Now she's spelling out what's tickling Tori

Times Staff Writer

What Tori Spelling wore when pitching a comedy series last pilot season was rather out there, even by the loosey-goosey standards of TV. She walked into offices at the six major networks carrying her 13-pound pug, Mimi LaRue, and wearing a T-shirt bearing the words:

"No, I don't live at the mansion."

"No, I don't hate Shannen Doherty."

"No, I haven't had my ribs removed."

"Yes, I do dress up my pug," was written across her narrow back, in bold pink letters.

No matter what you've heard, the dog, whom Spelling routinely clothes in chiffon and pearls, was not sporting a matching tee.

If reality television has taught us anything, it's that viewers tune in to see people they like as well as those they, oh, "hate" is such a strong word, but you get the point. Spelling, "Beverly Hills, 90210" alumna, tabloid regular, gay icon and plucky Hollywood heiress, has her fans, but in the 16 years she's been working as an actress, the 32-year-old has been subjected to what even the most poisonous observer of pop culture would have to admit is more than her fair share of vitriol and ridicule.

So many rumors (mean and mostly inaccurate) have circulated over the years that Spelling's image threatened to overwhelm any character she might play. After her 11-year stint on "90210" ended in 2000, she starred in five comedy pilots in five years, none of which were picked up. She was cast as a young woman trying to make it in the big city, as a struggling shoe saleswoman, and as a publicist's assistant. The pilots tested badly for a consistent reason: No one would buy Spelling, the daughter of famously wealthy producer Aaron Spelling, as a comically suffering working girl. Audiences didn't believe her as a dog walker, much less one who scooped up her charges' poop.

"People would be going, 'Give me a break,' " Spelling said this week at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. "So one day I woke up with the realization that if they can't get past seeing Tori Spelling in whatever part I play, I'll do what I love, comedy, and I'll give them Tori Spelling."

The first two episodes of the meta half-hour comedy "So NoTORIous" will premiere back to back Sunday on VH1. In the single-camera show, Spelling plays a fictionalized version of herself, an actress who, yes, had a nose job and is surrounded by an entourage of loyal old friends loosely modeled on the posse she formed in high school, back when Harvard-Westlake was known as the Westlake School for Girls.

Although "So NoTORIous" is scripted, not improvised, it aspires to be a kind of "Curb Your Tori." With her pals and Mimi LaRue in tow, Spelling ducks paparazzi, engages in passive-aggressive jousts with her mother and searches for romance and professional fulfillment while references to the sort of gossip nuggets quoted on her T-shirt whiz by. Her father is represented by a disembodied voice, a la Charlie of "Charlie's Angels." Her mother, a sugar-dipped Mommie Dearest, is played by Loni Anderson and has been given the made-up name Kiki.

With apologies to Dorothy Parker, if the number of minor celebrities willing to participate in orgies of self-humiliation on television were laid end to end, no one would be a bit surprised. So it's all the more impressive that Spelling's decision to laugh along with the people who snicker at her seems to have been a smart choice.

At 10 a.m., the Roosevelt, current custodian of the late-night scene, has the air of a babe stumbling home in last night's party dress. Spelling was L.A.-savvy enough to arrive for an interview dressed down, in jeans and a sequin-trimmed sweatshirt. "I'm so excited about getting a good review in Entertainment Weekly," she said. "I've gotten Fs before from them, for my TV movies. Fs and Ds."

There's humor in being flunked by Entertainment Weekly, and pain. In conversation, Spelling toggles between mild self-pity and feistiness, vulnerability alternating with bravery. Her little girl's voice can be as high and breathy as Marilyn Monroe's, but when she speaks seriously about having paid her dues and worked hard, it drops an octave.

"I'm not asking for anyone's sympathy," she said. "I'm just saying, when you do work hard and do good work, you expect to be praised for it. Or at least given a fair chance. I feel I'm not always given that. What can you do? After so many years of being hurt and fighting it, you just accept it. I've chosen this career and this lifestyle and what goes along with it."

And she has taken charge of her destiny. Spelling brought her agents at United Talent Agency her concept for a comedy, and they introduced her to a pair of writer-producers who had a strong record of writing for female characters, including "Murphy Brown," "The Nanny," "Whoopi" and "Reba." If they had thought about Spelling at all before meeting her, Chris Alberghini and Mike Chessler held a largely unfavorable view of the actress based on scuttlebutt. But their opinions changed after seeing her performances in two independent movies released in the late '90s, "Trick" and "The House of Yes." "She wasn't as bad as everyone said. I actually kind of liked her," Alberghini said.

" 'Trick' was the first thing that made people who weren't '90210' fans take Tori seriously," Chessler said. "She played the best friend of a gay trick, a wannabe diva narcissistic actress. In it she did a musical number that was supposed to be really bad, and she really went for it. She was very funny."

The writers seasoned a first script with anecdotes Spelling shared; how a photographer got that shot of the cellulite she doesn't actually have, and the story of neighbor Farrah Fawcett infiltrating a party at Tori's apartment to borrow a potato. NBC ordered a pilot.

A few days before the networks announced their fall schedules, word came that the show was dropped. But NBC gave the creators permission to take the pilot elsewhere. VH1 had been tracking the script's progress, and after meeting with Spelling and her team, the cable channel, home of "Surreal Life," "Strange Love" and "Celebrity Eye Candy," decided to make "So NoTORIous" its first scripted program.

"We went with this project because it's so compatible with the celeb-reality idea we're already known for," said Brian Graden, president of entertainment, MTV Networks Music Group. "There is a perception that if you have some scripted programming, that's premium material. It does good things for the brand."

Various bits of local Spelling lore made it into the show, including servants at the Spelling abode ("the manor" to those in the know) manning snow-making machines at Christmas and a visit to the room in the 64,500-square-foot manse that's devoted to gift-wrapping. Spelling told the writers, "Anything you've ever heard, any bad stuff, go for it. You're not going to say anything I haven't heard before. Know that. "

"I take people at their word," Chessler said. "Tori said nothing would be off limits, so I figured nothing would be off limits. Tori's been kicked in the face a lot. She's been told she's ugly, untalented."

"To achieve reality on the show, we wanted to give a nod to the way people slag on her looks, because she does have to put up with it," Alberghini said.

Of course once some skewed reality is included, the game of true or false begins. The show enjoys a good tease.

How far the show could go in twitting her parents was a running joke on the set. Spelling, an executive producer, said, "If someone thought we'd gone too far they'd say, 'Oh, there goes the will.' I'm not bashing my family. I'm making fun of what people already think about them, and they get it." Contrary to recent gossip reports, she said, "my parents saw the pilot before anyone else. They thought it was a brave move."

While most women will never know what it feels like to have a doppelganger who's a female impersonator -- Tori's goes by the name Suppository Spelling -- fans enjoy the fantasy that celebrities are, deep down, just like them.

Or are they? "What makes the show relatable," Chessler said, "is that Tori has the same wants everybody does. The fun of it is her stuff plays out on this cartoonish landscape. It's oxymoronic, in a way, but showing your flaws and aberrations and weirdnesses is what makes you seem normal."

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