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NO LONGER THE NEW KID ON THE BLOCK

"The lack of respect I experienced during my time with New Kids on the Block helped me. It made me work harder to prove I was better than the criticism."

So says former teen music throb Donnie Wahlberg. Donnie, the older brother of pinup-turned-leading-man Mark Wahlberg, is the other surprise of Bruce Willis' mega-hit "The Sixth Sense." Those of you who've seen "The Sixth Sense" will remember the scene in which Willis' patient (Bruce plays a psychiatrist) flips out, dramatically. The patient, emaciated and pathetic, is Donnie!

Wahlberg -- soft-spoken and articulate -- has appeared in several other movies and is pursuing character parts rather than glossy leads. ("My brother's career as a leading man was a one-in-a-million shot. I never assumed it would be that way for me.") He says he wanted the brief role in "The Sixth Sense" after reading the script two years ago. "I had to be a part of this movie, no matter the outcome, I wanted in. Of course, now that it is so successful, I'm thrilled at the opportunities it has opened for me." Donnie, a guy with a buff build, had to whittle his frame down to look appropriate for this part. He did it by "suffering. I literally stopped eating and spent five weeks on liquids only. I got my body and my head into a place of not just losing weight, but losing everything that can spoil you in this business -- the pampering of success is very seductive. I actually developed an eating disorder. It took me a year to get myself back in shape!"

Donnie has a couple of more films in the can -- "Bullfighter" and "The Altoona Riding Club" -- and is "carefully looking through a ton of scripts." This includes pairing with brother Mark.

Everybody into the pool! Went up to Elaine's genteel New York saloon this week for Esther Williams' big splash with her terrific memoir, "The Million Dollar Mermaid" (Simon & Schuster). Believe me, "Mermaid" is billion-dollar reading. Esther, with the help of Digby Diehl, has written a great autobiography. You can't put it down, and Esther proves herself a champion in more ways than one. Her problems with men were almost as fascinating as her daredevil stunts, dreamed up by director Busby Berkeley. The other day, the New York Times said I had "scolded" Esther for telling the story of how her about-to-be-husband, the virile actor Jeff Chandler, turned out to be a cross-dresser. But Esther just laughed: "Liz, I knew you weren't scolding me really. You were writing about your own worries as to what you'll tell in your coming book. These are difficult choices." Esther is one smart cookie.

Greeting the money-making wonderful-when-wet star of MGM's glory days were Gloria Vanderbilt, Dominick Dunne, Fay Wray, Richard Stoley, Norman Pearlstine and Nancy Friday, Jill Krementz, Phyllis George, Ahmet Ertegun, Roger Friedman, etc.

One of the great moments in this book is near the end when Esther addresses the Olympic athletes, pointing out to them that their athletic abilities and their gold and silver medals certify them for life. This is an empowering and inspirational segment. And "Million Dollar Mermaid" also boasts a quote to beat all. Describing the funeral of actress Carole Landis, Esther notes that Mrs. Rex Harrison (Lili Palmer) wore a navy blue dress because Mary Fairbanks had told her, "One doesn't wear black to the funeral of one's husband's mistress."

Michael J. Fox, Heather Locklear and the rest of the "Spin City" cast will be at Brooks Brothers for a screening of next week's episode -- the first of the new season. A slew of New York City's glitterati have been invited, including Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Donna Hanover, Diane Sawyer, Rosie O'Donnell, Barbara Walters, etc.

Debbie Reynolds called to offer this regarding Eddie Fisher and his latest tell-all: "My ex-husband is hurting a lot of people. But that's what he's done all of his life. That, and making a fool of himself."

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