EVEN wearing a starched white doctor’s coat, it’s easy to see why Rachel Bilson is so often rated near the top of the ‘100 Sexiest Women’ lists.
Her skin is porcelain, her hair lush. My diagnosis of the woman sitting opposite me in a mocked-up consulting room? Impossibly gorgeous.
We are at Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank, Los Angeles, on the set of Hart of Dixie, the hit US series in which Bilson stars as the title character, Dr Zoe Hart. Previously best known for her role as the spoilt Summer Roberts in The OC, this time round Bilson plays a smart New York medic who struggles with life in a rural backwater when she inherits a tiny country practice in Bluebell, Alabama. The show, the new season of which starts in the UK tomorrow, is a classic ‘fish out of water’ drama.
But Bilson now has a profile that stretches way beyond acting. She has become a global fashion icon, writing a regular column for the glossy American magazine Style, has produced a line for DKNY Jeans, and designs footwear for her company ShoeMint, now available in the UK. She is, as one recent magazine headline put it, a closet genius.
Yet the 31-year-old doesn’t regard herself as any sort of style role model. A self-confessed “homebody”, she’s happiest in her pyjamas. “My mother just got me a pair of Miss Piggy pyjamas, and I love them,” she says. “I’m not averse to a onesie either. I think they’re really comfortable.”
She laughs off that fashion-forward status, saying, “It embarrasses me more than anything. If girls say they like what you wear, that’s more of a compliment than guys saying it. But ultimately, you have to dress for yourself. It’s very flattering to be seen as a fashion icon, especially as it means I can get away with some of the things I get away with. I look back at some of the things I wore, particularly in the early years, and think, ‘That was a little scary.’”
In fact, she gives much of the credit for how she looks to someone else. “My stylist Nicole will say to me, ‘That looks great in real life, but it will look different in photographs’. You have to pay attention to how your clothes make you look. Being on camera can make parts of your body, like your hips, look very different. But above all, it’s important to be happy with yourself.”
Bilson, who has starred in movies including The Last Kiss, Waiting for Forever, Life Happens, The To Do List and Jumper, where she met her fiancé Hayden Christensen (more of whom later), says she puts little thought into what she wears when out and about in LA. “I just throw things on. I’m a big James T-shirt girl. Then I like to accessorise that. Sometimes I think an outfit will look silly, but what always comes first to me is to be comfortable.”
This relaxed attitude extends to her diet, and she insists she doesn’t follow a secret regime to stay in shape and is adamant she would never consider plastic surgery. “I’m aware of what I eat, but I don’t do crazy macrobiotic diets. How often do I work out? I hate the gym, but if I’m active, that’s fine. I like to ride horses or play tennis.”
An avowed “vintage fan, through and through”, she acquired that passion from her mother, therapist Janice Bilson, while her appreciation of high fashion labels like Chanel was inherited from her aunt, film producer Julie Bilson Ahlberg. However, the actress lost many of her most treasured outfits when her home was burgled several times by the so-called Bling Ring (the subject of the new Sofia Coppola film starring Emma Watson, which screened at Cannes last month). She says, “They took all my designer bags and shoes. I’m not very excited about the film because I don’t want it to be glorified. However, the theft has made me realise what’s important in life. I think I have been well brought up, so I know what’s important in life.”
She also knows what’s important in clothing, and she has a well-judged list of dos and don’ts. “It’s harder for me to wear high-waisted jeans because I’m very short and curvy. But I have learned that wearing nude shoes with a dress helps to elongate your legs. I like that because I’m so short.”
Often described as a fashion junkie, she considers what single item she might save from a burning building. “That’s hard. I love bags, particularly ones by Chanel and Alexander Wang. But the one piece that I could not live without would be my Zara harem drop-crotch pants. They’re so comfortable. They’re an excuse to wear pyjamas outside.”
Bilson assesses the similarity between her own style and that of her Hart of Dixie alter ego. “Zoe is very sophisticated and more conservative than I am. I’m more laid-back and casual. I don’t dress up that much. She wears heels all the time. I’d like to do that because in real life I’m only 5ft 2in. I have been trained how to wear heels because of my height.
“But I do get to wear some of my clothes in the show. Some of my shoes have been incorporated, and I wore my own hoodie when it was cold. I was very excited about that because most of the time when you’re shooting you’re not very comfortable.”
Nevertheless, Bilson says she could not resist buying one of her character’s outfits. “There was a navy cape by Vince that I just had to have. It’s so cosy, like a blanket. It’s great to wear when you’re travelling.”
She hopes viewers will be intrigued by a love triangle that forms the heart of the second series of Dixie. “A love triangle always works as a dramatic device. You form a team, like we all did in Twilight – Team Edward against Team Jacob. People are drawn to that and like to have a team to root for.
“Who would I choose? I don’t know. I’ve had my time with bad boys in the past. I’ve never dated a well put-together, preppy lawyer. But I would say I’m somewhere in the middle – wherever that is.”
In real life she has been engaged to Christensen since 2008 and says, “I’m a really good girlfriend – I always put all that first in my life. I’m definitely the person who would make him his favourite dinner to come home to.”
She even reveals that starting a family may well be on the agenda soon. “I definitely have family on the brain. Having kids is something I want to see in my future – I hope.”
Bilson and Christensen, still probably best known for his performance as the young Darth Vader in the Star Wars films, lead a low-key life. They spend time walking her dog, named Thurman Merman. She says, “My dog can be very naughty, but he’s still the love of my life. He only loves very few people, so I’m very lucky.”
Her other passion is cooking. “I like to be a cosy cook. My mum is Italian, so I like to make homemade pasta with meatballs. I also love preparing a very creative salad or doing meatloaf or a proper roast chicken.”
And you won’t see her falling out of Hollywood clubs in the early hours. “I started clubbing when I was really young, so I got it out of my system a long time ago,” she says.
Reflecting on the public obsession with celebrity, she says, “You try not to pay attention to all that. As much as possible, you just try to live your life. Of course, there are times when it’s annoying. The paparazzi follow you to the gas station or the market. Really? But ultimately I feel bad for them because there’s nothing to photograph. I’m basically a pretty boring person.”
Nor would she agree to posing in her underwear for any of the lads’ magazines. She says. “I think your body is sacred. It’s there to share with a loved one. It’s not for the whole world to see.”
Her perfect night in would constitute cooking dinner. “Then we would watch a whole TV series on demand. I’m currently watching both Homeland and Top Chef. I stay at home so much, I don’t get bothered. I’m a real homebody. The minute I get home, I get into my pyjamas.” Yes, they are the Miss Piggy ones.
• Hart of Dixie, tomorrow, Really, 8pm; ShoeMint (www.shoemint.com)