Yes, Katharine McPhee can belt out ballads with the best of them, but acting is her first love. In the feature film The House Bunny, she debuts her talents on the big screen. By Joseph Guinto

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“Oh God, no,” Katharine McPhee says, stretching each word until it’s nearly polysyllabic. The 2006 American Idol runner-up is answering what seems like an inevitable question about her big-screen acting debut in The House Bunny. In the ensemble film, McPhee plays a pregnant student in a pitiable sorority that hires a down-on-her-luck ex–Playboy bunny (Anna Faris of the Scary Movie franchise) to be the housemother. Given McPhee’s own striking good looks -- a simultaneous combination of cute and sultry -- and the fact that Hugh Hefner and his The Girls Next Door lady friends appear in the film, it seems reasonable to wonder if anyone from the Playboy Mansion has ever approached her about taking it all off. “I have never been approached,” she says. “I would never. Ever. Do anything like that.”

Not that she needs to. McPhee is doing just fine getting exposure without getting that kind of exposure, thank you very much. She made the finals of Idol -- but later lost to Taylor Hicks -- by singing mostly wholesome songs by artists such as Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, and even Phil Collins. And her self-titled 2007 debut album offered love-themed dance-pop songs that were fairly safe for “McPhans” of all ages. Because of that, Rolling Stone dubbed McPhee “a little more square than you’d like, but not hopeless.”

Square, huh? Well, she’s definitely not hopeless -- especially when it comes to her acting career. Though her practiced, powerful voice on Idol is well known to the “Kat Pack,” fans might be surprised to learn that McPhee has been acting since well before she introduced herself to Simon Cowell and company. She even studied theater at the Boston Conservatory after finishing high school. She traded theater classes for real work after just three semesters, though, swapping coasts to return to her native Los Angeles, where the harsh realities of Hollywood left her a touch disenchanted.

“There was nothing glamorous about it,” McPhee says. “I was getting some roles and getting rejected for a lot of stuff. It was the actor’s life. But I had the drive. Even though I had rejections, I was constantly telling myself that there was nothing else I could do, nothing else I could be happy doing, except acting.”

Indeed, it was a love of theater, as much as of music, that led her to Idol. “One of my ideas going on Idol,” she says, “was that I’d get better exposure and possibly better representation, which would help my acting. That’s exactly what happened. But that’s not to say it’s not still work just because you have recognition. I still have to go on auditions and still have to work hard and prove myself -- even more so now because a lot of people just see me for what I did on Idol.”

Smartly, McPhee and her handlers are starting out slowly in film rather than rushing headlong into a From Justin to Kelly mess. “We are trying to be patient with it until I get more experience,” she says. “There’s not a feeling that something big has to happen this year or that I have to be a superstar right now. Every time I step onto a set, I’m just glad to be working.”

It’s rational thinking from a surprisingly sensible (square?) 24-year-old. And she continues to take such practical, well-paced steps in all facets of her career. She signed an endorsement deal as the face of Neutrogena’s new skin-care line, is preparing to record her second album (she’s in the process of signing with a new record company after splitting from her previous label), and has an indie film currently in production. Called The Storyteller, it costars American Beauty’s Wes Bentley and features McPhee in a primary role. “Still,” she says, “it’s not a big studio film. That would carry a lot more pressure.”

With all of that going on, plus the fact that her home life is shaping up nicely -- she married her longtime boyfriend, 43-year-old Nick Cokas, earlier this year -- The House Bunny may be the closest McPhee will ever get to the Playboy Mansion. And that’s perfectly fine with her.


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