Shallow Like a Fox

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Ryan Seacrest knows what you think of him. Knows it, because he pretty much thinks the same thing. Lightweight? "Let's face it," he says of his TV-hosting career. "It's not brain surgery." Superficial pretty boy? When The Simple Life co-star Nicole Richie told him, on his new syndicated daytime show On-Air with Ryan Seacrest, that her most important possession was her flatiron, he replied, "Oh, sister, trust me, I know. It's the only thing I have in my bathroom. That and Cosmo."

Seacrest, 29, delivers all this with his signature grin — bright, square-jawed, as wide as the grille on a '65 Cadillac — because lightweight and superficial have been very, very good to him. He spent a decade apprenticing, first in local Atlanta radio, then doing gigs on a kids' version of American Gladiators, Talk Soup and Extra. Now he has parlayed his Idol success into a pop-trifle trifecta. While still the host of Fox's smash talent hunt, which returns this week, he has also taken over the radio institution American Top 40 from host Casey Kasem, and last week he launched On-Air, a variety "infotainment" (Seacrest's word, and proudly) show — which he made sure to own a piece of.

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If all goes well, On-Air will ensure Seacrest a future in TV long after Idol and the ministrations of his hair stylist (who has been spiking and streaking his fronds since the Extra days) have failed him. At the University of Georgia, Seacrest majored in not just broadcasting but also business. "You can't be successful and have longevity in this business," he says, "if you don't have a business plan." Under Seacrest's thoroughly modern metrosexual exterior beats the heart of a septuagenarian Hollywood dinosaur. Among his idols, he says, are Larry King and Dick Clark, and Seacrest turned to the latter for advice on how to transform a spiffy smile and an affinity for what the kids like into a TV-production empire.

Like a cub reporter aspiring to be the next David Brinkley, Seacrest is, in a way, applying for a job that no longer exists. Young listeners have many more influences than they did in the hitmaking days of American Bandstand, and music itself has less of a monopoly on youth culture. Now it is part of an amorphous entertainment blob in which the boundaries between TV, movie and music stardom are fuzzier than ever — a fact best exemplified by reality-TV shows such as Idol and the crossover celebrities they create.

On-Air adapts itself to this world with a mix of personality interviews (Donald Trump, Reba McEntire), in-studio performances (Missy Elliott, Enrique Iglesias) and celeb gossip. It's like Total Request Live but older, or Entertainment Tonight but with more screaming fans. Granted, nobody asked for either one, and On-Air was shaky in its first week. Seacrest may be better suited to the more controlled Idol than to unpredictable live variety. When Richie brought a pair of goats with her to plug her rural reality show, one of the beasts did what well-fed goats do, all over the stage. Another talk host might have improvised a zinger out of the barnyard blooper; Seacrest just seemed icked out.

But what remains likable about Seacrest is that he knows, in an era of diminished icons, that the self-deprecator is king. "I'm just a little man," he said, introducing the first day of On-Air. He continually mocks his fussiness over his clothes and hair. (As for the ensuing rumors about his sexuality, however, Seacrest has taken pains to mention his girlfriend on air.) His limitations are his talent. Unlike Carson Daly, his closest analog in the next — Dick Clark sweepstakes, he has no Lothario smolder about him, no sense that he's as much of a player as the celebrities he interviews. "He gets into the guests the same way the fans do," says Robb Dalton, the 20th Television executive who signed Seacrest for On-Air. All this sends a cannily amiable message: You can't believe a talking haircut like me is this famous? Hey, neither can I!

Or can he? Grins aside, Seacrest is a driven worker, waking at 6:15 a.m. and ending his days late, bouncing between Idol, On-Air and Top 40 (taped across the hall from the On-Air studio). "I have never seen anyone work so hard at so many different things," says his idol-consigliere Clark. "People don't realize that guys who do this are smart. You've got to have brains to make it look easy." And as Clark should know, a nice head of hair doesn't hurt either.