in all of these relationships. And I know that people can calculate how [my wearing their dress] can translate into advertising dollars, and there's the prestige and cachet," she says.

"That's fine, but that's on their side of the fence. I only see my side of the fence, which is, I'm a girl who gets all these incredible clothes, and I so enjoy it. . . . But I genuinely love these people and I don't want to hurt anybody."

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Judd's Oscar odyssey began in Paris several months ago, where she tried on several Valentino couture gowns, one of which became the Sci-Tech awards dress. It was a sexy, slim column of black lace, slit high in the front, with a separate beaded corset worn over the bodice. She paired it with black panties, some serious jewelry, Manolo Blahniks pumps, and a smile.

The actress may be in a quandary about which designer to choose for the Academy Awards, but at least she has a well-defined sense of style, grounded in the rule that less is more.

"I tried on this one dress that had a huge skirt and these beautiful straps and I looked like a cross between a bad Southern belle and some kind of Spanish flamenco wannabe. The dress was phenomenal in person, but it did not work on me.

"I've always known what I like," she adds, squeezing another lemon into her teacup. "Whether it was the madras shorts craze I went through as a sophomore in high school or my retro '40s love, which I managed to incorporate into a lot of what I wore in college. I remember I even wore a vintage dress to my high school graduation. I bought it for a dollar and a dime."

Judd still has an affinity for the '30s and '40s. "It's those shapes," she says, "and I'm always responding to the textiles, whether it's a house dress or those drop-dead silk satin glamour gowns. It's really about the cut--and a strong attachment to my grandmothers. Not that they ran around in Kentucky wearing that stuff, but they essentially had those shapes."

But back to Paris. While at Valentino's salon, she had snapshots taken of her in other Oscar contender gowns. Those were sent back to her personal stylist for perusal.

Not every celebrity has a stylist, but stars who make copious appearances in public and print find them invaluable not only for scouting clothes, but also for creating a cohesive look.

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Judd hooked up with stylist Gemina Aboitiz about a year and a half ago; they met through Aboitiz's client and Judd's ex-beau, singer Michael Bolton. Aboitiz, who is with the Cloutier agency, has been styling for 17 years for catalogs, advertising, magazines and TV commercials. She has a handful of celebrity clients and has been through the Oscar process more than once.

The Judd dress dialogues began with "the specifics of a dress," says Aboitiz, "how it fits her, the waist, the hips, the proportion. What does it do for her, what personality does it create? Does it go 'wow!' or 'blah'? Does it overtake her? Feeling good in the dress is one of the most important things."

They discussed the Valentino pictures, "and I put in my ideas. Then we started moving on from that, and started talking about having a dress made."

That's where Richard Tyler comes in. Judd confesses she had never worn Tyler, an L.A.-based designer known for his architectural yet feminine clothes, but has admired him from afar.

"They sent me the spring / summer couture tape," she explains, "and I was knocked out. Then they said they'd really like to make something for me for the Oscars. I passed that along to Gemina, and then we got a letter from [Beverly Hills jewelry designer] Martin Katz, saying he would love to talk about a concept with regards to making the whole dress around some extremely special jewelry. Gemina and I decided that combining these two could be the proper petri dish environment."

Aboitiz says she wants to steer Katz "toward vintage jewelry. I love French Deco jewelry, and we're trying to go toward that era."

But she won't reveal a single detail about the Tyler dress, or the Valentino and Armani gowns under consideration. Surprise, she says, is one of Oscar's best attributes.

Judd, meanwhile, is currently filming in Montreal and must make decisions based on sample dress fittings, faxes and photos.

The day of the Oscars, she'll be back in a hotel room along with Aboitiz, Judd's longtime makeup artist, Ashlee Petersen, and hair stylist Syd Curry, with the Celestine Agency.

"We all just have a good time," Judd says. "Everybody enjoys each other. We'll order steamed vegetable dumplings, and I'll put a basketball tape on in the background."

And when the lucky dress is picked, it will ultimately be Judd's call.

"I like to approach it as, what do I want to see me in? I called one of my friends the other night and said, 'Oh, this dress. You have got to see me in this dress. But you know what? It's good for my health for you to see me in this dress.' That's what's fun about it."

* OSCAR COUNTDOWN

Tips for getting ready for the big night in Calendar Weekend.

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