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Like a flash from the flatlands of Iowa, farmhand turned model turned actor Ashton Kutcher is racing toward star status in Hollywood. It all happened as if by magic. After placing first in 1997's Fresh Face of Iowa modeling contest, agents flew him to New York. The very next day he was working the runway in Bryant Park. During his first trip to Milan, he booked 19 shows. One year later, on his first day in Los Angeles, he was cast in the Fox sitcom That '70s Show, which went on to become a Nielsen smash. His first attempt at movie stardom, the stoner comedy Dude, Where's My Car?, went bong! at the box office, grossing over $100 million worldwide since its release in December. Oh, and he's still only 23.

All this makes Kutcher the young star of the moment, destined to become the next Keanu or Leonardo. Will success spoil him? "I don't have time to be overwhelmed," says Kutcher, wearing a knit cap and sipping a Coke at the Paramount Hotel. "I'm pretty hyperactive and what I love to do more than anything is work. I probably work 16 hours a day, whether it's on the show or reading a script that someone sent me or doing publicity for other stuff I've done. I'm too busy doing the next thing."  

Which happens to be the film Texas Rangers, in which he and fellow teen heartthrob James Van Der Beek take on a gang of Mexican bandits. But long days filming in the wilderness of the Canadian West brought out Kutcher's decidedly un-Hollywood upbringing. "I spent most of my time with the wranglers, helping them herd the cattle," he notes. "I've spent a lot of time with animals."

He's not just talking about house pets. Ashton, his fraternal twin brother, Michael, and older sister Tausha moved to the country in junior high school, when their parents divorced. His rural hometown -- Homestead, Iowa (population 100) -- offered unusual career opportunities for the young workaholic. "During wrestling season, the only job I could find was skinning deer for the butcher," he recalls. "When you live in the country you can always find something to do. So you kind of pop from job to job, whether it's cutting the nuts off cattle one day or baling hay the next."

Crisis struck when Michael, then 13, contracted cardiomyopathy, a coronary condition caused by a virus. "It breaks down the muscle in your heart and creates a hole in it," explains Kutcher. "They gave him about six hours to live and then they found a new heart for him. My brother is my hero. If he can survive that, I can do anything."

When Kutcher entered the University of Iowa in 1995, he set out to study biochemical engineering, so he could help find a cure for the disease. He also dreamed -- hard -- about getting out of Iowa. One night he packed a duffel bag and just started walking to the airport. "I was going to California," he says. "I had 75 pounds of gear. I got about halfway there and decided I wasn't going to make it." Not that night, anyway.

Kutcher was at a local bar taking a break from studying when an agent approached him. "She asked me if I thought about being a model. I didn't even know that guys modeled. I thought that Fabio was the only male model -- I knew I didn't look like Fabio," he laughs. "It was weird because I was never the guy who got a lot of girls. I'm kind of awkward when I'm with girls. I never thought of myself in that light." Other people did, though, and soon after arriving in New York, Kutcher knew he wouldn't be moving back to Iowa. "I just called my dad and told him I wasn't coming home. [My parents] were really supportive." And even if they hadn't been, Kutcher could now support himself. "I couldn't fathom the idea of getting paid $2,000 a day to do a job. I was like, 'This is ridiculous!'" Fabio was really on to something.

While working the catwalks in Milan and Paris, Kutcher traveled with a flying wedge of globe-trotting hunks. "It's basically the same guys who do all the shows," he recalls. "It starts in Milan and then you go to Paris and then New York. It was kind of like summer camp. I'd see the same guys five times a day." When the shows were done, Kutcher set off traveling on his own with his new-found wealth. But everywhere he went, he brought his homespun sensibilities. "I walked in into the Duomo [cathedral in Florence] -- as a carpenter I can appreciate that stuff a little bit more," he observes. "When we were in Spain we went out into the country, and I saw how primitive the tools they were using were. They didn't have any big combines." Despite his jet-set lifestyle, he felt lonely on the road. "I wish that I had somebody to share it with, especially when I was over there alone," he grouses. "When I was in London, I saw Piccadilly Circus by myself."

* Ashton wears a tank top by D&G, shorts by Nike.

But for Kutcher to remain lonesome was even less likely than a Temptation Island castaway staying chaste. These days, he lives in his Hollywood Hills home with his golden retriever, Mr. Bojangles, and tomcat, Mr. Fido. When not working on the set he prefers chilling out with his sitcom buddies -- including Topher Grace, Laura Prepon, and Mila Kunis -- to working the premiere-party circuit. "Sometimes on the set, we start dancing, and Ashton just flips me up," says Kunis. "We hang out almost every day. We go out dancing or bowling. Or go to his house to play pool. He's always randomly building stuff -- he built a porch for his house and invited us all over to see it. That's what he's like -- very level-headed. He doesn't walk around with a big head."

The good vibes are mutual. "Those guys are my best friends," Kutcher says of the '70s Show cast. "How are you going to beat a job where you go and hang out with your friends all week and then on Friday somehow you make a TV show? And make people laugh for a living. That's a great job, man." So great that Kutcher has signed up for two more seasons playing Michael Kelso, the loopy-but-lovable dude on That '70s Show, which follows a gaggle of kids as they careen through life in Wisconsin during the disco decade. Still, Kutcher recognizes that the series is a stepping stone for him. "I love doing my show," he says. "I think I have room to improve on my comedic skills. I would love to have a career like Tom Hanks -- start out on a TV show and do movie comedies and then go on to do dramatic work."

He knows that if wants a career as charmed as Forrest Gump's he'll have to keep his young fans happy. "Actors and singers -- the reason they make the money that they do is that you're working all day until you're at home alone," he observes. "Every time you're on a street somebody recognizes you. It's really an extension of your job. They are going to make the decision on whether they like you. I do what I can to be a good person."

Recognizing Kutcher's sterling record, Dimension Films agreed recently to give the star a taste of mogulhood. The studio is underwriting a script Kutcher will co-produce. "You have no ability to influence a movie after the shooting stops if you're just an actor," he comments. "I want to be involved in the development process."

But don't think that Kutcher has lost those Heartland values since entering Hollywood's winner's circle. "I go back home for the holidays. My family -- they don't care [about fame]," he declares. "I mean, it's a job. They know that. They understand that. If I ever went home with a big head, I'd get put in my place so fast -- they'd have me outside shoveling the roof."

Hair by Dan Sharp * Makeup by Scott McMahan * Color Printing by LTI

Ashton wears a tank top by Polo Sport Ralph Lauren.

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